February 20, 2018

Sperms and conditions may apply: Watching Hannity with Walt Whitman

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Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of Barack Obama

If there’s one thing the internet has made possible, it’s stupid people telling stupid things to other stupid people, so that they can in turn tell those things to still more stupid people. Sometimes, these stupid things make their way up a stupid pyramid, taunting the very sky in a never-ending play of vertiginously stupid stupidity. Last week, a magnificent case in point, starring Sean Hannity, who is the secret sauce in the Big Mac of rigorously composed American stupid.

So. Last Monday the New York-based painter Kehinde Wiley at last revealed his much-anticipated official portrait of Barack Obama, which shows Barry-O sitting confidently before a wall of chrysanthemums, jasmine, and lilies. It’s a pretty good likeness, and Obama seized the opportunity to take a few handsome jabs at his own appearance — the big ears, the gray hair, et cetera. From our current predicament, in which a depraved Republican government has reduced us to the state of the souls who live in Ursula’s garden, it was almost miraculous to remember we’d not long ago had a president capable of laughing at himself, in sentences. This, by rights, should have been the limit of the day’s controversy.

But if your first instinct was to scan the painting for secret sperm, it appears—insanely—that you were not alone. The day after the portrait was revealed, Hannity’s website published a response in which staffers clutched their pearls at the realization that Wiley had “included ‘secret sperm cells’ within the painting.”

Sing it now, children:

Secret.

Sperm.

Cells.

As evidence, they published this blown-up image of a vein in Obama’s forehead:

(Let us hope Hannity staffers never get a good look at the Washington Monument.)

So, there you go. Secret art sperms are totally totally turning America communist by infiltrating our once-noble tradition of distinguished leadership foreheads.

At the Daily BeastMatt Wilstein has done a great job covering the whole schmaffair, from its conception in the loving union of 4chan and gullibility to its ecstatic completion in Hannity swiftly axing the post because it “does not reflect my voice and message.”

Of all the funny stupid things that have ever happened, this is surely the stupidest and the funniest. Presumably Obama—who can be criticized for many non-sperm-related things, and who has a good sense of humor—was laughing all the way to the national portrait gallery. Wiley, too. And also, just maybe, wherever he is right now, American poet Walt “My Jock Contains Multitudes” Whitman — the great sperm-concealer of American literature.

Whitman was many things — bare-knuckle boxing enthusiast, huckleberry to a certain well-known medicine woman, ardent admirer of phrenologyMelville House author avant la lettre, and, hooray for this, serial concealer of secret sperm cells. In his seminal 1984 essay on the subject, Walt Whitman: The Spermatic Imagination, critic Harold Aspiz writes that Whitman perceived “his very poems… as seed or semen.”

Aspiz goes on to offer a tour of sticky moments throughout Whitman’s catalogue. “In ‘So Long!’”, he writes, “vocal and genital images combine as the throat of the dying person issues its last electric screams, which, like his semen, fructify the earth.” Further examples abound — “the short lyric ‘To Him that was Crucified’ pairs the Whitman persona and Christ as twin seminal begetters of a new spiritual progeny, both of them moving among mankind, saturating the world with their seed.” In Section 24 of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I speak the password primeval,” and says that “Through me many long dumb voices, / Voices… of the threads that connect the stars — and of wombs, and of the fatherstuff” will be “clarified and transfigured.” Aspiz goes on to write:

The up-spurts into the interstellar spheres of his mystic semen, possibly reflecting his self-induced orgasm or the workings of his vivid imagination, are hyperbolical expressions of the persona’s generative force, his powers of utterance, and his quenchless spirit. In keeping with the spermatic trope, the sexual climax is transformed into vocalism: the phallic utterance of the persona’s semen becomes the seminal utterance of the poet’s words.

In 2010, writing in the Huntington Library QuarterlyEd Folsom expands on the thought, finding that, in addition to basing his creative philosophy on ideas about sperm, Whitman also shot his book through with hidden images of sperm. The cover of the third edition, he writes, presents the title as “a swimming group of worm-letters.” When we turn to the title page,

we are startled to see that the letters now sport tails like spermatozoa, and the period at the end of the title is… a clear representation of a sperm cell, swimming into place from beneath the final “S” to take its place at the conclusion of the title…. It is what Whitman does with the word “GRASS,” though, that is most striking, for here he employs what we might call a spermatoid typeface. Where the letters on the cover were the spiraling creatures themselves, here the sperm have swum onto the letters, as if fertilizing the ova-types, attaching themselves in some originating moment of union, two sperm cells forming the ends of the “G,” two forming the post of the “R,” two forming the descending post of the “A,” and two forming each end of the wriggling “S’s.” On closer examination, we can see that one sperm has fully penetrated the descender of the “R.”

Folsom also quotes an 1867 letter from Whitman’s friend John Trowbridge to William Douglas O’Connor, in which he explains he’s having trouble finding a publisher for a new edition, and that “the chief objection raised by everyone I talked with was on account of the too seminal element everywhere jetting out from the ‘Leaves.’” While much has changed—among the scientifically-minded, it is no longer “deemed folly to waste what Pythagoras… called ‘the flower of the blood’”—much, it seems, has remained the same.

As of press time, Sean Hannity had been in the shower with the door locked for a long, long time.

 

 

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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