In the first issue of his very own Ganymede, John Stahle began his introductory essay, “New York in 1968,” with these words:
I first arrived in New York, one fresh homo trainee, on Labor Day weekend 1968, at the freshman dorm of Fordham University in the Bronx. I dumped my stuff, jumped on the subway, went directly to the Village, walked around, then had my first meal.
The first day of school after Labor Day, I met John as his advisor at Fordham, to talk about his education. Much later, on December 29, 2009, John had dinner with my wife, Beth, and me in New York, the last time I saw him, though we corresponded about Ganymede after the dinner. This was a friendship of over forty one years and I have an uncanny feeling about reviewing a life.
In 1968 John was very skinny and not especially attractive, not in the way “gay boys,” as he liked to call them, wanted to look. Did that matter for him? Not for a second! Only people who enjoy being the passive object of a lecher/lover gaze would be held back by less than riveting looks and John was never passive in any situation I observed. For instance, he wanted to be a philosopher because philosophical ideas are the most powerful, applying to everything. But he did not want to suffer instruction through such mundane operations as courses. So we designed a completely self-determined curriculum of directed studies for him, where he did all the work. Then he thought that if such a self-designed curriculum was good for him, it should be good for everyone. So he launched a campaign to turn an experimental college at Fordham, Bensalem College, into a totally free curriculum. As a freshman and sophomore he was integrally involved in the faculty committees that invented and governed that college, never passive or deferential, although always polite, even courtly, bitchy only in private.
As a philosopher in the traditional sense, John was no great shakes because he wanted to improve the philosophers’ ideas before having to understand them. In this he did not shine half so well as his niece, Rachel, with whom I had the privilege to work some years later at Boston University. What at first had seemed to be philosophy to John was rather his penchant for criticism, for critical observation, and the construction of a verbal or visual image that transforms its object even as it addresses it. I think he would say that you cannot enjoy something without doing something with it, or even to it. Although over the years his criticisms mellowed somewhat, maybe, it never ceased to be creative.
The journal Ganymede advertises itself as “Gay men’s culture from New York,” as if it were a chronicle of what is going on. But you know it is as much an invention of gay men’s culture as a showcase. Ganymede is really about John enjoying New York as a cultured gay man, what he likes and presents as his delight for us to share. Until I saw Ganymede, I had always wondered about John’s choice of profession after college, graphic design. So far as I know he had not studied art or design in college, although he surely studied art and music history and all the cultural fashions of the time. John consumed the cultural scene in New York as if he were a starving gourmet. Theater, visual arts, dance, music, and especially opera were his food. In the early 1980s, when the plague made everyone focus on sudden mortality, John decided to will his massive collection of 33 rpm opera records to our daughter, Leonora, then a high school student. She wanted to write a Wagnerian-style cycle of operas about Baodecia, the British warrior-woman who took on the Romans and won some major battles. John thought that a feminist war-opera was just the thing for a young woman, and he was a good mentor. Don’t just listen to the music: hear in it what should come next.
To my knowledge, John never came out of the closet because he was never in one. No small room could contain him, probably not even as a small child. We never talked about his sexual identity when he was in college that I can remember because never was there a mystery about it, or about who knew him as a sexual person. He was never interested in or worried about being discovered as a gay person, only in inventing new and better ways. Shortly after college I tried to get him a job at a place where I worked but he was rejected by the boss who thought male homosexuality meant arrested development. John’s response was to shrug his shoulders and say that, you should follow where your organ points (those were not his exact words). He lived in a gay world with no patience for the Freudians.
John’s life had its share of difficulties. He was never rich, so far as I knew, although he could always afford his apartment on the Upper West Side and attended cultural events as they became ever more expensive. He was always single, so far as I knew, but never complained about it in my presence. I was grieved to the point of emotional vacuity to learn that he was discovered by his building superintendent several days after he died of a sudden heart attack: dying alone is so gruesomely Biblical. But perhaps that just bespeaks my own, our own, very common terrors. I hope he died quickly, flashing on the fact that he was in for something new.
Despite the manner of his death, John was one of the happiest, most fulfilled people I have ever known. At our dinner last December he was filled with energy and enthusiasm for all that had been going on in his life, not the least Ganymede. He was the opposite of a skinny kid and I have no doubt that his considerable girth contributed to his heart attack. But he was happy, satisfied with his life, and filled with the desire to share his new insights, creations, and enthusiasms. He could not have been a more attractive person.
As to religion, John was brought up a Roman Catholic and attended a Jesuit college. Recent New York Roman Catholicism has not been particularly supportive of gay culture, although it certainly has made its contribution to it with expert practitioners! What John saw in Roman Catholicism was not its hierarchy or its teachings but its extraordinary cultural fecundity. I suspect that from his standpoint the heart of Catholicism is the age-old tradition of ignoring the hierarchy, teachings, and institutions in order to go straight to the table of heavenly delights. To give a theological cast to his life, he made his life a continual kitchen ritual of preparing and sharing the best food heaven could supply, like a priest turning bread and wine into a divine body. On reflection, however, I think John would be a bit uncomfortable with my recurrence to his early Catholicism in this death-and-resurrection sermon. He had transformed that institutional religion almost entirely into art. I suggest that for him, the better image is the rapture of a beautiful man being carried off into heaven, on the wings of an eagle, who loves him, and gives him permanent employment as the master of feasts.
Goethe’s poem, “Ganymede,” so set by Schubert in perfect synaesthesia, is in the voice of the Beauty being taken up to Father Zeus:
How you glow around me
In the morning radiance,
You glow around me,
With the thousandfold joy of love,
My heart is enclosed
By the rapturous feel of your eternal warmth,
O, infinite beauty.
That I might clasp you
In my arms!
Ah, on your bosom
I lie in need,
And your flowers, your grass
Press against my heart,
You cool the burning
Thirst of my bosom,
Lovely morning breeze!
While the nightingale calls
To me tenderly from the misty vale,
I come, I come,
To where, ah! to where?
Upwards, upwards I am driven!
The clouds float
Downwards; the clouds
Bend down towards my yearning love.
To me, to me!
In your lap
Holding close and held,
Upwards to your bosom,
May we all be as complete, beautiful, and joined to love as John.