Table of Contents
Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
THE FOURTH QUILL, a
novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The
Dimensional Structure of
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the "Statement of Spirituality"
You're Not A Wave
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
The Two Loves
Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook
Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer
The Way Out by Christopher L Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson
Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry
Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr
Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois
Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson
Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low
Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman
The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman
Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor
Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine
The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada
The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook
The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther
The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel
Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak
Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez
Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr
Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman
Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano
The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo
The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar
Occam’s Razor by David Duncan
Grace and Demion by Mel White
Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso
The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery
The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass
Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen
War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar
The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal
The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre
Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak
A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey
Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes
The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes
Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour
Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson
In Walt We Trust:
How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America From Itself
By John Marsh
Monthly Review Press 2015
256 pages, Hard Cover, $25.00
Available from amazon.com
Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness
This book was literally a joy to read. There's just enough of the author and the familiar struggles of his personal life woven into the text to show him as insightful, kind, good-intentioned and good-hearted, and likeable. The basic concept of the book is that modern America is suffering from a general malaise about the meaning of life and the value of our lives today as modern Americans. Death, money, sex and democracy are the four themes Marsh identifies as sources of this malaise. He is a poetry professor at Penn State—and I bet he's a good teacher—and so, perhaps naturally, he looks to poetry to find solutions. Poetry is almost always a kind of "philosophical" endeavor, striving to express, intimately and evocatively, deep insights into this meaning of life. The specific poet he turns to is Walt Whitman, the Civil War era poet who established with his free verse a whole new kind of poetic style and who, in spite of being controversial, helped establish what we think of as the American mind.
Whitman's poetry is mystical and in some ways highly abstract: "I sing the body electric," "I celebrate myself," etc. But it is also very physical and real: what he celebrates includes "The smoke of my own breath, Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine." It's the physical world shot through with mystical significance. Marsh examines Whitman's experience by following in his footsteps, taking the Brooklyn ferry, visiting Whitman's home in Camden, NJ, wandering the Civil War battlefield, at Fredericksburg, Virgina, going to a strip club to experience raw sexuality. He finds lines in Whitman's verse that explain and elaborate these experiences, applying the wisdom in the poems to our current times. The basic advice is to love life and build deep friendships and live passionately—in spite of the realities of death, the insecurities of money, the vagaries of sex and the responsibilities of living in democracy. Good advice. And it's so nicely presented, it's easy to agree.
Within the discussions of these big questions are inserted two little interludes to deal with recurring issues in Whitman studies: "Was Walt Whitman Socialist?" and "Was Walt Whitman Gay?" To American patriots who'd like Walt Whitman to be All-American, apple pie and motherhood, it's something of an embarrassment that the answer to both questions is Yes.
John Marsh actually concludes that we just don't know enough to answer the sexuality question affirmatively and so concludes that Whitman might not have been homosexual as such, but he certainly was what today we'd call "queer," i.e., sexually and emotionally unconventional and outside constraining definitions. The reason scholars routinely question Whitman's occasionally seemingly obvious homosexuality—besides their not wanting it to be true—is that Whitman himself said it wasn't true.
Marsh is very even-handed at how he deals with this question, beginning, of course, with the anachronism in the question: the very notion of "gay" didn't exist in the mid-19th century, especially of homosexuality as a fundamental, unchangeable character trait and a reason to organize and fight for human rights. The section opens with a story from Marsh's life as a teacher of Whitman about a young woman student asking this very question. He tells us that he is a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal, in love with tolerance," and says he'd love it if Whitman were "gay" and a good role model for young homosexuals, because he is such a good role model for human beings in general. Whitman is so positive and life-affirming about sexuality and physicality—this is what young men and women discovering their sexuality need to discover about their own self-identities. But, he says, unfortunately, it's not that simple, and then goes on to unravel the arguments in favor of Whitman's homosexuality.
As a writer myself about gay consciousness, I found this section of the book particularly thought provoking, and in this review I want to share an observation about gay consciousness that, I think, even, or especially, our best straight allies and the most "dyed-in-the-wool liberals" likely don't understand.
One of Whitman's most outright denials of homosexuality is in response to a letter from the British literary critic and early writer about sexual orientation, John Addington Symonds. Whitman wouldn't have thought of himself as "homosexual" anyway, because that word didn't exist yet either. There were no words, there was no concept. Symonds was one of the people who helped create that concept. Marsh quotes from the Englishman's letter to Whitman: "I have pored for continuous hours over the pages of Calamus [the most gay section in Leaves of Grass] (as I used to pore over the pages of Plato) longing to hear you speak, burning for a revelation of your more developed meaning, panting to ask—is this what you would indicate…" Symonds is asking: are you like me? In old gay slang that question always went: I'm one, are you one too?
What I think John Marsh misses is how much homosexuals dislike other homosexuals. By the processes that modern gay-oriented psychotherapy calls "internalized homophobia" and projection, and which C.G. Jung referred to as The Shadow, homosexuals are understood to internalize all the same anti-homosexual messages in religion and society—and the nervous silence and absence of any positive messages—that make everybody else suspicious and uncomfortable with homosexuality, and then blame it all on other homosexuals. This is part of what, at least in the old days, caused gay people, men especially, to experience difficulty in love and relationship—how can you have a relationship with somebody who is a kind of person you don't like? And it is what has caused so many factions and so much divisiveness within the "gay community." The great effort of the gay rights and gay liberation movement has been to address this self-sabotaguing dynamic. The very notion of "gay community" is an example of this effort. And the effort has been amazingly successful. The movement changed how homosexuals thought of themselves and that's changed the whole world.
The practical experience for homosexuals, at least before liberation, was that they felt different from everybody else; they were the only ones like this, and this was something wonderful and precious, even sacred, in themselves, but disgusting and reprehensible in others.
I think Whitman's denials are more like protestations even of today's youth: I don't want to be labelled. I'm not like anybody else. I'm me. And, of course, that was Whitman's great declaration: I celebrate myself.
It's ironic that Walt Whitman has been one of the best proponents of affirmative gay consciousness in human history. Without him the gay rights movement might never have happened.
John Marsh's book is about so much more than Whitman's sexuality, and my quibble of how to portray Whitman as a gay/queer man and icon is more with ol' Walt himself for not being as liberated as he showed the rest of us the way to be. I really liked the wisdom Marsh found in Whitman, and in himself. I liked the optimism—in spite of all the evidence against it—that Marsh offers to modern America.
This book demonstrates the wonderful use—and power—of poetry to discover, and create, deep meaning and a reason for living. A joy to read.
To order from amazon.com
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.
Johnson's Lammy Award winning book
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are
available now from Lethe
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