Redrawing Whitman’s Circle
On June 7, 1877, three years after Emerson published Parnassus, his anthology of American poetry now noteworthy for its omission of Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter wrote in a letter toJohn Burroughs: “The truth is, as it appears to me now, that Emerson is a purely ‘literary’ man. I never understood that before, and I believe no ‘literary’ mind can accept Whitman.”
What did it mean to Carpenter to “accept Whitman?” In a letter to Clara Barrus, J.B. Wallace, a Whitmanite in the “College” group in Lancashire, described Anne Gilchrist as an ideal reader of Walt Whitman. “The reading of the complete edition of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ writes Wallace, “was to Mrs. Gilchrist an overwhelming revelation-- unprecedented and unlooked for. It opened up vistas within her own soul of unimagined glory and significance, and cast a powerful beam of light upon the whole of humanity and the universe,, which transfixed them before her eyes.... It appealed to every part of her nature-- body and soul-- with a voice at once individual and divine.”
Clearly, Mrs. Gilchrist’s virtual conversion experience far exceeded the “purely literary,” and represents, we shall see, the kind of acceptance Carpenter required. Critics, however, who generally confine their attention to the literary, have been repulsed by the quasi-religious response of the Whitmanites, or, as they’ve been called, “the Whitmaniacs.” Bliss Perry’s term, “the hot little prophets,” has stuckas a label for Carpenter, Gilchrist, O’Connnor, Wallace, Bucke, Kennedy, Trauble, and others in England and America. In this article, I propose, however, to reconsider and reevaluate Whitman’s loosely-connected circle of disciples by closely examining, rather than dismissing out of hand, their transliterary ideals and their visionary sense of Walt Whitman’s significance and importance.
One problem with such an analysis is that we have few cases that compare with the Whitmanites, (Thomas Carlyle’s disciples come to mind), and, consequently, virtually no literary or cultural context in which to examine the phenomenon of Whitman surrounded by his adoring “Whitmaniacs.” The spectacle strikes us, prima facie, as ego-indulgent, charlatanic, mindless-- somewhat like, in our own time, New Agers surrounding a channeler.
Not so in the East. In India for instance, the poet-saint is the center of a serious and distinguished literary tradition, and is, therefore, a culturally familiar and respected figure. One thinks of Valmiki (known as the adhi kavi, or “first poet,” author of the ancient Ramayana, the single most well-known work of literature in the world), Nanak, Kabir, Mirabai, and Tulsidas, to name some of the most famous poet-saints. Hundreds and even thousands of years after their deaths, their poems are still memorized by school children, recited at weddings and at religious celebrations, and performed for a few rupees by wandering street singers in Delhi, in Calcutta, and even in the most remote villages. Surely, these poets have satisfied Whitman’s prime measure of a poet, articulated in the last line of the 1855 Preface, and then repeated and elaborated throughout his life and work, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”
Can we see Whitman himself as a misplaced member of the poet-saint tradition? Interestingly, many Indian readers and critics have done so, almost from the first. To them, geographical boundaries have mattered less than the inherent characteristics of the poet-saint, which Walt Whitman exhibits.
Before moving on to the characteristics of the poet-saint, let me first clear up what is almost surely to be misunderstood: to link Whitman with the Indian tradition of the poet-saint is not to use the word “saint” in the Western sense at all. In Western usage, the word “saint” suggests religious devotion, rejection of the world and of earthly pleasures, struggle against and suppression of the dark side of one’s nature. No one who has read Whitman, especially the “Calamus” poems and “The Children of Adam,” could accept the notion of Walt Whitman as a “saint” in that sense.
Whitman himself disdained the word. Presenting his vision of a new religion in his 1876 Preface (to which subject, and text, I will return later), Whitman wrote: “(Religion) is, indeed, too important to the power and perplixity of the New World to be consign’d any longer to the churches, old or new, Catholic or Protestant--Saint this, or Saint that. It must be consign’d henceforth to democracy en masse, and to literature. It must enter into the poems of the nation. It must make the nation.”
In the Indian sense of the word, however, “saint” derives from the Sanskrit sant, a form of the verb “to be.” In this sense, then, “saint” has nothing to do with conventional religious virtues at all. Rather, the saint/sant is one whose very being (apart from behavior, say, or accomplishments) is extraordinary-- something, as I shall make clear later, Whitman’s devotees repeatedly claimed for him.
In Vedic philosophy, pure being (sat-chit-ananda ) underlies all mental activities and processes. Further, being is in a sense obscured by mental activity because our attention is directed toward the content of the active mind and, in the same instant, away from the fundamental state of being. Interestingly, Whitman claimed for himself the “gift” of experiencing pure being by stopping thought at will, and making his brain “negative.”
In an earlier article, I have explored this matter of “being” at some length, proposing that Whitman spontaneously experienced an extraordinary state of consciousness, known as samadhi in Vedic literature. He shares this experience with the Upanishadic seers of India in general, and, more specifically, with the poet-saints such as Valmiki, Kabir and Mirabai. Critics who are aware of this eastern tradition of the poet-saint usually view the phenomenon of the gathering circle of devotees as culturally determined. To simplify, it happens because it has always happened so in that particular culture.
An alternative view which encompasses the Whitman phenomenon is that devotees gather because of the natural interpersonal dynamics of consciousness. As Emerson says in “Self-Reliance,” “Inasmuch as the soul is present there will be power.... Who has more obedience” --to soul-- “than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits.” (italics mine) Interestingly, the image of disciples revolving like planets around the fixed, central brilliance of the seer (like the ring of dancers round Frost’s secret that “sits in the middle and knows”) is found throughout Vedic literature. Perhaps, then, disciples gather around a poet-saint not because of mere cultural convention, but rather because of the inherent mechanics of consciousness, Emerson’s “gravitation of spirits.”
The defining experience of the poet-saint is an overwhelming and transforming experience of expanded awareness, which in itself and in all its transformative expressions becomes a main topic of the poet-saint’s work. Examples from the poet-saints of India and from Walt Whitman are innumerable, but, to give a concrete example, consider this poem from Kabir, reminiscent of Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day:”
When my friend is
away from me, I am depressed;
nothing in the daylight delights me,
sleep at night gives no rest,
who can I tell about this?
The night is dark,
and long... hours go by...
because I am alone, I sit up suddenly,
fear goes through me....
Kabir says: Listen,
there is one thing in the world that satisfies,
and that is a meeting with the Guest.
The “meeting with the Guest” is Kabir’s way of describing his mystical experiences of transcendence, sometimes rendered, as in Whitman, in sexual terms. Another of Kabir’s poems, for instance, reads:
flail with words, when love has made the space inside me full of light?
I know the diamond is wrapped in this cloth, so why should I open it all the time and look?
When the pan was empty it flew up; now that it’s full, why bother weighing it?
has flown to the mountain lake!
Why bother with ditches and holes anymore?
The Holy One lives inside you--
why open you other eyes at all?
tell you the truth: Listen, brother!
The Guest, who makes my eyes so bright,
has made love with me.
Turning to Whitman now, the famous section 5 of “Song of Myself” is a good example of the transforming mystical experience, described erotically. It reads in part:
mind how we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom bone, and plunged your tongue to my
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Others, then, who have had similar experiences, but weaker, more fleeting, or cloudier, are compellingly drawn to the poet-saint, just as novices of all sorts, whether carpenters or musicians, are drawn to the “masters.”
In the introduction of her collaborative translation, with Shukdev Singh, of a central work of Kabir’s, Linda Hess tells a poignant personal story, one that Edward Carpenter would understand, about her awakening to the limitations of the literary. (“Gayabanandji” in what follows is a Kabir devotee in India.)
I was at one of the Kabir Panth camps talking politely with gurus and officials. Gayabanandji came into the small tent and sat down. I had asked for help on an obscure line in a poem, and two pandit-types were going at it-- the usual tug-of-war between ignorance and commentaries, punctuated by stabs at Sanskrit etymology and quotations from the Bhagavad Gita. After listening a few minutes he said, ‘Stop your controversies. Nothing will come of that.’ Then he explained his own understanding. He talked about the animal symbolism of the poem. There was a bullock who was cast as a patwari, a rural accountant who keeps records of land, revenues, harvests, and so on. A bull is a fool, said Gayabandandji, he is stupid. The patwari writes and writes about what other people have harvested, but gets nothing for himself.
At some point I realized he was talking about me. My hand stopped over the notebook. I looked up and saw him looking at me....
From the moment I got the message that I was a patwari, I was ashamed. Could I ask more questions? And take more notes? And carry on with my distracted life? I remembered that earlier someone had tossed off the comment that the motive for doing translations was to make a name for oneself.
I told Gayabanandji I wanted to ask him a personal question. Should I be trying to do this work? He laughed. ‘Oh the work is very good.’
‘The work is good, ‘I said, ‘but is the worker?’
He said, ‘Look, the work is good for you because it makes you sit with saints and sadhus. You may learn something from that....’
In “The Poet of the Cosmos,” a chapter on Whitman in Accepting the Universe, Burroughs echoes Gayabanandji regarding contact with Whitman’s spirit: “Let me say that whatever else ‘Leaves of Grass’ may be, it is not poetry as the world uses that term. It is an inspired utterance, but it does not fall under any of the usual classifications of poetry. Lovers of Whitman no more go to him for poetry than they go to the ocean for the pretty shells and pebbles on the beach. They go to him for contact with his spirit; to be braced and refreshed by his attitude toward life and the universe; for his robust faith, his world-wide sympathies, for the breadth of his outlook, and the wisdom of his utterances.”
Whitman’s disciples certainly regarded him with the reverence-- qualitatively different from literary admiration-- which is traditionally associated with the poet-saints of India, such as Kabir. Burroughs, Buck, Gilchrist, and even the semi-literate Peter Doyle found in Whitman an ideal of human development, of evolution of consciousness, so lofty as to inspire in them devotion and even self-sacrifice.
Consider Anne Gilchrist’s letter dated December 4, 1875, for example. Gilchrist urged Whitman, who was weakened from his stroke in 1873, not to give up, if only for the sake of “those that so tenderly, passionately love you-- who would give up their lives for you.”
Before he met Walt Whitman, Burroughs had been looking for a “master,” (his word), for the man who is as we ourselves are, but more so: more developed, more evolved. That man, or “master,” leads us forward to our fuller selves by his teachings, by his mentoring, and, most of all, by the example of his own life.
