For a long time I have been mulling writing a post or a series of posts on the relation between poetry and prudence, collecting issues I might like to discuss, organizing them, and so forth. The fruit has not yet ripened, but when Emerson writes an essay on Prudence that addresses just this issue, I cannot but jump into the fire. This post is not what I have been and still am planning, but perhaps it shall help it to take form, or at least introduce a problem. And, in any event, I prefer green tomatoes to red, so perhaps my own immature endeavor shall not be in vain. This will be, I hope, a prolegomenon to future thoughts.
Citations, as usual, are to the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures.
What right have I to write on Prudence?
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writing: “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities which we do not possess.” (357) Where others of his essays are written from experience, here Emerson ventures into a territory known only by aspiration and antagonism—this should be kept in mind. The essay takes the form, in effect, of an exhortation to himself: become prudent! practice the minor virtues! It is not phrased as such—rather, as advice to his readers—but Emerson takes as a rule that one ought “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366), which explains his choice of presentation. What I want to suggest is that it is perhaps Emerson’s natural aloofness to prudence that leads him to underestimate one of its difficulties.
Poetry and prudence should be coincident
What worries Emerson in this essay is the apparent conflict between poetry and prudence. On the one hand, you have the purely prudent individuals, who ask only after the utility of each thing; on the other hand you have purely poetic individuals, such as scholars, who are useless at practical tasks. “The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an encumbrance.” (363) Emerson wants to bridge this gap.
One way in which this gap is bridged lies in poetry itself. I have written before of the way in which literature must come to grips with its own effacement, its own non-necessity, and this essay provides more fodder for such themes. In the very first paragraph, Emerson remarks, “The poet admires the man of energy and tactics” (357), and not much later adds, in a similar vein, “The domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has solaces which others never dream of.” (360) This is a poetic appreciation of the “domestic man”, and it is part and parcel of a view of poetry that sees poetry as celebrating what is poetic in human life, rather than as an apologia for poetry. Whitman, whose (1855) Leaves of Grass I recently read, is perhaps the best exemplar of this poetic trend, if only because this philosophy of poetry not only is borne out by the content of his poems—i.e. the poetic celebration of energy and tactics within them—but is also given explicit voice within his poems: this is what I, Walt Whitman, poet, am doing. But the examples are, really, endless.
Poetry, then, takes upon itself as a primary task the showing of itself as unnecessary by indicating the universal accessibility of poetry in everyday life, if only one looks. Not for nothing does Whitman distinguish the poet from the non-poet by the poet’s ability to see the poetry, unnoticed by the non-poet, in what the non-poet is doing. And what characterizes such lives is, above all else, prudence. Prudence in maintaining a household, in choosing a job, in spending money, etc.
Emerson draws a distinction, however, between true and base prudence. Base prudence is a devotion to matter, which “asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?” (358) And Emerson’s diagnosis is grave: “This is a disease like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.” (358) Against this is true prudence: “The true prudence limits this sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.” (358)
This opens up the question of prudence onto the whole question of Emerson’s realism and idealism. Emerson’s realist pole recognizes the fixity of matter, of causal relations, of natural law, while his idealist pole sees everything as flexible under the influence of an inquiring intellect. Prudence, whether base or true, is tied to the realist axis. “Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.” (359) It is this first sentence that is key: prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. Prudence accepts that this is how it is. It is the asking after the “whence it is” that is the domain of poetry, that risks setting all things in motion, that offers the possibility of new evaluations. Poetry holds up the material world to the light of the “internal and real world.” These are the grounds on which poetry and prudence must coincide.
Here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its chemical routine
Emerson has more to say about this coincidence—much of it takes the form of an exhortation to practice the minor, prudential virtues—but my gaze is here drawn to a lurking problem to do with base prudence that I do not think Emerson has sufficiently addressed. My guiding light here is in fact none other than Emerson himself, the Emerson who recognizes that there are objections to every line of action—I always forget where, exactly, this worry finds voice, maybe “Experience”. What Emerson underestimates is base prudence as a source of endless objections to poetry.
To see this requires some groundwork. Emerson is an experimental philosopher, which I take to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is an unflinching commitment to honesty to oneself, one’s true, inner self. Second, there is an ontological gambit: there is no preexisting self to which one can be honest—that self is simultaneous with the honest act. Emerson gives voice to the first of these aspects when he writes, “The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary ones” (366)—voluntary actions are chosen, but natural motions are necessitated. Emerson—elsewhere, I forget where—notes that there is really only one direction in which the soul can go at any time: any other direction and it runs into a wall. Voluntary action, choosing which way to go, inevitably leads to these walls. Freedom, for Emerson, requires the strictest necessity.
But this means that honesty to oneself is paramount—yet such honesty can always find objections from without. And base prudence is one source of such objections. An experimentally honest action need not be prudent—indeed, the material utility of any action is more or less universal and can efface individuality in the wrong way—and so the “sickness” of base prudence is precisely that the question “will it bake bread” is liable to distract from such honesty. Emerson notes that matter is “stubborn” (359), by which he refers to the fixity of natural law, but matter is “stubborn” in another way, too: it stubbornly puts this question to us.
When prudence functions in this way, as the source of endless objections, clearly poetry and prudence are not coincident. One must privilege honesty, or one must privilege utility, but in either case, they pull in opposite directions. A unity of poetry and prudence requires some method of quelling this tide of prudential objections to poetic honesty, yet Emerson, at least in this essay, provides none. Thus I can only conclude that the problem of harmonizing poetry and prudence remains unsolved.
A single exclamation mark appears in the poem Whitman would later call “I sing the body electric”—it is precisely placed, and marks the emotional center of the poem. Whitman is looking away from something, dallying, procrastinating, but it will not let him off. When he finally casts his gaze upon it, there it is, punctually, the dot and line. But this may be stated less cryptically.
The poem begins:
The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,
They will not let me off nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them.
Whitman goes with and responds to and loves many over the course of the poem, but in different ways. Some are easy for him to go with, to respond to, to love. And from another he averts his eyes, but finds that even there he will not be let off. Whitman’s next act, after this beginning, is to raise two questions:
Was it dreamed whether those who corrupted their own live bodies could conceal themselves?
And whether those who defiled the living were as bad as they who defiled the dead?
What is crucial in the poem is Whitman’s search for answers to these questions. The search begins generally: Whitman reminds us of the perfection of both male and female bodies. Here, as it were, is Whitman’s first principle, and now the demonstration may begin. Whitman soon gives us a list, a list of bodies at work and in leisure. Whitman goes briefly with each, responds to each, loves each. All are perfect. After this list, followed by a longer tarrying with an old, vigorous farmer, Whitman is left with a perception:
I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough,
But this perception is not an answer to Whitman’s questions, and perhaps this should be no surprise. Whitman is looking in the familiar places, but if the answers lay there, we should not have needed this poem. The first four in Leaves of Grass should have sufficed. So Whitman sets out again, now examining the female form—
Be not ashamed women
—now the male form—
The male is not less the soul, nor more
—finding each as perfect as his first principle promised. But we still have not gotten past this principle. To be sure, we have applied it to particulars, and that is well, and valuable; likewise, we have gained a new perception—
All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion.
—and that too, is well, and valuable—but, to use a Whitmanian distinction, these things please the soul, they do not please the soul well. For the soul has raised for itself a question, and the answer does not lie here.
We get the sense, after this, that Whitman is avoiding something, though we do not yet know what. In fact, however, the character Whitman has been avoiding does make a cursory appearance, though without a premonition of what is to come.
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred. . . . it is no matter who,
Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
The slave appears here, alongside the dullfaced immigrants, as proof that Whitman’s first principle knows no exceptions. But the slave is subsumed under a general account, is but one of many Whitman could have placed here: the prostitute, the criminal, or any number of other objects of scorn. So, for now, we see no reason to suspect the slave as being of any special importance—except, of course, in having a sacred body. Yet, as we have seen, all that is yielded from this affirmation of the first principle is a perception that does not answer the soul’s question, the processional nature of the universe.
What follows Whitman’s presentation of this truth is instructive.
Do you know so much that you call the slave or the dullface ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight. . . . and he or she has not right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffused float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and vegetation sprouts for you . . and not for him and her?
