Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Phantasmic Whitman
Jennifer Ansley University of Southern California

            In the Calamus series, Walt Whitman employs male-male sexual relationships as a metaphor for the democratic utopia that he envisions in his essay “Democratic Vistas.” Calamus, in its attempt to rewrite cultural thinking regarding “adhesive love,” is a ritual performance of identity construction that engages with the major tenets of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity. Whitman figures himself as the head of a political and spiritual project of seeming cultural imperialism that is instituted via a repetitive invocation of the metonymic relationship between adhesive love and his democratic model. Whitman promotes a model of Democracy that re-inscribes the norms of masculine identity, making exclusion and erasure of difference one of its seeming goals. Whitman traverses geographic space as well as individual bodies, subsuming various identities, and uniting them under a single democratic ideal. The democratic utopia that he imagines is ultimately put at risk by insisting on other identifications (gender, race, nationality, etc.) under the category of adhesiveness and resisting the politically progressive possibilities of what Judith Butler calls “phantasmic identification,” by systematically erasing other categories of identification from his sexually progressive cultural revision.

            In his essay “Democratic Vistas” Whitman writes: “Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will”(760). He imagines the instantiation of a poetic, national literature, designed to promote modernity and democracy. He repeats the word  “all,” emphasizing his concern with a common, unifying literary tradition. The poet and the democratic leader are one, shaping and coloring not only “aggregates”, but also “individuals,” suggesting an inextricable relationship between national and individual identity that the poet has an interest in strengthening.  Beyond the power of  literature itself, the poet, in Whitman’s view, is to take over as supreme moral and spiritual instructor: “The priest departs, the divine literatus comes”(760). The “subtle” and “irresistible” nature of the power designed to “construct” (or demolish) the national and the individual is combined with an aura of the poetic as transcendental, endowing the poet with sublime power, equal to that of a priest.

            Whitman repeatedly uses the term “Comrade” in both “Democratic Vistas” and Calamus;  comradeship operates as a two-pronged metaphor that denotes both a model of Democracy and same-sex sexual relationships. In “Democratic Vistas,” he writes:

Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man–which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviors of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly developed, cultivated and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these States, will then be fully expressed.  (770)

In a note in the 1892 edition, Whitman acknowledges that “comradeship” is meant to refer to his term for male homosexuality, “adhesive love.” The use of the term “comrade,” usually denoting the bond between soldiers, is explicitly institutional and political, tying adhesive love to a political and connotatively masculine and militaristic project.

             He writes:  “Democracy infers such loving comradeship, as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself” ( 771).  The power of literature to undertake the project of constructing cultural consciousness foreshadows the project that Whitman pursues in Calamus. Comradeship must be “developed, cultivated, and recognized.” Democracy is in need of loving comradeship in order to “perpetuate itself.” Being counterparts, loving comradeship (adhesive love) is in need of Whitman’s democratic model to similarly perpetuate, construct, and speak itself through literature.

            The first poem in the Calamus series, “In Paths Untrodden,” initiates the connection between the political project explicated in “Democratic Vistas” and its enactment in Calamus. Whitman writes: “Clear to me now in standards not yet publish’d, clear to me that my soul,/ the soul of the man I speak for rejoices in comrades” (96.6-7).  Whitman goes on to dedicate the purpose of the poem to “celebrate the need of comrades,” a need that, if we return to “Democratic Vistas,” also translates into a need for the divine literatus that will bring Democracy (97.18). Whitman speaks for  the man who “rejoices in comrades,” figuring himself as their leader and fellow comrade. The fact that he speaks for both himself and for other men in “standards not yet publish’d,” names his poetry specifically (rather than the ambiguous “literatures” referred to in “Democratic Vistas”), as the vehicle by which Democracy, comradeship, and spirituality are to be instituted.

            In “For You O Democracy,” Whitman’s sexual and political rhetoric takes on geographical space as its object: “Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,/ I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,/ I will make divine magnetic lands, with the love of comrades” (100.1-4). Divisions between geographical spaces, racial groups, and individuals are summarily wiped away in these four lines. The continent is “indissoluble,” composed of “inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks” (101.7). Whitman, as poet, takes charge by constructing “one splendid race.” The “one splendid race” that he refers to is a race of comrades. Racial identification then is substituted by a sexual identification that unites men, regardless of national, racial, or other local sites of identification. The love of comrades is the ultimate magnet that binds space and racial groups. This umbrella-effect that “the love of comrades” extends over separable sites of identification is echoed in “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” where the democratic ideal of comradeship becomes the “sole and exclusive standard.” 

            The importance of space to Whitman’s democratic project also marks “Cities of Orgies.” In this poem, Whitman addresses Manhattan in a tone that echoes his address to Democracy: “as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, / offering response to my own–these repay me, / Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me” (107.7-9). Here, the “inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks” that appeared in “For You O Democracy” are pulled into a romantic relationship with the poet as if the city was one of his comrades. Whitman’s serenades to his lovers, to Democracy, and to the city, bring the three into a metonymic relationship.

