Native Moments

Walt Whitman

Native Moments

NATIVE moments! when you come upon me—Ah you are here now!
Give me now libidinous joys only!
Give me the drench of my passions! Give me life coarse and rank!
To-day, I go consort with nature’s darlings—to-night too;
I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men;
I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers;
The echoes ring with our indecent calls;
I take for my love some prostitute—I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate—he shall be one condemn’d by others for deeds done;
I will play a part no longer—Why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunn’d persons! I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest.

Walt Whitman

Native Moments is not an easy poem to like, but I like it. For a start it’s brutally honest. The feelings Whitman experiences are “native” to all people, everyone experiences them and they are completely natural. Whitman refuses to deny these feelings any longer for the sake of ‘polite’ society, “I will play a part no longer”. But above all the poem is a paean to individualism. In his essay “A Backward Glance over Traveled Roads” Whitman says about “Leaves of Grass” (the collection from which Native Moments is taken) that the point of all his poetry has been to promote American individuality: “I have allow’d the stress of my poem from beginning to end to bear upon American individuality and assist it – not only because this is a great lesson in Nature, amid all her generalizing laws, but as a counterpoise to the leveling tendencies of Democracy – and for other reasons.” Whitman goes on to say that he chants: “the great pride of man in himself and permit it to be more or less a motif of nearly all my verse.”

Despite the obvious temptation I don’t believe Whitman was advocating a life of unadulterated sensuous pleasure and/or attachments to prostitutes and other “low persons”. What he was saying is that these people should not be shunned, that they have as much right to be treated decently as anyone else. Whitman was exactly right, not just in the sense that Jesus also associated with shunned persons, because he believed that only God had a right to judge them, but also because Whitman recognized the value that “nature’s darlings” had in the rich fabric of civil society.

Prostitutes engage in the voluntary trade of sex for money, just as nurses engage in the voluntary trade of their comfort to the sick and injured for money. I am fully aware that many prostitutes are drug addicts, beaten by pimps and held in brothels against their will. But as Walter Block points out in his classic book “Defending the Undefendable”, these sordid aspects of their life have little to do with the intrinsic career of prostitution: “there are nurses and doctors who are kidnapped and forced to perform for fugitives from justice; there are carpenters who are drug addicts; there are bookkeepers who are beaten by muggers. We would hardly conclude that any of these professions or vocations are suspect, demeaning, or exploitative.” What Whitman seemed to grasp throughout ‘Leaves of Grass’ was that all voluntary human relationships including love, friendship or business relationships, are ultimately based on trades. We can see this more clearly in, for example, the stereotypical marriage relationship where the man is the provider in exchange for affection, sex and housekeeping services.

Whitman’s fierce defense of those shunned by traditional society has been vindicated by Thaddeus Russell’s provocative book “A Renegade History of the United States”, in which he argues that we owe much of our individual personal liberties to the “drunkards, laggards, prostitutes, pirates, slaves, and other renegades of the past”. Russell claims that prostitutes were in large part the model for today’s independent urban women, as they were often the richest people in their towns and cities, frequently owning their own businesses, not getting married until they were older, wearing flamboyant clothing and cosmetics (that is now accepted as normal), and pushing many other boundaries. This is definitely not the history that most people read in college, but I’m certain Whitman would have liked the work of Russell and Block: “O you shunn’d persons! I at least do not shun you, I come forthwith in your midst – I will be your  poet, I will be more to you than to any of the rest.”

(Please note that posts and comments will be somewhat sporadic during the summer as travel plans interfere with writing schedules.)

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

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27 Comments on “Native Moments”

  1. renxkyoko Says:

    Excellent post .Very thought – provoking.


  2. Lisa Chesser Says:

    Not just thoughtful or provoking, but truly challenging and entertaining.


  3. skywanderer Says:

    My rational response to your flaming, irrational, fallacious and trolling post – with special regard to below part:

    “Prostitutes engage in the voluntary trade of sex for money, just as nurses engage in the voluntary trade of their comfort to the sick and injured for money. I am fully aware that many prostitutes are drug addicts, beaten by pimps and held in brothels against their will. But as Walter Block points out in his classic book “Defending the Undefendable”, these sordid aspects of their life have little to do with the intrinsic career of prostitution”

    “Voluntary trade?” These prostitutes are shipped to the brothels as children to begin with, and then, as you yourself admitted in next sentence, they are kept in there against their will. They therefore enjoy the “full freedom” to voluntarily choose from the following options:
    – to kill themselves,
    – to be tortured, beaten up and killed by a pimp,
    – to go on pursuing their horrible, dehumanised lives as slave-objects to serve the subhuman pleasures of the sickest perverted segment of the male society.

    The only rational part of the post is the suggestion that society should NOT shun and condemn the prostitutes, for the obvious reasons for them being one of the most abused victims of this completely disordered, inhuman, narcissistic and dysfunctional society.