But no! no! this is all wrong! Whitman first tried to treat the slave as an instance of a general principle. That did not work, that yielded no answer, so now addresses the issue in another way. But who does he address? You: do you know, do you suppose, do you think? He goes with, responds to, loves… you. You and not the slave. Whitman! You are still averting your eyes! You are looking only obliquely!
But that cannot last.
A slave at auction!
Whitman, if for but a moment, looks into the eyes of the slave. All depends on his response:
I help the auctioneer . . . . the sloven does not half know his business.
Whitman describes the slave, his beautiful body, his allbaffling brain, his limbs, his blood. He describes not only one man, for
This is not only one man . . . . he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.
Whitman here is, indeed, helping the auctioneer: the auctioneer cannot see the true value of the slave; Whitman helps him to ascertain it. And in this process, Whitman receives his answers, with which the poem ends.
Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? Or the fool that corrupted her own live body?
For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves.
Who degrades or defiles the living human body is cursed,
Who degrades or defiles the body of the dead is not more cursed.
The soul has its answer—only the suspicion nags at me that the soul is still not well pleased. For the answer takes the form of a curse. Whitman, so affirmative in his poetry, indeed even throughout the body of this poem, ends not with affirmation but denunciation. Why is this?
Whitman has more than one first principle, only in this poem he has forgotten the others. He has forgotten that all returns. For he has still not gone with, responded to, and loved the slave. He has helped the auctioneer; he has addressed the gentleman bidding—but he has merely described the slave. The description suffices to yield an answer, but the answer comes as a curse, for Whitman is cursed. Whitman has, one last time, averted his eyes, and so the slave will not let him off.
I have not read Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, but I shall not let this self-consciousness quell the rising tide of injustice within me.
On the nothing new,
Whitman enjoys giving lists. There is good reason for this: lists do not require any imposition of form, beyond the minimum of sequence. Then, if “the press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,” and if “they scorn the best I can do to relate them,” there is a solution: list them. It is a misfortune of human cognition, no more, that we must experience the list sequentially. Perhaps it is impossible to experience Whitman as he ought be experienced: all at once, in a single gulp. Only this is no accident; the poetry is a resting place for the wayfarer, and the moment she leaves Whitman’s side the hundred affections crowd around her.
What Whitman lists, is nothing new. They are the old things. What Whitman comments of them, is nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of years and billions of individuals—do you believe there are any recesses of human experience yet to be explored? Humanity and human possibility is an old thing. There are no new ways of being human, no new ways of seeing. There is nothing new under the sun, as they say. You believe in new things? “You foolish child!”
having no alternative,
The concept of inevitability gives philosophers fits, yet not because it is elusive, rather, familiar. Stepping out of our closet, the problem is easily inhumed, with a simple look at the sun. The sun is not virtuous, has no free will, yet it shines, having no alternative, none the less for it. Choice is the precondition for virtue, goodness: one is not morally commendable for what one had no choice but to do. It is a fool’s errand to praise or thank the sun. No supplication will modify its shining.
Moral-commendability-enhancing actions are praiseworthy, if ungainly. There is a quieter beauty to be found in the self-contained animals. “Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth,” and in just this lack of virtue they command our admiration. Morality has a downside: it produces words, endless words, moaning words—I am a sinner, I am a wretch—encouraging words—do it, for it is your duty to God—praising words—you are a good person. Much better the quiet contentment of a furiously pounding April rain. Praise to the man or woman who has no more intricate purpose than does the April rain, no more private and parochial purpose than the mica on the side of a rock.
the sun shone.
Walt Whitman enjoys giving lists; he illuminates what is there. What is there? The old things are there, “the old forever new things.” What illuminates them? The soul. The soul is no intentional agent, no purveyor of purpose; “Not you will yield forth the dawn again more surely than you will yield forth me again.” There is an ontological assumption here. Let us not say—here is the sun, here are the things, now let us relate them by shining—that will not do. Let us instead say that each comes into existence with the other. “All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it.” Architecture does not lie in the stones. The things do not lie in themselves, without the sun.
The soul is my most intimate companion, but it stands beside and not within me. It remains to be realized. Not just soul is realized; “animals and vegetables,” “laws of the earth and air” equally must be realized. None are given. The nothing new remains untried. Only when the soul illuminates the animals, are they both. Things are the biography of the soul, contain its themes.
