Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Whitman and Lawrence: Towards a Democracy of Touch Stephen Alexander

I'm sure I wasn't alone in finding the articles on Whitman in PNR 176 extremely interesting and informative and thought that I might take this opportunity to offer some additional notes on democracy, rightly identified by David C. Ward as the major concern of Whitman's poetic project.

In particular, I wish to examine D.H. Lawrence's radical development of the inherent queerness within Whitman's political thinking. This is now almost universally acknowledged by critics, but it is still frequently glossed over with a mixture of embarrassment and distaste by commentators who range from the inadvertently heterosexist to the openly homophobic. Sean Wilentz, for example, tells us that Eros is to function as the 'glue' within Whitman's democracy to come, but fails to specify the rather particular nature of this adhesive love.

And so whilst it's always important to situate a writer's work historically and culturally and to examine its wider reception, it is never enough. The crucial aspect of criticism is surely to identify and examine those unique elements of an author's work, even if they trouble us as readers (especially if they trouble us as readers).

What Michael Schmidt refers to as the 'explosive other-ness' of Whitman's writing is revealed when it becomes clear that his vision of democracy is not merely another slice of apple-pie humanism, but is also an affirmation of his belief in the great dynamic of 'manly love'. It was his politicised homo-eroticism which prompted many to brand his work as obscene and which sent shock-waves through the 'Uranian' community of the late nineteenth century. Lawrence, to his credit, is one of the few critics to reject the humanism and directly develop the obscenity in relation to his own politics of desire.

In 1919, Lawrence produced an important essay entitled 'Democracy', which grew out of his writings on Whitman for the book that would eventually be published in 1923 as Studies in Classic American Literature. Each of the four parts of the above essay uses Whitman as its starting point, which suggests that, for Lawrence, democracy was inconceivable without reference to the 'good gray poet' and it illustrates how Lawrence, like Whitman, understands the political as a field of theory and action in which the writer plays an important role. What is perhaps most interesting about this essay is, as Michael Herbert points out, the fact that it recalls some of Lawrence's earlier revolutionary demands for the abolition of the private ownership of land, industry and commerce. Lawrence writes, for example: 'If we are to keep our backs unbroken, we must deposit all property on the ground, and learn to walk without it. We must stand aside. And when many men stand aside, they stand in a new world ... This is the Democracy, the new order.'1 In this manner, Lawrence also anticipates his later political thinking developed in the Lady Chatterley writings; particularly his Whitmanesque notion of a 'democracy of touch' founded upon what he calls 'phallic consciousness' or, simply, 'tenderness'. I'll say more about this idea shortly, but, prior to this, I'd like to make a few further comments on the 'Democracy' essay.

What interests me about this work, other than Lawrence's desire to address the property question, is the fact that it explicitly rejects the two laws or principles for the establishment of democracy put forward by Whitman: namely, the Law of the Average and the Principle of Identity.

It is obvious that the first of these laws involves a process of crude reductionism in which the flesh and blood individual is conveniently replaced by a mathematical unit. Lawrence points out how our fetishisation of the Average Person has resulted in what was once a strictly theological concept (the equality of all souls before God) becoming a political ideal (the equality of all citizens before the State) upon which rests 'all the vague dissertation'2 concerning human rights and the social perfectibility of Man.

Whilst conceding that the Average Person does represent what all men and women may need 'physically, functionally, materially and socially', Lawrence is adamant that there is no genuine equality 'save by the arbitrary determination of some ridiculous human Ideal'.3 Further, whilst he is happy to see the basic needs of all people living together within society met (that is to say, the social provision of food, clothing, housing etc. according to common necessity as determined by the Law of the Average), he insists that everything outside or beyond material need and common necessity depends on the individual man or woman and that he or she should be left alone accordingly to freely develop their own uniqueness and determine their own status within what Nietzsche would call an 'order of rank' (Rangordnung).

