Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and also Nietzsche, because
(I read the Penguin Classics edition containing the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, introduced by Malcolm Cowley.)
William James, in his chapter on Mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, makes the claim that the truth revealed in mystical experiences has complete authority for the experiencer, but that the grounds for this truth lie in the experience itself and so cannot be transmitted to others, who of course have not shared the experience. At its best, Leaves of Grass (generally thought to be mostly inspired by just such an experience) is a refutation of James’ claim. At its worst, it serves the opposite function of a proof.
Let me start with the confutation. The centerpiece of Leaves of Grass is its opening, longest, and best poem, untitled in the original but later called “Song of Myself”. (Cowley, in the introduction, provides good reason for thinking this an inadequate title.) “Song of Myself” has the basic structure of a sort of prophet, Walt Whitman (at this time distinguished from Walter Whitman, the poet—see Cowley’s introduction), who has a profound mystical experience and transmits the conclusions it engenders. Importantly, the poem is an invitation to the reader: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems” (line 25). What Whitman the prophet is attempting, I believe successfully, is to create through his poem an experience in the reader that, while not the same as his own experience, gives rise to the same conclusions in the reader. By the time the poem reaches the “sermon”, Whitman’s rhythms and cadences have so prepped the reader that the poem no longer feels like a separate voice. The truth of the prophet’s sermon is readily apparent to the reader.
(In case it was not clear, the notion of ‘truth’ I am working with is not the empirical notion that arose with modern science. The notion of ‘truth’ is rather that of Emerson: the true claim is its own argument for itself. Whitman is quite explicitly working with a notion like this: cf. lines 353-354, “These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me, / If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,”. I do not think it is possible to love the poem, as opposed to appreciating it from a terrible intellectual distance, without accepting the validity of this sort of notion of truth, which can of course say nothing about the empirical nature of the world, but which nonetheless is of the greatest importance. This aside is the product of too much time spent reading New Atheist blogs, but I hope it is helpful nonetheless. Perhaps I could have achieved the same simply by quoting perhaps my favorite line of the poem: “The facts are useful and real….they are not my dwelling….I enter by them to an area of the dwelling.” )
How does Whitman prepare the reader to realize his truths, to anticipate them before they are revealed? The first is his simple, accessible prose. My reading of late has been Joyce and Nabokov, two of the densest writers in the English language, who create meaning through complex artifice—Whitman serves as a counter to these, as proof that simple language and readily accessible words can transmit equally profound meaning. Whitman’s poetry certainly allows for deep analysis, but the experience of reading it is not analytic. It is an ecstatic rush. “Song of Myself” is a continuous replay of the moment a dam bursts. It is a written testament to the “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world.” (36-37).
This sheer accessibility makes possible what I think is the primary virtue of Whitman’s style, and the crucial element in creating the “mystical” effect of “Song of Myself”: Whitman’s use of symbols, which I find tremendously Emersonian. Emerson complains of mystical writers (e.g. Swedenborg) that their truth is obscured because they do not recognize that temporal nature of their symbols. Those symbols are true for a time but not eternally, and not for everybody. Each person may dress their truth in different symbols, those that reveal the truth to that specific person. Symbols are to be discarded rapidly the moment their well is dry. Whitman is explicitly aware of this limitation of the written word, of the tendency of poetry to poetrify symbols and deprive them of their life, and is dutiful in his avoidance of this.
I see three primary ways that Whitman uses natural objects and images. He amasses them in great agglomerations and lets them speak in unison. See, for instance, the giant list of the 15th chant, a great collection of people to which Whitman appends: “And such as it is to be of these more or less I am.” (325). Any one image will do to make the point; no image is essential. They could be replaced: they are the images Whitman has chosen and they make his point, but Whitman could have made it with others. And thus Whitman avoids forcing just these images on others. They are examples only, exactly the right examples but not exclusive. Second, Whitman takes a single image and probes it in depth, as for instance in his “tale of a jetblack sunrise” (866). Here he is foremost descriptive: he vividly paints the scene but does not tie it to a single petrified meaning. “And that was a jetblack sunrise” (889), make of it what you will. Finally, Whitman juxtaposes brief, distinct pictures, as for instance at the start of the eighth chant, where he shows in order an infant asleep, two youths (male and female) on a hill, and a suicide in the bedroom. Whitman the prophet experiences each in turn, relates to each, and in his presentation of them allows the reader also to experience them in turn. Whitman himself expressed it best: “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name, / And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.” (1279-80).
All of this, then, builds to revelation of the prophet’s conclusions, a revelation that we have been primed to receive as a voice within our own heads, as truths that justify themselves in their relation to us. I will get to the specifics of these later, but first I would like to deal with the remaining poems in the collection, particularly those that fail. The delirious dance of “The Sleepers” and the furious discharging of static of “I Sing the Body Electric” are great successes (and various others I enjoy as well), but several of the poems do little for me.