Nothing is new, but all is unknown. What confidence is possible, then? “But I know it is sure and alive, and sufficient.” Beckett’s sun is an experimenter.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
[All quotations are from the 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s leaves of grass, as published by the Library of America.]
Most of my more philosophical posts have been aimed at defending my approach to art and interpretation. Yesterday, however, I read Gilles Deleuze’s essays on Whitman and Melville (in Essays Critical and Clinical), and I want to engage in a bit of pure exegesis here in order to get a better grip on them. In these two essays, Deleuze refers to the “American Dream”, which he elucidates in his own terminology, but which he finds to be shared between the two authors. His analysis of Melville especially reveals how literary acts can effect this dream, helping to draw the reader toward it. My aim is to trace out the shape of Deleuze’s version of the American Dream. I don’t want to evaluate it for faithfulness to Whitman or Melville (though I do think much of his Melville exegesis is excellent). Nor do I wish to touch on the connection Deleuze draws between this and his views on psychoanalysis (a connection made in the very title of the essay collection). I am simply not competent to evaluate that. I am interested, instead, in the picture of human flourishing that emerges, what Deleuze calls the “American Dream”. (I will also draw implicitly on the essays Literature and Life and To Have Done With Judgment, both in the same collection, but I will not emphasize them or focus on them specifically.)
The two essays, Whitman and Bartleby; or, the Formula (henceforth Bartleby), arrive at the same vision by different routes. In the former, Deleuze sets out a metaphysics of relations, exploring the ways relations between objects may be built up and destroyed. In the latter, Deleuze again develops a metaphysics, this time of lawless primary nature and lawful secondary nature. Here, unlike in the Whitman essay, Deleuze analyzes in depth how Melville’s characters and language relate to these two natures, so I will mostly focus on Bartleby. I will begin, however, with Whitman, which introduces some core ideas that will recur later.
Deleuze makes a useful contrast between two images, which provides a good entry point into the metaphysics of Whitman. Deleuze juxtaposes the image of an endless wall of stones heaped upon one another to the image of a wall of stones cemented together. In the latter case, there is a clear totality, and fixed relations: the stones do not move in relation to one another. In the former, however, relations are not fixed. The balance is precarious, and may be upset, but when, say, a portion of the wall falls down, it may be put back up, stone upon stone. The new arrangement will not be identical to the old, of course, and this is just the point. We can imagine a ceaseless cycle of stones falling and being replaced: ever shifting relations. There is no stable, constant wall, no overarching totality. The wall is in a constant state of becoming. The totality of the wall is located in the external relations of a given moment, which are always shifting.
These stones are meant to represent what Deleuze elsewhere in the essay calls “fragments”—he frequently refers to American literature as a fragmentary literature. Fragments have existence in themselves, but they also have relations to other fragments, relations which are, as above, constantly shifting. Deleuze labels two processes that effect this shifting. On the one side is Nature/History, and on the other side is War. (I will use capital letters to indicate Deleuze’s terms of art, since they are not meant to be identified with the physical realities that provide the metaphors.) Nature (for simplicity I’ll ignore any differences between Nature and History) builds up relations between fragments, while War tears them down.
The view of human flourishing that Deleuze develops is one where people ally themselves with Nature, which he finds in Whitman to be a Society of Comrades, where the dominant relationship is Camaraderie. Here he deploys another image: that of wounded soldiers in the hospital. The soldiers in the hospital are isolated from one another, are fragments stripped of their relations by War. The individual who is allied with Nature, then, must go to each soldier individually and establish a relation of Camaraderie with him. A slow, diligent process of building back up relations that War has stripped away. Here, then, in brief, we have the notion of human flourishing that Deleuze wants to develop. But what is War that it would strip away such relations? And what is Camaraderie that it can build them back up? For answers, we need to turn to the essay on Melville.
Bartleby begins as an analysis of the famous formula of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, before becoming Deleuze’s analysis of all of Melville, and then Deleuze’s analysis of all of life. In that short story, Bartleby, when asked to do various tasks, inevitably replies, “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze begins his analysis by looking in depth at the language of this formula.
