Early American Literary Visionaries on Same-Sex Marriage
Categories: Guest Post Literature & the Arts Society & Politics
Guest Post by Steven Herrmann
The symbol of same-sex marriage Herman Melville portrays for us began to take shape when the 21-year-old writer and his friend, Tobias Greene, jumped from the whale ship Auschnet and swam together to the Island of Nukeheva, in the Marquesas. The action of Melville’s first novel, Typee, centers around two fictional figures, Toby (Melville) and Kory Kory, who happens to be a tayo, or homosexual of the tribe, who sleep together side by side. Only a relatively few readers and literary critics knew what Melville was trying to say in allegorical imagery, and what the value of the literary portraits he was painting for us mean as symbols of the sacred. What archetype of the sacred he was trying to portray for the transformation of world-culture was largely unknown. But to boldly portray homosexuality at this pivotal time in history, a decade before the American Civil War, took an act of moral courage and fearlessness.
Right from the beginning of his narration of facts in Moby-Dick, Melville followed the dictates of his own conscience, free from civil coercion and any established Church in the new world, and spoke his own inexorable truth to the face of religious falsehood. He established the original intent of the founding fathers as regards marriage equality by making same-sex marriage a political, social, and religious matter. Through his sacred calling as a poet-shaman, he re-sacralized what had been de-sacralized by the patriarchies. He leaves no stone unturned, especially the cornerstone of same-sex marriage. The cornerstone in Moby-Dick is the archetype of same-sex matrimony between Ishmael Queequeg. Queequeg worships at least five religions (moreover, heretically including Islam!), so his religious attitude is spiritually democratic from the start. “I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian church,” writes Ishmael. Then, after smoking the tomahawk pipe of peace with Queequeg, he says, outlandishly: “We undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world” (Moby-Dick 58). That Melville wrote these words in 1851, three years after Seneca Falls, and the inception point for modern feminism, is a tribute to his androgyny and open acceptance of Polynesian polyandry practices, as well as Melville’s own bisexuality. Melville was, therefore, one of our nation’s first sacred activists in the domain of marriage equality, a true peacemaker for his times and ours. His vocation as a travel writer was directed by the archetype of Sacred Activism as the supreme organizing principle in his personality.
In discussing Sacred Activism as a spiritual path, it is important to point out that it is first and foremost an archetype: an empirically verifiable datum of experience that exists as a potentiality for action across all nations, ethnicities, and religious cultures throughout the entire globe. It is an enacting instinct, with a potential to produce social symbols for a certain kind of preparedness for activity, which is democratic at its religious core. Spiritual activists may appear at any time in human history, and their potentials for vocational action exist as systems of readiness for action at any moment.
In “Mind and Earth” Jung writes, “Archetypes are systems of readiness for action, and at the same time images and emotions. They are inherited with the brain structure—indeed, they are its psychic aspect” (Collected Works Vol. 10 53). He also states: “The archetype is a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas” (Collected Works Vol. 7 109). One of these ideas is the notion of same-sex matrimony.
This is what I see happening across the planet today and what we can also see in Moby-Dick: Marriage equality is fast becoming a fact of human nature and the human heart, and it is alive again today as a symbol for sacred action. The supreme and vital meaning of the image of same-sex marriage is becoming a living fact in the legal, political, and economic debates of the whole world. Yet, the contemporary struggle for marriage equality often overlooks the significance of the spiritual dimension of the symbol’s strivings toward incarnation in sacred history. Why is same-sex marriage emerging today in the world of current affairs, while creeds and orthodox religions are being called upon to become more sacred?
