December 13, 2007
Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Emerson
Whitman's faith in the transcendental body was strongly influenced by the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. When Whitman was still a struggling journalist living in Brooklyn, Emerson was beginning to write his lectures on nature. A lapsed Unitarian preacher, Emerson was more interested in the mystery of his own mind than in the preachings of some aloof God. He disliked organized religion because it relegated the spiritual to a place in the sky instead of seeing the spirit among "the common, low and familiar."
Without Emerson's mysticism, it is hard to imagine Whitman's poetry. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman once said, "and Emerson brought me to a boil." From Emerson, Whitman learned to trust his own experience, searching himself for intimations of the profound. But if the magnificence of Emerson was his vagueness, his defense of Nature with a capital N, the magnificence of Whitman was his immediacy. All of Whitman's songs began with himself, nature as embodied by his own body.
And while Whitman and Emerson shared a philosophy, they could not have been more different in person. Emerson looked like a Puritan minister, with abrupt cheekbones and a long, bony nose. A man of solitude, he was prone to bouts of selfless self-absorption. "I like the silent church before the service begins," he confessed in "Self-Reliance." He wrote in his journal that he liked man, but not men. When he wanted to think, he would take long walks by himself in the woods.
Whitman-"broad shouldered, rough-fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr, and rank"-got his religion from Brooklyn, from its dusty streets and its cart drivers, its sea and its sailors, its mothers and its men. He was fascinated by people, these citizens of his sensual democracy. As his uncannily accurate phrenological exam put it, "Leading traits of character appear to be Friendship, Sympathy, Sublimity and Self-Esteem, and markedly among his combinations the dangerous fault of Indolence, a tendency to the pleasure of Voluptuousness and Alimentiveness, and a certain reckless swing of animal will, too unmindful, probably, of the conviction of others."
Whitman heard Emerson for the first time in 1842. Emerson was beginning his lecture tour, trying to promote his newly published Essays. Writing in the New York Aurora, Whitman called Emerson's speech "one of the richest and most beautiful compositions" he had ever heard. Whitman was particularly entranced by Emerson's plea for a new American poet, a versifier fit for democracy: "The poet stands among partial men for the complete man," Emerson said. "He reattaches things to the whole."
But Whitman wasn't ready to become a poet. For the next decade, he continued to simmer, seeing New York as a journalist and as the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and Freeman. He wrote articles about criminals and abolitionists, opera stars and the new Fulton ferry. When the Freeman folded, he traveled to New Orleans, where he saw slaves being sold on the auction block, "their bodies encased in metal chains." He sailed up the Mississippi on a side-wheeler, and got a sense of the Western vastness, the way the "United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."
It was during these difficult years when Whitman was an unemployed reporter that he first began writing fragments of poetry, scribbling down quatrains and rhymes in his cheap notebooks. With no audience but himself, Whitman was free to experiment. While every other poet was still counting syllables, Whitman was writing lines that were messy montages of present participles, body parts, and erotic metaphors. He abandoned strict meter, for he wanted his form to reflect nature, to express thoughts "so alive that they have an architecture of their own." As Emerson had insisted years before, "Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say 'It is in me, and shall out.'"
And so, as his country was slowly breaking apart, Whitman invented a new poetics, a form of inexplicable strangeness. A self-conscious "language-maker," Whitman had no precursor. No other poet in the history of the English language prepared readers for Whitman's eccentric cadences ("sheath'd hooded sharp-tooth'd touch"), his invented verbs ("unloosing," "preluding," "unreeling"), his love of long anatomical lists, and his honest refusal to be anything but himself, syllables be damned. Even his bad poetry is bad in a completely original way, for Whitman only ever imitated himself.
And yet, for all its incomprehensible originality, Whitman's verse also bears the scars of his time. His love of political unions and physical unity, the holding together of antimonies: these themes find their source in America's inexorable slide into the Civil War. "My book and the war are one," Whitman once said. His notebook breaks into free verse for the first time in lines that try to unite the decade's irreconcilables, the antagonisms of North and South, master and slave, body and soul. Only in his poetry could Whitman find the whole he was so desperately looking for: