An estimable poet in his own right, C.K. Williams has written an accessible, short study of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Part of a writers-on-writers series recently launched by Princeton University Press, On Whitman is a slight book, an appreciative meditation rather than a critical study. Williams helps readers see Whitman’s genius, especially his intuitive grasp of the existential and metaphysical demands of a radically democratic culture.
“I celebrate myself,” writes Whitman in a characteristic line of self-exaltation. For readers raised on the self-abnegating ethic of the New Testament (“He must increase; I must decrease,” says John the Baptist when he encounters Jesus), the poet seems a hopeless egotist: “In all people I see myself.” “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
First impressions aren’t always accurate. Whitman’s hymns to the self do not reflect an inwardly turned selfishness. On the contrary, as he recognized, a democratic culture requires a self-enlarging sensibility. A society of peons cannot rule itself. Thus the assertive moment: My voice should be heard! My vote counts!
Whitman’s enlarging self-importance also expands toward an all-encompassing solidarity. “A Song for Occupations,” like so many of Whitman’s poems, evokes humanity in its great diversity: to see and identify with the great variety of working men and women confers dignity on their lives, and brings us into solidarity with them.
Whitman’s solidarity even reaches the point of a poetic empathy akin to Christian ideals: “If you become degraded, criminal, ill, then I become so for your sake.” It was not an empty literary gesture. While trying to find his brother among the Civil War’s wounded, he was so moved by the scenes of suffering that he devoted himself to visiting the war-torn soldiers then languishing in the military hospitals in and around Washington.
Whitman’s songs of social solidarity suggest such a limitless universality that boundaries become invisible, and the effect is to evoke the disposition of expansive inclusion that we find so prevalent these days: “The Asiatic and African are hand in hand, the European and American are hand in hand.” At such a great distance from life solidarity can seem thin and imaginary.
The same holds for Whitman’s eschatological hopes: “The felon steps forth from prison, the insane becomes sane, the suffering of sick persons is reliev’d.” Today we coin euphemisms (“mentally ill,” “differently abled”), and explain crime as a socially caused pathology. They are gestures of solidarity, efforts to extend the circle of inclusion, but at the cost of honesty about reality.
It is a noble vision—a sense of self at once exalted and at the service of others, at the center and in solidarity, assertive and empathetic—but it is very difficult to sustain, especially in the radical ambiance of Whitman’s universalism. There is an appalling lack of institutional and historical reality in Whitman’s poetry. He races through great lists of places, vocations, and states of life, but rarely lingers lovingly over anything other than bodies and their arresting sensuality. This absence in his poetry evacuates life of sustaining forms and enduring loyalties.
Whitman’s antipathy to the arresting power of place and history reflects a perennial feature (and weakness) of the universal aspirations of modernity. Rousseau was a kindred democratic soul, more theoretical but equally radical. He saw that metaphysical significance must be drained out of the richly populated and historically saturated topography of culture.
The commanding authority of historical particularities, and the mediating social institutions that minister to them, powerfully impedes the enlargement of the self and expansion of solidarity. For particularity limits the self with demands for loyalty, as well as preventing us from fusing ourselves to our common humanity in a universal “yes.” This is why Rousseau winnowed down social reality to the singular individual and the all-encompassing state that expands to an all powerful Leviathan, fusing them together in the social contract.
A metaphysical savant, Whitman was more radical than Rousseau. He intuited that a purely democratic culture requires an impoverished universe: the Regal Self on one side and the metaphysical Leviathan of an Absorbent Cosmos on the other.
The order of concrete things we inherit—our family backgrounds, our social classes, the limitations of our vocations and the doctrines of our faiths—must be drawn inward or thrust outward into larger, more universal processes. An institution such as marriage must be a function of my choices, preferences, or desires (the Regal Self) or made part of a larger logic of historical development or explained in terms of scientific principles (the Absorbent Cosmos).
Whitman’s poetry expresses the inward and outward modes our now common modern strategies for diminishing the power of particular loves. He consistently turns all his experiences into moments of an almost sensual embrace, as in the lines from his famous poem, “I Sing the Body Electric”: “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them.”
He also seeks to be absorbed into the cosmic process. In a particularly fine evocation of the psychological enlargement, he writes:
Me inpertube, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all—aplomb in the midst of irrational things
Imbued as they—passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes less important than I thought.
Walt Whitman remains the great word weaver of the American experience, our poet national, which, given the conceit of our democratic ideals, really means our poet universal. If anything, his relevance has increased, and I’m thankful to C.K. Williams for guiding me back to Whitman. For as I re-read Whitman I see more clearly what I fear about a radically democratic culture.
The ancient Greeks and Romans cherished the cosmic perspective because it makes our loves and loyalties—and all the tensions associated with them—small and insignificant. Whitman, however, saw something different and very modern. Radical individuality and radical solidarity require the same capacity to put the concrete commitments of our lives at a distance. The world must be at our disposal (the enlargement of self) so that we can be unhindered and uncommitted, and precisely as such are we free to be at the disposal of the world (radical solidarity).
Nature abhors a vacuum. As the ontological density of social institutions diminishes, naked necessities come to predominate; instinct and impulse circulate unhindered. Our particular love and loyalties are absorbed inward and pushed outward, leaving us with neither selfhood nor solidarity, but rather consumptive desire and a political landscape dominated by pollsters, attack ads, and manipulative media.
Without church, family, neighborhood, Boy Scouts, local traditions—without the enduring, compelling, life-conscripting social institutions that defy the sovereignty of individual desire and stubbornly refuse to be reduced to a universal process or principle, we lack the ballast we need for both individuality and loyalty to others. Particular loves and loyalties—mediating institutions as sociologists like to say—are necessary for a healthy democratic culture.
Recognizing this, however, requires a sober attentiveness to the complexities of the human condition rather than metaphysical reveries of the sort that make Whitman’s poetry so alluring.
R.R. Reno is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.