• Home
  • About
  • Sam P. for Sept. 15

    Walt Whitman has me beside myself.  More to the point, he has put me on safari inside a population of humans.  Stranger still, I remain human.

    In “I Sing the Body Electric” even more than in most of his poetry, Whitman draws up the human body, and the ways in which people relate to each other physically, as the crucial link between the experiences of observing others and living alongside them. This awareness-as-connective-tissue flies into foreground when Whitman engages others most closely, a body among bodies.  He affirms that “To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough… There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well, / All things please the soul, but these please the soul well” (253).  Earlier in the poem, he locates that soul within his flesh and bones down in the dirt among others, asking, “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” (250).  If the body and the soul are inextricable, then one’s contact with other bodies “pleases the soul well” because that touch pleasurably stimulates the flesh.

    This “flesh,” though, has got me going.  Whitman insists that contact between one person’s skin and another constitutes the truest closeness between two human beings, but characterizing a group of companions as “beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh” almost seems to me to accomplish the opposite effect of reducing people to the materials they are made of, leaving them somehow “less human” to me.  I have thus experienced as a separation what Whitman intended as an intermingling, in moments that I could hardly have expected.  For example, while sitting alone at Ball Circle late on Friday night I watched a group of people pass on their way to a party.  Suddenly I felt quite far from them, as if I understood them only in the abstract.  I could not help but be excited at the physical facts of their behavior: the way they clumped together and spread apart to accommodate conversation, their loud shouts and laughs, their habit of running after and hitting each other as the mood struck them.  I seemed to be less an anthropologist than a naturalist, marveling at creatures that I imagined quite different than myself.

    Of course, I recognized immediately afterward how my behavior is essentially identical to theirs (and that I, like Whitman, was being a bit of a creep).  I cannot, however, escape the sense that Whitman’s willingness to situate human experience within an entirely corporeal context problematically objectifies human beings, robbing them of specificity or even recognizability. As an emblem of the body and soul as inseparable, the passage successfully equates human togetherness with the biological reality of shared skin.  But as an image, it leans on a single element that I seem incapable of separating from the larger whole.  Whitman obviously means “flesh” synecdochally, since it somehow “breathes, laughs, and shows curiosity.”  In a single moment of tactile insecurity at that image, however, I somehow get thrown and have to puzzle my way back into the text.

    3 Responses to “Sam P. for Sept. 15”

    1. Matthew Gold says:

      A truly wonderful post, Sam. You really get at the tensions inherent in many of Whitman’s explorations of human physicality and the ways in which our bodies both unify and separate us.

      As you continue on in the class and begin to define your research interests, you might think about looking at nineteenth-century theories of the body and the mind, along with pseudo-scientific fads such as phrenology. Having lived from 1819-1892, Whitman’s life spanned some pretty important transitions in ideas concerning the body and the mind, and adding some historical context to your ruminations might lead to some very fruitful work.

      If you’re interested in following these paths, let me or another professor know and we can recommend some books for you to explore.

    2. tallersam says:

      It’s interesting how Whitman’s words about people repeatedly generalize and, ironically, dehumanize them. The downside to parties is that it’s always too loud to really get to know people.

    3. chelseanewnam says:

      Sam, I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” when you were talking about observing the party-goers. In Dillard’s book, she observes animals in nature and the way they respond to each other and to her when she invades their environment. As the book progresses, these creatures become more and more human, taking on humanistic qualities and personas, thereby bridging the gap between animals and humans. This is interesting in relation to your encounter as the people you describe are strangely animal when you assess their actions that way. This led me to thinking about the ways in which Whitman’s work does something similar to Dillard’s and your assesments; he blends the natural world with the man-made one. I think that what you are getting at with this post about the objectification of humans is interesting, but I am wondering if Whitman’s desire was not for objectification but for complete equality between every human and every animal, even down to every blade of grass. When thinking about it this way, the problem is not then that humans are robbed of specificity or recognizability, as you put it, but rather that nothing needs to be distinguished from any other thing. I was writing on Brendon’s blog a few minutes ago, and was discussing how in the poem, “I Am He that Aches with Love,” Whitman says, “Does the earth gravitate? Does not all matter, aching, attract / all matter? / So the body of me to all I meet or know” (265). Whitman here desires to share the kind of intimacy enacted in intercourse with every created thing – that soul-shaking, earth-rattling, desperate kind of connection. If it is possible for this kind of equality with all living things, then Whitman is right in characterizing humans by what they are made of and by urging physical contact as the greatest form of closeness as it displays his desire to meet humankind in a rapture of intellectual, spiritual, and sexual intimacy.

    Leave a Reply

    XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>