Evolit: Week 9--Abstract Writing?

Anne Dalke's picture
Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you're thinking about. This week we're reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. What does that poem add to the collective story we've been writing about the evolution of stories? Or to your own particular story on this topic?

I find myself particularly interested in thinking some more about the possibility of writing being "abstract," in the way we have watched the form of painting become more abstract over time. Do you think that writing, by its very nature, can NOT be non-representional? (Um...there is surely a simpler way to ask this question; how about:) must writing be representational?
Hilary McGowan's picture

Poem

Walt Whitman makes me want to write a poem like him. I love his writing!

Whene’ere I see a pair

Of two

Marching together arms

Linked, smiles united, looks

Confronted and feelings bare

I wonder

            Do those naked arms let forth a cry of shame?

Mine are doing quite the same

Except for linked leaves twining

Growing forth and multiplying

Soft sweet seeds caress the wind

            They were greeting back and forth

Viewing towers from snow capped caverns and sticky

Wet summers wrapped around their souls

            Yes, just the same

With the ordained but squeezed in the middle

 

kgould's picture

Whitman's cool, I guess

I appreciate Whitman for what he did, by writing his stream of consciousness, and I find some of his passages particularly significant to me... mostly because I can make it my own. Whitman doesn't say anything specific about life, nature, people... he makes general statements --albeit creepy ones at times-- that most people could probably relate to. Thought is so abstract, so difficult to pin down, but Whitman succeeds. He succeeds in a way that makes his thought applicable to everyone.
aseidman's picture

Whitman's quality of cliche

What struck me the most when reading Whitman was...well, this is going to be hard to describe.

 

Have you ever experienced something, like a feeling, or a brief moment, or something that really had an important psychological effect on you...and then tried to write it down in the same kind of beautiful way that you experiencd it?

It never really comes across as satisfyingly similar to the sensation you experienced. Or at least, it doesn't when I write it.

Whitman used a lot of images and metaphors and scenarios that seemed basic, universal, almost generic in their quality. I get the sense that not all fo you felt this way about Whitman, and I didn't think he did this all the time, but there were definitely moments were I felt like he was creating cliche. Funny thing is, those cliches seemed to sum up things about life and the world in ways that I've always wanted to be able to sum things up, but never could. Whitman has a quality of being able to explain and descibe complex emotions in simple series of words that don't seem as though they should be sufficient to stir us.

Rachel Townsend's picture

Evolution and Art in the media

When I was thinking about posting for this class, I couldn't help but remember this article that I read recently in Newsweek about a book being published on the evolutionary explanations for art and creativity in humans.  The article can be accessed here: http://www.newsweek.com/id/191399/page/1  The article struck so close to home in terms of this class that I was astounded that I had even managed to come across it. I was interested in the explanations that the author came up with and would encourage everyone to read the article.  He proposes that creativity has been sexually selected for because of the tendency for people to go for mates who are entertaining and good storytellers.  I'm not sure whether it quite matches up with our feelings about how hard living with Whitman would have been but still interesting nonetheless!
aybala50's picture

abstract writer

Discussing abstract art has been very interesting to me, but what is more interesting is the topic of writing being abstract. I was thinking about how writing can be abstract, or even whether it could be. I think this idea of writing being abstract is a good transition from the idea of biological evolution to the evolution of stories. It seems as though not only is evolution becoming a more abstract topic, other things such as art and writing are becoming more abstract. This is seen with Walt Whitman as, at least to me, the idea of his writing being very difficult to understand only leads to me being able to draw my own conclusions about it. The more abstract a painting or writing is makes interpreting the work without the authors influence easier. 
ccrichar's picture