When confronted with a request (“will you do this”) or even an order (“do this”), Bartleby says he would prefer not to. Deleuze notes that this doesn’t amount either to a clear negation (“I don’t want to”) or a clear affirmation (“Instead of X, as you suggest/request, I prefer Y”). Bartleby’s task in the office is, at first, copying, which he does quite efficiently. When asked to do something else, he of course would prefer not to. What Deleuze notes (this is ingenious) is that, because of this, Bartleby cannot go on copying as he had before. For to go on copying would be to express a positive preference, to prefer copying to this other task, and that is just what the formula is meant to exclude.
In order to understand the effects this works on Bartleby, I need to introduce some more of Deleuze’s metaphysical machinery. (He presents it as Melville’s metaphysical machinery.) Deleuze finds in Melville a distinction between Primary Nature, which is “original”, “oceanic”, and “lawless”, and which carries out its irrational aims through innately depraved beings. It is supersensible nature. Opposed to this is ordinary, sensible, Secondary Nature, which is governed by laws, regularities, reason. This sets up a fourfold distinction of types of people. (Deleuze only lists three types, but there is an implicit fourth type.)
First, and second, we have Monomaniacs and Hypochondriacs. Monomaniacs are characters like Ahab of Moby-Dick, driven by an insane bloodlust. (Claggart, from Billy Budd, Sailor, is another Monomaniac.) What defines Monomaniacs is that their bloodlust, their great will to nothingness, forces them to make a “monstrous choice”. Whaling culture prohibits whalers from choosing among whales: they must go after simply those whales they come across. Ahab’s relentless search for Moby-Dick, then, is in defiance of this culture, of this “law”. This defiance of the law makes Ahab a creature of primary nature—more on this shortly. Opposed to the Monomaniacs are the Hypochondriacs, of which Bartleby and Billy Budd are prime examples. Hypochondriacs have not a will to nothingness but a nothingness in their will: they get their satisfaction in suspension of judgment, of choosing, of preferring. Where Monomaniacs are thundering, Hypochondriacs are petrified. Where Monomaniacs are beyond all punishment, Hypochondriacs are beyond all responsibility. Hypochondriacs are thus, in the opposite way, equally “against” the law. Bartleby, for his job, must choose, must have a preference. And yet: “I’d prefer not to.” His abdication of preference is just as opposed to the lawfulness of secondary nature as Ahab’s terrible preference.
Third, we have Prophets—and, implicitly, fourth, we have everyone else. Prophets are creatures of secondary nature, endowed with special sensitivity that lets them “see” the other two types. Ishmael of Moby-Dick is a prophet; so is Captain Vere of Billy Budd. The Prophets are significantly impotent: they are unable to ward off the demons, the Monomaniacs, which are too quick and too strong for the law. Likewise, they are unable to save the innocent Hypochondriacs, which are immolated in the name of the law: Captain Vere has Billy Budd executed for killing Claggart, and Bartleby ends up thrown in a prison, preferring not to to the end. What do they do, then? In the wake of what they’ve seen, they try to put back together the law that has been so violently disrupted. As for everyone else, they are creatures of secondary nature not endowed with special sensitivity—in Moby-Dick, at least, they all die, with only Ishmael left standing.
One last distinction: Originals vs. Particulars. The Hypochondriacs and Monomaniacs are creatures of primary nature, which work in secondary nature and influence its course—it is Prophets who recognize this influence, who see its source. Originals exceed any applicable form; they are solitary and unfathomable. They are neither general types, Aristotelian categories under which particulars may be subsumed, nor themselves particulars, influencing other particulars in accordance with general laws. They are, I suppose, singularities.
Now we can see how Bartleby’s formula works. Deleuze lays out a tripartite scheme. First, a formless trait of expression opposes particular images and expressed form. Bartleby, the scrivener is a particular, but the application of his formula gradually divests him of any particular characteristics. Because his preferring not to is neither negation nor affirmation, his preferring not to adopt some new particular characteristic means he can no longer keep his old characteristics without expressing a positive preference. In short, it makes his particular characteristics impossible to keep. This is the first stage, in which a particular loses his particularity (without thereby becoming a general type).
