Whitman: Macho Fag?

Posted: November 21, 2010 in Identity, Masculinities, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

‘The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps,

The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert,

The natural, perfect, varied attitudes—the bent head, the curv’d neck, and the counting; 

Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,

Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, and count’

From I Sing The Body Electric by Walt Whitman. http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html

Was Whitman a Macho Fag? He certainly celebrated the perfection of the male athletic form and I think he contributed to the fetishising, especially in gay culture of the muscular, ‘natural’ masculine body.

On Mark Simpson’s blog, in a  discussion of macho nachos- the advertising of fast food products aimed at ‘macho’ men in America, a very Whitman-esque statemement was made:

‘Well, have you ever observed the pure joy that so many non-human ani­mals exhibit when they are out run­ning free; E.g. dogs, horses? The ampli­tude of their exer­tions depends on their con­di­tion of course. But their is a release of endor­phins which floods the sys­tem almost like the effects of heroin, which has caused peo­ple to address exer­cise as “healthy addictions”.I was in pretty good con­di­tion, since I was fairly young work­ing on the farm on which I was raised so due to that and per­haps a genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion, activ­i­ties like work­ing and run­ning were very happy expe­ri­ences.’

And in case we were in any doubt as to the ‘manliness’ of this healthy athletic ideal, the commenter made allusions to how women could never fulfil it, as they are busy ‘sitting around cleaning and having babies’…

‘The desire to be healthy, in the respect that I use it has nothng what­so­ever or min­i­nally to do with what any­one else thinks; it has to do ath­let­i­cally to do with the release of endor­phins; just the pure which occurs with phys­i­cal activ­ity. Also, in rela­tion to other peo­ple, that chid­like joy got­ten in play­ing. I really doubt e,g., that soc­cer play­ers would do what they do unless it was fun.
Women have been taught to just sit around to clean house and have babies, so it’s uncer­tain to me how much they like for their own sake ath­letic activ­ity. I say this from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, hav­ing taken up run­ning before it was fash­ion­able here, just to relax.’

Our current culture has to come from somewhere. And gay intellectual men have fetishised the poetry of Whitman, Carlos Williams, Ginsberg, and the prose of Lawrence, Isherwood, Wilde, over the years, to the extent that these images of perfection must have influenced the contemporary version of the ‘ideal’ gay man’s body to some degree. And with metrosexualisation of masculinity, this ideal has become the ‘norm’ for all men to aspire to.

Maybe I am bitter because I find it harder, as I get older to meet men who fit this ideal of youthful athleticism, or because if I do meet them, they are often narcissistic bores, or gay (or both!). Or maybe I am jealous, because I will never be one of these adonises. And I won’t fulfil the flip-side of the macho ideal, of being a macho-matriarch. I haven’t produced offspring from my loins. So what was this body for exactly?

Oh I admire from afar those muscled backs and shoulders, those curved necks and tight buttocks. What sentient being wouldn’t? But it doesn’t sit easy with me. And I know most of these beauties won’t even have heard of Whitman.

The old-style intellectual queer is dying out. I genuinely believe that. I don’t think there will be any more, not in the way I know and love and also sometimes hate them. The thing I do love about those queer men of letters, is how they brought to life stories and portraits of men loving each other, and being ‘men’ in a tender and sensuous way. Without them there’d probably be ‘no homos’. Gay men would probably not be so accepted, as people and as sexual beings in society. I love those writers for making manlove visible.

But their vision of beautiful, built buff young men, bounding across sand dunes, wrestling in the hay and leading the march across wastelands in army uniforms, I am afraid has become a rather frightening hyper-reality.

It is  shinier, buffer, slicker, more urban, more mediated, more mediocre, more homogenous, more horrific.

Less lyrical than any of those lyric poets could have or would have imagined.

Be careful what you wish for it might just come true. But it might not look or sound quite like it did in your literary dreams.


‘Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique and not too much imagination’  

  1. Mark says:

    Another deliciously lyrical, bitter-sweet post.

    Yes, the body electric is singing itself these days. And it’s quite deafening. There’s certainly no need for uncle Walt and his sensitive, tortured chums. Now that young men have taken themselves as their own love-object the beloved is the lover. And check out his new pics on Facebook! The nearest thing we have to Whitman today is Bruce Weber – the man who taught a generation of young males how to fetishise themselves in black and white.

    The sensual revolution those literary queers ached for has happened. The Winter Palace has been stormed, the Bastille liberated. But as you say, we’ve found ourselves somewhere we didn’t imagine. Instead of homotopia we’re in being terrorised by the ab-ject.

    Speaking of which, I’ve been reading Mikey Sorrentino’s book ‘Here’s The Situation’, his guide to ‘Gym Tan Laundry’. It’s mostly quite bad but then it’s really only meant as a cash-in stocking-filler. And who would want an actual, proper book from Mikey? Or anyone, these days?

    As an incurable invert myself I couldn’t help but be struck though by his taunting disclaimer, when talking about his love of food and cooking and his lust for life: he’ll ‘try everything once. Except dudes. Sorry, guys.’

    This seems to be the ultimate joke of metrosexuality and history itself on the theorists and architects and dreamers of manlove. Yes, we shall take your love of the male body and the curve of its neck, thank you very much for that, and we shall become a terrifying parody of it. We shall love our own beauty and youth and pectoral muscles even more than Dorian did and dedicate our lives to it.

    But we won’t do dudes. Sorry, guys.

  2. Yes it is a cruel joke all right.

    And not very funny.

    The modern metrosexual knows he is a bit ‘gay’ but the macho version is saying that gays are bound to find him attractive but he is not going to offer himself to them. What a cock.

  3. Mark says:

    In fairness, Mikey’s metrosexuality is sometimes just very Italian. Of course he so would do dudes – if the dudes paid him enough money and told him how macho and magnificent he was. Or offered him another prime-time TV series, this time with his name in it.

  4. ‘if they pay me, then hell yeah’ – Scott Favor was Italo-American too.

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