            We can see another example of Whitman’s cultural appropriation under the sign of primary sexual identification in part 13 of “Salut Au Monde.” Whitman writes: “I have looked for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands / I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them” (126.213-214). For Whitman, “equals and lovers” are clearly the same people. A “divine rapport” has equalized Whitman with these other men, the “divine rapport” being, of course, Whitman’s own poetry. It is Whitman’s own democratizing voice that unites them. This invasive equalization that Whitman makes is softened by his claim that he “found them ready” for him, as if waiting for his blessing of equality. The invasiveness is underscored by the repeated refrains of “I see” and “I hear” throughout “Salut Au Monde.”

            In his poem, “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful,” the erasures that Whitman makes are even more explicit and extend beyond U.S. borders. As Whitman writes:

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany, Italy, France, Spain,
        Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia, or Japan, talking other dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become attached to them as I do to men in         my own lands,

O, I know we should be brethren and lovers,
        I know I should be happy with them.  (109.3-7)

In this passage from “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful,” Whitman “beholds” the men of other countries under his glance. Particular attention is drawn to the Eastern countries, the saying of their names being drawn out by the words “in” and “or,” which separate them entirely as opposed to the less intrusive comma that separates the European countries. Whitman acknowledges the immense distance between himself and particularly the Eastern countries in writing “far, far away.” He acknowledges different dialects, but not that such language differences might institute a barrier between himself and others. The repeated refrain of “I know” is authoritative, suggestive of his dominance over the text, over the men, and over the cultures they represent. Whitman claims his possession of these men as spiritual “brethren” and “lovers.” Despite cultural and linguistic differences, Whitman sees these men as only potential “comrades.” In figuring them as lovers, he is simultaneously figuring them as potential recruits for his democratic project. Whitman’s desire to institute Democracy in these other countries is implicit when he suggests that he could “become attached to them as I do men in my own lands.” As Mark Maslin notes, “Since, in his view, his homosexuality is nothing other than the structure of male sexual desire made manifest, it therefore figures in his poetry as a mark of authority, not an affront to it. He thus represents his reader with a vision of male homosexuality as a relation of invasion and submission” (143). The commanding tone of the “sole and exclusive standard” and the insistence on making the men of other countries his lovers and brethren, seems to make homosexuality not only the mask for imperialism, but also the mimic of an imperialist tone that demands subjection to the leader’s (Whitman’s) will.

I argue for the consideration of Calamus as an example of performativity in that the Democratic project that Whitman explicitly lays out in his non-fiction essay “Democratic Vistas” is the same that he pursues in the series of poems that make up Calamus. Judith Butler writes:

Performativity is neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation; nor can it be simply equated with performance. Moreover, constraint is not necessarily that which sets a limit to performativity; constraint is that which impels and sustains performativity...performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms.  (“Bodies” 95)

By pursuing a  political project that argues for a national literature, designed to shift cultural consciousness toward the acceptance of adhesive love and a model of Democracy based on it, Whitman engages in the beginnings of what he imagines will be a ritualized and repetitive iteration of his own sexual identification. This iteration, however, is constrained by its equation with a political project that, as we will see, perpetuates normative masculinity and cultural dominance.  I want to suggest that the metonymic relationship between Democracy and adhesive love both constrains the avowal of his sexual identification and also does the positive work of helping to sustain it, making it possible for not only a political ideal, but also a sexual behavioral ideal to be perpetuated in a mass cultural mode.

In “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” Whitman’s sexual identification and his ability to articulate it via poetry is impacted by its relationship to the social. He relates: “And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself, / But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend or love near, for I knew I could not” (108.4-5). The live-oak that Whitman observes, as others have noted, is an explicitly phallic metaphor in its unbending lustiness. It recalls him to himself, suggesting not only that the tree stirs sexual feelings in Whitman, but also that the tree’s presence has an effect on his self-awareness. Whitman wonders at the trees ability to stand so straight, uttering “joyous leaves” without friends near.  This suggests not only the need for a nearby object of desire, but also the need for social complicity in the ritual reproduction of his project. The word “uttering,” which appears twice in this poem, recalls us to Butler’s argument regarding the importance of iterability in the performative construction of identity. As Butler writes: “this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that ‘performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ . . . but a ritualized production” (“Bodies” 95).  If Whitman is to subvert the social constraints that act upon his sexual identification, he must gain social complicity for his project in order to create the ritualized production that holds stronger subversive power than the single act of Calamus can produce despite its repetitive theme.

