by Rob Couteau
all times, perhaps, the central point in any
Reading Whitman always prompts the question: How could he have been an American? For he emerges as her most anomalous personification. Yet, with the exception of Tom Paine, he alone embodies all that is American in the ideal sense of the word. Without these two figures, everything proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights remains an abstraction, a mere potentiality.
I invoke Paine at the inception of an essay on Whitman not because of any direct influence of Paine on the poet but because of the link in spirit they share. That Whitman was more than superficially aware of Paine’s significance is revealed in his speech, “In Memory of Thomas Paine,” delivered in Philadelphia 140 years after Paine’s birthday: “I dare not say how much of what our Union is owning and enjoying today ... is owing to Thomas Paine.” The confessionalist Frank Harris attended the event in the role of a reporter. In My Life and Loves, he writes: “Nothing could be more depressing than the aspect of the hall that night: ill-lit and half heated, with perhaps thirty people scattered about in a space that would have accommodated a thousand. Such was the reception America afforded to one of its greatest spirits.” Like Paine, Whitman called American society to task. He demanded it awake and assume a posture that could truly be hailed as heroic.
While Paine was instrumental in the formation of the Republic, Whitman came of age after the last of the “Founding Fathers” had passed away. What remained of an idyllic, pastoral America was now rapidly fading into the shadow of a dreary machine age. (How fittingly “modern” that a revolution of machines–the Industrial Revolution–had usurped the infinitely more human Revolution that Paine had been instrumental in catalyzing!) Paine was the first to coin the term “The United States of America,” was one of the first to write against slavery, and had a central role in formulating the ideas behind the Declaration. (“That he inspired the Declaration of Independence and is the godfather of the free American nation is either unknown or disregarded,” writes Paine’s sympathetic biographer, W. E. Woodward.) That he was an ordinary “commoner” rather than an aristocrat or a man of wealth had much to do with why the document doesn’t bear his signature, as it had much to do with why he was ostracized by upper-class “democrats” throughout his life. Nevertheless, in his Age of Reason and Rights of Man, he continued to explore his vision of the elementary “rights of man,” which he first articulated in his influential Common Sense publications.
In a strikingly similar fashion, Whitman took it upon himself to redefine and amplify what he felt to be at the core of the American soul. To do so, he grabs the torch directly from the hands of Paine. He stretches towards him unencumbered–without an obstacle–as the cultural void within which these two are left to wander is of staggering immensity.
Indeed, the genesis of a Whitman or a Paine is nearly inexplicable: enshrouded in mystery. With Paine we can at least point to a European birth and upbringing. But in the case of Whitman, there remains not a single clue–neither in his biography nor in the history of his country–that serves to anticipate the birth of Leaves of Grass or the man who engendered it. (One biographer considers it reminiscent of the biographical gap in the New Testament chronicle of Christ.) Yet the search for such “causes” is always futile. In Whitman’s own words, “To elaborate is to no avail, learned and unlearned feel that it is so.” If anything, such gaps reflect something symbolic. They point to all that recedes before such an analytical beacon. In the words of his devout disciple, Dr. Bucke, we must content ourselves with an intuitive term–enlightenment–and leave it at that.
“I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms,” writes Whitman. He envisions democracy as the mundane counterpart of its metaphysical equivalent: the spiritually equalizing factor of the soul that, with its manifold potential, renders each a divine equal. “For after the rest is said,” he writes, “it remains to bring forward and modify everything else with the idea of that Something a man is (last precious consolation of the drudging poor), standing apart from all else, divine in his own right, and a woman in hers, sole and untouchable by any canons of authority.” Of the same notion, he chants, in poetic form:
Opposed to this special notion of democracy, Whitman posited individuality. He defines this as an American ideal that opposes the psychology of the aggregate: “The two are contradictory, but our task is to reconcile them.” And he imagines a means of unifying such seeming opposites: “I say the mission of government, henceforth, in civilized lands, is ... to train communities through all their grades, beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.”
Reflecting his idea of democracy and individuality as opposites out of which a third element might emerge, he himself exemplifies such a synthesis. Thus, a century before Max Imboden envisioned “the State [as] a reflection of psychic reality,” and “Democracy [as] ... the State form of citizens when all or the majority among them have reached a sufficient degree of individuation, so that they are clearly aware of their mutual relationship, and become able to create an authentic community,” we have Whitman: an amalgam born of such seemingly antagonistic elements.
It’s in this context that I view Whitman as an atypical American yet our most American American: atypical because so highly individuated; ideally American because this individuation, which cast Whitman in stark contrast to the society of his time, was the sine qua non of the democratic consciousness as defined by Whitman and, years later, by Imboden. Therefore, from Whitman’s “I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms,” we may conclude that, for him, the ideal American consciousness is synonymous with democratic consciousness, which is synonymous with individuated consciousness.
Thus in Whitman’s incarnation an essential aspect of the American ideal is realized. Contemplating this, we are jolted by unfamiliar, nearly incomprehensible imagery. We observe him lingering with a hulking yet tranquil poise; with a piercing, sage-like gaze; with an aura detached yet erotic. In him is embodied a vast array of opposites. Most glaring is the polarity that energizes the Leaves from its core: the incarnation of the godhead in man. It finds expression in a Whitman photo that Dr. Bucke refers to as “the Christ-likeness.” To be human and divine! It’s not a typical American aspiration, nor is it an integral aspect of the so-called American Dream:
Whitman points to what lies in veiled, cryptic form at the root of all Americanisms (or any ism, for that matter): the divine urge towards individuation; the kernel that lies at the source of the thought “Become what thou art,” as proclaimed by the Greek poet Pindar.
