Whitman’s Democratic Life

by Evan Edwards

Walt_Whitman_-_Brady-Handy_restoredLast month was the 197th anniversary of the birth of American poet, Walt Whitman. While one hundred and ninety-seven isn’t as clean as a good, solid, two hundred years of the grandfather of free verse, I reckon we’ll just have to make do with it until 2019. Still, it has been a very good year for Whitman, and for those impassioned by his work. In February, one of the hundreds if not thousands of letters that he wrote for dying soldiers during the Civil War turned up in a Washington archive. But even more significantly, last summer, a 13-part column series on “manly health,” written by Whitman, was discovered, verified, and then published in April of this year. Since Whitman was a prolific writer, newly discovered texts of his crop up every year or so; but this series of columns is another beast entirely. Weighing in at over one hundred and twenty pages, the text’s discovery was not just the addition of a small fragment or marginalia to the oeuvre, not even just a new article written during his years as a journalist, but an entirely new text.

When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, the book of untitled, authorless, largely unorganized verse was just ninety pages. Over the course of the next thirty one years, he would add, organize, reorganize, subtract, and alter the poems, so that the text ended up being around four hundred leaves or so. This is only important to note when we consider that the columns on health were written in the years just after the publication of the first edition. Just like a series of lectures that were written around and after the first edition, lectures which were supposed to eventually replace the original introductory essay, this series on manly health seems to be conceived as a sibling project to the poems.

The essay that precedes the first edition, written in the days just preceding its publication, as well as the lectures written to replace that essay, and the columns on manly health that sought to replace those lectures, all of these share a common theme: they are Whitman’s admitted attempts to “explain” or “fulfill” the poetry for which he was so famous.

With this in mind, anytime I read Whitman in prose, I am struck with a kind of vision: while the poems act as the valve from which his whole being is let out, the various essays and articles he writes peek into the dam that let those waters loose; the prose is like the explanation given in the sober light of day, when the poems are the life of the dream; the columns are intended to instruct the body in the way that the poems are supposed to instruct the soul; the America that is given in the verse is supposed to speak for itself in the unfolding of its birth. For Whitman, while verse edifies, poetises, and creates a world in the manner of Genesis, the essays and journalism are his equivalent of Leviticus and Numbers. Walt-whitman

In an essay by Ben Lerner recently published in the April edition of Poetry Magazine, the author describes the way that poetry has been historically relegated to a position of inferiority by both capitalist, bourgeois society, and the history of western thought. He describes the way that when he tells people that he is a poet, he is often met with either incredulity, anger, or anecdotes about how they ‘used to’ write poetry when they were younger, but have since given it up. Lerner argues that these reactions stem from a strange tension of poetry in the modern world: we’re taught that poetry is an essential part of our human experience, but at the same time, that it is not ‘serious’ enough to effectively communicate truth. The ability to effectively communicate truth, Lerner goes on to argue, is usually taken to be philosophy. He writes that “there is an embarrassment for the poet — couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? — but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self.” Whitman’s continual reference to the extra-poetic, in the form of introduction, essay, column, and lecture, acknowledges this tension. With Lerner, Whitman explicitly associates the poem and the self; more specifically, he binds the poem to the body. But still, it seems, the poem is not enough. He at once attempts to write the poem of democratic life, with all of its ambiguity, seriality, and specificity, while at the same time supplementing this elemental poeticity with a reference to the didactic power of communicable language.

Lerner goes on to argue that this tension is a symptom of the ancient conflict between poetry and philosophy articulated by Plato. Alain Badiou puts this conflict in the following way: “Plato’s principal argument is that the poem ruins discursiveness (dianoia in Greek),” and further that “what is philosophically opposed to the poem is not philosophy itself directly, but dianoia, the discursive thinking that connects and argues; a thinking whose paradigm in wholly mathematical.” That is, while poetry reckons in language that does not make arguments (this would be a quite un-poetic mode of discourse), but rather edifies, describes, evokes, or gestures, philosophy (as well as economics and science, for that matter) takes stands, positions, it defines terms, and comes to at least provisional conclusions. In other words, what stands between philosophy and poetry seems to be the very same disjunction between the prescriptive language of Whitman’s journalistic prose and essays, and his poetry, which signals, or evokes, but doesn’t immediately name his object: democratic life. These two modes of discourse, on which Whitman relies throughout his career, approach his object from a descriptive and prescriptive mode, respectively.

