| By Jack Nichols
The house that Witter Bynner occupied in New Mexico—now called The Inn of the Turquoise Bear-- has character. It seems, almost, to understand how spaciousness and color nourish an occupant's creative energies.
Bynner, in my sights, produced the greatest English translation of The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu.
Discovering the great translator's old stomping grounds provides me with this welcome opportunity to celebrate his genius and to encourage pilgrimages to what now must surely be the ultimate gay bed and breakfast site.
There's 'something' about New Mexico. One can realize under its clear skies how we have but to live a while and, sooner or later, departed spirits—like Lao Tzu's and Witter Bynner's-- return to mind. Rather than being exact replicas from the past, their perspectives appear similar in ways that ocean waves appear similar.
Existence is beyond the power of words
Terms may be used
But none of them absolute.
Lao Tzu, who lived some 2,500 years ago, is credited for having written his wise little book, the Tao Te Ching (translation: The Way of Life). The sage arrived in this world, according to some who probably wanted to emphasize his significance, upon a shooting star. According to others, equally eager to make their points, his wisdom happily provided Lao Tzu with over 160 years of earth-life.
The little that's left to us of his actual history is possibly pure myth. When he'd become quite old, during a period when the province of Ch'u had begun its decline, he reportedly sat atop a water buffalo and rode off toward the horizon. A canny city gatekeeper insisted he leave his wisdom behind on parchment before he was allowed to cross the border, disappearing forever in the desert.
Hence, The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, perhaps the wisest and most beautiful book to have emerged from all antiquity. I've perused many translations of its 81 stanzas, but soon discovered that one English version stands spectacularly above the rest, one that boasts an unrivaled poetic sensibility.
This translation is Witter Bynner's. In 1970 when I placed a copy in the hands of the very literary-minded Angelo d'Arcangelo whom Lige Clarke and I thereafter were forced to fire from GAY, he forgave us, nevertheless, in print. d'Arcangelo, who was the author of The Homosexual Handbook (1968) said in Lovebook: Inside the Sexual Revolution (1971):
"Jack Nichols gave me a copy of Witter Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu's The Way of Life. Typical of quietist, now anti-activist Jack. And I can't get or stay angry with him, or with Lige, because whenever I pick up the book I give myself a little party. And who can be mad at a party?"
Such was the effect of Bynner's translation. Angelo d'Arcangelo, like many others, however, had mistakenly read Lao Tzu as one who counsels a retreat from action. Witter Bynner wisely dispensed with this common error, pointing out that Lao Tzu's choice…
"was not, as has been widely assumed, vacant inaction or passive contemplation. It was creative quietism. Though he realized the fact that action can be emptier than inaction, he was no more than Walt Whitman a believer in abstention from deed. He knew that a man can be a doer without being an actor and by no means banned being of use when he said that' the way to do is to be.' "
Who was Lao Tzu then? And what kinds of effects has he had on personal lives and political strategies?
Walt Whitman, to whom Bynner compared Lao Tzu, had begun his Leaves of Grass with a stanza celebrating moments of restful inaction:
I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.
Bynner pointed out that twenty-five centuries before Whitman, Lao Tzu had known "the value of loafing and inviting one's soul, and our American poet, "whether or not consciously," Bynner insists, was "in many ways one of the Chinese poet's more eminent Western disciples…"
Consequently, in the final chapter of Men's Liberation, my own major work, I recommend both Walt Whitman and Lao Tzu as the producers of humanity's foremost literary treasures, seers to be used in the world's shapings of more satisfying lives and cultures.
"We are what we think," said the Buddha, "having become what we've thought." In the latest episode of Star Wars, nearly identical dialogue emerges when a Jedi tells young Anakin Skywalker that "Focus determines Reality."
One particular line in The Way of Life arrested my attention in 1969 when I considered the self-confidence I'd needed earlier to become a gay activist:
How do I know this integrity? Because it could all begin in me.
By 1969 I'd started to become—as a man—aware of the existence of what I called " an androgynous psyche" a consciousness that encouraged me to overcome the macho mentality dangerously taught young boys, one that had earlier weighted me down.
Bynner's translation of the Way of Life asks:
Can you, mating with heaven,
Serve as the female part?
Lao Tzu knew, and Bynner's translation communicated precisely, how to circumvent inculcated machismo:
A man of sure fitness, without making a point of his fitness,
A man of unsure fitness, assuming an appearance of fitness,
The man of sure fitness never makes an act of it
Thus do I, hoping to encourage an appreciation of Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu, recommend a visit to Santa Fe's Inn of the Turquoise Bear.
Constructed from a core of rooms dating to the 1880s, Bynner's home is a classic example of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival architectural style and is considered one of Santa Fe's most significant buildings.
It was here that the happily gay Bynner entertained celebrity guests from around the world, including D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Robert Oppenheimer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Robert Frost, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Aldous Huxley, Thornton Wilder, Lynn Riggs, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden.
Bynner's parties were infamous.
According to Ansel Adams, a frequent guest, "the entire Santa Fe intelligentsia, a melange of strange life-styles, would attend Bynner's bashes."
Bynner, known as "Hal" to his friends, was not only gay but rather openly so. He was "accused" by Mabel Dodge Lujan of having "single-handedly brought homosexuality to New Mexico."
He lived together with his partner, Robert Hunt, in this house for more than thirty years.
It was the discovery of this pre-Stonewall gay history that motivated Bolton and Frost to persevere despite setbacks in the acquisition of the estate. Their goal was to preserve and extend this remarkable gay legacy and to make it available for future generations of gay men and lesbians to enjoy.
The City's recognition of the efforts of Frost and Bolton is testimony to Santa Fe's atmosphere of appreciation for its diverse cultures and its large gay and lesbian community.
Excited by the renewal of the spirit of this special place, some of Bynner's friends have donated photos, letters, art and other memorabilia to be placed back in the home where they can be enjoyed by visitors to the Inn.
Bolton and Frost have sought out people who knew Bynner in an attempt to learn as much as possible about the history of the home and its role in Santa Fe gay life.
Bolton, an anthropologist, has done extensive research on gay male sexuality and teaches courses on human sexuality and gay rights. Frost (no relation to the poet), a native of Alabama and an ex-navy Lt. Commander, has managed hotels for 20 years and was involved in the restoration of a major hotel in New Orleans.
Inn of the Turquoise Bear
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