Walt Whitman and Originality

I think Walt Whitman is original in that he only has five years of education to account for.  He tries to come across as free spirited and he does but I think he is original in that he cannot be less than original because he does not have a main stream education even for his day.  His originality is in the fact that he lacks education and can produce writing for the world to read.
Marina's picture

walt whitman

I really appreciate Leaves of Grass. It brings a new, fresh perspective and way to look at the world. Whitman is able to take the subtle, minute details of life and magnify them through his writing. I also appreciate his celebratory and passionate embrace of the self. While reading, I was amazed at how just one line of his poetry was packed with so much meaning and passion that it almost had as much meaning as the entire poem itself. He writes, "We consider bibles and religions divine...I do not say they are not divine / I say they have all grown out of you / ...it is you who give the life." Whitman is ultimately asking for people to look within themselves and see their potential. Instead of attributing our successes we need to look within ourselves and take credit where it is due. Whitman not only asks us to see our potential but also asks us to see the potential within others. He writes, "The prostitute is not nothing...the mocker of religion is not nothing." While asking us to see the ability of our own human spirit he is also pleading for us to see the same abilities in others, despite their socially constructed statuses.Whitman shows a passionate concern for all human beings that I don't find creepy or off-putting. I think this is a refreshing look upon an often cold, judgemental society. In fact, this society can be so judgmental and cold that my former high school, Walt Whitman High School, will be the grounds for a protest simply because it was named after someone who may have been homosexual. The protestors even say of my former school "The children that attend that high school are taught Rebellion Against God 101 every day in every way." I wonder what Whitman would think of this.
amoskowi's picture

Abstract writing as in not

Abstract writing as in not writing on anything specific I suppose? Hard to say exactly what "abstract writing" would entail, there is inherently more form to writing than to visual art. Letters make sounds, make words, even if the sentence structure is distorted or absent. Writing is itself representational of the way we speak, which is an attempt to coherently represent...something. What we're thinking about. While you can speak in the "abstract," it's not comparable to abstract modern art.

I think perhaps deconstructionism tries to tackle this- since it seems like abstract meaning is the closest you can get to abstract writing. But since there's a difference between having no meaning and having an abstract one it's, I suppose, necessarily much harder to achieve it. Abandoning that for a second and running off with that sentence I just wrote...what determines "no meaning?" The creator, the viewer, the "truth?" Either way, it seems paradox, circular thinking, or a deconstructed argument is necessary to foil having a concrete message (even if it's about abstract things) in writing. I wrote last week about an inconsistent moment or two in Whitman, but as Thursday proved we were still quite capable of drawing generalizations about what he's doing and how. His writing is representational of his understanding of the world, which is not fixed and not always consistent, but a consistent record of an inconsistent thing is still consistent and representational in itself. So...who knows?
lewilliams's picture

I believe that there is

I believe that there is such a thing as abstract writing, but I think that words open the door to interpretation a little more unavoidably... possibly because most of us think more clearly in words than in pictures. I think that if you throw interpretation aside, poetry can easily be as abstract or non-representational as some art. All you have to do is take in in for the way it sounds or the way the images make you feel rather than try to understand what the author means by them. A poem that used only nonsense words to create sounds might be a good way to teach us to look at a poem without interpreting it and to simply get a feeling out of it.

However, I don't think that poetry, writing, or even art has the ability to be exempt from interpretation. I think our minds simply work that way. Art began as symbols. Pictures came before letters as a means of communication. Look at 17th and 18th century art and you will  see common symbols and themes that were placed in the paintings specifically to mean or represent a certain thing. I think we still look for those.

I have a poetry class that spends the entire class period each day interpreting one or two poems. I don't think that this is a bad thing though. By communicating our interpretations to one another we are learning the many different ways of reading a piece of poetry. We are gaining more free will.

Of course, Whitman seems to be an exception. He doesn't insist on analysis... but in order for us to see that... we have to interpret his poem.

Arielle's picture

oneness, or alienation?

In our small group this week, we talked about Whitmans' attempt to strip the reader down to their naked essence and make them one with the rest of the readers and with himself. I think it's possible that rather than creating oneness and a sense of communal spirit, this method of Whitman's actual serves to alienate the reader from the community.