What is at stake should Whitman find himself alone and unable to “utter his joyous leaves”? Butler writes: “The ‘threat’ that compels the assumption of masculine and feminine attributes is . . . for the latter, the monstrous assent into phallacism. . . .If a man refuses too radically the ‘having of a phallus,’ he will be punished with homosexuality” (“Bodies” 103). Whitman, in breaking off the limb of the Louisiana oak and taking it inside to act as his phallic muse, reassures himself of his masculine identity. As noted, Whitman also asserts the primacy of the masculine in the connotative masculinity of the soldier, his hero of Democracy. Since the phallic tree limb acts as Whitman’s muse, we also see that the threat of castration is simultaneously the threat of a lost poetic voice. Whitman’s Democracy and his sexual self are threatened by the possibility of this loss. The phallic symbol of the Live-Oak “recalls him to himself” and repels the threat. This re-inscription of masculine identity alongside Whitman’s celebration of adhesiveness represents the punitive threat that, for Butler, maintains the ritual of performative gender identity. Whitman’s model of Democracy, in its dependence on iterability via poetry, is directly related to the threat of castration and the maintenance of masculine identification. Whitman’s model of Democracy then is a normative constraint on the unabashed performance of his sexual identification in that it responds to the threat of castration.

In his book Disseminating Whitman, Michael Moon states:

Whitman’s writing registers in a complicated way both the exciting possibility for many that patriarchal formations are constructs and therefore subject to revision, and the daunting degree to which such a far-reaching and revisionary politics is fraught with difficulties, including the always present threat of persecution and reprisal exerted by the dominant culture.  (159)

I agree with Moon that Whitman’s writing opens up  progressive possibilities in its attention to  the construction of cultural identifications. It is clear that part of Whitman’s project is an attempt to rewrite cultural consciousness by proposing a democratic model that uses non-heteronormative sexual behavior as its model, but I think it is important to acknowledge that Whitman is not completely free of patriarchal constraints.  Even within this sexually progressive framework, we see a larger political project that does not allow for other identifications and re-inscribes masculinity as the ideal. Even as he attempts to rewrite it, dominant cultural consciousness restrains Whitman, requiring that he veil the “unacceptable” aspects of his behavior in a patriarchal, cultural imperial project.

            In Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler takes issue with democratic models such as the one that Whitman is promoting, in which masculine desire is figured as the impetus for an imperial project and where unity is pursued over recognition of cultural difference. Butler writes: “The ideal of transforming all excluded identifications into inclusive features . . . in appropriating all difference as exemplary features of itself, becomes a figure for imperialism, a figure that installs itself by way of a romantic, insidious, and all-consuming humanism” (“Bodies” 116).  Butler’s acknowledgment that political projects like Whitman’s are in pursuit of an “ideal” is also an acknowledgement of the impossibility of such an inclusive project. The likely consequence, as Butler suggests and as my argument has shown, is cultural appropriation and imperialism. It is identification on the basis of sexuality that unites Whitman with men of other countries, over-riding and potentially erasing other sites. In Whitman’s democratic vision there is no room for a multiplicity of identities to exist within a single subject--the defining feature of Butler’s term “phantasmic identification.” Whitman’s Democracy is an “all-consuming humanism.” His insistence on poetry as the sublime voice of transcendence and spirituality as a way of installing his project does make him a romantic figure for imperialism and also an insidious figure, in that we acknowledge his sexual freedom as positive, even while his politics can be interpreted as invasive and dominating.

            By way of defining “phantasmic identification,” Butler writes: “it is not simply a matter of honoring the subject as a plurality of identifications, for these identifications are invariably imbricated in one another: a gender identification can be made in order to repudiate or participate in race identification” (116). The rhetoric of Whitman’s poetry makes an identification with a highly masculinized, patriarchal, and authoritative image of cultural imperialism that is simultaneous with his sexual identification. His poetry suggests a series of overlapping edges, indicative of the existence of a phantasmic Whitman. He is simultaneously a poet, leader, comrade, and missionary. The privilege of political agency and repudiation made possible through Whitman’s phantasmic identification, however, is a possibility that he systematically eradicates for the other subjects of Calamus and his imagined democratic utopia.

            Butler writes: “Every insistence on identity must at some point lead to a taking stock of the constitutive exclusions that reconsolidate hegemonic power differentials, exclusions that each articulation was forced to make in order to proceed (“Bodies”118). My conclusion is that Whitman, in his insistence on adhesive love as the supreme example of Democracy and the aim of a cultural imperial project, reconsolidates masculine authority and eliminates the possibility of the more progressive pursuit of phantasmic and shifting identifications for the ‘others’ of the Calamus series. As Mark Maslin pointed out, the insistence in recent Whitman criticism on seeing Whitman’s poetry as over-archingly subversive without acknowledging conclusions such as mine, is to put the positive work of Whitman’s subversion of heterosexuality as the ideal romantic relationship at risk. Whitman believes he can rewrite a new, inclusive model of American Democracy, but unfortunately re-inscribes exactly those institutions which seek to exclude him, while practicing his own exclusions along the way.


Works Cited

Bellis, Peter J. Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau.. Athens:

            University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993.          

---. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 900-11.

Coviello, Peter. “Intimate Nationality: Anonymity and Attachment in Whitman.”American Literature 73.1 (2001): 85-19.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Hutchinson, George. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism and the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986.

Maslan, Mark. Whitman Possessed: Poetry, Sexuality, and Popular Authority. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Rowe, John Carlos. At Emerson's Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.Thurin, Erik Ingvar. Whitman Between Impressionism and Expressionism. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. New York: Norton, 2002.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place