Sunday, February 14, 2010

Whitman's Letters from God

Over the December holiday, I reread a lot of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in preparation for the American Literature class I'm teaching this semester.  Whitman was the first author we looked at in the class, and weeks ago we moved on to Dickinson's gnomic poems and now Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which we're now halfway through and which continues to surprise and amaze me--for some reason I keep forgetting how brilliant it is, fully deserving Hemingway's often repeated praise: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn'"--no less true today than when Hemingway first voiced it 76 years ago.

But back to Whitman.  I tell students and people in general that Leaves of Grass is what I read for years, every day, devotionally, once I lost my faith in God and Christianity.  His words were uncloyingly uplifting, sensuous, wonderstruck, and wise.  Rereading him only confirms the sense I had of him then, now decades ago.  A saint of no particular religion, but rather a saint of life and the material world.  A prophet who foretold in 1855 that the tastes of common people would come to define what "America" is, not the treatises of statesmen and theologians.  While his fellow Quakers waited in silence for the silence that might be construed as godlike, Whitman heard America singing--and his own voice rolled out along with those of sea captains, fur traders and their native-American brides, mothers, prostitutes, slaves, slave masters, his beloved athletes, panhandlers, poets, babies, and on and on.

Whitman did not foresee the role that electronic media and mass production would play in commodifying American popular culture, or the effects of the military-corporate state--but if he came back today he would not be surprised that in the eyes of the world blue jeans, sneakers, jazz, blues, rock and roll, hiphop, baseball, cowboys, gangsters, sit-coms, skyscrapers, car crashes, explosions, cigarettes, hot dogs, Coca-Cola, and cheeseburgers are what define "America," not the Constitution, not the Bible, not the vaguely distinguishable Democratic and Republican parties, not the Mormons, not the Scientologists, not the hardwired-for-crazy bible thumpers, not Harvard, not Yale, not the national parks, not the Smithsonian Institution.

What Whitman provided my god-deprived soul was the steadfastness of virtues borne of human fellow-feeling, growing from the ground up, not trickling down from plutocrats or aristocrats or incorporeal gods, commonsense virtues closely similar to the ones delineated by the philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville in his lovely 1996 A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, which I'm now reading--only, to my mind, no philosopher or messiah has ever topped Whitman's own commandments, thirteen of them, not ten, inscribed in his Preface to Leaves of Grass, which I all but make my students memorize:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Whitman embraced the flesh--and that in itself was liberating and refreshing to me as I peeled off layer on layer of encrusted superstition and dogma.  The bible teaches obedience, discipleship, and servitude (even slavery), but Whitman teaches wonder, unbowed self-respect, and freedom.  What holiness is to monotheisms, the human touch was to Whitman, self-dubbed the "caresser of life":  "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."  For Whitman, the material world was not fallen from grace, but rather the vehicle through which true, immediate transcendence could be obtained:  "I accept Reality and dare not question it, / Materialism first and last imbuing."

In fact, like me, in my now thirteen-year adventure with my friend and guru Tom Ripley, who happens to be a dog, Whitman saw that at-one-ment (atonement) could be learned from the natural physical world, attentiveness and mindfulness of the senses, rather than wistful reveries on abstractions, ideals, revelations, and spiritual fakery such as that practiced in religions requiring holy books and priests to detect and explain the undetectable and inexplicable:

     I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
     I stand and look at them long and long.

     They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
     They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
     They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
     Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
     Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
     Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

In Whitman, too, I saw the exaltation of beauty, youth, violent intensity and force, dancing agility, loafing, and sensual pleasure, all of them demonized in sermons and religious tracts in my youth, all suspect in American Puritan culture, all transient, therefore bad.  He restored these concepts as virtues to live my life by, as they had been in the lives of the classical Greeks and the native American sages.  His standards were those of nature, not divine revelation; of matter, not mind; of the senses, not deduction from abstract premises:  "All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain."

The concept that "all men are created equal" is nowhere to be found in the teachings of Moses, the prophets, Jesus, or the apostles, but taking it at second- or third-hand from John Locke, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, Whitman made this premise central to his ethics and aesthetics, never once confusing equality with conformity, never once opposing it to ideas of excellence, diversity, and unfettered eccentricity.  Equality, for Whitman, is what it is for animals and nature--it is what is, plain and simple--life and death are what equalizes us, not legislation--we take others as equal because they, as we do, exist:  "I exist as I am, that is enough, / If no other in the world be aware I sit content, / And if each and all be aware I sit content."

This existence in and of itself is the transcendent truth that Whitman grasps and imparts in his great poem "Song of Myself," a poem whose theme is easily and often deliberately misunderstood as mere amoral egotism, not as the great display of human sympathy that it is.  We all live and die--variegated and individual on the outside, we are, like the leaves of grass, connected under the surface at the root--and that root is being itself:

     I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
     And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
     And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,
     And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral dressed in his shroud,
     And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth,
     And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,
     And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
     And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheeled universe,
     And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.
     And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
     For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
     (No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)

     I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
     Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

     Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
     I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
     In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
     I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is signed by God's name,
     And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,
     Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

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