Reading the Body
Rather, the body keeps coming up as the neglected partner of the spirit, or mind, or soul, which has been its problematic place in Western culture since St. Augustine made his doctrinal formulation of original sin, of the fall and its redemption, in which matter is defined as innately fallen (evil), and the bodily flesh being made of matter, is thus also fallen. This is the root in Western culture of everything that has followed, that seeks to separate soul from flesh, that separates "dead matter" from "living spirit," that has led to every branch of Christianity that is more rational than sensual. In philosophy, it is the root of mind-body dualism, as expressed by Descartes and many others. This separation of body from spirit is particularly true of the Protestant sects: the Catholics at least maintained, until the present era, the spectacle of the Mass as theatre, with incense, special lighting, and special sounds.
If you read the criticism and reviews and assessments of Whitman from his first publications through, say, the 1950s, you are confronted with this issue again and again. Whitman's eroticism is central to his work—eroticism in the sense of eros, the life-force, the greening, the fecundity, the Green Man, the Great God Pan—and is what makes Whitman still radical. Even those who defended him, as D.H. Lawrence did, must confront the mind-body dualism split in our culture, defending Whitman as one who transcends that division, who addresses it only to pass beyond its limits, who defies the conventional wisdom.
Any Lowell thought Whitman wasn't Modern enough—by which she means, not Imagiste enough. (There are few points on which I agree with Ezra Pound on any subject of discussion; but his criticisms of Lowell's ideologies are spot-on.) Lowell accepts Whitman as a precursor of the Modern(ist) poetry of her era, but she portrays Whitman as a failure relative to what her poet-contemporaries were achieving. This isn't standing on the shoulders of giants; it's spitting from on high.
Even Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman's early champions, backpedalled after the 1860 edition of Leaves, which was the most sexually explicit and erotic edition; and from which Whitman did back off, over time. It's not just the "Calamus" poems that are problematic; it's also the "Children of Adam" poems, which are equally erotic; although in "Children of Adam" Whitman wears the poetic persona of a lover of women, just as he is explicit about loving men in "Calamus." These poems remain radical, original, and daring. Not because culture has changed since Whitman wrote—rather, because it hasn't, all that much.
In his most important book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), the American philosopher William James discussed Whitman in order to discredit some of the myths of the "natural man" that had grown up around him—and which Whitman himself constructed and promoted, of course. James wrote:
Walt Whitman owes his importance in literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of all contractile elements. The only sentiments he allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.
Thus it has come about that many persons to-day regard Walt Whitman as the restorer of the eternal natural religion. He has infected them with his own love of comrades, with his own gladness that he and they exist. Societies are actually formed for his cult; a periodical organ exists for its propagation, in which the lines of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are already beginning to be drawn; hymns are written by others in his peculiar prosody; and he is even explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion, not altogether to the advantage of the latter.
Whitman is often spoken of as a "pagan." The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.
James goes on to discuss what he terms "the religion of healthy-mindedness," both in terms of a naturally positive attitude and in terms of the conscious suppression of the negative. He believed Whitman to be a conscious suppressor of the unhealthy-minded and negative, and so did not accept him as a classic "pagan" and visionary poet.
But in fact Whitman, like Robert Frost, another oft-misinterpreted poet, contained almost as much shadow as light. There are many poems in Leaves of Grass which are set at night. There are dream passages in several of the longer poems, which do not suppress the nightmarish even if the poem's narrator moves to comfort, as in "The Sleepers":
I stand in the dark with drooping eyes by the worst-suffering and the most restless,
I pass my hands soothingly to and fro a few inches from them,
The restless sink in their beds, they fitfully sleep.
The "Calamus" poems are as much about regret and loss and unfulfilled yearning as they are about radical loving. (The poems in which the lovers are content with one another are incandescent in part because they stand out in high relief from their darker backgrounds.) As with Frost, there are layers of darkness and suffering hidden beneath the surface that seems so light-filled and positive. Many of these darknesses, these mysteries, in both poets have to do with the body, its desires and losses, its demands and splendors, with loving and with death. The body's night magic is an experience of liminal opening to space and time; not exclusively sexual, but not denying sexuality. And death is the ultimate threshold experience.