Bertolt Brecht, a reknowned, crochety and fittingly melodramatic theater theorist claimed in his essay "A Short Organum to the Theater" that the best way to alienate an audience from a theatrical piece was to make generalizations, and to use characters and situations that had no particular life or personality of their own, but which were familiar stock figures, representatative rather than individual. I think a great deal of Whitman's assertions about the people mentioned and the scenarious described in his "leaves of grass" are very generalized, meant to be recognized and appreciated by the everyman. If his intention was to use this technique to bring the reader closer to them, there are some people who disagree about the effectiveness of the technique. I may be one of them. I haven't really decided yet.

Sophiaolender's picture

the evolution of stories

Whitman, although not my favorite reading, has an absolute place in our study of the evolution of literature. It is amazing to see the differences between two pieces of writing that deal with many of the same topics, but in completely opposite ways. Whitman was clearly someone who believed in his own way of viewing the world, and that is what makes him so special, and such an important piece of this course. I am learning so much just from trying to imagine the way he views the world. He is observant, yet distant, and so in tune with all people, and yet he understands that the people he notices are not the same as him. I disagree with whoever in class said that he doesn't accept that people have differences. I don't think Whitman is creepy for trying to lessen the distance between all people. People are not as different as we try to believe we are. The things that we view as differences are tiny, but we notice them because they are really the only things that separate us all, and without some amount of separation, we would live a sad and pathetic life, thinking that our being means nothing, as there are many more where each of us came from. Differences define us, yes, but at the same time, our similarities define us just as much. We just have yet to accept it.
Sophiaolender's picture

abstract writing

From our class discussion on Tuesday, I thought it was so interesting how we compared abstract paintings to the abstract writing of Whitman. They are very similar in the way they effect us. Abstract paintings are not visuals that we can describe very effectively. They hit us based on our pasts and our experiences. Abstract paintings mean something different to everyone. Yes, a perfectly represented painting of a tree can mean different things to everyone, but at the end of the day, no one will disagree that it is a tree, or that we could describe exactly how it is created. Abstract paintings can be described in terms of the lines or colors that are used, but the feeling that you get is completely personal, and without knowing someone's completely history and personality, we cannot understand someone else's reaction. Although I don't particularly enjoy looking at extremely abstract painting, I totally understand the purpose behind it, and think that our reactions to abstraction are much more important than our reactions to the typical.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Making sense of Whitman

Reactions to his writing

Whitman and I are from the same part of this country and some of the scenes which he describes I can relate to ... These things he describes are those which I have experienced my entire life. Although so beautiful and meaningful to me, they are images which I would not be able to put to words with such elegance so as to get others to see the beauty in that which I see. I suddenly appreciate Whitman's ability to do this ... merlin

The more I read Whitman, the more I have to agree with the idea of his writing being presented as a stream of conciousness. Every idea he states is connected with a later idea. It is both hard to follow and easy to understand ... enewbern

When I read Whitman, I do not feel connected to him as an author and I do not feel emotions when I read Leaves of Grass (except my frustration for not understanding). Therefore, I feel as though Whitman has accomplished the idea of writing in a non-representational fashion ... Anisha Chirmule 

Thinking about what Whitman has on his mind

we talked about why Whitman would write a book telling people, in essence, to stop wasting their time reading about other people's experiences, and to go have their own experiences instead. It seems hypocritical. I think Whitman probably meant it as a "do as I say, not as I do" message ... epeck01

Whitman may be giving us another option to choose from our ways of seeing the world and we can decide to take it into account or not. So, I believe that he is following the art that Sontag is describing. He is trying not to be original in his writing, that way we do not need to find some interpretations and we can let his poetry take over us and show us something completely new ... amirbey

Whitman is claiming to have found beauty and truth in all of us.  He is celebrating not only himself, but the entire human race.  In his writing, he is holding up a mirror to ourselves and asking us to look long and hard.  The discomfort many readers experience is reason to push back at Whitman.  He is asking us to be less conformative, filtered, and guarded; he wants to remove our shame ... jrlewis

Living with Whitman?

