A response to CA Conrad’s Harriet Essay on Whitman

CA Conrad wrote an important essay on Harriet. One that no one should ignore, or dismiss, or shy away from because it offends. It has pushed my own thinking on art, poetry, revolution, and I would ask that anyone reading this… take a deep breath, step back, and let it work on you—in the context of our received notions of where we have come from.

I have always thought that the strongest works of the imagination were more and other than the intentions of their makers, or of the interpretative constraints of their times. I haven’t changed those beliefs. But Conrad’s challenge is not about that. Defenses of Whitman—that he was a man of his times, that he wrote equally strong passages sympathetic to slaves (if not of native peoples)—are beside the point. What I heard in his essay was an echo of something that has been on my mind for some time.

We want to ignore, or explain away, the complicity of our cultural heritage—I mean, white, Euro-American art, poetry, music, theater, how it has served, directly and indirectly, the Masters of our history. And their wars, their slave holding, their misogyny—kings and empire, and after, the economic empires of colonizing capitalism.

It isn’t enough … or maybe, it’s not yet time, to save what has been passed down, what we (as artists… of all forms), are meant to follow, to renew, to challenge even as we stand on the shoulders of those who we must acknowledge—that we are their heirs. But what, and how much, of what they have left us?

The analogy that comes to mind… the German children and grandchildren of the Nazis. We are the children and grandchildren—and more than that, the brothers and sisters of genocide, of this whole monstrous empire of money and death, and what we have been given—our aesthetic heritage– to build on—is infected beyond our… if not, of future generations… ability to purge and cleanse.

We cannot cannot cannot build a new world, and nothing less will do if we as a species—if life on this planet is to survive– than to build a new world, and we cannot do that but on the ashes and ruins of the old.

This is Conrad’s hard truth.

There may come a time when we will be able to look back, read Whitman for what even he had no inkling of what was there, to find and celebrate again that lightning of imaginative truth, the light of which illuminates the truth neither person nor historical time were able to see. I do not despair of the power of imagination—that whatever come forth from that sublime flash, will endure, and be worthy of our appreciation generation to generation. Whitman, too.

But we are not in that place where we can rescue what flashed through him—not before we are ready to confront the truth of the contamination of Empire and the myth of race and the destiny of State.

I stand with you, Conrad. For your courage, and your truth.

And hope for the day, when we have remade this world—when we will again be able to recite Whitman… and all our failed poets, artists… as we may be remembered… for all our failings.

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