For Lawrence, then, the modern state exists only to guarantee the basic material means of existence: nothing more. It has no vital meaning or purpose beyond this and our political leaders should be regarded as no more than functionaries. The last vestiges of 'ideal drapery' should be stripped away from the State and from politics. For Lawrence, a kind of tolerant contempt for those in government is a sign of social evolution and political maturity. Not only is it absurd to think of politics in ideal terms but, Lawrence argues, it is ultimately genocidal too; for only ideal concerns wage war 'and slaughter indiscriminately with a feeling of exalted righteousness'.4

As for Whitman's second principle of One Identity, Lawrence pooh-poohs this as yet another form of fatal idealism. Or, rather more precisely, as a return of the old dogma of monotheism in which all things are held to be an emanation of the Supreme Being, or God, who, it turns out upon closer inspection, is simply the Average Person writ large: 'But instead of a magnified average-function-unit, we have here the magnified unit of Consciousness or Spirit.'5

It's all very nice theoretically to inflate our own consciousness to infinity and cosmic oneness à la Whitman, but, once more, it ultimately ends tragically as we realise with increasing nihilism following the death of God, that we remain mortal, limited, and alone. Lawrence feels it is vital that we learn how to be content within our own skins: 'Better, far better', he writes, 'to be oneself, than to be any bursting Infinite, or swollen One-Identity'.6 Lawrence's democracy of touch, as we will see, is based precisely on this teaching of limited singularity - not on any notion of merging into oneness with others, which is 'a horrible nullification of true identity and being'7 and results in the political movements that have brutally characterised modernity (from imperialism to republicanism; from communism to fascism).8

Lawrence, then, for all his admiration, is often overtly hostile to Whitman and the latter's notion of democracy. Not only does he flatly refuse to worship the Average, but so too does he reject Oneness and Whitman's love of Personality: 'Never', declares Lawrence rather magnificently, 'trust for one moment any individual who has unmistakable personality. He is sure to be a life-traitor.'9 But what Lawrence does seem to find irresistible in Whitman is the latter's flooding of the political with desire and I'd like now to turn to an earlier version of the Whitman study, also written in 1919, in which Lawrence explicitly addresses and develops the poet's perverse eroticisation of democratic political theory via his concept of manly love.

If this essay tells us something vital about Whitman's work, so too does it tell us something important about Lawrence's own intensely ambivalent position on homo-sexual desire and the significance he gives to anal sex in particular as a method for attempting what Nietzsche would term a 'revaluation of all values' (Umwerthung aller Werthe).

As in later versions of the study, Lawrence argues that Whitman, having failed in his attempt to dissolve himself into universal, democratic oneness via the love of Woman, is obliged to turn elsewhere for the establishment of a vital circuit of polarisation; namely, to the manly love of comrades. The male need for initiation into some kind of homo-erotic mystery religion was, according to Lawrence, something well known to ancient esoteric priesthoods 'thousands of years before Plato', but Whitman was the first modern to reaffirm this truth 'from sheer empiric necessity', having discovered that 'the last stages of merging were impossible between things so categorically different as man and woman'.10

Whitman, as we know, was struck and seduced by the intense comradeship of the front-line soldiers during the American Civil War and it was around this time he began to infuse the idea of democracy with desire. In a prose text entitled Democratic Vistas, Whitman discriminates between amative (i.e. what we would now term heterosexual) and adhesive (i.e. homosexual) love, privileging the latter as crucial to the formation of a new, wider type of democratic community in contrast to the prevailing liberal-bourgeois model. In a rather touching and radical passage worth quoting at length he writes:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivalling the amative love hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen ... manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship ... without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.11

Whitman then goes on to add that Leaves of Grass was specifically composed in order to arouse 'endless streams of living, pulsating, terrible, irrepressible yearning' and indicates how the 'Calamus' poems in particular are full of political significance, invoking as they do the democracy to come founded upon 'the beautiful and sane affection of man for man'.12 Lawrence, who describes this manly love of comrades as Whitman's most 'wistful' theme, never quite accepts this; rather, he maintains that it is heterosexual coition which results in the 'perfect life-current' upon which all human being rests. Because of this, his democracy of touch is ultimately established between men and women and is not an exclusively all-male arrangement.