Four years before meeting Whitman, Burroughs wrote in his notebooks, “Hence, men become leaders only by greater power of expression; by affording a free passage to that which is obstructed in others....that man is our hero who is more ourselves than we are; who beats us at our own game; who surpasses us in our own direction.
After meeting Whitman, here is one of Burrough’s descriptions of him: “Notwithstanding the beauty and expressiveness of his eyes, I occasionally see something in them as he bends them upon me, that almost makes me draw back. I cannot explain it-- whether it is more, or less, than human. It is as if the Earth looked at me-- devout, yearning, relentless, immodest, unhuman. If the impersonal elements and forces were concentrated in an eye, that would be it.
Bucke’s description of Whitman similarly glimpses the “master,” the transcendental spirit of nature expressed in an individual form: “His ruddy face, his flowing, almost white, hair and beard, his spotless linen, his plain, fresh looking gray garments, exhaled an impalpable odor of purity. Almost the dominant initial feeling was: here is a man who is absolutely clean and sweet-- and with that came upon me an impression of the man’s simple majesty, such as might be produce by an immense handsome tree, or a large, magnificent animal.
The impression of extraordinary purity Whitman conveyed
to his devotees was noted also by Peter Doyle: “Woman in that sense never
came into his head. Walt was too clean. No trace of the dissipation
in him.” And, like the other devotees, Doyle too saw in Whitman an
ideal man, an example to emulate, “When I am in trouble-- in a crisis--
I ask myself ‘What would Walt have done under these circumstances?’ And
whatever I decide Walt would have done, that I do.”
In our critical consideration and appraisal of Whitman strictly as a nineteenth century poet, we altogether misunderstand the phenomenon of the disciples who gathered around him. We expect traditional literary interests in Walt Whitman from these devotees whose actual attraction to him went far beyond the literary, and who even openly scorned the “merely” literary. In his journal on October 1, 1892, for instance, Burroughs advises (much as Gayabanandji advised Linda Hess regarding the medieval Bengali poet-saint Kabir), “If we come to Whitman in a critical frame of mind merely, in a frame of mind begotten by books.... both critic and subject will fare poorly. Because in Walt Whitman the professional poet is not uppermost....”
Most modern critics have regarded Whitman’s prophetic voice (to which his devotees were keenly attuned) as a creative and aesthetic lapse. As Burroughs predicted, “...both critic and subject will fare poorly” (italics mine). In The Lunar Light of Walt Whitman , for instance, Wynn Thomas argues that Whitman’s work never droops so low as when it rises above “mere” poetry. From a poetic standpoint, Thomas is certainly right. But to the disciples, there was more going on than poetic virtuosity. One wonders, indeed, whether they would have been so compellingly drawn to Whitman if he remained always perfectly on key, if he were the unfailing craftsman. Whitman promised, after all, in the first section of “Song of Myself,” that he, the inspired bard, would permit the “original energy” of Nature to speak through him, “for good or bad.”
“For good or bad” has several possible meanings here. It could refer to Whitman’s commitment to trust Nature, which, the poet is aware, might turn out to be a good idea, or perhaps a bad one. The lines are not found in the 1855 edition, and appeared first in 1860, by which time Whitman had empirical evidence of the problematic nature of his endeavor.
“For good or bad” could refer to the content of the uncensored, unmediated poetry to come, which might (who knows?) turn out to be a poetry of evil as much as of good-- an idea that recurs in Whitman with similar implacability. Or the phrase might refer to the aesthetic quality of the poetry itself. Most likely, all these meanings apply in a rich ambiguity, and indicate Whitman’s awareness that, extensive revising notwithstanding, his work would surely suffer in aesthetic purity and in palatability by his “hazarding” a commitment to intoxicated, visionary language. But, so be it.
What is more, the very unevenness of his songs, the lapses, the occasional awkwardness, the casualness bordering on clumsiness, would communicate through a kind of body-language of the poetic line the distinct, eccentric personality who was singing these songs, (we recall the akimbo, hips-aslant, head-cocked portrait of the poet in the 1855 edition’s lithograph), and would communicate as well the singer’s half-cracked resolution to launch out with no pre-set destination, to find out by chanting, by letting go and swinging through pure silence on the vines of primordial sound. The disciples, relishing this “non-professional poetry,” were not fazed that critics found fault. As much as the poetry itself, they valued the man, the consciousness, embodied in the poetry. Here was a man they wanted to sit near. A master.
The opposing assessments of Whitman’s prophetic voice, then, constitute a kind of Mexican standoff in Whitman studies. The two perspectives, that of the detached critic versus that of the attached devotee, proceed from sets of values entirely different from each other, and may be ultimately non-compromisable. Carpenter’s epiphany regarding Emerson (cited at the beginning of this article) could be paraphrased “ I see it now-- he is one of them. I thought he was one of us.” Emerson’s deliberate snub of Whitman in Parnassus can, in the same way, be seen as a signal to the Boston clique of poets and critics that he, Emerson, stands squarely with the men of letters-- and not with the lunatic fringe.
It is not sensible to try to reconcile the differences between the two groups-- that is, between those who regard Whitman as a prophet, and those who, on aesthetic grounds, (and probably on more general philosophic grounds as well) regard Whitman’s prophetic voice as a poetic weakness. It is also a mistake, and still quite common, to dismiss the devotees with prejudicial condescension. Despite the disparaging names, however, the devotees were far from mindless. Rather, they consisted of an avant garde psychiatrist, an accomplished naturalist, and an assortment of writers, scholars, and critics in England and America.
Beyond their reverence for Walt Whitman, however, we do not find among the devotees defining common elements. That is, they do not all see Whitman as the herald of manly love, for instance. Nor do all of them see him as the founder of a new religion, or as a political radical, or as a feminist, or as a mystic, or as a potential ideal lover. Rather, various of these elements recur among the disciples in altering combinations.
To put it another way, in this “family” of devotees, there is nothing like the common element of the Hapsburg lip. Rather, some have the element of the distinctive walk, some the element of the lip, some the temperament. Common elements “overlap and crisscross” among members, as Wittgenstein said of “family resemblances” in Philosophical Investigations.
I will focus on two important visionary elements: The first is that of Walt Whitman as the founder of a new religion, a religion based not on dogmatic belief but rather on the evolution of human consciousness. Secondly, I will discuss the related vision of Whitman as the harbinger of an ideal relationship among males, known as manly love, or in the phrenological term he favored, “adhesiveness.”
Not only did Walt Whitman undergo “mystical experiences” of pure being, pure consciousness, but, further, he wanted to identify such experiences categorically. Like William James after him, Whitman recognized a rare but potentially universal transformative human experience. We could call this category of human experience “religious,” but Whitman shied from the word “religious” as misleading. “The people,” he wrote in his 1872 Preface, “especially the young men and women of America, must begin to learn that religion (like poetry,) is something far, far different from what they supposed.”
In his 1876 Preface, Whitman refers to this new religion as “a more splendid theology.” The defining character of this new religion would be its rootedness in direct, personal experience rather than in notional understandings and beliefs. In the theology of Taylor, Fox, Barclay, and in Quakerism in general, Whitman found the primacy of inner-directed mystical experience which he regarded as the heart and soul of true religious devotion.
Thus, in his portrait of Father Taylor, Whitman emphasizes that Taylor was “the sailor’s preacher,” unstudied and unintellectual. Father Taylor’s great power derived from the fact that “...he was very mystical and radical, and had much to say of ‘the light within.’ Very likely this same inner light, (so dwelt upon by newer men, as by Fox and Barclay at the beginning, and all Friends and deep thinkers since and now,) is perhaps only another name for the religious conscience.” In a footnote, Whitman adds, “The true Christian religion, (such as was the teaching of Elias Hicks,) consists neither in rites nor Bibles or sermons on Sundays-- but in noiseless secret ecstacy and unremitted aspiration, in purity, in a good practical life, in charity to the poor and toleration to all.”
Note that the first item in this otherwise conventional list is “noiseless secret ecstacy and unremitted aspiration,” the same language Whitman uses in “Democratic Vistas” to describe expanded awareness: “Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one’s isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.”
Of Whitman’s devotees, Carpenter, Burroughs and Bucke most clearly recounted similar mystical experiences. In late March or early April, 1873, for instance, Bucke had an overwhelming experience of what he termed “cosmic consciousness.” He first met Whitman on October 18, 1877, and the experience of Whitman’s presence somehow rekindled that earlier mystical experience, so that when he parted from Whitman he felt slightly intoxicated and exhalted, as he put it, “in a clearly marked degree” for at least six weeks, and the experience never faded completely. On October 24, 1877 Bucke wrote to Harry Buxton Forman, “I may say that I experienced what I have heard so much about the extraordinary magnetism of his presence-- I not only felt deeply in an indescribable way toward him-- but I think that that short interview has altered the attitude of my moral nature to everything.”
This experience of directly imparting a higher state of awareness to the devotee is called darshan in the poet-saint tradition, and not Bucke alone but in fact most of the devotees made such claims for Whitman. William Sloane Kennedy, for example, said “I never knew a person to meet him for the first time who did not come under his spell; most people going away in such a curious state of exaltation and excitement as to produce a partial wakefulness, the general feeling not wearing off for a fortnight.”
Also, most of the disciples at least dabbled in the newly translated religious texts of ancient India and China, which offer a vision of the development of consciousness to its fully expanded state, called “enlightenment” or “cosmic consciousness.” Carpenter, for instance, listed parallels between “Song of Myself” and the Upanishads. Bucke, however, was the most learned in “Oriental philosophy.” The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold (London, 1879) inspired him to make his way through the fifty volumes of Max Muller’s classic The Sacred Books of the East (Oxford, 1879-1910). Perhaps because his personal mystical experiences were so thoroughly bolstered by keen intellectual understanding, Bucke was the most fanatically devoted to Whitman’s “more splendid theology.” On November 9, 1888, he wrote to Horace Traubel “...it is my dream to devote the rest of my life (not many years perhaps, but still a few) to the study and promulgation of the new religion....” To Whitman he wrote on June 3, 1889, that in twenty-five or at most fifty years, he, Bucke, would “not be surprised to see my highest claims for you (for making which I have been counted a lunatic) broadly and even generally allowed.”