Like Melville, Emily Dickinson is a mediator between the worlds of the living and the dead, during a time in our nation when grief and death was everywhere knocking at democracy’s door. “Death,” she writes, “is a dialogue between / The Spirit and the Dust. / ‘Dissolve’ says Death—The Spirit ‘Sir / I have another Trust’—“ (Complete Poems 196). This dialogue of the human Spirit with Death may be the most important theme in all of Dickinson’s art. The colloquy that emerges does indeed have a goal it can “trust”―spiritual marriage, which transcends the inevitable evolution of flesh into dust. What the causal origins of the poet’s pre-occupations with death as a path to Immortality were has long been a puzzle to Dickinson scholars. “Each Life” she writes “Converges to some Centre— / Expressed—or still— / Exists in every Human Nature / A Goal—“ (Complete Poems 34). Convergence towards a center is an idea we find in many parts of the world and in practically all world religions The Center is usually seen as a symbol of the goal of self-fulfillment. In sacred geometric diagrams from alchemy, this is known as the quintessence of the work, and the center is placed in the middle of a four-cornered square, where diagonals may cross. Dickinson is thus expressing a perennial truth when she claims that death can be overcome through accepting a vocation to become centered in the course of transforming development. In her Center is the sacred marriage to herself that seems to have replaced, or internalized, her youthful passion for other women, in gender like herself, whom she found within as her own “society,” as well as her passion for a number of different men. Thus, a same-sex union, as well as a heterosexual union, became the path to an ever-burning bi-erotic spiritual marriage, an outcome that left Dickinson not just a reclusive New England spinster, but a true “Bride of Awe” (Complete Poems 62)― “Awe” being the appropriate feeling toward such an unexpected, but fully satisfying, inner outcome.
Circumference thou Bride of Awe
Possessing thou shalt be
Possessed of every hallowed Knight
That dares covet thee (Complete Poems 62)
This poem was written in 1884 and was inspired by Shelley’s poem Epipsychidion, which contains the line “calm circumference of bliss” that meant so much to Dickinson. But by then Dickinson had married her poetry to her own country of Spiritual Democracy, America, which was no less important to her than it was to her contemporary, Walt Whitman. As “Bride” to a new nation, she sought to convey pride in a country that concentrated the best intellectual unity of her century in a language that grasped the great phenomena of the universe through a free exercise of thought that saw power and love as the most forceful influences over the destinies of nations. Like Whitman and also Melville, who more openly chafed at the limitations of his homeland, Dickinson took into account the “higher point of view” of the idea of the Cosmos that was made possible by the world-traveler, geologist, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in his book, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe.
Does God have a homosexual side that has remained repressed and hidden for the last three thousand years, since the rise of the patriarchies wiped same-sex marriage out from sacred history? The homosexual side of the Divine Masculine and Feminine needed to be made conscious by someone, therefore, with enough knowledge of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran and the Vedas, to expose the idea of bisexual love once again as a sacred, archetypal reality, and this is what Melville and Whitman and Dickinson all did for us. This sacred calling, as I show in Spiritual Democracy, was given first, in America, to Melville. By smoking the Native American tomahawk pipe together, before they go to bed and are wedded as husband and wife, Ishmael and Queequeg give us a metaphor for peace-making between matriarchal and patriarchal cultures in two men who are also spiritual democrats. Through his careful reading of the Bible, Koran and Vedas, Melville created a trans-national myth about bi-erotic marriage that he had carried back with him to mainland America from his travels to Polynesia. Writing was for him a sacred vocation. Melville was not writing only out of the private and self-absorbed world of his mythological truths alone, moreover, but out of an authentic, social and political consciousness of an Absolute that he was crafting for America and the world, one that would, in time, become manifest in a radical movement of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender liberation worldwide.
The hidden face of God, the side that was not revealed in Biblical, Koranic, or Vedic scriptures, is the same-sex other half of God’s essential heterosexual Being. This, I believe, was not only a personal truth for Melville, but a revelation on a global scale, a radical truth-telling that we have not caught up with fully yet. Melville was called, like Whitman and Dickinson, to profess, in a spiritually purified way, his profound and psychological self-awareness expressed through sacred parables. It is Melville’s aim to make peace with the patriarchies by bringing the body of bisexual love back down into sacred history, where it belongs.
It is an incontrovertible fact that these three poet-shamans―Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson―engage in democratic fantasies about the nature and meaning of God in the American psyche and the world. The portraits they each paint for us are bi-erotic. Their democratic truth-telling represents a biological and spiritual fact, a psychic reality in all people. They are all spiritual activists and democrats. They express a universally valid and mythological truth that was 150 years in advance of their times, a national myth with collective and cosmic significance for all humans. In this sense, they are all nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi (that greatest of all sacred activists in the last century), who wrote: “I call myself a nationalist, but my nationalism is as broad as the universe. It includes in its sweep all the nations of the earth!”