However, what Lawrence does concede is that vaginal intercourse is certainly not the be-all and end-all. In a revealing passage, written in the language of his libidinal materialism most fully developed in his 1922 text Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence writes:

Deeper than the hypogastric and sacral centres lie the cocygeal. The vagina, as we know, is the orifice of the hypogastric plexus ... It is the advent to the great source of being ... But beyond all this is the cocygeal centre. There the deepest and most unspeakable reality breathes and sparkles darkly ... Here, at the root of the spine, is the last clue to the lower body and being ... Here is the dark node which relates us to the centre of the earth, the plumb-centre of substantial being. Here is our last and extremist reality.13

Thus it is that anality assumes such great importance within Lawrence's philosophy and throughout his fiction: The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley 's Lover, for example, all contain important scenes and descriptions of anal penetration. Though these are all heterosexual in character, the opportunity to discuss Whitman's manly love allows Lawrence to confess that homosexual coition is equally valid as a form of dynamic interchange. In a passage that softens (though doesn't necessarily contradict) his usually hostile view of homosexuality as a narcissistic repudiation of sexual difference, Lawrence writes:

The last perfect balance is between two men, in whom the deepest sensual centres, and also the upper centres, vibrate in one circuit, and know their electric establishment and re-adjustment as does the circuit between man and woman. There is the same immediate connection, the same life-balance, the same perfection in fulfilled consciousness and being.14

That said, Lawrence is quick to remind his readers that Whitman's manly love, like all other forms of love, has its limits and does not truly result in the merger of two-into-one. Whitman, says Lawrence, was profoundly mistaken in believing that a relationship of established polarity could - and should- end in fusion, with each partner sacrificing their 'inviolable singleness of being'.15 Whitman's idealism transforms a life process into something deadly and obscene. And this is why Lawrence ultimately rejects Whitman's democracy. It's not simply because he doesn't accept the latter's 'Law of the Average' and his 'Principle of Identity', but because he senses something terminal in Whitman's love of comrades (as he does in Greek pederasty); something that Whitman is himself well aware of and confesses in lines such as these:

O I think it is not for life I am chanting here my chant of lovers, I think it must be for death.16

Of course, Lawrence himself often seems morbidly attracted by corruption and the thought of death, and, in a later version of the Whitman essay, he implies that we may need our decadent spirits if we are to form not only a new democracy, but also a direct circuit between life and death, without which 'we shall have no beauty, no dignity, no essential freedom'.17 This is an argument uncannily suggestive of Heidegger's meditation on Dasein and Dasein 's authenticity in terms of being as a being-towards-death (Sein-zum-Tode) and, indeed, so too does it remind one of Nietzsche's great insight that whilst strength preserves, it is only sickness that advances human culture and evolution.

Thus manly love, even if it flowers on the brink of the abyss, remains vital: for this alone takes man beyond woman to the very extreme of his being where life is lived at its greatest pitch of sheer intensity 'and where it is at its nearest to death'.18 Whitman understood this and succeeded in showing us the path into the future, beyond all thought of procreation and sexual utility. But, for Lawrence, Whitman does not go far enough:

Whitman shows us the last step of the great old way. But he does not show us the first step of the new. His great Democracy is to be established upon the love of comrades. Well and good. But in what direction shall this love flow? Into more en masse?

As a matter of fact, the love between comrades is always and inevitably a love between a leader and a follower. The one comrade is leader, the other the passionate believer and answerer. And neither can live without the other. This is always true ... of every great friendship since time began.19

This is Lawrence embarking upon his prolonged meditation on power and 'natural aristocracy' (contra love and ideal democracy), which is to result in three novels and numerous short stories, essays, and poems that insist on submission and obedience as some kind of ontological and existential imperative. This is Lawrence in what we might think of as his kinky period, which develops out of his homo-erotica but moves beyond it.

It's the Lawrence who insists on bonds not of affection or sympathy, nor even of comradeship, but of cruelty and discipline and that other 'mystical relationship between men, which democracy and equality try to deny and obliterate'20 and who toys with the thought of a new slavery, although, significantly, it is often conceived as something consensual and contracted between parties as in the world of bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism (BDSM).

