A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove late of a winter night, and I unremark'd seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.
- Walt Whitman
Following up on an earlier post on Whitman, there's an interesting piece by J M Coetzee on Whitman in the current issue of the New York Review of Books (available only to subscribers, unfortunately). While the piece is ostensibly about a rash of new books about Whitman, including a re-issue of Leaves of Grass in its first (1855) edition text with an introduction by Harold Bloom (wow! as Coetzee puts it: "his introduction is more than a little rambling, but it is brimful of ideas and allows the exhilerating spectacle of a master reader responding with gratitude and feeling to a great poet"), Coetzee's main theme is the ever intriguing question of how a society as Victorian in its morality, as puritanical in its views as that of mid 19th century America, allowed Whitman to publish such blatantly homosexual poems. Of course, Whitman writes equally well, on occasion, of heterosexual love, but for the modern reader it is almost impossible to read Leaves of Grass without being struck by their homosexual content. How did he get away with it?
Coetzee's answer (which stands opposed to the more conventional explanations - that argue that the morality of those times interpreted these poems differently) is both ingenious and insightful. His argument is that people tacitly recognised the homosexuality of these poems, but chose to ignore this aspect of them and accept them in all their pretended innocence. As Coetzee puts it: "There is a certain sophistication, governed by unspoken social consensus, whose nature lies in taking things simply for what they seem to be. It is this sort of social wisdom, whose other name might be tact, that we are in danger of denying to our Victorian forebears." But is this even possible? Coetzee argues that it is: "Pace Freud, it is perfectly possible to refrain from having fantasies about the private lives of other people, even of our parents, without having to repress those fantasies and to bear the consequences of repression - the notorious return of the repressed - in our own psychic life. We pay no psychic price when, for example, we refrain from ruminating on 'the intimate details', 'the actual facts' of what other people do when they visit the bathroom."
The other interesting point that Coetzee brings up (though as an aside and quoting Jerome Loving) is the idea that Whitman may have introduced the phenomenon of the groupie to American shores. In that sense, Whitman is the first authentic rock star - part poet, part sage, part social visionary whose work inspired not just admirers but disciples. Now that's a concert I would have loved to have gone for!