But in order to make sense of that claim, we first have to ask: what is ‘democratic life?’ I take this term from the work of Jacques Ranciere. In his Hatred of Democracy, Ranciere argues that the West has had a problem with democratic rule (rule by the demos, the “people”) since the inception of the concept of democracy in the Greek city-state. Ranciere notes that since the time of the Greeks, political thinkers have always distrusted the rule of the people because rule by the people has always been associated with the rule of the excess and vitality of the passions possessed by ‘the people.’ Ranciere reminds us that “the remedy for this excess of democratic vitality has, if we can take Aristotle’s word for it, been known since Pisistratus. It consists in redirecting the feverish energy activated on the public stage toward other ends, in sending it on a search for material prosperity, private happiness and social bonds.” To paraphrase the rest of the book, the problem can be summed up in this way: when the people are allowed to rule their own destinies, what results is an excess of vitality, of desire, and of undirected energy. Ranciere argues that since Pisistratus, up to the right-wing populist movements of Trump, Farage, Johnson, Le Pen, and others, this energy was funneled into either nationalist ressentiment, or neo-liberal, capitalist individualist desires for personal prosperity.

Ranciere proposes, instead, that the desire of democratic life be allowed to orient itself, with the help of communist thought, towards those ends that will allow for individuals to orient and fulfill their own lives, ends such as the distribution of wealth and opportunity to all those who work and live and desire the mutual well-being of those around them. He follows Marx and Engels, here, in the call to allow workers, and the producers of wealth, to own the means of production themselves, and to thereby slough off the chains of desire which separate man from man. Whitman, unfamiliar with the work of Marx, and also largely unfamiliar with the work of the Socialist utopians, does not go this far. He does, however, rail, in his poetry and his prose, against a life lived under the yoke of capital. He writes that “[t]he largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen. Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man … nor suffice the poet…. A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have the best authority the cheapest . .. namely from its own soul.” Later, as Jason Stacy puts it in his introduction to the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, “Whitman tried to sell the paradoxical idea of a new religion that was no religion; through familiar religious tropes and republican rhetoric, he uncoupled religious and political practices from their traditional moorings and offered a new testimony to the universal Many in One that made the Union a reflection of the cosmos.” We can break this quote down into several important points. First, that for Whitman, America is Many in One, or, a unity in multiplicity, essentially fragmented, made up of individuals, but not individualistic. Whitman's intense desire to preserve the Union in the years leading up to the Civil War stemmed from the belief that Americans could not be individuals unless they were part of a whole. This phrase, “Many in One,” from the 1860 edition, was a play on, and reinterpretation of the motto E Pluribus Unum. Rather than saying that the One emerges out of the Many, for Whitman, the Many (the individuals) are within the One, in the way that humans are within the world, or within God in certain sects of Christianity. This 'with-in' shows the essentially co-constitutive relation between the Many and the One, since one cannot exist without the other. Next, we note that this is a reflection of the cosmos. Whitman was reading Alexander von Humboldt's multivolume tome, Kosmos, when he wrote Leaves, and the ideal of a nation that reflected the economy of the universe was fresh in his mind. This economy of the universe is such that each individual can be free to pursue its own end, not those dictated by need, by capital, or by the owners of capital. True democracy, then, requires that all those involved were accounted for, provided for, and were oriented toward the health and well-being of the whole, regardless of race or national origin. Without the success and health of the whole, the particular was atrophied. This egalitarianism, for Whitman and Ranciere, is democracy. Walt_Whitman,_steel_engraving,_July_1854

This democratic hope, which is indissolubly tied to the hope of egalitarianism, is at the heart of Whitman’s tension between the poetic and journalistic drives. Stacy writes, in his introduction, that Whitman offers “no model by which” his poetic “revelation bred practical unity.” But I think this is incorrect. In fact, while the poems are a presentation of the spiritual phenomenon of democratic life, a demonstration of what an eternally present and cooperative democracy can be, the journalism and the health columns are a description of how this democracy might be manifested. Whitman recommends, in the health columns, how bodies that are taken up by the democratic drive can embody the health that is characteristic of a healthy and democratically oriented life. While the poetry instructs the soul in its education in the life of a cosmic and egalitarian democracy, the essays and the health columns instruct the body, and the practical, material sensibilities of his readers, how to do the same. As such, Whitman attempts to bridge the gap between the “ancient struggle” between poetry and philosophy, between the world of the soul and the world of the immediate, intelligible, and tangible. While there are many philosophers who write awful poetry, and many poets who write awful philosophy, Whitman manages to write in such a way that he brings this diversity of modes of thought into Unity.