It would be wrong to suggest that there aren't problems, concerns and dangers with such vehemently anti-democratic thinking and, following his failed fictional experiment with revolutionary religious-fascism in The Plumed Serpent (1926), Lawrence recognises these. Indeed, he is soon confessing in a letter to a friend that, 'The hero is obsolete and the leader of men a back number. After all, at the back of the hero is the militant ideal: and the militant ideal, or the ideal militant, seems to me a cold egg. We're sort of sick of all forms of militarism and militantism ...'21 In this same important letter (written in the spring of 1928), Lawrence affirms his new creed of 'tenderness' and expresses his hope that relations in the future between men (and between men and women) will be sensitive and not 'the one up one down, lead on, I follow, ich dien sort of business'.22 Thus it is that Lawrence returns to a notion of democracy in his final writings and, in a sense, picks up once more where he left off in his work on Whitman, insisting in the Chatterley novels that all talk of democracy as a dead dog and of the need for a new slavery bored Constance; 'she felt it was mere stupidity'23 to speak this way and a form of impotent political posturing.

Clearly Lawrence wants us, as readers, to sympathise with Connie and share in her 'boredom' with such anti-democratic rhetoric, questioning what kind of will it is that motivates those who subscribe to such ideas. This is not to say that Lawrence entirely abandons his own former political positions, but he does at least open them up for interrogation and in this way seek to safeguard his work from fascist appropriation. His model of democracy founded upon a notion of touch may still be a long way removed from the enlightened idealism of 1789, but it is nonetheless a model of democracy. Let's now examine it in a little more detail.

Commentators have often misunderstood the significance of Lawrence's move away from cruelty to tenderness. Graham Hough, for example, in his important study of Lawrence, suggests that 'tenderness is to be a private and sexual thing'24 without political overtones. This, however, could not be more mistaken. For Lawrence, tenderness (essentially his word for desire), is productive of social reality and sexual relations are thus far from private and apolitical. As Bataille writes: 'The world of lovers ... [is] ... no less true than that of politics.'25 In fact, it is one and the same world and the lover is someone who fights the political fight for life itself; an idiot with wings who dares to demand the impossible.

We shouldn't ask the false question 'What is desire?', but, rather, 'How does desire work; what affects does it have?' Here we can answer simply that desire, or tenderness, brings into touch, including those things 'which are otherwise incommensurable'26 and that it functions primarily as a 'strange current of interchange that flows between men and men, and men and women, and men and things'.27 This isn't primarily a sexual flow; rather, it is a world-forming drive that urges us towards some passionate collective purpose.

This is why Lawrence's politics of desire is not simply another form of philosophy in the bedroom and he does not see 'sexual liberation' as the great solution to all our social and political problems. On the contrary, Lawrence argues that if sex were ever accepted as the primary or exclusive motive in life, then the world would soon drift into 'despair and anarchy'.28 And so whilst sex is obviously assigned great ontological importance within Lawrence's thinking, as within Whitman's poetry, it's his notions of creative purpose and tenderness which blossom from out of sexual fulfilment that Lawrence really wishes to emphasise and promote in the Chatterley writings.

Thus it is that Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper and lover (and a figure in many ways suggestive of one of Whitman's workingmen), is prone to a passionate post-coital longing for male comrades with whom to resist the forces of industrial capitalism and thus preserve that 'natural physical tenderness, which is best, even between men; in a proper manly way'.29 Mellors famously describes the kind of society he would like to see in the letter addressed to Connie with which Lawrence closes his final novel. In this letter he imagines a world in which men and women are 'educated to live instead of earn and spend' and in which they can 'dance and hop and skip and swagger' in nakedness and handsome-ness; singing songs and carving their own furniture.30

This is not merely another wistful vision of an ideal society, nor is it seriously anticipated as some kind of future historical development; it is a model, rather, of an immanent democracy, present in the physical and emotional bonds that already exist between people and which, according to Lawrence, is fucked into existence just as the flower is fucked into being between earth and sky. Thus for Lawrence at last, as for Whitman, democracy is born from a new economy of bodies and their pleasures. From, that is to say, 'the touch of the feet on the earth, the touch of the fingers on a tree, on a creature, the touch of hands and breasts, the touch of the whole body to body, and the interpenetration of passionate love'.31

Lawrence remains careful, however, to avoid the trap that Whitman fell into; i.e. a 'ghoulish insistency' that society involves merging individuals into a vast homogeneous unity. As Michael Schmidt rightly notes, Whitman's 'arrogation of universality'32 always arouses Lawrence's hostility, alert as he is to the inherent dangers in such idealism.33 Lawrence was always a poet of difference, not the melting pot, who wanted to see people released into 'starry identity, each one distinct and incommutable'.34 He puts this idea nicely in a poem entitled 'Future States', with which I would like to close this essay:

Once men touch one another, then the modern industrial form of
            machine civilization will melt away
and universalism and cosmopolitanism will cease;
the great movement of centralising into oneness will stop
and there will be a vivid recoil into separateness;
many vivid small states, like a kaleidoscope, all colours
and all the differences given expression.35


  1. D.H. Lawrence, 'Democracy', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 83.

  2. Ibid., p. 63.

  3. Ibid.,p. 65.

  4. Ibid., p. 67.

  5. Ibid., p. 70.

  6. Ibid., p. 71.

  7. Ibid., p. 73.

  8. It should be noted that Lawrence's starry singleness of being is radically different too from the ideal individualism of bourgeois culture; i.e. that personal self we have been given and which all too readily surrenders into compliance and conformity with the prejudices of liberal humanism.

  9. D.H. Lawrence, 'Democracy', op. cit. p. 75.

  10. D.H. Lawrence, 'Whitman' (intermediate version, 1919), in Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 364-5.

  11. Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, quoted by Rictor Norton in his on-line essay entitled 'Walt Whitman, Prophet of Gay Liberation' (1999), found at:

  12. Ibid.

  13. D.H. Lawrence, 'Whitman' (intermediate version, 1919), Studies in Classic American Literature, op. cit. pp. 365-6.

  14. Ibid., p. 366.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Walt Whitman, 'Scented Herbage of My Breast' in The Complete Poems, ed. Francis Murphy (Penguin, 1996), p. 147.

  17. D.H. Lawrence, 'Whitman' (1921-2 version), Appendix V, Studies in Classic American Literature, op. cit. p. 414.

  18. Ibid., p. 412.

  19. Ibid., p. 415.

  20. D.H. Lawrence; Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele (Penguin, 1997), p. 209.

  21. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. VI, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M. Lacy (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 321.

  22. Ibid. It should be noted here that whilst Lawrence calls for 'tenderness' between men, and men and women, he does not allow for lesbianism, nor, outside of 'The Fox', seem to conceive of female friendship. For Lawrence, women gain their fulfilment only in relation to the phallus and thus have no essential need of one another's company and affection. In a telling remark in the 1919 version of his 'Whitman' study, he exclaims at one point 'there is no Sappho' (Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 368). It is precisely this sort of Victorianism which has earned Lawrence the enmity of numerous feminist and gay critics and readers. It might also be suggested that one of the reasons that Whitman has had a relatively minor influence on female poets, a fact noted by Michael Schmidt, is precisely due to his own (at best) indifference to real women and their lives, so overriding is his concern with the love between men.

  23. D.H. Lawrence, John Thomas and Lady Jane (Penguin, 1986), p. 62.

  24. Graham Hough, The Dark Sun: A Study of D.H. Lawrence (Duckworth, 1956), p. 149.

  25. Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil (Marion Boyars, 1985), p. 229.

  26. D.H. Lawrence, 'Love Was Once a Little Boy', Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, op. cit. p. 339.

  27. D.H. Lawrence, 'Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast"', Studies in Classic American Literature, op. cit. p. 124.

  28. D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious (Penguin, 1983), p. 110.

  29. D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley 's Lover, ed. Michael Squires (Penguin, 1994), p. 277.

  30. Ibid., pp. 299-300.

  31. D.H. Lawrence; John Thomas and Lady Jane, op. cit. p. 114.

  32. Michael Schmidt, 'Whitman in Europe', PN Review 176 (July-August 2007), p. 26.

  33. Surprisingly, Deleuze appears to play down the inherent dangers of Whitman's idealism, despite his deep familiarity with and great admiration for Lawrence's reading of the latter. Thus whilst he concedes that models of democracy can easily collapse into deception and totalitarianism, Deleuze argues that Whitman's 'revolutionary American dream' acquires the political and national character of a noble 'Unionism'. Only later will his vision of the Open Road and manly love be betrayed by others. See 'Whitman' in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, (Verso, 1998), pp. 56-60. I am grateful to Mr Simon Thomas for reminding me of this text.

  34. D.H. Lawrence, 'Democracy', op. cit. p. 73.

  35. D.H. Lawrence, 'Future States' in The Complete Poems (Wordsworth Editions, 1994), p. 505.

This article is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image