Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Reviews: Sex, Music & Poetry

An ongoing series of short reviews of interesting LGBT books from my personal library.

David Guy, The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the paradox of sex. (1999) This book covers a lot of psychological terrain, and asks many questions important to us all, LGBT or otherwise. About half of the people profiled, interviewed, or examined are queer or bi or openly affirming; including Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Kramer, and Alan Watts. Basically this book revolves around a key question: is sexuality the enemy that must be subdued before one can have a powerful spiritual practice? or is it rather a vehicle for enlightenment, as well as a powerful creative force in its own right? There are no simple or definitive answers to these questions—but there are long-enduring traditions of spirituality that accept sexuality and harnesses its power, ranging from Tantric rites through affirming literature. The author responds to the question by focusing on his own life and spiritual practice, and by examining the lives and work of people who were pioneers about affirming that sex and spirit are not-two, but one. Sex workers are discussed as well as poets and meditators; this is no cerebral, academic book. There is understanding that the reconciliation of sex and spirit will always be paradoxical, as is recognized in the examples of several Zen masters who were promiscuous rather than celibate; and in the Zen koan that gives the book its title: "Why is it that the most clear-eyed monk cannot sever the red thread of passion between his legs?" It's part of the paradox, not surprisingly, that there is a great deal of mysticism around sex: the sexual experience itself can be a mystical experience, with all that that entails. Very highly recommended.

John Gill, Queer Noises: Male and female homosexuality in Twentieth Century music. (1995) One of the first of its kind, and still one of the better ones, this book looks at a wide range of composers, performers, and musicians, all queer, all famous. The book is easy and fun reading without being fluffy; Gill can be very opinionated, and ask hard questions. Some of the names covered here in the book's 18 chapters: Benjamin Britten, John Cage, Boy George, Pet Shop Boys, Gary Burton, Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn. Some of the chapters are studies of the impact of queer people on specific musical genres—but Gill also examines the gay cultural response to performers who were inspired by gay subcultures, or inspired them in return, by emphasizing sexual ambiguity or metrosexuality: David Bowie, Madonna, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Janis Joplin, etc. There is also extensive reporting on pop music's connection to civil rights organizing, LGBT activism, and queer political responses to social problems; the book actually grew out of political activism, which accounts for some of its tone at times. Nonetheless, there's lots of meat in this book, even as the writing style is breezy and quick. It's the sort of book LGBTs into all kinds of music will greatly enjoy, and probably learn something they'd never known about before.

David Rees, Words and Music. (1993) David Rees was an influential critic, gay author, and reviewer in Britain until his death just as this book was published. What we have here are almost two dozen longer review-essays, most never published prior to this book, covering both music and literature. Sometimes Rees is a bit harsh in his opinions, but in many ways I think his critical assessments are right on target. (He explains just why Edmund White is overrated as a gay fiction writer; an assessment I've always shared, but could never articulate why exactly, before Rees explained the problem.) What I like about Rees is his ability to separate the artist's reputation from the quality of each individual work: where a writer succeeds, Rees can show why, and where a composer may have in fact done something completely original, you find out why; simultaneously, weak spots, weak books, bad compositions, are not ignored but called what they are. Fans of certain writers and composers will no doubt feel some ire if one of their idols is chastened in one these 20 essays; but you'll also be introduced to assessments of the artists in question from a gay perspective, which was completely new when Rees was writing, and is still a fresh viewpoint.

Gary Schmidgall, Walt Whitman: A gay life. (1997) The first and still singular study to look at Whitman's life and poetry from an explicitly gay perspective, explaining the powerful connections between Whitman's life as a lover of men and his legacy as a landmark, paradigm-changing poet. There are four major sections in the book, roughly chronologically showing Whitman's growth as an artist and person. But there is also a personal essay from the author that tells of the impact of Whitman on the author's life; and a section devoted to exploring the similarities and differences between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, who Schmidgall has also written about. This is a very long book, citing its material rigorously if not tediously. It draws extensively from Whitman's correspondence, private journals, and poetry; there's no doubt material in here you've never heard of before. Schmidgall's argument is compelling, and well-supported by the documents: that Whitman was a very sexual man, ardently pursuing his love affairs which in turn fueled his creative energy: ecstasy pursued and achieved in worlds both personal and literary. I won't say that this is the easiest book you'll ever read about Whitman, but once you get into it, it's a real page-turner, very engrossing. Highly recommended.

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