The method that all of these sacred activists use, moreover, is the same in each case: what Whitman calls “vocalism.” Vocalism is the most basic technique for practicing what Andrew Harvey calls Sacred Activism and no one does it better, in my view, than America’s early visionary poets. They each show us how it might be done, and how we, too, might learn to embody the sacred in our everyday lives—by sanctifying our entire existence with words that are holy. Marriage equality is a biological and spiritual fact, a divine reality that can no longer be denied, by God, man, or religion. For it exists in the time of the sacred in shamanic societies worldwide. Everywhere in the history of patriarchal religions, the sacred was and still is mostly dominated by a belief that the soul and spirit are somehow above the body and its various appetites. Yet, for Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson, and for sacred activism generally, religious tolerance is a path that does not discriminate. Spiritual democrats believe in human equality. Equality is an archetype that is inborn in all of us. Equalization occurs, moreover, on all three planes: body, soul, and spirit. We cannot, therefore, leave the body out of our religious mythologies or psychologies. The body is sacred, the body is holy; the body is the temple of human love. This type of equality that we find in America’s poet-shamans is pre-existent in shamanistic societies globally. “For the entire pre-modern world,” says religious historian Mircea Eliade, “sexuality, too, partakes in the sacred” (Rites & Symbols of Initiation 3). How could it be otherwise?
Based on his travels to the Marquesas Islands (Nukeheva and Tahiti and Hawaii), Melville knew, therefore, that sexuality is sacred in all of its aspects. He sought to make this truth self-evident in his poetry and prose writing. His aim was to take us all on a night sea journey into the heart of Nature and the Sea, and to teach us all to be sacred activists―to speak Truth from our own inexorable selves.
In Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that our vocations are what sacred activism is all about. Religious revelation has always been, and always will be, the way human beings make possible the transition from ordinary states of existence to transcendent states of Being and Joy. And we need myths to help us with this. None of the monotheisms have yet succeeded in uniting the world, and I doubt any one religion ever will. Sacred Activism might have a chance. Why is same-sex marriage so important in this endeavor?
In 1851, when Moby-Dick was first published, the meaning of the symbol of Ishmael and Queequeg’s same-sex marriage―“the cozy loving pair”― was “still essentially unknown” and formed a “living symbol” (Collected Works Vol. 6 817); yet, it is still alive today and pregnant with meaning, just as it was before. This is because the archetype touches a common “archaic root” (Collected Works Vol. 6 824) in the World Soul that can activate each of us. We need to be activated to take Sacred Activism into the streets. All it takes is a radical revolution to spark a worldwide movement of social transformation, a holy force of wisdom and love in spiritual action. This is precisely the transnational significance of Melville’s myth for our times. Melville’s vocation is a calling for all Americans (“Call me Ishmael” = Call us each Ishmael) to rise up against the tide of oppression about same-sex marriage and environmental destruction that the book is meant to heal. Melville takes us into sacred space by making the whole world―the world’s seas, animals, and air―sacred. The whole Cosmos is sanctified and made holy by the sacred power of his pen.
After a century of psychoanalysis, we are now in a better position to re-vision the human psyche from a non-homophobic vista of understanding anticipated by America’s greatest poet-shamans 150 years ago. I have found their breakthroughs to be revolutionary and compassionate. In postulating an equalizing myth for the American psyche and the world, as the basis for religious democracy, Melville, in particular, got outside America, matter, and time. He reached a transcendent eternal realm of archetypal ideas in the mind of God and put homoeros in the realm of God and the Goddess (Godhead) again! As a primary symbol in our national identity, the same-sex marriage symbol tends to unite disparate dissociations in the human psyche through its medicine power. Moby-Dick is a medicine, therefore, for the complexes of nations and religions that ail us.
About the author
Steven Herrmann, a poet and Jungian psychotherapist, is the author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of the Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward. He lives in Oakland, CA.
Herrmann’s book is part of our Sacred Activism series.Tags: Sacred Activism Shamanism Steven Herrmann Philosophy