Walt Whitman's American Philosophy


Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, 1891. Photograph by Samuel Murray

by Justin E. H. Smith

I am able to read Walt Whitman only in small doses, for fear of being overpowered by a sort of rapturous assent, tears in my eyes, unable to comprehend how it is even possible to agree so fully with someone else. I’ve only known Whitman for a few years. When I was in my twenties, it was all Dostoevsky and Kafka and Beckett and Thomas Bernhard: the period of European literature that extends from that continent’s extreme unction up through its longwinded funeral orations. (Next came several years, wasted, in which I did not read any literature at all.) Now it’s all Melville and Whitman and the ecstatic birth of the American empire. But especially Whitman. Only he manages to channel this history through his own body, to make himself into the living instance of both the work he is in the process of creating, as well as of the national destiny for which he, with stunning grandiosity, believes his work is a prophecy.

In view of my impending relocation to France, just a few months from now, I had resolved to start reading French literature again, to deepen my feeling for the language in all its registers. I thought I’d get back to work on the Parisian working-class argot of the 1930s by pushing along through more of Céline’s oeuvre. I made it twenty pages or so into his Mort à crédit, that misanthropic fascist rant, only then, by some motion of the hands I can’t even recall, to find myself, again, with Leaves of Grass.

Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently for a long while, then dismissing it, I stand in my place with my own day here.

I am writing from Ottawa, June, 2013 (amused by the prediction in Whitman’s 1871 prose work, Democratic Vistas, that by the second centennial –thus by 1976– both Cuba and ‘Kanada’ would be included among ‘these States’). Naturally I reject Whitman’s aggressive imperialism, his promotion of the ideology of manifest destiny, and his unflinching devotion to the 19th-century cult of progress.  But even as I stand in my own place in my own day, &c., I still sense that my own relation to Whitman’s prophecy must be more than a casual perusal or an intent regard.

I would be a sad and stunted person if I were to agree to write only about those ideas and texts that fit narrowly within my professional discipline, philosophy, like a goat kept in a stall too small for it to butt. I confess to a greater sympathy than most of my professional peers have (or reveal) for the sort of philosophy we might call ‘wisdom of the ages’: the effusions that spill over into the registers of poetry and religion; the approach that is ready to place the Vedas, Zarathustra, etc., next to the canonical, argument-making texts and figures; the approach that supposes that even the most unhinged ‘Enthusiasts’, the Swedenborgs and Ouspenskys and all the others, have something to tell us about the range of human responses to real philosophical problems (Kant also understood this in his engagement with Swedenborg’s nebular hypothesis). The older I get, moreover, the more I become convinced that the boundary is an artificial one; we accord to the poetic exuberance of certain canonical figures a special and exceptional legitimacy that they do not really deserve, largely in virtue of the rigorous work these figures have done in other domains. For example, I really do not know that Leibniz, notwithstanding the infinitesimal calculus and the principle of sufficient reason, deserves to be listened to any more than Whitman on, say, the question whether the body is the unfolding of the soul, or whether every part of nature is contained in every part.

If we accept this broadened conception of philosophy –that is, if we accept that philosophy has always been fueled and shaped at least in part by poetic effusion (something Plato, certainly, would not have denied)– then Whitman, I claim, is a great philosopher. One sees traces, as I’ve suggested, of Leibniz:

All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.

One sees Kant (both a trace of the Copernican turn, as well as, in the title of Whitman’s masterwork itself, an expression of the limits of mechanism as applied to nature):

A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

And one sees a sort of anticipation of Nietzsche’s attempt to go jenseits of good and evil:

I make the poem of evil also- I commemorate that part also;
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is – And I say there is in fact no evil;
(Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the land, or to me, as anything else.)