As Whitman became more debilitated and ill, and sank into his slow dying, Bucke became almost panic stricken at the realization that his scientific work of explicating cosmic consciousness could never be completed absent its most perfect specimen. He mailed Whitman a questionaire probing the specifics of Whitman’s evolution (requesting dates of first experiences of cosmic consciousness, and such) which Whitman, who even in health preferred “hints” at most and aslant allusions, never answered. On March 14, 1892, as Whitman literally drew his last breaths, Bucke wrote to Traubel: “Do you think Whitman would tell you anything about his own experience of “cosmic consciousness? Would you try him some day...? Do not say that I asked you...try and get from him/ ask him/ something about it.... Did a luminous haze accompany the onset of cosmic consciousness?” Later in the same letter, “...but I fear he will say nothing. If I had known as much a few years ago”--about cosmic consciousness-- “as I do now I would have got some valuable statements from him but now I fear it is too late.”
Indeed, it was too late. Twelve days after Bucke’s writing, Whitman was gone from the world, leaving Bucke’s questions unanswered. Bucke’s effort to dissect, to chart, to formalize and rigidify in a scientific framework the most expansive, fluid and indefinite aspect of human potential, “cosmic consciousness,” must have struck Whitman as even more misguided than the learn’d astronomer’s dissertation on the cosmos. Whitman responded to Bucke as to the astronomer by “gliding out” into the “mystical moist night-air” in perfect silence.
To the devotees,then, Walt Whitman was more than a literary figure. He was an ideal man, perhaps a messiah-like evolutionary prototype; not a poet “merely,” but a poet-seer, a poet-saint. To see him so strikes us, in our hardbitten and cynical times, as stunningly naive, even delusional, as our names for the devotees (“hot little prophets”) attest.
In Whitman and Burroughs: Comrades, however, Clara Barrus discusses the nineteenth century convention of “manly love,” which may shed some light on the phenomenon of so many relatively young men gathering around the elder Whitman. Young men, especially idealistic, literary young men, commonly “fell in love” with one another in patterns that mimicked traditional heterosexual romantic love. These affairs, whether they represented repressed homosexuality or not, were highly idealized, even invoking the psyche-epipsyche ideal of Plato, as in this excerpt from a May 1, 1862 letter from E.M. Allen to John Burroughs, “If you were here now I should be happy, for you are my twin-spirit. We are like two lovers, are we not? Do you remember how we used to lie by the brook in the twilight? You ought to be a woman, John, or I.” And, later in the same letter, “I cannot help thinking of you when I feel the dreamy influence of spring, and long to be with you.”
Everyone familiar with Whitman’s correspondence with Peter Doyle knows the similarly affectionate, intimate tone of the letters they exchanged. In those letters, however, Whitman describes his intimacy with even other workmen. In a letter of September 10, 1869, “...some (pilots) when we meet we kiss each other (I am an exception to all their customs with others,)....”
In the following letter, John Burroughs creates a portrait of “Richard” (Myron B. Benton) so idealized it is of a piece with his later descriptions of Whitman: “In the twilight ‘Richard’ and I made our bed on a gentle slope bearly overshadowed by a guge pine, where the moss was peculiarly thick and soft, and fell into one of our discursive, easy going talks-- the sport and play of the mind.... ‘Richard’ rare old ‘Richard!’ What depths there are in thee, and what heights! What quaintness, what subtlety, what clearness of vision, what Norseman sturdiness and vigor!” In fact, in a letter to Benton that calls to mind Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” Burroughs says, “I have been much with Walt. Have even slept with him. I love him very much.”
The devotees adoration of Whitman can be seen as of a
piece with this convention of idealizing and “romancing” the male friend.
In the case of Whitman we have a male friend who in his own poetry championed
and amplified the value of “manly love” itself. Even more, the aged
Whitman, sitting like the secret in the middle of a ring of devotees around
him, announced a new and compelling male ideal: the wise old man, the poet-seer,
the herald of a race of “splendid and savage old men.”
Tae Kwon Do | Enlgish Web Page| Elizabethtown College
DYSPEPTIC AMOURS, PETTY
ADHESIVENESS, AND WHITMAN'S IDEAL
OF PERSONAL RELATIONS
WHEN HUMPTY DUMPTY DEFINES "GLORY" as a nice knock-down argument, Alice understandably objects. Humpty Dumpty, however, is unyield-ing. To him the whole matter of meaning simply comes down to this: either we bully words into meaning what we want them to mean, or they bully us.
With language as in life, Walt Whitman was no bully. Whether by sleight of hand or by charm, then, like Humpty Dumpty he often made words mean what he wanted them to mean, common usage and dictio-naries notwithstanding. Examples abound. "Chuff," for instance, com-monly meant a cheek swollen with fat. Whitman, however, made the word mean the fleshy part of the hand. The Spanish word camarada, a roommate merely, became for Whitman "camerado," the most steadfast friend. If he could not redefine an English word, or borrow, usually with some alterations, from Spanish, French, Greek or even Sanskrit, he simply made up an altogether new word.' As Whitman's readers, then, we cannot always elucidate a text simply by consulting a nine-teenth century dictionary, or even by researching presumed influences, such as phrenology, from whose vocabulary of character traits he is known to have drawn extensively. Whitman's usage is, while not so eccentric as Humpty Dumpty's, certainly idiosyncratic.
The words "amorous" and "amative" furnish good examples. Whitman at times uses the words as virtual epithets, and often modifies them pejoratively, for instance with the word "mere." But even if we look to phrenology, the nineteenth century pseudoscience, we find that to Fowler and Wells (the phrenologists whom Whitman read, and whom he consulted in 1849) "amativeness" and "amorousness" were healthy traits and suggested weakness of moral character only when in excess. 2 To understand Whitman's usage of "amorousness" and "ama-tiveness" we must understand the meanings with which Whitman the social reformer and mystic invested these words. I will argue later that we must do the same with "adhesiveness," the ideal of male-male relations. Both as reformer and as mystic, Whitman had clear purposes that his words, whatever their conventional meanings, had to serve.
For Whitman, a friend and supporter of Eliza Farnam, Abby Price and other feminists of the day, "amorousness" and "amativeness" were at the core of conventional romance, which itself comprised the main obstacle blocking the entrance of women into the social spheres of business, politics and suffrage. In Democratic Vistas we find Whitman's well-known denunciation of dandies "forever occupied in dyspeptic amours with dyspeptic women. ,3 The vehemence of Whitman's feelings on this matter is clear at least as early as his 1856 public letter to Emerson, in which he says, "This tepid wash, this diluted deferential love, as in songs, fictions, and so forth, is enough to make a man vomit...."4 Amours, then (the same root of course as "amorous" and "ama tive"), are "dyspeptic" -born of unhealthy digestion, not so much affairs of the heart as of the bowels. (I will later return to this aspect of health.) But Whitman's sarcastic observation was no mere disapproval of contemporary manners; it was a socially and humanly crucial criti-cism: "To the movement for the eligibility and entrance of women amid new spheres of business, politics, and the suffrage, the current prurient, conventional treatment of sex is the main formidable obstacle" (PW, 2:494, italics mine).
The "current prurient treatment of sex" manifested itself
in pro-miscuity and in prudery, which Whitman saw as not polar or even
distinct, but rather as two expressions of the same derangement. In "The
Good Gray Poet," W.D. O'Connor defined "squeamishness" as
ig ,5 the Siamese twin-brother of indelicacy, a connection Whitman him self makes when he quotes from a paper by P.H. Rathbone of Liverpool on "The Undraped Figure in Am" "The Turk regarded and regards women as animals without soul, toys to be played with or broken at pleasure, and to be hidden, partly from shame, but chiefly for the purpose of stimulating exhausted passion" (PW, 2:495).
All Whitman's work stands as an argument, to put it that way, against shame. But to argue so is not necessarily to endorse sexual looseness, an inferential mistake no doubt committed by the New England Free Love League when they officially adopted Leaves of Grass in 1883, but also common among new Whitman readers, and even found among critics. Bucke, in words so extensively edited and revised by Whitman that we might more accurately identify the author as Bucke-Whitman, anticipated such an error: "Sexual shame as an inher-ent rule or concept in the normal mind, being abolished (as it must eventually be), it does not follow that the sexual organs, acts and feelings should be paraded or unveiled. ,6 Nelly O'Connor remembered that in their Sunday evening discussion club, a standard topic was free-love, and Whitman was its fiercest denouncer: "He gave it no quarter, said that its chief exponent and disciple- Stephen Pearl Andrews-was a type of Mephistopheles, a man of intellect without heart, and there were no terms too strong in which to express his opinion of its 'damnable' teachings and practices" (Champion, 52). So serious was Whitman's belief in chastity and fidelity that Jerome Lov-ing, among others, speculates that the falling out between Whitman and W.D. O'Connor may in fact have been precipitated by O'Connor's extramarital affairs, rather than by disagreements over abolition, serious as those were (See Champion, 100-102).
Whitman's particular use of the terms "amorous" and "amative" are further informed by the other role I have mentioned, Whitman as mystic. Whitman's mysticis%will be especially important when I turn later to "adhesiveness," , et me here offer a model of consciousness which I believe sheds light on Whitman's mysticism, and thereby on these important terms as well. In June of 1853 or 1854 (the notebooks are not clear) Whitman apparently underwent a transforming "mystical experience" which he described poetically in 1855 in "Song of Myself' (in what later became Section 5 of that poem) and then further described and elaborated throughout his writings as late as "To the Sunset Breeze" in 1890, two years before his death. Generalizing from many separate experiences, Whitman wrote of this unique state of conscious-ness in Democratic Vistas:
There is in sanest hours a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity-yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth's dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth (significant only because of the Me in the center), creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look'd upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven. (PW, 2:394)'
Whitman had discovered what in Vedic literature, whose
main topic is the nature of consciousness, is referred to as the fourth
state, turiya, transcendental consciousness. Whereas all other states of
con-sciousness (walking, sleeping, dreaming) are fragmented, bounded by
an object of perception, transcendental consciousness is unified and limitless,
like a "shadowy dwarf' that is liberated and spreads limit-lessly in every
direction. Transcending all objects of awareness, tran-scending ego, one
becomes aware of the ground of all perception, thought, emotion-pure consciousness
itself. Whitman uses several terms (the "mere fact consciousness," "interior
consciousness," "Self") to identify the self-referential experience of
consciousness itself, distin-guishing it from the ordinary experience of
objects of consciousness (thoughts, perceptions, sensations, emotions).
Whitman had, then, not merely experienced some unusual "thing" as the content
of his consciousness, but, more profoundly, he had experienced a restructuring
of the very process of experience itself.
Normally (using a model of consciousness derived from Vedic literature), the process of experience consists of three components: the knower, the process of knowing, and the object of knowledge.8 "I am tasting an apple," according to this linear model of consciousness, can be represented: I (knower) experiencing (process) apple (object). Whit-man, however, found his way to an experience rare in the West, but quite well known in the ancient literatures of the East, in which the three components are merged into singularity.