    Where society makes a gross mistake is that is fails to condemn those perverted, subhuman, in fact criminal individuals who come up with the demand for prostitution to begin with and when it fails to lock up into a mental institution those psychopaths who create a society where the demand and supply of prostitution is to be viewed as part of our “freedoms” and as one of the “normal” human professions.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Skywanderer. As Matt predicted in another comment on this post, you have chosen to concentrate on those who are involuntarily engaged in this occupation and not on those who are voluntarily engaged. Or are you assuming that prostitution is always and at all times an involuntary occupation? If so I beg to differ.

      I have been called many things in my life but never a psychopath. However, I admit to being a consistent voluntarist so if that makes me a psychopath by your definition so be it. However since the usual definition of a psychopath is “A person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior”, I will leave it to others to make up their own minds based on everything I have written on this blog.


  4. matt Says:

    An interesting way to frame the argument, Malcolm. While it’s certainly true there is an element of prostitution that in which there isn’t freedom, the concept of being able to trade freely the skills one has without judgment is an incontestable one.
    Well said, sir, as usual. I imagine you’ll get some far less encouraging comments to this post, but those people will no doubt be far more narrowly minded and focused on those who are involuntary engaged… With no thoughts whatsoever on those who are willingly pursuing the lifestyle in question.


  5. Michele Seminara Says:

    Hi Malcolm
    I enjoyed the poem because it is ‘brutally honest’, and I enjoyed your post also – perhaps for the same reason! I found your comments on “the stereotypical marriage relationship, where the man is the provider in exchange for affection, sex and housekeeping services” even more confronting than the comments on prostitution – perhaps because I am engaged in the former, and not the latter! In any case, you always tell it exactly as you see it, and I appreciate that. 😉


  6. Daniela Says:

    Bravo -:)! I love your posts, but this one is quite special! Using the Whitman’s wonderful poetry as a starting point, you managed to skilfully and eloquently put the point across; whatever are our circumstances, and whether shaped by choice or chance, we are all members of the same human family and those who shun others as thinking them ‘lesser humans’, shun part of themselves irretrievably.

    Kind Regards,


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, thank you for this. You summed up the post very succinctly. I apologize for the late reply but I have been doing some backpacking in Yosemite this week and trying to ignore an out-of-control forest fire threatening the lives of both wildlife and humans. At times like this it is so clear that we are all connected.


      • Daniela Says:

        You are most welcome Malcolm -:)! Your blog is wonderful in so many ways, (sometimes I wonder how can you even write so well on so many subjects -:)).

        Forest fires are devastating … stay safe -:)!


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I am writing this in the lounge of Curry Village, Yosemite. We have been camping at 9,500 feet all week in the Ten Lakes region of Yosemite. Yesterday we looked down upon the largest forest fire I had ever seen in my life. The sky was completely filled with dramatic pillars of smoke tinged with red, which we assumed were reflections of the flames. Not having any means of contact with the outside world we had some anxious moments thinking that we might not be able to hike down today or that once down the fire would cut us off. Fortunately we met someone with a SAT phone and discovered that the fire was too far away to be an immediate threat. However, as I write this the fire is burning the more remote areas of Yosemite. My heart goes out to the affected people and wildlife.

  7. Jon Sharp Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    Thought provoking – thanks. I think Whitman’s poem speaks of societal constraints imposed upon all of us that can prevent us from feeling really free, or of achieving our life’s ambition. While societal norms (legal or moral) help reign in destructive behaviour, they can also make ordinary people too concerned about what other people think. When our ideas and actions become dictated by how we believe we will be perceived by others, we create limits and boundaries to our potential and we lock out certain members of society for no good reason.
    On the subject of prostitution however, I wonder if we are blinded by conventional wisdom. I listened to a debate on the radio a while back in England. The motion was to legalise prostitution. The vote amongst the studio audience ahead of the debate overwhelmingly supported the motion. Opposing the motion were a panel of people with first hand experience of prostitution. They did a very good job of painting the reality of the oldest profession in England today and completely undermined the conventional wisdom of how legalising it would somehow make it safer, healthier and less exploitative. By the end of the debate, the vote had swung completely against the motion. The panel’s patient arguments and examples rather shook me out of my own complacency and made me understand that prostitution is never a career choice.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, thank you. Without hearing the debate myself it is difficult to comment, but if you are speaking literally I think you would have a hard time defending the proposition that prostitution is never a career choice. The list of famous courtesans in history is a long one – Nell Gwyn and Madame du Barry come to mind immediately.


  8. kateshrewsday Says:

    Wonderful poem and analysis, Malcolm. Walking amongst the rejected is something some of my greatest heroes have chosen as a path, and I loved these lines of Whitman’s.


  9. Brett Says:

    Excellent post. You have a very interesting blog. Thanks for the follow.


  10. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    No matter what different perspectives there can be on the same situation, agreements or disagreements, first and foremost I do have a deep love and respect for fierce honesty.

