Walt Whitman’s Butterfly

Thinking about Jack Goldstein’s Butterflies (1975) today, and something jogged in my memory – does Goldstein’s film perhaps allude in some way to the image below, in which Walt Whitman poses with an artificial (or preserved) butterfly supposedly alighting on his raised finger?

The Whitman portrait fits neatly with the poet’s later image as a man at one with the nature, scale and people of America, and is itself something of an icon. The posed photograph was reportedly taken around the publication of one of the many editions of Leaves of Grass (1855 – 1891) and used as a frontispiece, though the exact details of its provenance seem relatively insignificant. 

What matters more, perhaps, is that Whitman was a clear precursor and inspiration to the West Coast scene from which Goldstein emerged and whose mythology a generation of later artists were often intent on dismantling. Whitman’s sense of belonging to America was largely inverted in Jack Goldstein, a man reputed to be uncomfortable with himself and others to degrees that almost exactly mirror Whitman’s exultant declaration that his first person ‘contains multitudes’

We might see Goldstein, then, as a kind of photographic negative of Whitman, shaped by an age in which the American West no longer embodied the idea of fresh territory, and the borders of the inexhaustibly vast land praised by Leaves of Grass had become increasingly constrained by an American Dream that had long been exposed as propaganda – an America where the optimistic visions embodied by Whitman’s poetry had closed down.

When Ronald Reagan used the Whitman-style language of ‘Morning In America’ during his 1981 election campaign the point might have seemed clearer still, and that election would prove one of the key political events during the working life of Jack Goldstein – a largely apolitical (or at least, politically indirect) artist, not inclined to emphasise any particular messages his work might contain.

Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl had already rewritten Whitman’s script in 1955, during the early years of the Cold War, and the Whitmanesque ideals of inclusion, belonging and oneness with nature (as symbolised by that butterfly) were – by Goldstein’s time – best regarded as a historical moment, a utopian project not only depleted and corrupted (as in Ginsberg’s 1955) but abandoned even as its rhetoric continued to be deployed by politicians to serve ends almost wholly at odds with Whitman’s original purpose. 

In this context (Butterflies was made relatively early in the long period of disillusion between Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal in 1974 and Reagan’s 1981 election – at a time when Reagan was still Governor of California) this film, like others among Goldstein’s mid-1970s output, can feel more than a touch sardonic, or regretful.

Once seen through the lens of this Whitman portrait (a reference that – it ought to be emphasised – may or may not have been intentional on Goldstein’s part) the film remains an artifice, a loop of deferred narrative and receding meaning, but might also be read as a small flickering memorial to the lost potential of the place in which Goldstein lived and worked.

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