Vedic literature (especially the Upanishads) prescribes meditation as a technique to gain this experience in a systematic way. In medita-tion, a mantra, or sound, is the object of awareness. Gradually, however, the object becomes more and more refined until it disappears altogether. At that point a curious thing will have happened: If the knower contin-ues to be conscious, but there is no longer an object of consciousness, of what will the knower be conscious? The knower becomes conscious of himself in the act of being conscious -becomes conscious, as Whitman put it, of "the mere fact consciousness." We could describe what happens in several ways. We could say that the knower is, then, himself the object of consciousness. Or we could say that the process of knowing is the object. To say it that way would then make the knower identical with the process of knowing. And in fact it does not matter how we say it because the three separate components of knowing-knower, process, and object, have merged (a favorite Whitman word) into a transcendent, circular unity. Whitman's "I celebrate myself," for example, merges these separate components: the "object" becomes the "subject," but the subject is the "process," the celebrating -like Yeats's dancer who is the dance, and also the dancing. Distinction, separation, is impossible, simply disallowed by a unique state of consciousness. Rather than fragmented linearity, a broken world, there is instead a circular unity of awareness and experience.
The importance of this experience not only to Whitman the mystic but also to Whitman the democratic reformer can hardly be exagger-ated. In the same essay, Democratic Vistas, he writes:
... in respect to the absolute soul, there is in the possession of such by each single individual, something so transcendent, so incapable of gradations (like life), that, to that extent it places all beings on a common level, utterly regardless of the distinctions of intellect, virtue, station, or any height or lowliness whatsoever.... (PW, 2:380)
In particular, I would call attention to Whitman's claim that this direct experience of pure consciousness (or "soul" or "Self") "places all beings on a common level." Whitman the social reformer has, then, discovered through mystical experiences a natural basis for human equality-among the sexes and within each sex, as among and within all races and nations. Despite all the human differences which comprise individuality and which inevitably lead to "gradation," yet there is something real and tangible which is shared universally (at least potentially) and indi-cates equality, the basis of democracy.
"Dyspeptic amours" are antipathetic to the democratic experience of pure consciousness, as is sexual repression. Both destroy the integrity of the whole by focusing on body parts. Whether one focuses with desire or repugnance makes little difference. Rather than affirming her body as a joyous whole, the "decent" woman swaddles her fragmented anatomy, especially the offensive parts, and separates out a category of normal urges and functions as shameful, with which category she then becomes inordinately preoccupied. A few superficial changes -flaunting what the "decent" woman swaddles-and we have the whore. Whether women are cast down or placed on a pedestal-whores or ladies-either way they are denied democratic equality and kept at arm's length.
In subtler ways as well Whitman's mystical experiences colored his view of male-female relations. The experience of pure consciousness, for example, is characterized by wholeness. We find this quality at the opening of "Song of Myself" in Whitman's heightened awareness of the completeness of his physiology, "My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs ... (LG, 29), and then, surprisingly, of the larger whole created by the linkage of Whitman's "internal reality," let us say, his physiology, with the "external reality," the natural world around him, via his alert senses. Later in the poem this process is enacted again, in Section 24, as Whitman begins to catalog parts of his anatomy and quickly becomes increasingly incorporative, describing his body topographically, as if it were in fact both itself and the whole scene around it as well:
Root of washed sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you! Mix'd tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you! Sun so generous it shall be you! Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you! You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you! Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you! Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you! (LG, 53)
In the first two lines we can follow the correspondences easily: his hair is hay, his testicles duplicate eggs. But thereafter the elements of his body and of the surroundings become so fully identified that soon we cannot discern which are being described in terms of the other-whether his body with nature or vice versa-and we can no longer tell precisely what part of his body he is describing or, indeed, whether he is describing an "internal" or "external" reality. In the 1855 "Preface" Whitman had philosophically asserted what he here enacts, that the poet "incarnates [his country's] geography and natural life and rivers and lakes." In the linear model of consciousness, separation or distinction is not only possible but inevitable. Passages such as the above are confus-ing, even unintelligible, because in Whitman's expanded state of aware-ness separation (which we assume) is disallowed: fusion, wholeness, unity prevail because of the self-referential, circular structure of the state of consciousness itself.
Even to describe the relation of his body with his surroundings as "linkage" is misleading in its linearity, for his senses seem more to encircle (notice the word "embraces," below) than merely to connect, and in encompassing thereby to internalize the larger whole:
The sniff of green leaves and of dry leaves, and of the shore and dark color'd sea rocks, and of hay in the barn, The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind, A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms, The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag, The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and the hill-sides, The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun. (LG, 30)
Whitman is rising and the sun is rising, two events which by their juxtaposition and implied equality of largeness and splendor seem more nearly one event (the two "meet"), contained and unified by the whole-ness of Whitman's awareness. In "A Song of the Rolling Earth" Whit-man proposes a philosophic rationale for this phenomenon of wholeness of awareness containing wholeness of reality:
I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete, The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken. (LG, 223)
Who remains jagged and broken? Certainly all who are "merely amative" -dyspeptic dandies to whom women are collections of body parts (what hair, what eyes, and so on). In Whitman's mystical experi-ences, all objects are known in terms of the self, or Self. In this state of expanded awareness, consciousness is circular, not linear: the object of awareness known in terms of the Self.
The conventional dandy, rather than seeing and appreciating women in terms of the Self, is locked into linear, objective conscious-ness in which women are distinctly and necessarily "other." So long as women are regarded in this objective way, the linear mode of conscious-ness hardens to a permanent inflexibility affecting all relations. Thus, as Whitman predicted in his 1856 letter to Emerson, "Of women just as much as men, it is the interest that there should not be infidelism about sex, but perfect faith. Women in these states approach the day of that organic equality with men, without which, I see, men cannot have organic equality among themselves" (LG, 737; italics mine).
A few years after that letter, in 1860, Whitman and Emerson took their well-known walk along Boston common. Emerson urged Whitman to alter the sexual passages of Leaves, especially to delete "To a Com-mon Prostitute." Whitman refused, or as he put it later, he "only answer'd Emerson's vehement arguments with silence" (PW, 2:494). Whitman's equanimous silence was characteristic, even when confront-ing the disappointing or ugly in life. But in this case it may also have betokened repugnance at Emerson's capitulation to convention despite his knowing better. In addition to Emerson's stirring call for defiance of mere convention in "Self-Reliance," for instance, Emerson himself had had brief experiences of transcendental consciousness, a fact which provided an exclusive common ground between the two and enabled Emerson to read Whitman with special insight.9
For Whitman, in "To a Common Prostitute," is not speaking
as an ego-bound "dandy" who sees the prostitute as separate from himself,
an object of consciousness. Rather, he is speaking, as he often does, from
that transcendent, unified level of consciousness in which the prostitute
is known in terms of the unbounded Self. For this reason, he immedi-ately
identifies himself in the all-inclusive terms of "Nature." The sun does
not exclude her, the waters do not refuse to glisten for her, therefore
neither will he, the poet who accepts the entire cosmos as his extended
anatomy, exclude or refuse her. The second section moves the poem away
from what might otherwise be condescension. When Whit-man says that he
appoints her with "an appointment," he is surely not arranging a sexual
liaison, as Emerson must have known. In newspaper editorials and articles
Whitman had denounced prostitution as a threat to the family and as a pollutant
of bloodlines, a fact that makes his compassion for this young woman all
the more poignant. Whitman was, in his appointment, expressing instead
his belief in the certainty of her own evolution to the same exalted level
of awareness Whitman himself experienced. The "I" of "be patient and perfect
till I come" is the cosmic "I" of transcendental consciousness, the blissful
Self she will one day inevitably discover. Until she finds that Self on
her own, Whitman salutes her "with a significant look that you do not forget
me" (LG, 387).
Whitman writes relatively little specifically about male-female rela-tions, so "To a Common Prostitute" is particularly significant in that it exemplifies a male-female relationship at least approaching an ideal. The woman here, on the bottom rung of the social ladder, is recognized as an equal in a deep sense. She is not pruriently regarded as walking body parts, nor is she repulsive. She is not some "thing" to yearn for, with a longing born of dyspepsia, or prudishly to reject. She is whole within the wholeness of Whitman's awareness: the "object" known in terms of the subject, the knower. And her own awareness is itself developing toward that same ecstatic wholeness. Such is the indecent poem Emer-son, even as he probably knew better, urged be dropped. Such is the poem Whitman defended with silence.
Although Whitman generally used the phrenological term
"adhe-siveness" exclusively for male-male relations, I will try to show
that a fuller understanding of the term requires that we transcend its
phreno-logical boundaries (as with "amativeness"), and even its male-male
limits.10 Again, Whitman's roles of reformer and mystic inform his idiosyncratic
use of the term. The two roles can be described separately, but of course
they are not completely distinct. They constantly inter-penetrate, blend
and almost merge. Having gained a transforming level of consciousness,
the question then became, to Whitman the reformer, how to bring his revealed
knowledge to bear upon, and similarly to transform, society at large?
The question was not merely speculative and abstract. To Whitman it was urgent and heartfelt. We must keep in mind that the hymns to adhesiveness, the "Calamus" poems, were written and revised as the nation tottered on the edge of, and then plunged into, the abyss of fratricidal war whose unspeakable horrors Whitman viewed from the depths: from the field hospitals that were little more than centers for inept amputation, often performed by furriers (who had the tools) impressed into service. Fear and hatred born of perceived difference, of separation, make men enemies and drive them to war. What could hold them together in peace?
Again, in Democratic Vistas:
Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man-which, hard to define, underlies the lessons and ideals of the profound saviours of every land and age, and which seems to promise, when thoroughly develop'd, cultivated and recognized in manners and literature, the most substantial hope and safety of the future of these United States, will then be fully express'd. (PW, 2:414)
For this reason, Whitman formulated plans to begin a program to train boys in the healthful development of perfect physiques. In 1849 he signed a note to pay twenty-five dollars in rent for a store in Granada Hall, in which to deliver a series of lectures on health and hygiene. Later he changed these plans to a series of articles instead, and still later to a book, which he never wrote. Further, he took a keen interest in hydropathy, in folk-remedies, and in various pseudosciences for their potential to enhance perfect bodies." The intention, I would suggest, was to cultivate in boys a psychophysiology of adhesiveness that would, in a wide-reaching application, prevent war, just as it would cure the dyspepsia of dandyism.
