A Problem in Modern Ethics/Chapter VIII
To speak of Walt Whitman at all in connection with Ulrichs and sexual inversion seems paradoxical. At the outset it must be definitely stated that he has nothing to do with anomalous, abnormal, vicious, or diseased forms of the emotion which males entertain for males. Yet no man in the modern world has expressed so strong a conviction that "manly attachment," "athletic love," "the high towering love of comrades," is a main factor in human life, a virtue upon which society will have to rest, and a passion equal in its permanence and intensity to sexual affection.
He assumes, without raising the question, that the love of man for man co-exists with the love of man for woman in one and the same individual. The relation of the two modes of feeling is clearly stated in this poem:—
"Fast-anchored, eternal, O love! O woman I love!
O bride! O wife! More resistless than I can tell, the thought of you
Then separate, as disembodied, or another born,
Ethereal, the last athletic reality, my consolation;
I ascend—I float in the regions of your love, O man,
O sharer of my roving life."
Neuropathical Urnings are not hinted at in any passage of his works. As his friend and commentator Mr. Burroughs puts it: "The sentiment is primitive, athletic, taking form in all manner of large and homely out-of-door images, and springs, as anyone may see, directly from the heart and experience of the poet."
This being so, Whitman never suggests that comradeship may occasion the development of physical desires. But then he does not in set terms condemn these desires, or warn his disciples against them. To a Western boy he says:—
"If you be not silently selected by lovers, and do not silently seek lovers,
Of what use is it that you seek to become eleve of mine."
Like Plato, in the Phædrus, Whitman describes an enthusiastic type of masculine emotion, leaving its private details to the moral sense and special inclination of the person concerned.
The language of "Calamus" (that section of "Leaves of Grass" which is devoted to the gospel of comradeship) has a passionate glow, a warmth of emotional tone, beyond anything to which the modern world is used in the celebration of the love of friends. It recalls to our mind the early Greek enthusiasm—that fellowship in arms which flourished among Dorian tribes, and made a chivalry for prehistoric Hellas. Nor does the poet himself appear to be unconscious that there are dangers and difficulties involved in the highly-pitched emotions he is praising. The whole tenor of two mysterious compositions, entitled "Whoever you are, Holding me now in Hand," and "Trickle, Drops," suggests an underlying sense of spiritual conflict. The following poem, again, is sufficiently significant and typical to call for literal transcription:—
"Earth, my likeness!
Though you look so impressive, ample and spheric here,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible to burst forth;
For an athletic is enamoured of me—and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs."
The reality of Whitman's feeling, the intense delight which he derives from the personal presence and physical contact of a beloved man, find expression in "A Glimpse," "Recorders ages hence," "When I heard at the Close of Day," "I saw in Louisiana a Live Oak growing," "Long I thought that Knowledge alone would content me," "O Tan-faced Prairie Boy," and "Vigil Strange I kept on the Field one Night."
It is clear, then, that in his treatment of comradeship, or the impassioned love of man for man, Whitman has struck a keynote, to the emotional intensity of which the modern world is unaccustomed. It therefore becomes of much importance to discover the poet-prophet's Stimmung—his radical instinct with regard to the moral quality of the feeling he encourages. Studying his works by their own light, and by the light of their author's character, interpreting each part by reference to the whole and in the spirit of the whole, an impartial critic will, I think, be drawn to the conclusion that what he calls the "adhesiveness" of comradeship is meant to have no interblending with the "amativeness" of sexual love. Personally, it is undeniable that Whitman possesses a specially keen sense of the fine restraint and continence, the cleanliness and chastity, that are inseparable from the perfectly virile and physically complete nature of healthy manhood. Still, we may predicate the same ground-qualities in the early Dorians, those martial founders of the institution of Greek Love; and it is notorious to students of Greek civilisation that the lofty sentiment of their chivalry was intertwined with singular anomalies in its historical development.
To remove all doubt about Whitman's own intentions when he composed "Calamus," and promulgated his doctrine of impassioned comradeship, I wrote to him, frankly posing the questions which perplexed my mind. The answer I received, dated Camden, New Jersey, U.S.A., August 19, 1890, and which he permits me to make use of, puts the matter beyond all debate, and confirms the conclusions to which I had been led by criticism. He writes as follows: "About the questions on 'Calamus,' &c., they quite daze me. 'Leaves of Grass' is only to be rightly construed by and within its own atmosphere and essential character—all its pages and pieces so coming strictly under. That the Calamus part has ever allowed the possibility of such construction as mentioned is terrible. I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mentioned for such gratuitous and quite at the time undreamed and unwished possibility of morbid inferences—which are disavowed by me and seem damnable."