Living with Walt Whitman would have been like a night mare ... although he sounds like he is embracing everything and everyone in this world and celebrating them, I think he is just outright declaring his indifference. He tries to give everything the same value and put it on the same level, but to me it feels like he just doesn't "give a damn"! ... skhemka

I was the only one who said that I wouldn't mind living with Whitman. When most people found him eccentric, annoying, and a little too hippie like, I saw him as a unique human being who was passionate about life and willing to share his passion with everyone around him ... Whitman's writing allowed me to take a brief break from my chaos and appreciate my world around me ... fquadri

Whitman and evolution

I think I understand why we are reading Whitman: not only is his work itself a great example of a transitional and important piece of the history of American poetry, but there are also similar themes in both Darwin's work and this book of Whitman's ... Evelyn said that she found "Song of Myself" to be strange because there were moments when Whitman seemed brilliant, but the rest of the poem feels like too much (even useless). An evolutionary process creates some brilliant things which will go on existing, but it also creates things that are "useless" in that they do not persist. Whitman and this process, then, are similar ... I guess my main problem with this comparison is that I don't think that Whitman wrote what he did at random ... selias

Walt Whitman may, himself, be an evolutionary process; just like Evolution, Whitman is boring at times and exciting at times, he tries out new things (his writing style was so new that it was/is difficult to understand), and he creates something like "Leaves of Grass" that is on the border of having no meaning, until it is assigned (by humans, of course) ... I believe that recognizing that there is no clear meaning is, itself, very meaningful, and that it contributes to our own evolutionary process ... Jackie Marano

One analogy that came up was if Whitman represents evolution and you don't want to live with Whitman it states that you don't want to live with evolution ... So, am I scared of living with evolution? Yes, I have my fear of not knowing what is to come; scared of the random process that affects my life and the people around me. Whitman can go live with someone else, right now I don't need discomfort at my back, , and I don't want to think about what is to come, try to figure out the meaning behind the randomness. And yet with this class I have to think about the unknown, have to question myself, have to explore, and maybe with this exploration I can conquer my fear and begin to live with Whitman as he tries to show me how the world works through is eyes ... mcurrie

Whitman and interpretation

Perhaps then, Sontag meant to warn us against motivated and conscious interpretation as opposed to subconscious and unmotivated interpretation ... I want to know how to read Whitman-how can I avoid trying to analyze, but still get something out of his poetry? ... I also understand what Sontag means when she states that we are almost trained to interpret and analyze to the point where we lose the work of art. Against interpretation reminds me of reactions in organic chemistry and the detail with which we need to understand all of these reactions ... by the time we have memorized all these details, we end up forgetting what the reaction was supposed to be used for the in the first place! ... ibarkas

This reminded me of a Mark Twain quote that it is a sin to put a moral in a story. Basically, Twain seems to be suggesting the alternative way of viewing art and stories as generative rather than disclosing when it comes to meaning. If we’re always searching for something of deeper significance, we might miss the beauty of the often-opaque mysteries that we are constantly immersed in ... sustainablephilosopher

While I still believe I have difficulty in wrapping my mind around abstract profoundness, I am grateful to this course for forcing me to confront my unease. The need to confront meaning within the undefined has forced me to evolve my own way of thinking, my own analytical story. ... rmehta