In the weaker poems, such as “A Song for Occupations” and “Song of the Answerer”, Whitman’s language remains immersive and beautiful, but the overall effect is lost: when I step back from the rush I have gained nothing. The primary reason for this is, I think, that these poems come across as merely conclusions with little hint of the experience that drives them. It is only half of Whitman, and the dead, petrified half that cannot stand without the other. They lack the vital thrust of life that imbues the three highlights I mentioned. The worst offender is “A Boston Ballad”, which strikes me as almost totally empty messageering. (It was written before Whitman’s mystical experience, so that likely explains part of why.)
Enough of the failures: on to Whitman’s doctrine. There is certainly plenty to be said about the similarity of Whitman’s revelations to various Eastern doctrines, but I am interested in their relation to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as I see that work and Leaves of Grass as two great gospels of the 19th Century. Aesthetically, the highlights of Leaves of Grass top the highlights of the (similarly inconsistent) Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but, on a personal level, I find Zarathustra more essential, and I want to explore why.
There is a deep connection between portions of Whitman’s revelations and Nietzsche’s incisive philosophy. One of Whitman’s core claims is that an indelible part of the world’s “procreant urge” is miscreant. Whitman at several points expresses his affinity with the wicked, e.g. “It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous….I make appointments with all,” (373). There is very much a sense of Whitman feeling he is “beyond good and evil” (to borrow a phrase), as in one of the better lines of “A Song for Occupations”: “The learned and virtuous and benevolent, and the usual terms; / A man like me, and never the usual terms.” (11-12). This is intimately connected with his celebration of the body (most prominent, of course, in “I Sing the Body Electric”), a celebration that gives sensuous detail to the same thought that Nietzsche expressed in his quote to the effect that the body possesses greater wisdom than the deepest philosophy. Whitman shows, like Nietzsche, disdain for the notion of guilt: “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” (“Song of Myself”, 410) and “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, / They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,” (“Song of Myself”, 687-88). Lastly, Whitman hints at a theme that would centrally occupy Nietzsche: the reality and terribleness of pain. “The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself….the latter I translate into a new tongue.” (“Song of Myself”, 424-25) and “Agonies are one of my changes of garments;” (“Song of Myself”, 840). Like Nietzsche, Whitman sees that something must be done with pain, and his response is creative, to “translate [it] into a new tongue.”
But I think this last similarity is also where Nietzsche gains the philosophical upper hand on Whitman, because Nietzsche and Whitman attack these themes with vastly different moods. Whitman acknowledges the reality of pain, explores its depths (as in for instance the “jetblack sunrise” section of “Song of Myself”), and even recognizes the way in which creativity reappropriates and in doing so overcomes pain. His mood in doing so, however, is democratic and optimistic, fluidly integrated with his love for all and his conviction that things are, ultimately, quite good. Nietzsche, on the other hand, has severed ties with the notion of goodness or badness “on the whole”, independently of what we make good or bad. Pain is real and awful, pain is a necessary precondition of our existence and our happiness, but there is no guarantee that this will work itself out. The creative task of overcoming the painfulness of living is a task at which most people will fail, and it is against that failure that Nietzsche fights tooth and nail. Nietzsche is spurred on to rigorous living by the very fear of failure, of succumbing to the abyss. Whitman, on the other hand, can seem complacent. Perhaps, wrapped up in the sense of omnipotence said to accompany mystical experiences, Whitman felt assured of success. The problem of failure did not even occur to him.
I think this comes out in Whitman’s and Nietzsche’s differing views on immortality. Whitman conceives of living thousands of lives across which one makes spiritual progress: death is not permanent, the next life will be different (and the life after that). Nietzsche, on the other hand, offers this thought experiment: imagine a demon who comes in the middle of the night and tells you that every moment of your life will be repeated, with perfect exactness, in an eternal recurrence. Any pain, any action that you do not “translate into a new tongue” will become an endless torture. The consequences of failure are terrible, and infinite. (To quell the new atheist whose stomach may be starting to rumble again: obviously neither of these visions is what actually happens. Bodies decompose, are “bequeath[ed] to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,” [“Song of Myself”, 1329]. Neither Whitman nor Nietzsche has presented an empirical truth, a fact Nietzsche recognized and Whitman likely did not, though I am not sure. My point in bringing up these visions is that the mood that Nietzsche’s thought experiment inspires if you take it seriously is right, whereas the mood that Whitman’s vision inspires if you take it seriously can lead to a dangerous complacency.)
This leaves Whitman’s poems as inspiring visions presented “incomparably well”, visions that are deeply right in a very real sense, but which do not serve that essential function whose importance Nietzsche grasped: indelibly stamping his reader with a sense of the dreadful consequences and reality of failure. Whitman was a greater poet, but Nietzsche is the greater prophet.