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Whitman Possessed: poetry, sexuality and popular authority
Mark Maslan
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
$41.95, 221 pages, ISBN 0801867010.

Joanny Moulin
Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I

This queer-theory study strives to achieve an original position in recent revisionary scholarship on Whitman’s sexual poetics and politics. It starts from the work of critics who propose to insist on the importance of the de-centring of the subject in Whitman’s poetry, arguing that he rejected self-centredness in favour of a poetic voice characterised by self-erasure. This would amount to a reversal of the opinion of a long-established scholarship according to which Whitman is envisioned as an embodiment of American individualism. This challenge of self-centredness can be seen as an outgrowth of Romantic poetics and especially of Keats’s critique of Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime”.

Mazlan’s thesis consists in arguing that, since romantic inspiration does not come from within but from without the self, it involves a literal or figurative penetration of the poet’s body, which can be identified as homoerotic. Whitman could therefore be seen as realising the homoerotic potential of Romantic poetics, and his homosexuality, instead of continuing to be considered an obstacle in spite of which the American poet achieved canonical status, would therefore be turned into his very source of legitimation.

Mazlan aims at distinguishing himself from, on the one hand, the traditional, Emersonian criticism that posits the transcendence of the self, and, on the other hand, the poststructuralists who, says he, do “not so much eliminate the transcendental subject as reinvent it in the form of those forces by which the self is supposed to be constituted and instrumentalized”. To begin with, however, Mazlan makes an interesting point by showing how Whitman could profitably be reappraised in the historical context of the sexual hygiene movement, of which several prominent figures were among his personal acquaintances, as for instance the phrenologists Lorenzo & Orson Fowler, but also Dr. Edward H. Dixon or Dr. Russell Thacher Trall and other health reformers whose works he reviewed as a journalist in the 1840s and ‘50s. In general agreement with Freud’s basic clinical idea according to which homosexuality has its origin in narcissism, those sexual hygienists apparently agreed to consider that onanism was like an epidemic communicated from one victim to the next, being a common expression of lust, or sexual desire, understood as a disease infiltrating the individual body from without. Because it increased the permeability of the natural gates and alleys of its victim’s body, masturbation was therefore perceived as a feminisation, a deterioration and awakening of the self, as evidenced for instance in Rousseau’s Confessions. Whitman, by endowing male-male desire with these characteristics attributed to masturbation, and then by equating homosexual love and poetic invention, would have achieved a remarkable reversal of values.

Love, whether or not it is treated as a metaphor of poetic inspiration, is therefore perceived as an imperious possession from without, as it were a spiritual-cum-physical rape of the individual self by some external force, which Mazlan then traces in various poets, from Ovid to Petrarch and Sidney to the English Romantics. Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp” is the epitome of this state of things, in which the poet is in the feminine situation of being penetrated by the male agency of the wind. This enables Mazlan to declare that “Whitman thus affirms his poetic portrayal of male homosexuality as possession by denying responsibility for it”, so that homosexuality would not be sublimated into poetry, but would afford the very paradigm of the romantic condition of the poet as inspired prophet : “Whitman’s violability is, in his eyes, the basis for his authority”.

This applies to Whitman’s politics as well as, by the same process, it is through the sexual dimension of his attachment to the soldiers in Drum-Taps that the poet becomes democratically possessed by them and is thus symbolically allowed to stand for them and represent the nation. This may be perceptible in “Song of Myself” already, where Whitman departs from Emerson’s natural or supernatural presentation of the forces of inspiration, to portray them as a very human group of “prurient provokers”. Mazlan goes further, still, by claiming for Whitman the unique contribution of having blended the Federalist and Romantic critiques of the self, reading together, as it were, Madison with both Emerson and Shelley, by presenting “male homosexuality as a token for the sacrifice of individuality upon which he believes legitimate authority depends”. Down to this point, Mazlan’s book is a rather convincing piece of proselytising, which would have gone better without its last chapter. At best, the critique waged against Derrida and Foucault is digressive; at worst, it forfeits academic credibility if it claims to invalidate the work of two philosophers of this calibre in some twelve incidental pages of a book on another topic altogether. Besides, the job has already been done much more professionally in Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Habermas, whose name is conspicuously absent from the index. If the point was to settle personal accounts with Judith Butler and Leo Bersani, it is rather awkwardly done, since both turn out to be provincial followers of the above mentioned thinkers. However these last few pages are the only serious shortcoming of a study that has the remarkable merit of casting a rather provocatively refreshing light on an old subject.

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