And on ... to more getting comfortable with abstract profoundness

jrlewis's picture

fouettes and reflections

Once when I was taking ballet lessons as a teenager, my teacher was trying to show us how to do fouetté rond de jambe en tournant.  A challenging movement involving repeated turning in place.  Everyone in the class had a lot of difficulty, mostly falling backwards after turning ¾ of the way around.  My teacher complained vigorously that none of us were using the mirror correctly to spot our turns.  In order to complete the final portion of the turn it is necessary to whip your head around and focus on the reflection of your forehead in the mirror for several seconds.  The problem was that none of us were comfortable staring at our own reflections in the mirror.  My ballet teacher asked each of us to say something positive about our reflections.  No one was capable of providing more than the most generic comments, such as I have nice eyes.  As a result, my ballet teacher assigned us the homework of listing three things we liked about our faces, as seen in our reflections, to be read aloud the following week.  This was a surprisingly difficult exercise; I still remember the discomfort I experienced while staring into the mirror.  Examining oneself for blemishes and flaws is very different from searching for beauty and grace.  Whitman is claiming to have found beauty and truth in all of us.  He is celebrating not only himself, but the entire human race.  In his writing, he is holding up a mirror to ourselves and asking us to look long and hard.  The discomfort many readers experience is reason to push back at Whitman.  He is asking us to be less conformative, filtered, and guarded; he wants to remove our shame. 
fquadri's picture

Whitman celebrates himself, and maybe he thinks you should too

In Prof Grobstein's discussion group last week, I was the only one who said that I wouldn't mind living with Whitman. When most people found him eccentric, annoying, and a little too hippie like, I saw him as a unique human being who was passionate about life and willing to share his passion with everyone around him, at least through writing. I don't think he's an idealist or foundationalist who sees the world head towards a kind of perfection. I believe he's an appreciative citizen of the world who looks at his natural and man made environment at that time, and finds beauty in everything and everyone, even himself.

 

Most people don't take the time to smell the flowers, or appreciate the world around them, or even appreciate themselves, especially in this day of age when everyone seems to be busy or stressed out to some extent. For me, Whitman's writing allowed me to take a brief break from my chaos and appreciate my world around me. I won't be talking to trees or camping out at Walden Pond but I can look around me and enjoy the simple things in life such as sunlight, fresh clothes out of the laundry, and my ability to write this in the first place. Everyone should celebrate themselves and the earth at least for a brief moment.

kapelian's picture

Like art, writing can

Like art, writing can easily be considered abstract. Just looking at the huge amounts of science fiction and fantasy writing, including stories like the Bible or common fairy tales. Someone had to think up Trolls, Elves, Dragons, the concept of Gods, and all the other mystical magical things that go into these stories. This also goes for science fiction - even though much of the work is based off what we have now (space travel, internet, etc.) sci fi constantly takes it to the next level, pushing the human imagination.  I feel like in comparison to Walt Whitman, who is merely describing the world around him with pretty words, these stories go out and describe something that may not be real and for a second make you believe thats all true.  Theater of the Absurd also is very abstract, it reminds me of the Pollack works we looked at in class.   

sustainablephilosopher's picture

One of the most striking

One of the most striking ideas that I took from class on Thursday was that we are all evolutionary processes creating things that have no meaning until we either attribute to or find meaning in them. For example, we create dreams in our sleep that may or may not have meaning to us while we are sleeping, and may or may not seem significant to us when we awake. Another example perhaps would be abstract art, which is a creation that may or may not have meaning or “intention” on the part of its author – it invites us, the viewers, to find meaning in the creation, or not, as we please. There’s not necessarily a univocal, fixed, given meaning either in our creations, our selves, or life broadly speaking that is waiting there to be discovered – we invent and alter meanings on the fly, filling in the open space for interpretation differently for each living participant or viewer.