Whitman's blissful experiences of transcendental consciousness
car-ried along with them a bodily ecstasy in which the most ordinary functions
-talking, moving his head, walking-were surpassingly de-lightful. If we
remember that to Whitman the body was soul, was, we might say, simply another
expression of consciousness (as in Section 13 of "Starting from Paumanok,"
"Was somebody asking to see the soul?/ See your own shape and countenance
. . ."), his program for boys makes sense as a practical method to strengthen
adhesiveness in society. Even in Vedic literature there are essentially
two ways (although they are meant to be used in conjunction) to cultivate
the bliss of the fourth state of consciousness: the mental approach of
meditation, and the physical approach (called hatha yoga) consisting mainly
of exercises (asanas) and breath control (pranayama). The mental bliss
and the physical exhilaration of transcendence are simply two manifestations
of a single phenomenon, since, in the Vedic cosmology as well as in Whitman's,
mind and body are ultimately identical.
In terms of instructing others, Whitman understood the physical aspect better than the mental. In his own experience, he simply "in-vited" his soul. Often his soul, like a lover, accepted and filled him, overflowed him, with bliss. Merely to instruct boys, however, to "invite their souls" would, by the abstractness of that direction, probably be ineffective. But perhaps if he could train them to develop perfect physiques, then, since body and soul are so closely linked, or even identical, the mental counterpart -blissful, transcendental awareness of unity-would come along automatically. Evidence of such thinking can be found in notebooks as well as in Democratic Vistas:
A fitly born and bred race, growing up in right conditions of outdoor as much as indoor harmony, activity and development, would probably, from and in those conditions, find it enough merely to live-and would, in their relations to the sky, air, water, trees, etc., and to the countless common shows, and in the fact of life itself, discover and achieve happiness-with Being suffused night and day by wholesome extasy, surpassing all the pleasures that wealth, amusement, and even gratified intellect, erudition, or the sense of art, can give. (PW, 2:416)
Whitman changed but did not abandon his plans to instruct young men. "Calamus" may be read as a form of such instruction. Further, and we find this too in Democratic Vistas, he decided that "the ulterior object of political and all other government" is to "develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage . . ." (PW, 2:379).
Because health in its root sense, "wholeness," was crucial to main-taining the state of consciousness on which the reality of adhesiveness depends, Whitman was vehement in his denunciations of prudery and of promiscuity, both of which fracture a holistic sense of body. What no doubt strengthened his feeling of kinship with Abby Price and other feminists was the shared belief that relations between the sexes were in need of radical alteration.
In a way, "To a Common Prostitute" is an example of adhesive love-or perhaps we should say, more precisely, the same kind of love that underlies manly love-applied here to a female relationship. 12 If such general application seems to violate the specificity of the phreno-logical term, we must bear in mind that with even wider application Whitman envisioned this same principle of adhesiveness binding the States into a perfect union -and with still wider application, uniting the entire globe:
Lately I have wonder'd whether the last meaning of this cluster of thirty-eight States is not only practical fraternity among themselves-the only real union . . .-but for fraternity over the whole globe-that dazzling, pensive dream of ages! Indeed the peculiar glory of our lands, I have come to see is ... more and more in a vaster, saner, more surrounding Comradeship, uniting closer and closer not only the American States, but all nations, and all humanity.... That, 0 poets! is not that a theme worth chanting, striving for? Why not fix your verses henceforth to the gauge of the round globe? the whole race? Perhaps the most illustrious culmination of the modern may thus prove to be a signal growth of joyous, more exalted bards of adhesiveness. . . . (PW, 2:484)
Or, in "For You 0 Democracy:"
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades. (LG, 117)
Certainly the fullest expression of adhesive love in Whitman's work is found in male-male relationships. In his introduction to the corre-spondence, Edwin H. Miller calls attention, in a sentence heavy with innuendo, to Whitman's "attraction to semi-literate young men." Yet Miller is quite right that Whitman was so attracted, and indeed believed that only among such men did adhesive love thrive best. In a short prose piece called "Friendship, the Real Article," Whitman criticizes Bon-aparte's inability to love, and then writes, "I am not sure but the same analogy is to be applied, in cases, often seen, where, with an extra development of the intellectual faculties, there is a mark'd absence of the spiritual, affectional, and sometimes, though more rarely, the high-est aesthetic and moral elements of cognition" (PW, 2:532; italics mine).
The model of consciousness I offered earlier similarly suggests that "intellectuality" tends to strengthen linear, fragmented consciousness for two main reasons. One of the main functions of the intellect is to discriminate, to discern this from that-in other words, to fragment. The circular, transcendent model of consciousness, on the other hand, functions by incorporation, by synthesis. Also, intellectuality as defined by modern scientific methodology prides itself on separation of the knower from the known, with almost exclusive attention to the object of awareness. The knower, the observer, is dispassionate, unaffected, un-involved, as nearly a cipher as possible. (Only recently have quantum physicists begun to consider subjectivity relevant to observed phenom-ena.) Throughout his work, Whitman counters the pitfalls of intellectu-ality, and the attendant danger of losing his self-referential mode of consciousness, by cultivating qualities of innocence, wonder and joy that may be said to comprise an internalized "child. ,13 In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," for example, Whitman answers the astronomer's deadly erudition not with argument, but with the silence of childlike wonder: ". . . rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,/ In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/ Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars." We recall, also, that it is a child who goes forth every day and experiences a unity of self and environment.
The child is central to Whitman's adhesive ideal. "Manly love," examined from the perspective of contemporary adulthood, is puzzling. The emotional attachment seems too intense for ordinary male-male friendships as we understand them. Bucke (or Bucke-Whitman) antici-pated the problem, and (again from Walt Whitman's Autograph Revision of the Analysis of Leaves of Grass), wrote of Whitman: "Elsewhere he speaks of the sick, sick dread of unreturned friendship, of the comrade's kiss, the arm round the neck-but he speaks to sticks and stones: the emotion does not exist in us, and the language of his evangel-poem appears simply disgusting" (167). Indeed, embracing, kissing and hand-holding leave little doubt, for many readers, that Whitman's adhesive-ness is at least homoerotic, or even homosexual.
Yet Bucke insisted of adhesive love that "'Calamus' presents to us an equally advanced moral state in another direction-an exalted friend-ship, a love into which sex does not enter as an element" (166). 14 It is not my intention here to grapple with the difficult question of Whit-man's personal sexuality, but rather to understand the public ideal of adhesiveness Whitman presented in his writing. Because Whitman insisted in print that adhesiveness is non-sexual, let us see whether the poems of adhesiveness can sensibly be read without the element of sex, and what such a reading discloses.
In this regard, the problem of sexuality diminishes immediately if we consider adhesive love from the perspective of Whitman's "child within." In childhood, same-sex attachments can be very close. In the nineteenth century, when childhood itself may have been more distinct as a developmental stage than it is now, same-sex friendships might consequently have been even stronger. To express such affection by holding hands, or wrapping an arm around a shoulder, is, for children, quite natural and spontaneous. Only if we understand the internalized child Whitman deliberately and protectively cultivated does his "Cala-mus" poem "We Two Boys Together Clinging" make much sense at all-a poem he wrote at the age of forty-one, well past boyhood. The two, however, are boys within, clinging not only to each other, but together clinging to (and refusing to outgrow) the exuberance and inexhaustable energy (the poem is a concatenation of present participles) of boyhood itself. Fantasized and nostalgic, the poetic celebration of their boyish comraderie is rendered as a tribute to Tom Sawyerish bravado: the anarchic two sail, soldier and thieve together, "alarming priests" as they fulfill their "foray."
Whitman's Calamus letters to Peter Doyle, the most well-known of his semi-literate young men, and Whitman's closest approach to his ideal adhesive comrade, bear this quality of boyishness. Doyle does not understand Whitman's poems, which is fine with Walt-one senses it is preferred. They write instead about mutual friends, about baseball games, the weather, railroad wrecks, favorite places, and plans to get together for customary long walks and long suppers. 15 If the content of these non-literary letters at times seems trivial, it is because Whitman, like a boy thinking of his friend, values most the company itself, the remembered and anticipated "forays," rather than conversation. In-deed, the "Calamus" poems themselves are not concerned with spoken sentiments. They are poems of doing, and poems of silence. Almost never do these comrades speak, but prefer, as in "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," "the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not. . ." (LG, 120). "A Glimpse," for instance, recalls meetings with Pete in a bar-room after he finished work. It concludes:
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking
and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.
If we try the non-sexual reading Whitman and Bucke solicit,
we must keep bringing to these poems of adhesive love sensitivity to simple
spontaneous affection of the sort we typically associate with a child. If we read "When I Heard at the Close of Day," for example, in a context of nineteenth-century boyish affection, we confront a startling image, more stunning to the contemporary reader for its baffling of expecta-tions than it could ever be shocking by exceeding the expected: two grown men lie together like children: "In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,/ And his arm lay lightly around my breast-and that night I was happy" (LG, 123).
In the end, however, Whitman's adhesive ideal was only partly realized. Emerson, O'Connor and others disappointed, as did the man who was Whitman's fondest comrade, Peter Doyle. Problems were perhaps inevitable. From the first Whitman faced a conflict caused by deep tendencies in opposite directions, like shifting geologic plates: on the one hand he prized self-reliance, wholeness, "that which contains itself, which never invites and never refuses" (LG, 223), as he put it in "A Song of the Rolling Earth." At the same time, as we know from the poignant "I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing," he could not live without a friend near.
At times in his letters to Doyle, we see Whitman's affection drifting toward the kind of doting he characterized as "arnative" and found so repugnant in male-female relations. In one letter, for instance, dated December 12, 1873, he tells Doyle that he, Whitman, has had some light blue shirts made for Doyle as a gift. He is careful to specify that these are overshirts, to be worn over another shirt, and that he feels they will look best over white. Further, he urges Doyle to wear this combi-nation with a black silk handkerchief tied around his neck, as he has seen on other workmen, and expresses eagerness to see him attired this way. Earlier, in 1870, after Doyle had failed to visit or even to write, in an anguished note Whitman had exhorted himself to "Depress the adhesive nature/ It is in excess-making life a torment/ All this dis-eased, feverish, disproportionate adhesiveness." On July 30, 1870, Whit-man answered a letter from Doyle, in part: "I never dreamed that you made so much of having me with you, nor that you could feel so downcast at losing me. I foolishly thought it was all on the other side. But all I will say further on the subject is, I now see clearly, that was all wrong."" In these two utterances from the same year, three years before he would send his gift of shirts, we glimpse the emotional roller-coaster Whitman was riding.