Here is the remarkable, oneiric third section of "The Sleepers," a memorably dramatic and frightful vision, its archetypal tone common to many of Whitman's poems:
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with
courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes,
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him head-foremost on the rocks.
What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? will you kill him in the prime
of his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles,
He is baffled, bang'd, bruis'd, he holds out while his strength holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood, they bear him away,
they roll him, swing him, turn him,
His beautiful body is borne in the circling eddies, it is
continually bruis'd on rocks,
Swiftly and ought of sight is borne the brave corpse.
This passage is both sensual and erotic, and also nightmarish. The body of the giant swimmer, crushed on the rocks, is archetypal, mysterious, not fully comprehensible to the rational mind. To illustrate this section of this poem, we might call on Salvador Dali more appropriately than on N.C. Wyeth. On some subconscious and hallucinatory level, perhaps, the poet has discovered a profound symbol for the denigration of the body itself. (I cannot know if this interpretation is justified; nonetheless it seems apt in the context of discussing Whitman's rebellion against the cultural suppression of the body.)
The Augustinian and Christian roots of the denial of the body are explicitly addressed by German theologian Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel in her thoughtful and luminous book, I Am My Body: A theology of embodiment (1994). She writes, in a section titled "The body and the church":
[M]any people are aware of the way in which Christianity distorts the body, and this already begins with the rituals of the church. Penned into the pews, Protestant Christians above all experience that in worship their heads, their ears or perhaps their wills have been addressed, but nothing else. Unfortunately isolated hearing also leads to fatal obedience.
This was precisely my experience of the Lutheran church in my childhood. What redeemed it was the music, which was often sublime and liminal. Lutheran theology is excellent in terms of its reason and logic, and many of the great theologians have been Lutherans. But there is no room in this for mystical experiences, for body-prayers, for the experience of sexuality as another sacrament. (It is always wise to remember that Luther himself was a reactionary reformer, more conservative than progressive, more political than mystical.)
For some people prayer with closed eyes seems like a flight from the world. "It is remarkable," writes the Latin American liberation theologian Ruben Alves, "that we close our eyes to pray. Anxiety about the body? Are we fleeing from the body . . . ? We close our eyes are look inwards—in search of a spirit. But the spirit of God is in things, in bodies, in creation and above all in the laughing and weeping of children and those who suffer."
I don't remember when it was, that I began to pray with eyes open, raised to the ceiling, rather than with eyes closed and head bowed. I feel a great deal of sympathy for Alves' questions here. It is suitably ironic that liberation theology, and Alves, were eventually suppressed by the Catholic Church and deemed heretical. There has always been a strain of creation-centered spirituality in Christianity, and it is profoundly Biblical; it often is intertwined with the history of mysticism, almost inseparably linked to the experience of revelation and enlightenment. Spiritual ecstasy was not historically divorced from physical ecstasy—except by later church doctrine.
Is it not precisely this repression and denial of the physical experience of ecstasy that Whitman was rebelling against? "I Sing the Body Electric" remains a radical statement, beginning with the poem's title. Whitman has been placed in the company of religious mystics by more than one of his readers. (Literary critics, always careful to appear rational and objective, tend to avoid this discussion entirely. Most lit-crit remains more Apollonian than Dionysian, more Protestant than ecstatic.)
But the repression of the body and its innate wisdom is disastrous. Moltmann-Wendel quotes Swiss psychotherapist Annie Berner-Hürbin on precisely this point:
Church history is a telling example of the dangers of being imprisoned in the negative and the loss of numinous powers of life which runs parallel to this: whether there is still enough power in the material of the Christian tradition for it finally to allow or even encourage comprehensive subtle relationships or, if this is impossible, to give itself relevant help could be decisive for its survival—in whatever form.
What William James misread in his analysis of Whitman was that Whitman's positive attitude was not in denial of the experience of horror and suffering, but was rather deeply rooted in such experiences. Whitman, after all, nursed the sick and dying during the Civil War, and had numerous other direct encounters with the darker parts of life. Of course, James himself wrote movingly, also in The Varieties of Religious Experience, about the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, and of his own depression and experiences of an existential void, of his sense that life was at root meaningless. It is perhaps understandable that a depressive such as James, who has been through the dark night, might think Whitman was trying to avoid or deny the dark night. Yet it seems to clear to me that Whitman experienced his own shadow times, his own spiritual crises, his own dark night—and this is precisely what led him to write about the beauty and glory of life.