No one who knows anything about Walt Whitman will for a moment doubt his candour and sincerity. Therefore the man who wrote "Calamus," and preached the gospel of comradeship, entertains feelings at least as hostile to sexual inversion as any law-abiding humdrum Anglo-Saxon could desire. It is obvious that he has not even taken the phenomena of abnormal instinct into account. Else he must have foreseen that, human nature being what it is, we cannot expect to eliminate all sexual alloy from emotions raised to a high pitch of passionate intensity, and that permanent elements within the midst of our society will emperil the absolute purity of the ideal he attempts to establish.
These considerations do not, however, affect the spiritual nature of that ideal. After acknowledging, what Whitman has omitted to perceive, that there are inevitable points of contact between sexual inversion and his doctrine of comradeship, the question now remains whether he has not suggested the way whereby abnormal instincts may be moralised and raised to higher value. In other words, are those instincts provided in "Calamus" with the means of their salvation from the filth and mire of brutal appetite? It is difficult to answer this question; for the issue involved is nothing less momentous than the possibility of evoking a new chivalrous enthusiasm, analogous to that of primitive Hellenic society, from emotions which are at present classified among the turpitudes of human nature.
Let us look a little closer at the expression which Whitman has given to his own feelings about friendship. The first thing that strikes us is the mystic emblem he has chosen for masculine love. That is the water-plant, or scented rush, called Calamus, which springs in wild places, "in paths untrodden, in the growth by margins of pond-waters" He has chosen these "emblematic and capricious blades" because of their shyness, their aromatic perfume, their aloofness from the patent life of the world. He calls them "sweet leaves, pink-tinged roots, timid leaves," "scented herbage of my breast." Finally, he says:—
"Here my last words, and the most baffling,
Here the frailest leaves of me, and yet my strongest-lasting,
Here I shade down and hide my thoughts—I do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems."
The manliness of the emotion, which is thus so shyly, mystically indicated, appears in the magnificent address to soldiers at the close of the great war: "Over the Carnage rose Prophetic a Voice." Its tenderness emerges in the elegy on a slain comrade—:
'Vigil for boy of responding kisses (never again on earth responding),
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain—vigil I never forget, how as day brightened,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell."
Its pathos and clinging intensity transpire through the first lines of the following piece, which may have been suggested by the legends of David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Oretes and Pylades:—
"When I pursue the conquered fame of heroes, and the victories of mighty generals,
I do not envy the generals,
Nor the president in his Presidency, nor the rich in his great house;
But when I read of the brotherhood of lovers, how it was with them,
How through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long,
Through youth, and through middle and old age, how unfaltering, how affectionate and faithful they were,
Then I am pensive—I hastily put down the book, and walk away, filled with the bitterest envy."
But Whitman does not conceive of comradeship as a merely personal possession, delightful to the friends it links in bonds of amity. He regards it essentially as a social and political virtue. This human emotion is destined to cement society and to render commonwealths inviolable. Reading some of his poems, we are carried back to ancient Greece—to Plato's Symposium, to Philip gazing on the Sacred Band of Thebans after the fight at Chæronea.
"I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words."
"I believe the main purport of these States is to found a superb friendship, exalté, previously unknown,
Because I perceive it waits, and has been always waiting, latent in all men."
And once again:—
"Come, I will make the continent indissoluble;
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon;
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's necks;
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you, for you I am thrilling these songs."
In the company of Walt Whitman we are very far away from Gibbon and Carlier, from Tardieux and Casper-Liman, from Krafft-Ebing and Ulrichs. What indeed has this "superb friendship, exalté, previously unknown," which "waits, and has been always waiting, latent in all men," that "something fierce in me, eligible to burst forth," "ethereal comradeship," "the last athletic reality"—what has all this in common with the painful topic of the preceding sections of my Essay?
It has this in common with it. Whitman recognises among the sacred emotions and social virtues, destined to regenerate political life and to cement nations, an intense, jealous, throbbing, sensitive, expectant love of man for man: a love which yearns in absence, droops under the sense of neglect, revives at the return of the beloved; a love that finds honest delight in hand-touch, meeting lips, hours of privacy, close personal contact. He proclaims this love to be not only a daily fact in the present, but also a saving and ennobling aspiration. While he expressly repudiates, disowns, and brands as "damnable" all "morbid inferences" which may be drawn by malevolence or vicious cunning from his doctrine, he is prepared to extend the gospel of comradeship to the whole human race. He expects Democracy, the new social and political medium, the new religious ideal of mankind, to develop and extend "that fervid comradeship," and by its means to counterbalance and to spiritualise what is vulgar and materialistic in the modern world. "Democracy," he maintains, "infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself."