As Kate pointed out, we are trained in English classes to analyze everything in order to further understand human culture. However, as Paul noted, perhaps meaning comes only after an evolutionary process – we are trained to interpret the world in various ways. Some things are either not interpretable or have no meaning underneath them lying in wait to be found out, to account or explain for them. A story just might mean nothing at all, as Paul’s English teacher taught him in middle school – it has whatever meaning you give it. This reminded me of a Mark Twain quote that it is a sin to put a moral in a story. Basically, Twain seems to be suggesting the alternative way of viewing art and stories as generative rather than disclosing when it comes to meaning. If we’re always searching for something of deeper significance, we might miss the beauty of the often-opaque mysteries that we are constantly immersed in.

merlin's picture

Whitman and I are from the

Whitman and I are from the same part of this country and some of the scenes which he describes I can relate to. That island stretching east of manhattan is certainly an influence in his writing. "In vessels that sail my words must sail... I go with fishermen and sea-men and love them..." "where the neck of the longlived swan is curving and winding; where the laughing-gull scoots by the slappy shore and aughs her near-human laugh... where the splash of swimmers and divers cools the warm noon..." " where the half-burned brig is riding on unknown currents, where shells grow to her slimy deck, and the dead are corrupting below..." These things he describes are those which I have experienced my entire life. Although so beautiful and meaningful to me, they are images which I would not be able to put to words with such elegance so as to get others to see the beauty in that which I see. I suddenly appreciate Whitman's ability to do this. I believe he describes so many things that almost anyone could connect with this piece on a personal level. This is what I found most effective about the book. Even those things he describes which I have never seen or experienced are particularly striking to me.
enewbern's picture

Whitman

The more I read Whitman, the more I have to agree with the idea of his writing being presented as a stream of conciousness. Every idea he states is connected with a later idea. It is both hard to follow and easy to understand. Although what that means I am not entirely sure. Whitman connects one idea with another so smoothly that it is difficult to differentiate the beginning of one thing and the start of a new one, but it also seems to follow a logical order as well. I enjoy reading him, but I have to really concentrate to absorb the entirity of a paragraph without having to go back and reread it several times, which is usually what I have to do everytime I read prose and poetry anyway. I have thus far enjoyed reading Leaves of Grass and hope that Whitman continues to take me on a meandering journey through his thoughts.

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 9

I enjoy reading Leaves of Grass.  If I were outside on a warm day I would very much enjoy reading Walt Whitman. I would let the beauty of his words wash over me. However, I read Leaves of Grass in my dorm room.  While I still enjoyed it, I was left with many questions that I'm not convinced were answered in our classes last week.  I wonder how would I write a paper about this? How does Leaves of Grass tie into Darwin and our theme of evolution? We have another week to work with Whitman, so maybe things will become clear. However, I'll leave you with a last question.  If we are going to take Sontag's advice and not interpret Whitman, what are we going to do with him? 
eolecki's picture

Week 9

Must writing or artin general be representational? The simple answer is yes.  Theactual definition of being nonrepresentational is “not resembling or portraying anyobject in physical nature”.  It isobvious that writing that is just describing or artwork that is trying tocapture what the artist sees is representational.  But when people write about or draw things that don’t andcan’t exist the question is, do they represent something?  Even if an artist creates something thatis nothing like reality, everything that artist imagines is based in thereality that the artist perceives. So even if it is not a conscious effort, their seemingly brand newcreation is just based off one or a combination of things the have seen.  I don’t see how one could think it waspossible to come up with any vision of something not based in reality.  The brain picks up input from all ofthe senses and that representational information is then decoded, therefore anythought comes from what is based in reality.

mfradera's picture

"a quality of wind"

Last week I made a comment that both Whitman and Rumi reminded me of wind. I thought I'd attach a poem by Rumi to give a sense of what I'm talking about for anyone who hasn't had the chance to read his poetry.

 

  • We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee;
    we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee.

     We are as pieces of chess engaged in victory and defeat:
    our victory and defeat is from thee, O thou whose qualities are comely!

     Who are we, O Thou soul of our souls,
    that we should remain in being beside thee?

     We and our existences are really non-existence;
    thou art the absolute Being which manifests the perishable.

