I have to start somewhere, so I’m going to start with Walt Whitman. Every beginning is already flawed, partial, compromised. This one is like that too.
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.
(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 60-61)
These ideas came in large part from a great conversation today about Whitman and two of his poems — “Song of Myself” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — with a poetry discussion group I recently joined. Also from my preparation for said group, when I realized that “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was much weirder than I’d remembered.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy
(“Song of Myself” 10-13)
In this latter quote, Whitman sets Nature against Culture, and imagines that he can be free of culture by an act of will — either a physical act of movement, like leaving the city for the wilderness, or an internal, emotional shift.
If we agree that Whitman cannot do this, that once in culture he can never be out of it again, can we also agree that something interesting can still be happening here, beyond a mere disavowal of the unavoidable condition of the subject? There is that, yes — and what else is there? What is this Nature, if it isn’t, in fact, nature?
When Walt writes of his soul, when he writes of his self, and when he writes of Nature, it seems to me that in each case he is speaking of the same thing: ecstatic sensory experience.** When I break down my own idea of “self” (which, cannily, my supervisor insisted that I do) I see that I mean much the same thing that Whitman means. I mean pleasure. I mean the experience of ecstatic embodied pleasure.
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious about what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(“Song of Myself,” 70-79)
For Whitman, at least in these poems, the self is pleasure, and suffering is outside of the self, something to be endured but not incorporated into identity. Cultivate detachment in the face of suffering, he advises, but plunge into pleasure. I think I’ll have to think about suffering differently, since suffering also shapes our sense of ourselves — our sense of our senses, in fact — of our bodies, even our pleasures and what they mean to us.
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is so powerful because it almost fails. Whitman strives and strives to make a link from himself in the embodied moment of the poem to his future readers, “fifty years hence… a hundred years hence.” Yet he is wrong in almost every detail. As readers we cannot experience the Brooklyn and Manhattan he knew — not materially. Yet Whitman also succeeds. He succeeds in language. His language, his control of image and sound, is so powerful that he makes us feel what he felt. He makes himself almost palpably present:
Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you — I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born,
What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face?
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?
(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 86-88, 96-97)
Lacan would say he acts in the Symbolic order of language to trigger the Real of our bodily, emotional response. And this is so, and yet there is more to be said.
I, too, will do this work in language, because language is what I have to reach you with. I realize the irony of this, and the claim it makes available — that all I can do here is generate signs that refer to one another, that in the end I will have said nothing at all about embodiment except as language constrains it.
All I can do about that is attend to my conviction — a bodily, emotional conviction as much as an intellectual one — that this is not true — and hope that I’m right.
*You may recognize this title as a corruption of a line from “Song of Myself.” The original is “There was never any more inception than there is now,” but I didn’t feel like making a reference to the film Inception or its ideas, although I did enjoy it as a movie. Same reason I won’t be using the word “matrix” very often, even though it’s a useful word.
** M. of the poetry group made this link to the reference to Nature here. I’ll credit her by full name if she permits it.