If this be not a dream, if he is right in believing that "threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown," will penetrate the organism of society, "not only giving tone to individual character, and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having deepest relations to general politics"—then are we perhaps justified in foreseeing here the advent of an enthusiasm which shall rehabilitate those outcast instincts, by giving them a spiritual atmosphere, an environment of recognised and healthy emotions, wherein to expand at liberty and purge away the grossness and the madness of their pariahdom?
This prospect, like all ideals, until they are realised in experience, may seem fantastically visionary. Moreover, the substance of human nature is so mixed that it would perhaps be fanatical to expect from Whitman's chivalry of "adhesiveness" a more immaculate purity than was attained by the mediæval chivalry of "amativeness." Still that mediæval chivalry, the great emotional product of feudalism, though it fell short of its own aspiration, bequeathed incalculable good to modern society by refining and clarifying the crudest of male appetites. In like manner, the democratic chivalry, announced by Whitman, may be destined to absorb, control, and elevate those darker, more mysterious, apparently abnormal appetites, which we have seen to be widely diffused and ineradicable in the ground-work of human nature.
Returning from the dream, the vision of a future possibility, it will at any rate be conceded that Whitman has founded comradeship, the enthusiasm which binds man to man in fervent love, upon a natural basis. Eliminating classical associations of corruption, ignoring the perplexed questions of a guilty passion doomed by law and popular antipathy to failure, he begins anew with sound and primitive humanity. There he discovers "a superb friendship, exalté, previously unknown." He perceives that "it waits, and has been always waiting, latent in all men." His method of treatment, fearless and uncowed by any thought of evil, his touch upon the matter, chaste and wholesome and aspiring, reveal the possibility of restoring in all innocence to human life a portion of its alienated or unclaimed moral birthright. The aberrations we have been discussing in this treatise are perhaps the morbid symptoms of suppression, of hypertrophy, of ignorant misregulation, in a genuine emotion capable of being raised to good by sympathetic treatment.
It were well to close upon this note. The half, as the Greeks said, is more than the whole; and the time has not yet come to raise the question whether the love of man for man shall be elevated through a hitherto unapprehended chivalry to nobler powers, even as the barbarous love of man for woman once was. This question at the present moment is deficient in actuality. The world cannot be invited to entertain it.
- In this relation it is curious to note what one of Casper-Liman's correspondents says about the morals of North America (op. cit., vol. i. p. 173). "Half a year after my return I went to North America, to try my fortune. There the unnatural vice in question is more ordinary than it is here; and I was able to indulge my passions with less fear of punishment or persecution. The American's tastes in this matter resemble my own; and I discovered, in the United States, that I was always immediately recognised as a member of the confraternity." The date of this man's visit to America was the year 1871-72. He had just returned from serving as a volunteer in the great Franco-German war of 1870-71.
- Not included in the "Complete Poems and Prose." It will be found in "Leaves of Grass," Boston, 1860-1861.
- The two last are from "Drum-Taps."
- This I cannot find in "Complete Poems and Prose." It is included in the Boston edition, 1860-61, and the Camden edition, 1876.
- "Drum-Taps." Complete Poems, p. 247.
- Ibid., p, 238.
- "Leaves of Grass." Complete Poems, p. 107.
- Complete Poems, p. 109. Compare, "I hear it was charged against me," ibid., p. 107.
- Complete Poems, p. 110.
- Camden edition, 1876, p. 127. Complete Poems, p. 99. Compare "Democratic Vistas," Complete Prose, p. 247, note.
- These prose passages are taken from "Democratic Vistas," cited above, p. 119, note.
- While these sheets were going through the press, I communicated Whitman's reply to a judicious friend, whose remarks upon it express my own opinion more clearly and succinctly than I have done above: "I do not feel that this answer throws light on the really interesting question; does the sentiment of 'Calamus' represent, in its own way, the ideal which we should aim at impressing on passionate affections between men, as certainly liable to take other objectionable forms? Is there sufficient affinity between the actual and the ideal for this to be practicable? That is what I have never felt sure about when we have discussed these matters. But I do not feel that my doubts have been resolved in any negative direction by Walt Whitman."