Whitman may have been himself aware that in his relationship with Doyle, and perhaps with others as well, adhesiveness was collapsing into something as repugnant to him as arnativeness. just as he had an idea of 64mere amativeness," so he formed a category of "petty adhesiveness." "Perhaps" Whitman speculates, "the most illustrious culmination of the modern may thus prove to be a signal growth of joyous, more exalted bards of adhesiveness, identically one in soul, but contributed by every nation, each after its distinctive kind" (PW, 2:484). Here we find expressed again the global scale of adhesiveness and the mystical sense that adhesiveness derives from the identity of "soul" underlying all manifest diversity. Significantly, though, he adds, a few sentences later, "I have thought that both in patriotism and song (even amid their grandest shows past) we have adhered too long to petty limits, and that the time has come to enfold the world." "Petty limits" here may belie, in its desire to shift the scale to the global, a subtle rejection of the individual, personal level of adhesiveness. Emotionally and psychologi-cally, Whitman could more easily enfold the world than embrace an actual comrade, a Peter Doyle.
Just as the "lover" in Whitman's poetry is often not literally a person but the experience of transcendence in its ecstatic aspect (as in Section 5 of "Song of Myself," for instance, and repeatedly in the "Calamus" poems), so the same experience of transcendence is at times metaphorically "the comrade. ,17 But Whitman's experience of blissful transcendence also diminished in frequency and in intensity in his last years. In "To the Sun-Set Breeze," one last time the comrade, the "companion better than talk" visits:
Ah, whispering, something again, unseen,
Where late this heated day thou enterest at my window, door,
Thou, laving, tempering all, cool-freshing, gently vitalizing. . . . (LG, 546)
But now there are no ecstasies, no forays. The companion comes now to nurse: the slowly dying poet's aching head and hands are soothed, his "weak-down, melted-worn" sweated body is blessedly cooled. As if recognizing a beloved face dimly seen, Whitman remem-bers that this within him now-"occult medicines penetrating me from head to foot"-this is the source of cosmic adhesiveness, the unifying spirit of all Nature, of himself and of the world: ". . . somehow I feel the globe itself swift-swimming in space." The last wryly triumphant line is, "Can I not know, identify thee?"
I In a 1959 edition of Leaves of Grass edited by James E. Miller, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), Miller includes a "Glossary of Difficult Terms" which succinctly illustrates Whitman's idiosyncratic usage. Some examples: "ambulanza," the Italian for field hospital, became for Whitman the term for an army ambulance. "Accouche," the French for "to be delivered of a child" became, for Whitman, a term meaning "to produce or to create." The word "jet," which can be used in general ways both as noun and verb, for Whitman specifically meant the male orgasm. "Imperturbe," "lumin6," "presidentiad," "savantism" are a few of Whitman's many coinages.
A philosophical rationale for Whitman's linguistic unorthodoxy is reported by Trau-bel in his foreword to An American Primer (Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press, 1987), Whitman's discourse on language. He quotes Whitman: "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment-that it is an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new words, new potentialities of speech-an American, a cosmopolitan ... range of self-expression. The new world, the new times, the new peoples, the new vista, need a tongue according-yes, what is more, will have such a tongue-will not be satisfied until it is evolved."
2 Whitman's interest in phrenology has been widely discussed. The most thorough early study, focusing on Whitman's July 16, 1849 Fowler and Wells reading, is Edward Hungerford's "Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps," American Literature 2 (1931), 350-385. In a more recent work, Harold Aspiz (Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980], 109-133) also offers a close analysis of the significance of phrenology for Whitman: both what he may have understood it to mean and what he made it mean in the creation of his public persona.
3 Floyd Stovall, Prose Works 1892 (New York: New York University Press, 1963-1964), 2:408. Further references abbreviated PW.
4 Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley, eds., Leaves of Grass, Comprehensive Reader's Edition (New York: New York University Press, 1965), 737. Further refer-ences abbreviated LG.
5 Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman's Champion (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978), 191. Further references abbreviated Champion.
6 Walt Whitman, Walt Whitman's Autograph Revision of the Analysis of Leaves of Grass, ed. Quentin Anerson (New York: New York University Press, 1974), 165.
7 Also in Democratic Vistas is the following description
of "interior consciousness" or "soul":
I should say, indeed, that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion positively come forth at all. Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstacy, the soaring flight. Only here, communion with the mysteries, the eternal problems, whence? whither? Alone, and identity, and the mood-and the soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought and awe, and aspiration-and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.
8 In an earlier article, "Figures of Transcendence in Whitman's Poetry," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5 (Summer 1987), 1 -11, 1 offered a more fully elaborated description of transcendental consciousness, including specific connections with Vedic literature.
9 Near the opening of "Nature," for example, Emerson writes:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,-no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Stand-ing on the bare ground, -my head bathed in the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, -all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; 1 see all; the currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
The much derided image of a "transparent eyeball" is actually quite apt in suggesting an awareness which is unlocalized and expansive. See William H. Gilman, ed., Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: New American Library, 1965), 189.
10 In recent years "adhesiveness" has been examined as a key to Whitman's sexuality. Robert K. Martin in The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), 36ff., asserts that Whitman's use of the term "adhesiveness" has nothing to do with phrenology, but rather with Whitman's effort to develop an appro-priate vocabulary of homosexual love as part of the creation of a homosexual identity. Michael Lynch in "'Here is Adhesiveness': From Friendship to Homosexuality," Victorian Studies 29 (Autumn 1985), 67-96, traces the development of phrenology from Europe to America and reaffirms the importance of phrenology, especially phrenological vocabulary, in creating a public homosexual identity.
I I For a discussion of Whitman's plans for boys and his interest in hydropathy, see Aspiz, 49-5 1.
12 Whitman's friendship with Mrs. Gilchrist is a better example of an actual female relationship approaching an ideal of adhesiveness. Mrs. Gilchrist has at times been portrayed as a somewhat silly woman pursuing a lost cause. She was, however, a deeply intelligent, extremely independent woman. If she did not find an ideal lover waiting for her when she crossed the Atlantic, she found instead a friend for life who fathomed and valued her gifts and her unswerving affection. For a reappraisal of their relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Walt Whitman and Mrs. G.," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (Spring 1989), 153-171.
13 Whether or not there may have been influence from Emerson to Whitman, Emerson too uses the same image, and for a similar purpose: to infuse perception and intellection with the wonder that detached analysis destroys. "The Divinity School Address" is virtually structured around the child image, and in the midst of recurrent images of the child in "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes: "The nonchalance of boys ... is the healthy attitude of human nature." Even preceding the mystical experience cited in note 8 above, Emerson says: "In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever in life is always a child."
14 Bucke and Whitman also include a lengthy quotation from an article entitled "Walt Whitman the Poet of joy" by Standish O'Grady, published in Gentleman's Magazine (December 1875), which claims that Homerian male friendship was the fruition of an ideal which later degenerated: "The Greeks were well acquainted with that passion, a passion which in later days ran riot and assumed abnormal forms . (166).
15 Whitman claimed they often walked as much as ten miles in one excursion, an appropriate pastime considering that the Fowler and Wells symbol of adhesiveness depicted two men strolling together.
16 Edwin H. Miller, ed., The Correspondence, vol. 2 (New York: New York University Press, 1961), 101.
17 Divinity itself is described so, as at the end of Section
45 of "Song of Myself": "The Lord will be there and wait till I come on
perfect terms, / The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will
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PERHAPS ONE OF THE ODDEST features of "Song of Myself" is that this apparent formula for blandness, scribbled in a notebook, produced instead one of the most compelling and controversial poems in American literature. The poem does excite a laugh, and was not harmless to the feelings of such as Whittier, who threw his complimentary copy of Leaves of Grass into the fire. But as we look over Whitman's list we see that the poem succeeds not because Whitman abandoned or violated these tenets; it succeeds even though he remained remarkably true to them.
Whitman repeated four times the quality he wanted to communicate more than any other: silence. Here we find ourselves with no mere oddity, but with an apparent impossibility. Silence cannot be communicated by language, since to talk or to listen or to read is to destroy silence, to shift attention from the thing pointed at-silence-to the finger pointing-the poem. How could Whitman hope to resolve this paradox? How could silence sing? The more fundamental question is: Why would he draw up such a strange list of tenets anyway? Why should silence preoccupy a singer?
These questions go to the heart of the creative process
Whitman experi-enced as a poet, and more, to the heart of the so-called
mystical experience that recurred throughout his life, the great secret
he repeatedly hinted about in his poetry, especially "Song of Myself."
Although "ineffability" is the by-word of mysticism, Whitman's mystical
experiences need not be banished, as they largely have been, to critically
inaccessible realms. To do so is a loss to Whitman readers and scholars.
Yet most attempts at explication have re-sulted in the substitution of
one set of ambiguous terms for another. Little is cleared up by defining
"cosmic consciousness" as ". . . the consciousness of the self that is
the cosmos, the one that is the all, the atman, the internal prin-ciple
which is also the mighty universal Brahman. "2
If Whitman did experience higher states of consciousness, can we talk about it critically? For example, do these states have an analyzable structure? If so, does the structure of a higher state of consciousness in some describable way influence the structure of what is created from that level of con-sciousness, in Whitman's case, his poetry? The answers I will propose shed some light on the odd list of tenets Whitman drew up in his notebooks, and also suggest a solution to the impasse of his apparently contrary impulses for song and for silence.
This approach might seem naive, since I implicitly accept the possibility that Whitman was what he seemed, and that his "mystical experiences" were neither invented nor pretended, nor misunderstood bouts of epilepsy. In 1980s America, dominated as it is by a celebrity culture, by advertising "im-ages," we regard Whitman as a poseur, or an artist who fabricated an image to match his poetic voice. Two recent biographies, Justin Kaplan's Walt Whit-man: A Life, and Paul Zweig's Walt nitma,-; theMakingof the Poet take this approach. Thus what friends regarded as Whitman's Christlike self-sacrifice in the army hospital wards becomes sublimated homosexuality; his coun-tenance of Buddhalike tranquility, a mask. Mrs. Gilchrist, R. M. Bucke, Horace Traubel, and others who revered Whitman we dismiss as "over-heated minds," "true believers" who gullibly bought the whole show. Whit-man was a bit of a phony, a troubled man, a careerist -in short, a lot like us.