    And then I’ll jump to a perspective on the all voluntary human relationships including love, friendship or business relationships, are ultimately based on trades. From where I am looking from, I see this not to be entirely true. Yes, most of human actions are a trade and in particular in the ‘giving’ end, often there is a string attached and more often than not it is subconscious and hidden to the giver and in particular to the receiver. However, there are acts done that is completely and utterly free of motives and thereby free of trading. It is though in the core of the deepest core of life and thereby I do not know how to explain it, this is always where words just doesn’t seem capable, at least not for me. However, I do for sure sense when I encounter purity of intent, where there is no intention. Paradox. To use my words from my last post points somewhat towards what I wish to describe: everything that arises from being has a natural, organic and quite pure core to it that doesn’t have an agenda, no calculating mind and no motive. It is simply something that happens to arise with no attachment to the outcome. A friend asked me quite recently ‘what is love to you’: My reply was, and this counts for all relations to other people: to love someone in such a way that it makes oneself and the other person feel free… and in this context I will add, everything else is a trade, nothing wrong with trade, as long as it is in the open and not covered by big phrases as love, friendship, giving etc.then the use of the word love, is in my view a misinterpretation. As to the phrase: ‘unconditional love’ to me it is always a bit of a nuisance, because it is suggesting there is a conditional love. How can it ever be? Love simply is. Love is love is love. As Gertrude Stein wrote; a rose is a rose is a rose…

    Malcolm, have a great weekend 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, surely love can be conditional. Remember love is widely believed to have some connection with marriage and to some extent marriage is a contract which in many cultures either spouse often tries to void claiming that the other spouse is not living up to his or her responsibility whether that be sex or support. Love is also closely connected with sex for reasons explained by sociobiology (economics applied to genes instead of people). You may believe that you are loving “someone in such a way that it makes oneself and the other person feel free” but there may be a deeper, sociobiological explanation based on the evolutionary need of your genes to propagate themselves. Your behavior, specifically how much time and resources you are willing to contribute or give up for your partner, has already been largely determined by the evolutionary struggle of your genes.

      As to altruism and unconditional love there is no reason why people’s objectives must be selfish. It is clear that one of the things many people value is the welfare of others. David Friedman (the son of Milton Friedman) has an interesting chapter on The Economics of Love and Marriage in his book on price theory. He writes:
      “If I love my wife, her happiness is one of the main things determining mine; we therefore have a common interest in making her happy. If she also loves me, we also have a common interest in making me happy. Unless our love is so precisely calculated that our objectives are identical, there is still room for conflict, in either direction; if we love each other too much, my attempts to benefit her at my expense will clash with her attempts to benefit me at her expense.” Again we see that even the unconditional love of a couple is not completely free of trade-offs.


      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Malcolm, I so, as always, enjoy our comment exchange. You bring great knowledge and perspectives that calls me to dig deep within to see where I find resonance and where I don’t and then challenge me on how to find words for it. Thank you for this.

        I think you are absolutely right in everything you write in your respond and who knows what is the root, is it sociobiological or is it ‘a beyond’ which we can’t reach with research or understanding in the way we understand the biological, sociobiological, logical, practical world? I have read your comment over and over again, yet still something doesn’t ‘fit’. I can’t make it fall into place. The best i can come up with is a parallel in the example of truth. A lie can hold some truth to it but a truth can never have a grain of lie in it. The same, in my view, counts for love. Trade, needs and wants can have love in it but the love I’m pointing towards can never have either of those in it. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with trade or the responsibility and obligations people agree upon that comes with marriage to use your example, I’m only very interested in the distinction and how the word love is used and sometimes abused to get what someone wants.And after all these words I have now come up with, they still can only point towards it. Love in its pure essence, can’t be described or dissected only sensed…

        I am aware of the word love or romantic love is somewhat invented sometime back, was it in the middle-age? However, I still believe it to be something different I’m pointing towards. It is not a romantic idea between two people. It is something universal that has a sense of truth to it with no personal interests or stories linked to it, it’s something existing beyond personal…


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, I think your intuitions are usually correct or at least along the right lines. I was not completely happy with my answer either and think that you are probably correct that there is some aspect/type of love that is not captured by the idea of trade. However, like you I have difficulty describing this exactly with words. With respect to this argument I graciously concede victory to you 🙂

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Ah Malcolm, that is very noble of you 😉

  11. hookstrapped Says:

    Hello, I arrived here through a search on “Native Moments” and what an interesting post and series of comments I’ve found… The issue of prostitution is complex and full of nuance that is often missed in the typical absolutist declarations on the subject. I had the privilege of getting to know some sex workers in the course of doing a photo project

    and have become close friends with one of them. Such personal interaction with those that others shun, absent of condescension and with respect for them per Whitman, is a good way to get in touch with one’s humanity.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Sosúa is paradoxically a place where women exert much agency and control over their lives.”

      Hookstrapped, thank you for this breath of fresh air. People who can think for themselves rather than follow politically correct “absolutist declarations” on subjects such as this one, are few and far between. This is sad, because as you say, it’s a very good way “to get in touch with one’s humanity”. Thank you also for following. Please visit again.


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