     We all are lions, but lions on a banner:
    because of the wind they are rushing onward from moment to moment.

     Their onward rush is visible, and the wind is unseen:
    may that which is unseen not fail from us!

     Our wind whereby we are moved and our being are of thy gift;
    our whole existence is from thy bringing into being.

This was written some time between 599-607. While in Arabic, his poetry follows a lyrical meter (or so I've read, as I can't read medival Arabic, or modern day Arabic, for that mater) but translated into English, it takes the shape of free verse.

 

eawhite's picture

Meaning Attributor

Until most recently, Dennett, Darwin, Sontag, Fyerabend and Whitmann have meant little more [to me] than nice words written during varying centuries, decades and years and for a variety of purposes, some of which have had some inspirational impact on humankind - perhaps. But all that changed for me after Prof. Grobstein’s discussion about the differences between abstract art and realistic art. Having that visual as my guide for understanding the evolutionary process makes my appreciation of the authors listed above that much more meaningful. That analogy helped me to understand the ‘meaning attributor’ part of our humanness; humans certainly have this innate need to make sense/meaning. Art, like science, like literature, and like philosophy mean nothing until and/or unless our brain attributes meaning and significance to it. Each of us ascribed meaning to the works of the authors above and to the realistic and abstract art – no two were alike. My brain and your brain ascribed meaning to everything with no influence from each other. Everyone and everything is an evolutionary process.

ibarkas's picture

Against Conscious and Motivated Intepretation?

The more I read Whitman, the more I find myself nodding along with a lot of what he has to say, but I also find myself reading and re-reading stanzas just to see if I missed anything and if that would help me in understanding the overall message I am supposed to get from Whitman.  After we discussed interpretation and analysis in class last week, I tried rereading the first poem-this time just reading-without trying to add any of my own interpretation to the poem.  However, I found that this time around, I was having an even more difficult time understanding Whitman because the poem simply became a collection of words without any meaning.  I am having difficulty understanding what it means to appreciate a work of art without interpretation.  I can't see how it is possible to appreciate anything without some type of underlying analysis.  For example, take a song or a piece of music.  We have probably all had the experience of remembering something when we hear a particular song or a piece of music because we associate that song with a particular time in our life.  It is not the songs' lyrics of the music that is being analyzed which allows us to make such an association, but rather simply hearing the song.  It is a subconscious interpretation that invokes a particular feeling when we hear the specific song.  Perhaps then, Sontag meant to warn us against motivated and conscious interpretation as opposed to subconscious and unmotivated interpretation.  I think that in order to appreciate anything, we need to allow for some sort of interpretation.  Otherwise, the poem becomes a collection of words, the painting-a collection of lines and the song-a collection of lyrics and notes.  Although I do agree with Sontag that too much interpretation can cause us to lose the work of art, I also think that I would feel more comfortable if there was a happy medium.  I want to know how to read Whitman-how can I avoid trying to analyze, but still get something out of his poetry?  I know that there is a lot to gain from his poetry and I feel like I'm missing out on something important because I just don't know how to read him.  
Although I think that some kind of interpretation is inevitable and necessary, I also understand what Sontag means when she states that we are almost trained to interpret and analyze to the point where we lose the work of art.  Every time I think of this concept, I think of how it also applies to science.  Against interpretation reminds me of reactions in organic chemistry and the detail with which we need to understand all of these reactions.  We need to know where each electron moves, the charge on each molecule, resonance structures, etc.  However, by the time we have memorized all these details, we end up forgetting what the reaction was supposed to be used for the in the first place! We know where each electron goes, but what was the point of the reaction? There have been countless times when I have been asking myself that on exams. We spend so much time analyzing that we lose sight of the importance of the bigger picture. 
Tara Raju's picture

I agree with the above

I agree with the above statement of: "...he just doesn't seem to 'give a damn'". In class on Thursday, I juxtaposed my feelings of reading the text with the feeling I get when mindlessly people watching in Penn Station- both conjured feelings of absolute whatever. I mean, its not to say that his work is not important to the literary community but I am not really seeing how this fits in with the evolutionary pattern.