Another motivation for this somewhat cynical portrayal of Whitman stems from our desire to rescue him from the curse of "the good gray poet." Our belief in the redeeming value of evil was noted recently in a review of a biography of Strindberg:
Since Delacroix's day, we have lived under the sign of one of his immediate successors, Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote that the poet, albeit a sage, was the great Sick Man, the great Criminal, the great Accursed. This conception, for a while startling, is by now a received idea. By the standards of the modern man on the street, a Dylan Thomas is obviously a poet while a William Carlos Williams is not. To justify his men or women, the biographer has to go back to the detail of their lives and discover the sinister, or at least the scandalous, element. Ruskin, who has seemed one's primmest uncle, is brought back -vindicated -as a child molester.3
So, although Whitman repeatedly reminds himself in notebooks and journals to be plain and simple, to be non-literary, Zweig, for example, sees this inten-tion as a kind of gimmick, like the novelist's pose of "telling the facts." Zweig concludes, with a distinctly contemporary paranoiac knowingness, that Whitman's bag of tricks is deep. Alternatively, I hope that an understanding of Whitman's experiences of expanded awareness will shed light on his desire for simplicity, and at the same time disclose the depth and profundity of these experiences.
A stock criticism of Whitman, his supposed lack of artistic polish, refine-ment of craft, and subtlety, stems directly from the mistreatment of the writing born of Whitman's expanded awareness. From Henry James on he has often disappointed the educated reader looking for the literary. In the list I have cited from his notebooks, he casts down most of the conventional tech-niques of modern literature, irony foremost among them. This does not, however, leave him without subtlety. Intuitively aware of the heuristic inade-quacies of language on the level of meaning, Whitman shifted his attention to what his poem could reveal, not state outright. "Have you felt so proud," he asks with some forbidden sarcasm in section two of "Song of Myself," "to get at the meaning of poems?" What he promises in the next line is not meaning, but direct conveyance to "the origin of all poems," which for Whitman was the "mystical experience" of a fourth major state of consciousness, transcen-dental consciousness, a state of complete mental quietude, silence. We might recall another famous mystic, Gautama the Buddha, who when pressed to sermonize about his enlightenment remained silent and held up a flower. In an actual, nonsentimental sense, "Song of Myself" was the flower Whitman held up for those with eyes to see. In this way alone could he fulfill his prom-ise in the "Preface" to the 1855 edition ofLeaves of Grass to well nigh ex-press the inexpressible."
Efforts to illuminate Whitman's mysticism have often failed
because critics have taken classically hermeneutical approaches to this
poet who in-sists that argument is futile and that only our presence itself
convinces. In section twenty-five of "Song ofMyself": "Writing and talk
do not prove me, / I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in
my face, / With the hush ofmy lips I wholly confound the skeptic" (italics
mine). For this reason Whit-man went to extremes to make his presence visible
in Leaves of Grass, to "show his face" not only by composing the poems,
but then by incorporating those poems, that "soul" of his mind's creation,
in a physical artifact, a body crafted with his hands. In an almost literal
sense, Whitman tried to make his book a physiological extension of himself.
He chose the paper and the type-face, set some of the type, printed and
bound the pages, designed the unusual covers, and even included an engraving
from a photograph of himself. Any-one can speculate about enlightenment.
But the enlightened embody enlight-enment. It is only necessary that they
clearly show themselves, "hold them-selves up" to the world, and with the
hush of their lips convince or confound.
Whitman wanted his readers to respond to his book as they would re-spond to his actual presence. His book would contain the structure of his higher state of consciousness embodied in the structure of the poems themselves, in their "face," as it was in his own face. With Whitman, such en-coding was not a deliberate technique but an inevitability, in much the way Frost describes how a poem comments on its creation by its very unfolding. "How can a poem have 'wildness' and at the same time a subject that should be fulfilled?" Frost asks. "It should be the pleasure ofthe poem itself to tell us how it can." This self-commenting quality of a poem he termed "the figure a poem makes."4 John Burroughs, in his biography of Whitman, makes a simi-lar point: " 'Leaves of Grass' requires a large perspective; you must not get your face too near the book.... Looked at too closely, it often seems incoher-ent and meaningless; draw off a little and let the figure come oUt."5
It should be possible for us to see in the figures of poems in Leaves a kind of self-commentary on the structure of the higher state of consciousness that produced them, and that they embody. For the sake ofclarity, I will first offer a model of consciousness based on those textbooks of higher states of con-sciousness, the Vedas, and then look at two main figures that emerge from "Song of Myself" and "A Song of the Rolling Earth" in light of this model -the circle and the broken line.6
Let me begin by explaining transcendental consciousness. Whitman re-peatedly alludes to this state of silent inner-wakefiilness (often termed "sa-madhi"), calling it "the mere fact consciousness" or "interior consciousness," as in this excerpt from "Democratic Vistas":
I should say, indeed, that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion positively come forth at all. Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight. Only here, communion with the mysteries, the eternal problems, whence? whither? Alone, and identity, and the mood-and the soul emerges, and all statements, churches, sermons, melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought and awe, and aspiration-and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the sense. Bibles may convey, and priests expound, but it is exclusively for the noiseless operation of one's isolated Self, to enter the pure ether of veneration, reach the divine levels, and commune with the unutterable.
The Manduka Upanishad recognizes the three usual states of consciousness (waking, sleeping, and dreaming) but adds to these a fourth state of union with the Absolute of Self. This additional state, which Whitman calls "inter-ior consciousness," is termed "transcendental consciousness," or "pure con-sciousness."7
Usually when we are conscious, our consciousness has an object: we are conscious of some thing -a scene before our eyes, the sound of the wind, a thought, perhaps only a sensation. This consciousness is always limited, bounded by a finite object. For expedience, let us refer to this as the "con-scious of x" model, where "x" is any object of consciousness. On the other hand, pure consciousness may be understood as consciousness without an ob-ject of consciousness: consciousness simply left alone by itself, undisturbed, silent. With no object to limit it, such consciousness is boundless, infinite.
But how can consciousness alone ever be known? Who, after all, would know it? The Upanishads themselves anticipate and frame just such ques-tions: How can the eye see itself? How can the sword cut itselp. By whom shall the knower be known?8 The answer must lie in the notion of transcend-ing, an answer Whitman expressed by means of a figure emblematic of trans-cendence: the circle. In transcendence, the linear "conscious of x" model of awareness simply does not apply. The usual "knower-knowing-known" dis-tinctions dissolve. The Upanishads speak of meditation as a technique to turn the attention exclusively upon a mental object (a mantra) which is then sys-tematically refined until it disappears altogether. At that point of tran-scendence, there would be awareness - one would not have blacked out - but awareness of what? If these conditions are allowed to be at least theoretically possible, then we have to say that the experiencer is experiencing himself-"the noiseless operation of one's isolated self" -as the object of experience. The knower is knowing himself in the act of knowing. The three distinc-tions-experiencer, experiencing, object of experience -merge into a trans-cendent unity which the Upanishads call pure consciousness.
The figure most clearly emblematic of the mechanics of transcendence is the circle. Awareness in this fourth state of consciousness, instead of moving outward in a linear direction to become lost in the object, loops back upon it-self; it becomes aware of itself This figure of the circle is repeated through-out "Song of Myself" and other poems as well. It is one of the two principal figures of transcendence in Whitman's poetry; the other is the broken line.
In the very first line "Song of Myself" projects an image of consciousness looping back on itself. "I" is the first word of this poem of the Self. "Cele-brate" seems to draw consciousness outward in a linear way, but the final word bends the arc of consciousness back to its starting point: "myself." In this first line, then, we have the three components of ordinary waking-state awareness: experiencer (I), act of experiencing (celebrate) and object of ex-perience (myself). The circle, however, fuses these separate components into a transcendent unity. If we read the line as Whitman revised it after 1855, allowing for the initial ellipsis we simply add another circle, and sing myself..."
For many reasons, to call Whitman the poet of transcendent unity is no exaggeration. In the next line of the opening, for instance, he extends unity to the most immediate "other," the reader: "And what I assume you shall as-sume. ..." The last word of the poem, in fact, is "you." By the time that last word occurs, however, the identity of the first word (I) and the last (you) should be established, unified within the transcendent Self Thus the poem ends at its beginning point, describing a circle.
The fifth section of the poem deals most precisely with the actual experi-ence of transcendence. The whole section is addressed to his "soul"-his essence, his consciousness -and he says: "I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,/ How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me. . . ." Again, we have an image of a turning back upon oneself, a circle, for his soul "turns over" upon him, turns inward in an experience of union rendered in sexual terms.9
Whitman's union, though, is of his self and his Self,
the two selves, he tells us in a notebook entry, he had always been curiously
aware of. The one self is factlike, limited, closed ) comprised of specifics
such as his six-foot height, his two-hundred-pound weight, his rosy complexion,
his age and er-con-sonal history. The other self, or Self as he often Wrote
it, could not be P tained between his hat and bootsoles, but was a "kosmos
" unbounded. He develops these two senses of selfhood very clearly in section
four of "Song of Myself."
From the point of view of unboundedness, the bounded -any ordinary object of perception, including one's facticial self (to borrow a term from Sar-tre)- can appear "other." So section five begins: "I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you .... " In the experience that follows Whitman realizes experientially the identity of the bounded with the un-bounded. The bounded, Whitman's physical nervous system, like a lover 99 contains" the unbounded, his consciousness: ". . . And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, / And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held my feet."
The reality of blissful transcendent union of the bounded with the un-bounded is Whitman's closing revelation in section five: "Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth. . . The images that follow hint of the identity of the infinite and the finite: ". the hand of God is the promise of my own, / ... all the men ever born are also my brothers. . . ." And the adjective modifying the final catalog of concrete, obviously bound objects - ". . . leaves stiff or drooping in the fields, / And brown ants / And mossy scabs heap'd stones -is "limitless."
On the largest scale of its progressive unfolding also "Song of Myself" describes the figure of a circle, emblematic of the self-referential aspect of transcendence. We follow Whitman on a walk without destination, very much an Emersonian journey of the kind described in his essay "Circles" when he quotes Cromwell: "A man ... never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going." A loose definition of transcendence could be "self-forgetting," since the selfis completely absorbed into the Selfand is in a sense lost or abandoned. This may be part of Emerson's meaning when he says in the same essay, "The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment." When we "walk" this way, rather than feeling lost, we enjoy a sense of discovery. We find our Self everywhere. So Whitman, in a walk so free of self he deleted his name from the cover and title page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, finds his Self everywhere ("every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"). If he (and we) do not know where he is going, it is because really there is nowhere to go. The Upanishads say repeatedly "I am That" (unbounded pure consciousness), "Thou are That and all this is nothing but That." So Whitman closes his song, missing me one place, search another. . .