Now of course Nietzsche’s partisans are going to insist there is much more to it than this, that the German thinker has depths of philosophical subtlety to which the American poet does not descend. I would argue in fact that the principal difference is this, that while both are prophets of the century to come, Nietzsche’s prophecy is one of the continent’s impending self-destruction, while the discord between his own bedridden solitude and his visions of a coming superman is almost painful to think about. Whitman’s prophecy is one of his own country’s aggressive global assertion of itself, and it is perfectly epitomized in his own robust sexual self-assertion (though of course 20th-century American warmongers would not have been prepared to see the roots of their own world-domination in pansexual polymorphous desire). Nietzsche would like to move beyond good and evil, but he himself is miserable; Whitman’s transvaluation of all values is full of life and joy, and he is in all but the details (Kanada, etc.) absolutely right about the ascendancy of the nation for which he takes himself to stand.

Whitman’s superman-to-come is what he calls a ‘literatus’. He believes that only one nation can lead the world at a time, and he maintains that it is the role of the literatus to provide the nation its soul, which is, precisely, literature. He describes the virtues of the coming literatus both in prose, in the Democratic Vistas:

A strong-fibred joyousness and faith, and the sense of health al fresco, may well enter into the preparation of future noble American authorship. Part of the test of a great literatus shall be the absence in him of the idea of the covert, the lurid, the maleficent, the devil, the grim estimates inherited from the Puritans, hell, natural depravity, and the like. The great literatus will be know, among the rest, by his cheerful simplicity, his adherence to natural standards, his limitless faith in God, his reverence, and by the absence in him of doubt, ennui, burlesque, persiflage, or any strain’d and temporary fashion;

and in verse, in Leaves of Grass:

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

Whitman supposes that his work will serve as a sort of seed for the birth of the new literati worthy of the American superpower. Some of the most delirious passages of Leaves play on this seed metaphor to suggest, with a joyous personal arrogance no weaker than the arrogance he hopes to bring about in national character, that Whitman himself is fathering the future of America:

On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes;
(This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.)

Again and again Whitman channels the most lofty political ideals and metaphysical visions through his own libidinous body. He takes this body and its receptivity as itself the answer to ancient questions, as to the nature of the soul, for example, and he refuses like no other modern thinker to let the body’s essential appetitiveness compromise its value as a philosophical clavis:

To be in any form, what is that?…
If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.

Often, what ought to be humorous, abrupt shifting from the lofty to the base, comes across in Whitman as utterly sincere and utterly valid:

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer.

All the self-loving stuff about his own ‘musk’, his love of beards, even the ecstatic ode to ‘man-balls’ and the ‘man-root’: somehow all this comes across with grace and dignity. The thin red jellies within you, or within me, for Whitman, are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul. There is no motion here between the high and low, the exalted and the base. The body is an explication of the soul, for Whitman as for Leibniz, and for both it follows that the bodily self is immortal and coeval with the cosmos itself:

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.

For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.

Whitman’s cosmism, or rather kosmism, his sensitivity to the relations between the various orders of being, to the simultaneous difference and identity of the astronomical, the geological, the biological, and the spiritual, constitutes the very core of his ontology, and this is because it is here that Whitman is able to spell out his otherwise supremely egotistical vision of himself as the center of the world, but a center that enfolds and expresses everything else:

I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, But call any thing back again when I desire it.

In fact, a moment’s thought will make clear that nothing in Whitman is more Leibnizian than the poet’s most famous phrase, I contain multitudes. The great difference however is that Whitman offered this as a defiant celebration of the self-contradiction of which he stood accused, while Leibniz spent his life arguing that the world, which is to say multiplicity in unity, does not and cannot involve contradiction.

Whitman’s kosmism is central to his understanding of his own vocation as a prophet: he believes the American literature to come, and thus the American soul, must engage with nature in a way never before attempted in European thought. As he explains in Democratic Vistas:

In the prophetic literature of these States, … Nature, true Nature, and the true idea of Nature, long absent, must, above all, become fully restored, enlarged, and must furnish the pervading atmosphere to poems, and the test of all high literary and esthetic compositions. I do not mean the smooth walks, trimm’d hedges, poseys and nightingales of the English poets, but the whole orb, with its geologic history, the kosmos, carrying fire and snow, that rolls through the illimitable areas, light as a feather, though weighing billions of tons.