What happens next involves Deleuze’s concept of a Zone of Proximity. Particulars often engage in mimesis, in the attempt to imitate or conform to some privileged image. This involves a subject trying to shape itself in particular ways. But the subject, the particular, has been effaced, and so mimesis is impossible. Instead, Bartleby enters into a Zone of Proximity to the Hypochondriac BARTLEBY (all caps simply to make the difference obvious). What this means is that Bartleby is no longer distinguishable from BARTLEBY, where BARTLEBY is an Original, a creature of Primary Nature. Here the connection between Primary and Secondary Nature is established. Importantly, BARTLEBY is not some preexistent reality that Bartleby becomes indistinguishable from. Rather, Bartleby, by applying his formula, creates and then becomes BARTLEBY. The lawless irrationality of Primary Nature comes to disrupt the lawfulness and reason of Secondary Nature. We witness, for instance, his boss behaving more and more as if he is mad, as his attempts to force Bartleby to behave reasonably fail. Bartleby becomes a locus around which the “everyone else” of Secondary Nature finds life disrupted. (In Moby-Dick, recall, everyone around Ahab—except Ishmael—dies.)
This brings us to the third and final stage in the process. We have, with the intrusion of Primary Nature into Secondary Nature, a disruption of law, which Deleuze conceives as a paternal function: you shall do/believe/be this (for your own good!). There are two responses to this intrusion. One is the response of the Prophets: attempting to patch over the disruption, to clean up in the wake of the intrusion, to rebuild and reinstate the law. But the other is to replace the paternal function of law with a function of universal fraternity—this is the equivalent of the Society of Comrades, of brothers, that emerged in the analysis of Whitman. (Here, in the contrast between the paternal function of law/Secondary Nature and the fraternal function of Primary Nature, is a place where fruitful connections can be drawn to the more straightforwardly clinical work of e.g. Anti-Oedipus. Again, I am not competent to comment in depth on this; I simply note that it exists.)
Now we’re in a position to answer the two questions I raised at the end of considering Whitman: what is War, that it strips away relations? what is Camaraderie, that it builds them back up?
War is, roughly, the judgment of law, of Secondary Nature. This is discussed at length in To Have Done With Judgment, but it involves any fixed criteria of evaluation, which is repressive to what is new. This is why it matters that BARTLEBY (and other Originals) is not preexistent: the non-preexistence of Originals means that we simply do not have criteria developed to assess them, and so they defy and disrupt established criteria, which come out as repressive. War is also found in, of all places, charity and philanthropy, and these cases are quite instructive. Charity and philanthropy involve helping another by placing oneself in a higher position, by acting as a benevolent figure who decides what is good for another and does it. War, in these guises, functions to strip away relations by saying what something or someone must be, what relations it may and must have, and by condemning those relations it has built up for itself.
Camaraderie involves, on the other hand, meeting others as siblings, as equals: no charity, no attempt to “save souls”. (The Christian evangelist who believes he knows what your soul needs for its salvation is engaged in War, for Deleuze.) One last new concept: what defines Camaraderie is not belief in another, better world, in some saving doctrine, but Confidence in one’s fellows. Deleuze analyzes Bartleby’s application of his formula, after he ceased working altogether, as a request for Confidence. His boss, with increasing frustration and madness, however, offers him only charity: well here are other jobs you might be suited for, etc. The result is that Bartleby is left, at the end, in a prison. (No metaphor: a literal prison.) The Hypochondriac again sacrificed to the law.
Against this sacrifice lies the American Dream, the tripartite sequence: (1) A formless trait of expression divests the particular of its particularity, ends the mimetic subject. à (2) The particular, thus unburdened, enters a Zone of Proximity to an Original, a creature of Primary Nature, and opposes the law. à (3) This disruption of the law is the disruption of paternalism and War more generally, and makes possible the establishment of a Society of Comrades.
I will let Deleuze have the last word, with a beautiful passage in which he describes the sort of social relationship he champions:
Yet, what remains of souls once they are no longer attached to particularities, what keeps them from melting into a whole? What remains is precisely their ‘originality’, that is, a sound that each one produces, like a ritornello at the limit of language, but that it produces only when it takes to the open road (or to the open sea) with its body, when it leads its life without seeking salvation, when it embarks upon its incarnate voyage, without any particular aim, and then encounters other voyagers, whom it recognizes by their sound.
(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.