Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Revisiting Whitman: Inspiration Found in His “Urban Transcendentalism”

One of the most significant things for me about Walt Whitman is his “brand” (as it were) of Transcendentalism that extends beyond the original tenets of Transcendentalism. Emerson, Thoreau, etc, held that divinity was in nature. For the old guard Transcendentalists, divinity was something that the human could partake in and recognize as a part of themselves. For example, Emerson wrote in his Transcendental work, "Nature":

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present…

Here, for Emerson, a traditional Transcendentalist, the “universal essence” or divinity is the fullness of love, wisdom, and power found within nature. And, this spirit/essnce is available to man -- "present to the soul of man."

However, Whitman takes this understanding of divinity and builds on it. Particularly in “Song of Myself,” Whitman looked at the world and saw divinity in ALL -- not just nature or "positive virtues" such as love, wisdom, etc. Take the following passage from section 30:

All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any,
(What is less or more than a touch?)

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so.)

A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,
And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman,
And a summit and flower there is the feeling they have for each other,
And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it
becomes omnific,
And until one and all shall delight us, and we them.

Here, for Whitman, potential for all truth is in ALL things. Everything is everything, and has the potential to transform – “soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps.” Truth, wisdom, divinity is not limited. It is not only in “good things” or in nature; potential resides everywhere. This idea of limitless and wisdom/divinity in all is expanded throughout the text, but especially in this section from 42:

Ever the hard unsunk ground,
Ever the eaters and drinkers, ever the upward and downward sun, ever
the air and the ceaseless tides,
Ever myself and my neighbors, refreshing, wicked, real,
Ever the old inexplicable query, ever that thorn'd thumb, that
breath of itches and thirsts,
Ever the vexer's hoot! hoot! till we find where the sly one hides
and bring him forth,
Ever love, ever the sobbing liquid of life,
Ever the bandage under the chin, ever the trestles of death.

Here and there with dimes on the eyes walking,
To feed the greed of the belly the brains liberally spooning,
Tickets buying, taking, selling, but in to the feast never once going,
Many sweating, ploughing, thrashing, and then the chaff for payment receiving,
A few idly owning, and they the wheat continually claiming.

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets,
newspapers, schools,
The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories,
stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.

The little plentiful manikins skipping around in collars and tail'd coats
I am aware who they are, (they are positively not worms or fleas,)
I acknowledge the duplicates of myself, the weakest and shallowest
is deathless with me,
What I do and say the same waits for them,
Every thought that flounders in me the same flounders in them.

Again, in this passage, one sees this idea of “everything is everything” – “Every thought that flounders in me, the same flounders in them.” Furthermore, all that he lists (“tickets buying, taking… politics, wars, markets...”) is part of the city, part of himself, and part of a greater flux that is “deathless.”

Not only was it revolutionary in his time to speak of the minutiae of life and the city, but to speak of ALL as beautiful, ALL as deathless was also groundbreaking. I call him an "Urban Transcendentalist" because this Transcendental concept of God/Spirit in nature and humanity, bleeds into the city, into urban life. God is in all the nooks and crannies, in all interactions... Of course, in part, this is the component of Whitman’s work that gave rise to the creation of a lot of “Bad Hippie Poetry.” For, not only were poets given permission to write in a freer form but they were also given permission to discuss the world (and spirituality) in a freer, more open way.

Yet, despite the fact that this spiritual/philosophical aspect of Whitman's work "gave rise to Hippie Poetry," it is still an aspect of his work that inspires me greatly. It is a selfish sort of inspiration too. For, when I read his work, I feel I find parts of myself, parts of my own beliefs about the world and the magnificence, the potential beauty in all of it. It strengthens me, my sense of self, and thus gives me a stronger place to write from -- that's the tip of the iceberg, anyway!

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