The poem begins in the Self, returns repeatedly to the Self, and at the end comes around again to the Self, a circle of circles. The final line is a last hint-one of Whitman's favorite words-that his experience of unbounded Selfhood is not eccentric, but universal. We should be interested in his song, for it is our song too, even if we are not yet its singers. In the first section he told us that what he assumed, we too should assume. In the last section he promises that we too will one day discover the unbounded Self: "I stop somewhere waiting for you."10
Let us consider briefly a second figure of transcendence in Whitman's work, the infinite broken line. This figure emerges most clearly from Whit-man's catalog technique and can be connected with the structure of the higher state of consciousness beyond transcendental consciousness: com-plete enlightenment, called in Vedic literature "all-time samadhi"or "samadhi without any seeds of ignorance" (nirbija samadhi). From R. M. Bucke on-ward, Whitman critics have favored the term "cosmic consciousness. In cosmic consciousness the silent, unbounded awareness of transcendental consciousness is never lost. In activity, it coexists with the bounded con-sciousness of specific thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Manduka Upanishad explains: "Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the self-same tree." The individual self is active; the unbounded self is silent. "The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of nei-ther, calmly observes."11 Whitman wrote in his notebook, "I cannot under-stand the mystery: but I am always conscious of myself as two (as my soul and I)."12 And throughout his poetry he uses the term "witness" to describe the curiously involved yet detached experience, "both in and out of the game" as he says in section four of "Song of Myself."
The catalog is an apt representation of the coexistence of pure conscious-ness along with thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, for it embodies the op-posite and irreconcilable qualities of infinity and limitation. The catalog is composed of concrete objects, perceptions, and recollections; but the first item is simply the one Whitman has begun with, not a predictable or re-quired starting point, and the last item does not exhaust the possibilities or reach a necessary conclusion. As Paul Zweig has observed, "A random list is, by definition, merely a sample of an unspoken list containing everything."13 The catalog conveys the feeling of infinite extension preceding its beginning and following its ending. We might say that the catalog is finite in its elemen-tal composition but infinite in its structure, and so combines without damage the irreconcilable opposites of Whitman's experience of cosmic conscious-ness: mortal body, and immortal soul; finite matter., and unbounded con-sciousness.
In another way, too, the catalog embodies the duality of the bounded ver-sus the unbounded, or of the outer reality versus the inner. Not only does the catalog strike us as a segment lifted from an infinite sequence, but infinity is also interfiised among elements. Because items in the catalog do not follow one another in any logical or even predictable sequence, the gaps between elements are not mere pauses, nor are they emptiness, but rather silences of all possibilities. Consider these excerpts from section fifteen of "Song of Myself":
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready....
And a bit later:
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut
in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the jingling of loose change....
We don't know what might emerge. Anything might. Each gap in a sense contains infinity, an immense richness of limitless possibility, while each item is concrete, specific, bounded. The unfolding of the catalog, then, ex-presses Whitman's total reality of coexistent boundaries along with un-boundedness, a fifth state of consciousness which yokes (a word derived from the Sanskrit yoga) the ordinary waking state and the fourth state of transcendental consciousness. just as Whitman is "both in and out of the game," so the catalog is both busy and, at the same time, silent.
Although "Song of Myself" is filled with insights and
flashes of revela-
tion, "Song of the Rolling Earth" ventures beyond hints and moves in the di-
rection of explication. Whitman begins by announcing a language of nature,
a language of perfection and silence: "Were you thinking that those were the
words, those upright lines? Those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not
the words, the subs ' tantial words are in the ground and sea, / They are in the
air, they are in you." Here we have the beginning of a philosophical rationale
for why "our presence alone convinces." As he states a few lines later,
"Human bodies are words...." Our physical presence, then, is an undis-
guised statement. By extension, all forms of earth and sea are similarly full
and true statements, so that the mere physical fact of "the rolling earth"
becomes itself a complete song.
Whitman's ability to read this truest language, these hieroglyphs of the unmanifest manifesting, underlies his fascination with faces, each of which spoke to him of a complete personality or a personal history, as is most evident in his poem "Faces." Indeed, he often requested photographs from friends he could not otherwise see, as in a letter to Tennyson of 27 April 1872 when he repeats an earlier request for a photograph and ends with the admo-nition, "Don't forget the picture."14 There is no evidence Whitman knew the famous story of the Buddha's silent sermon, but he says in the third verse of the first section of "Song of the Rolling Earth," "The masters know the earth's words and use them more than audible words."
As the title of the poem suggests, "Song of the Rolling Earth"also is built upon the figure of the circle, the round earth orbiting amid other spheres. The end of the first section elaborates the self-referential figure, placing circles within circles as Whitman had done in "Song of Myself." Amid "cen-tripetal and centrifugal sisters" the "beautiful sister," earth, dances on. In the next verse, however, she is at rest, she "sits undisturbed," so that her motion, her dance, is relative only. Within herself she is quiet, holding in her hand "what has the character of a mirror," the moon. Again the figure here is self-referential, arching back upon itself as she sits "Holding a mirror day and night tirelessly before her own face." She is, we might say, both in and out of the dance.
The remaining lines of the first section present further
cycles: the twenty-four hours of each day, the three hundred sixty-five
days of each year. The final ten lines of this section bolster circularity
auditorially. "Embrac-ing," itself circular, is repeated three times in
two lines. Internal rhyme ". . . the soul's realization and determination
. . ." and the repeated "ing" sound of the present participle echo in the
reader's ear. The simple present emerges, steady and silent amid a whirlwind,
in the last line: "The divine ship sails the divine sea."
The second section begins to apply the metaphysical truths and the im-plied truths of section one to the individual: ". . . the song is to the singer, and comes back most to him, / The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him, / The murder is to the murderer, and comes back most to him. . . ." Growth, development, the soul's journey, are circular, not only in the poetic sense of the soul's journey around the divine sea of the Self, but in an immediate ethical sense: our actions come back to us. We feed upon our own actions and are thereby nourished or poisoned: ". . . the gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him -it cannot fail. . . ." The final line opens out the implications of this view: "And no man understands any greatness or good-ness but his own, or the indication of his own." Whitman will follow this thought to its furthest application in section three.
Whosoever is complete, to him or her "the earth shall surely be com-plete." Whose consciousness is linear, partial, bounded, for him or her the earth remains "jagged and broken." Through his experiences of tran-scendence Whitman connects this state. of wholeness of awareness with si-lence, not an empty and dead silence but a lively and expanded silence of all possibilities. The sweetest love, then, is the wholeness of that which contains itself, which never invites and never refuses." And the poem con-cludes with praise of silence: "I swear I will never henceforth have to do with the faith that tells the best, / I will have to do only with that faith that leaves the best untold."
Whitman would labor to extend his presence to every aspect of his book itself and thereby transform it into a living natural object, an expression, as his body was an expression, of his boundless, silent soul. He tells us in "So Long!" "Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man ...... As the form of his face inevitably expressed the wholeness of his being, he would trust that the figures, not the words of his poems, would similarly, in their own perfect and silent natural language, "express the inexpressible." If he could avoid the literary, could disdain the conventional, and simply ex-tend himself into his creation,. silence would speak, would sing. The song would be of himself.
I Wait Whitman, An 1855-56 Notebook Toward the Second Edition of "Leaves of Grass, " ed. Harold W. Blodgett (Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 1959), 7-8.
2 Many of Whitman's contemporaries and friends attempted explication, especially Edward Carpenter and R. M. Bucke, both of whom were familiar with Vedic literature. William James dealt with Whitman's mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and in our own day there are several noteworthy studies: James E. Miller, "'Song ofMyself' as Inverted Mystical Experience" in A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 6-35; and more generally, Arthur Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932). V. K. Chari, whose definition of "cosmic con-sciousness" I have quoted, has done the most thorough, systematic study in nitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965). Chari's definition (p. 34) is inadequate, but his work remains an invaluable source.
3 Eric Bentley, "Sweden's Nasty, Sexist, Racist Genius," New York Times Book Review, I September 1985.
4 Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes," in Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949).
5 John Burroughs, "itman: A Study (New York: William H. Wise and Co., 1924), 124.
6 The Vedas are immense and the richas, verses, sometimes impenetrably abstruse. Rig Veda alone contains more than ten thousand verses and is only one of four principal Vedas, to which we must add other lengthy works not technically part of the Vedas, but included in the broad category of "Vedic literature," such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. I must here acknowledge my indebtedness to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for his formulation of "Vedic Science," a systematized and rationally comprehensible presentation of Vedic knowledge based upon the fourth major state of consciousness, transcendental consciousness.
I should also point out that a great deal of empirical evidence exists for this fourth state of consciousness. Of the scores ofpublished experiments, I might mention Wallace and Benson's "The Physiology of Meditation," Scientific A merican~ 226 (1972) 84-90; also by Wallace et al., "A Wakeful Hypometabolic State," American Journal of Physiology, 221 (1971), 795-799.
7 "The life of man is divided between waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. But transcend-ing these three states is superconscious vision -called the Fourth." The Upanishads, trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (California: Mentor Classics, 1948), 49. All other references to the Upanishads are from this edition. The quotation from "Democratic Vistas" is in Floyd Stovall, ed., Prose Works 1892 (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 2:398-399.
8 The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: "As long as there
is duality, one sees the other, one hears the other, one smells the other,
one speaks to the other; but when for the illumined soul the all is dissolved
in the Self, who is there to be seen by whom, who is there to be smelt
by whom, who is there to be spoken to by whom, who is there to be thought
of by whom, who is there to be known by whom?" (Upanishads, 89).
9 The amorous image of section five was startling to many of Whitman's contemporaries and remains at least puzzling to modern readers. But the experience of the fourth state of con-sciousness, the Upanishads emphasize, is ananda, surpassing pleasure -bliss. What better con-crete metaphor, then, for complete and blissfiil union than love play? There is, of course, in both Western and Eastern literature a long tradition of sexual religious poetry, especially in the work of Kabir, Mirabai, Rumi, St. John of the Cross, and John Donne, to name a few.
10 On this level of universal Self Whitman makes a similar appointment -to "meet" a prosti-tute, in "To a Common Prostitute," perhaps the most misread of his poems.
11 Upanishads, 46-47.
12 Walt Whitman, The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Emory Holloway (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1921), 66.
13 Paul Zweig, Walt Whitma?; The Making of the Poet (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 248-249.
14 Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland
Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 3:174-175.