Not in denial of the shadow, but as a way of overcoming it.
Whitman did not deny the darker parts of life—they seep into many of the poems, no matter what—but he chose not to dwell upon them. It is typical of James and his followers, in their attitudes towards psychology, that they often seem unable to perceive the dynamics of overcoming suffering, and interpret overcoming only as denial or repression. As if the world contained only bleakness. As if, not only is there no light, there is not even the possibility of light.
Of course a great deal of contemporary literature has bought into precisely this belief: that the negative is somehow more real, more true, more honest, than the positive. This is a very Modern attitude. You see it in criticism all the time. All post-Modernism adds to this belief is a wink and a smirk: not solutions to the dilemmas of suffering, but complicit engagement with suffering that presumes it to be normative. The post-Modernists didn't solve the existential crises of Modern life: they merely gave in and gave up the fight. Thus we have made a habit of believing that only the bad things that happen to those we care about are authentic experiences, while we dismiss all good things (which must come to an end) as Polllyannaish and unreal.
Yet the body is a source of suffering.
Some will immediately leap to the conclusion that I refer to the doctrine of the flesh being inferior to the spirit, of being somehow wrong and evil, and dragging the spirit down. But what I mean is that suffering arises from the body in part because the body fails, because life is ephemeral, and eventually we all must die. The suffering comes from our attachments to ideas of perfect physical health, of presumptive physical immortality (an attitude which leads even medicine to view death as unnatural, as a disease that might be cured, if only we knew how), and we judge our physical existence so harshly because it doesn't live up to our desires and expectations.
Buddhist thought is often misunderstood in the West to be life-denying, to be nihilistic, to be body-negative. But this is a typically Western misreading, which tries to shove Buddhist thought into the frame of Augustinian fall/redemption ideology. In fact, the Buddha never judges the body as evil, and never says that the body was the cause of suffering: what he said was that our attachments and our expectations are what cause suffering. Suffering is very much a mental and emotional state. Prolonged suffering can have profound effects on the body, it's true; but even those persons who live with chronic pain will testify that their attitudes towards life are what make all the difference. There are those who are in pain who do not suffer. It is our attachments to what we think life should be like, when confronted with the dissonant experience that life is often not like that at all—it is these attachments to what we think life should like, rather than accepting it as it is, that creates suffering. Whitman exemplifies radical acceptance of things just as they are. As the Zen teachers say, "Just sit!"
It is typical of James and his followers in both philosophy and psychology (two disciplines in which the intellect tends to strongly dominate) to completely miss this point: they get stuck on what life ought to be like, and often miss completely what is like. It is the frustrated idealist, the child who has lost the belief that the universe is inherently good, that has lost all innocence, who then tends to define existence as inherently bleak and bad.
This is not to deny suffering. But what James missed about Whitman was that Whitman was not denying suffering—rather, he was choosing not to dwell on it. He chose to expand beyond suffering, rather than contract into it.
And we are the heirs of William James, and the history of the ideas of psychology, as much as we are the heirs of the history of Christian theology. We still tend to view the body as tainted, as a problem to be overcome, rather than an experience to be embraced. Whitman remains radical because he embraced all of life—even those parts you or I might not approve of. Whitman remains provocative because he does not disregard any part of life, but includes it all. Even the famous "i" in Whitman is not Whitman's own ego, but stands in for all of us: a larger, more universal "I" than most philosophers and psychologists (and the literary critics who swim in their wakes) comprehend. The "I" in "Song of Myself" is all of us. Whitman might start out from his own experience, but he immediately universalizes the poem, and includes the rest of existence within his frame.
In this Whitman is again erotic. This large embrace of all of life, which the creative life-force has brought into being, into dancing, is what eros is, what eros means. This is the eroticism of everyday life, of everything in unitive coexistence. Confocal and copresent, we, if we dare, are invited to set out upon that road together, arm in arm with Whitman, and all he embodies.