Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mark Doty on Walt Whitman

from his VQR essay "Form, Eros, and the Unspeakable: Whitman's Stanzas":

[On the third form of the unspeakable, that which is wordless, undefined]...It is the most difficult form of silence to talk about, since once a word exists for something, it does, and the quality of being nameless, outside the realm of speech, becomes irrecoverable. Samuel Delaney tells an instructive story about this problem in one of his essays; he describes meeting a man in a Times Square porn theater, a shoe fetishist who’s passionately turned on, in several wordless encounters, by the writer’s sneakers. When Delaney needs to buy a new pair, he figures he might as well make the guy happy, and so he breaks their silence and asks him what kind of new sneakers he’d most enjoy. The questioned man is speechless, stricken; he flees; later he returns and manages to choke out only the words, “light blue.” But though the desired shoes are purchased, the sexual relationship is never the same. Delaney speculates that the man’s desire exists in the realm of the unsaid; it has never been brought into the light of articulation, and to do so, in this case, damages or limits or at least changes the experience.


...I...think of a man I met in north central Vermont, in the 1980s. A native Vermonter from a rural town, he was in his seventies then, and newly and proudly out; gay political associations in Vermont accepted him as a delightful sort of mascot. He told a story which is instructive, placed beside Delaney’s anecdote of speechlessness. Near the town of his boyhood was a river that featured one of those delightful Vermont swimming holes, and beyond this inviting spot were wooded islands and further streams. All summer, the place was the favorite of adolescent boys, and it was simply understood that they would pair off, wander to some more private spot, and enjoy one another’s bodies. This behavior was neither named nor spoken of, and it clearly did not constitute an identity; the teller of the tale did not come out when he joined in this idyllic scene—did not, in fact, come out for sixty more years! Vermont, in the 1920s, was arguably a 19th-century place, and I wonder if this man’s experience might not be as close as we could come to a sense of what same-sex practice might have been like before the coining of terms for it, before the medicalization of sexuality, the rigid enforcing and policing of the newly nominalized heterosexual norm. It is an erotic landscape that seems to appear in the paintings and photographs of Thomas Eakins, and certainly in the poems of Whitman—a free-floating, unfettered homosexual praxis that’s both amative and adhesive at once.

But still not an identity. The boys didn’t think they were queers, and presumably they mostly didn’t go on having sex with men; that was not an available position for them, just as it wasn’t supposed to be such for Whitman. His poems suggest an erotic life that is centered on encounters (often outdoors, but not always) with working-class guys and with younger men; he is at some pains to construct this as an experience of the love of equals, because this notion, a same-sex relation founded on equality (and not the Greek model of transmission of knowledge from older man to younger, or the Renaissance model of boy-loving, or the later fin de siècle notion of the sensitive esthete enjoying the more animal sexuality of working-class youths, as in Oscar Wilde’s “feasting with panthers”) is entirely anomalous. Its genesis can be found in the new cities, where one can leave the fixed social and familial roles of rural life and decide who you want to be today. Does this new sense of freedom inform Whitman’s slippery use of “you”—and his free-ranging, interpenetrating, omnipresent “I”? The new subject isn’t simply a farmer, a son, a father, a teacher, a soldier: the citizen of the new world comes and goes, participates, observes, empathizes, slips into new relations and positions with a freedom the past couldn’t have foreseen. How characteristic of its century this new freedom is—like the railroad, it moves you from one place to another swiftly; like the photograph, it allows you to travel in time. One of the more benign projects of industrialism, finally, is the liberation of subjectivity from the bonds of limited roles.


una said...

What would Walt do is a good poem about Walt Whitman that elaborates on the themes of this post.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for alerting me to the poem, una.