Yet, when the divine instinct remains unrecognized, it is forced to resurface in cruder, collective, less conscious guises. Then the spiritual urge is turned upside down, the State becomes God, and the soul is lured by fanaticism, greed, lust, and power. Whether in its stultified, destructive manifestation or in its humanistic creative aspect, however, we discover–hidden beneath and beyond everything–the divine passion play of the spirit: draped in the language of symbol and revealing the patterns of the eternal.
It is at this precipice of consciousness that Whitman arrives. He gazes down at the unraveling carpet of the nineteenth century. His vision recedes to the primal eons and then refocuses at the threshold of the future. He’s become so American that he passes beyond the meridian of the American ideal and begins traveling in retrograde. In his molting, he disregards not only everything American but anything even vaguely cultural. From this point onward, he uses the American idiom simply as a means of remaining intelligible. Sometimes he uses it symbolically; sometimes metaphorically. He uses it interchangeably, to mean far more or far less than his countrymen will ever suppose. All the while, his hand remains gripped to the mystic-poetic root. His being sprouts from it, like a massive appendage through which emerge the most arcane, esoteric revelations.
Out of this silent molting is dropped the Leaves. Reading it, many are struck by what might be termed a sanctified immorality. Whitman was a dignified sinner. Yet, to read his biography is to witness an extermination of the sin-concept by a fireball of self-confidence. Actually, it’s Self confidence: an experience of a transpersonal Self that propels him to his destiny. In the ordinary man “sin” begets guilt, which, if properly integrated, will elevate the seeker to a new level of awareness. In Whitman, however, the sin concept is annihilated–he’s several centuries beyond it. Guilt, too, is antiquated. In their stead is a gnostic intuition born of this Self awareness.
We have only to contemplate a song such as “A Woman Waits for Me”–that erotic testament of man’s relationship to cosmos–to observe exactly where he has arrived. What other nineteenth-century American poet would compose a song to his Puritan brethren wherein the sexual encounter is revealed to be the highest act of patriotism? And a sacred patriotism, through which the soul of a people is distilled and revealed!
This, one of Whitman’s most provocative works, has been criticized by some as betraying an emotional detachment that is, at times, unnerving. Yet emotion is unmistakably present, but it’s directed beyond the singular human figure. Instead, it’s interwoven with divine elements. Whitman intimately embraced the fecundating force incarnated in the human being, which, simultaneously, remains beyond the merely human.
Perhaps, Whitman is best defined as a self-proclaimed poet of health. In his hands, vices are transformed into virtues; boundaries between good and evil are blurred; and social restrictions and regulations are redefined by the individuals they are meant to serve:
For Whitman, nothing outdoes the sanctity of the body. In his finest “prayer” to it, I Sing the Body Electric, he proclaims:
He writes of “The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand / The naked meat of the body,” and he asks, “And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?” Of loafing, which assumes a colossal importance in his life, he writes, “Of all human beings, none equals your genuine, inbred, unvarying loafer. What was Adam, I should like to know, but a loafer?”
Like Adam, Whitman is too close to the source to bother hustling and bustling. What matter if, unlike Adam, he lived in an America bursting at the seams in the midst of a frenetic Industrial Revolution? No matter. He refuses to budge from the womb of Mother Nature. She nourishes him with such vitality that he sees no reason to abandon her. Instead, he digs himself in deeper. He converts his world to a womb-cosmos simply by imagining it as such.
From this unique vantage point, he reveals images and aspects of the transformation process that are foreign even to his own understanding. “There is that in me–I do not know what it is–but I know / it is in me.” “Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath, I perceive I have not really understood anything, not a / single object, and that no man ever can.” It’s like inquiring of the womb whether it comprehends its own creation. Eventually, he becomes womblike himself: a sort of microcosmic womb within a womb. It’s as if, for an entire lifetime, he’s forced to simulate the conditions of the womb so as to make possible the proper incubation of the Leaves. The external world confronts him with its energetic, phallic aspect, and he becomes intrigued by its penetrations and provocations. Yet he continues to assume a passive, receptive attitude: one staggering in its stillness. “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.”
I see lurking throughout Whitman’s life a desire to return to the Great Cosmic Mother and, therefore, to the mystery of death itself. It is regressive but also progressive–one senses a yearning to uncover the final veil. She is the source of the death musings that appear throughout his poetry. It is she who lures him to the promenades he was so fond of taking through Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. The unavoidable prospect of returning to her haunches both fascinates and horrifies him. In “Song of Myself,” he taunts: “And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.” Elsewhere he writes: “Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over, / Death, death, death, death, death.”
How apropos that, at age sixty-five–before he owned the simple, unpretentious house he was to die in–he built, with funds donated for the purpose of constructing a summer home, a mausoleum: one massive and archaic in appearance, and seemingly indestructible. (It was fashioned after a drawing left by his predecessor, William Blake.) In his informative Whitman biography, Justin Kaplan writes, “Some of the blocks weighed eight or ten tons; the roof was a foot and a half thick.” This was the “life” he thought worthy of preparing for: at rest in a monumental abode, wherein he and his family members would partake of the voluptuous stillness of eternity. How fitting and true are the words of the naturalist John Burroughs, who said of Whitman: “He seems always to have been a sort of visitor in life.”
His songs are so ripe with prophetic utterance that we are astonished to consider they were penned in any age other than our own. And many appear to be encoded in a language from some future epoch. While we often speak of artists “standing the test of time,” with Whitman, we confront a man who is one with the river of time. His songs radiate from him, like eddies resplendent with a luster of eternality.
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Updated: 31 May 2015 | All text Copyright © 2015 | Rob Couteau | key words: poems poetry Leaves of Grass essay biography of Walt Whitman