This is a remarkable twist on, and departure from, the German aesthetics of the sublime (which in turn reaches back to Shaftesbury). The Germans had wanted to offer up the infinite complexity of nature against the French mania for prim geometric gardening (controle total du monde végétal, as the explicit aim of the Paris Jardin des Plantes was once famously stated). But the preferred examples were generally just unkempt gardens, patches of moss, and, yes, leaves of grass. Whitman wishes in his idea of nature to go beyond the biological alone, to encompass the magmic, the Earth’s crust and mantle and core, planetary and celestial orbits, and to do so in a way that precisely does not make any ontological divisions, but sees the self as no less air than gneiss than grass than sauroid. It is this conception of the environmental sublime –which remains attuned to the cycles that move the same stuff through the upper atmosphere, along the earth’s surface, and deep beneath it, and which sees these cycles as unfolding through deep time– that informs the best writing about the American West (I am thinking in particular here of Cormac McCarthy and Gary Snyder, to name just a few).

Unlike for Kant, there is nothing particularly wonderful about a leaf of grass, and while Whitman would not deny that the leaf of grass could have its own Isaac Newton, he emphatically does not propose himself for this role. Hurrah for positive science! Whitman writes in the ‘Song of Myself’. Long live exact demonstration! But then he clarifies:

Gentlemen, to you the first honours always!
Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
(I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.)

Whitman’s dwelling shares with science a preoccupation with the future, and it is as I’ve indicated in looking toward the future, in particular the coming century of American hegemony, facilitated by steam and electricity and so on, that the poet is most rapturously optimistic. Whitman’s distinction as a prophet comes in large part from the fact that he was, broadly speaking, right (though not every great prophet has or needs such a distinction), and if you are not ready to go along with his transvaluation of good and evil, then it is precisely this accuracy that also makes his legacy problematic in the extreme.

Nietzsche’s prophecy was vague and delusional, and if it was able to come to seem like an anticipation of German political history in the following century, this is in large part because Nietzsche was unable to keep his manipulable prophecy out of the hands of his manipulative Hitlerite sister. But Whitman was not delusional, and his prophecy involved a holocaust of its own: he explicitly and joyously cheers for the ongoing genocide against the Native Americans, which he believes is a sine qua non of the full realization of American greatness. He does not exclude the indigenous people from the poem of America, but he sees it as part of the primordial legacy of the place, as a feature of the landscape on which the future is to be built:

The red aborigines,
Leaving natural breaths, …
Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla-Walla,
Leaving such to the States they melt, they depart, charging the water and the land with names.

It is wonderful that Whitman perceives the poetry in toponymy (Leibniz had seen in it, as an antiquarian rather than a futurist, the very key to the recovery of ancient wisdom). Yet it is disconsoling in the extreme to see that by the mid-19th century toponymous traces were all the part that the indigenous Americans were seen to have in the writing of the poem of America.

I do not like genocide, to say the least, and yet I began these notes by saying that I agree absolutely with Whitman. But what I meant to say was something like this: I was born and raised in a part of the American West that was in the process of becoming American at the time Whitman was writing, thanks to the very process of ethnic cleansing and cultural annihilation that Whitman so joyously promoted. I grew up surrounded by strip malls and freeways, and by adults who sustained the disgusting illusion –out of ignorance or cravenness, or a mixture of both– that this was just the way things were always destined to be. The history of how this illusion could be passed off as truth is my own history, and Leaves of Grass tells me who I am, while Mort à crédit will forever remain the sort of literary work I can only peruse, admire, respectfully credit, before I return again to stand in my place with my own day here.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website