Is it similar to the pictures that were presented in class on Tuesday, where it went from fully constructed to just the fundamental units of the tree? Is this the breakdown of this novel as well- where there is constantly a mix between these prose and poetry type passages. Is it meant to represent something bigger? The constant immersion of different stages of evolutionary literary techniques? Is my brain to unsophisticated to deconstruct and construct what is going on in a reasonable manner? Probably.

amirbey's picture

About Whitman

While reading the Leaves of Grass, I found the moment very pleasant and I felt very relaxed.  I was thinking about nature itself, and I was freed from my room into a natural environment.  Whitman’s writing seems to be playful but I feel that he has an important thing to tell us though his writing.  I believe that he is asking us to go experience the world itself and not life in society which is an artificial concept created by men to live with each other.  I also think that Whitman is not necessarily asking us to stop being in the society, but maybe he is showing us a new approach of interpreting the world and its beauties around us.  Indeed, Whitman may be giving us another option to choose from our ways of seeing the world and we can decide to take it into account or not.  So, I believe that he is following the art that Sontag is describing.  He is trying not to be original in his writing, that way we do not need to find some interpretations and we can let his poetry take over us and show us something completely new.

skhemka's picture

Living with Whitman...

There are two questions that I want to answer to in this blog which were asked in Thursday's class with Prof. Grobstein. First was whether you would want to live with Walt Whitman? I would like to say "no". Living with Walt Whitman would have been like a night mare. It is because while reading Leaves of Grass (all 12 of them) I realized that although he sounds like he is embracing everything and everyone in this world and celebrating them, I think he is just outright declaring his indifference. He tries to give everything the same value and put it on the same level, but to me it feels like he just doesn't "give a damn"! Everything is the same to him, whether he lives or dies, whether earth revolves, whether good prevails or evil, it’s all the same to him. He sounds extremely indifferent and passionless. He seems to be hide that under his words which make people think he is filled with some innate optimism not natural to the rest of us. Therefore, I think I would never want to live with him.

 

Second, would be the question of meaning which is - are humans capable of ascribing meaning to things? My answer to this would be a definite yes. Humans, more specifically, their minds are capable of ascribing meaning to things. (Meaning not only in the sense interpretation or goal.) I mean that only human impressions or ideas through perceiving attach meaning to anything in this world. Everything that we as humans know, know because of our minds and everything that is related to the mind has meaning. So, even abstract art which man thinks has no meaning, has a meaning attached to it just by being a product of the mind. I am sure there are so many things out there but since human minds haven't reached them yet they do not have any meaning.

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Transcendentalism

In discussion on Thursday, we discussed how Whitman was very closely related to the transcendentalist movements of his time. Emerson, Thoreau, and others all held opinions that intuition, not intellectualism, held all the answers.

Emerson wrote in The American Scholar, "So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. ... Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions."

I find the ideals and practices of transcendentalists to be very intriguing. I worked as a tour guide at Orchard House in Concord, MA (home of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women) one summer at Bronson Alcott's School of Philosophy. While there, I learned all about his role in the transcendentalist movement, his Utopian Communities, school reforms, etc. I also spent a lot of that summer reading Walden at Walden Pond. 

That summer completely changed my outlook on the world from skeptical and overly cynical, to a much more positive, self-celebratory one that helped me see the good in the world and people. 

I can see how this ideology greatly appealed to Whitman and others and influenced their works. I think that my experience with the Concord Transcendentalists prepared me for Whitman's ideas, but not his approach. Emerson and Thoreau used more conventional writing styles to convey their ideas, but Whitman's style adds new depth that I find very interesting.

As Professor Dalke said, it does make me want to quit school and go back to reading on the shores of Walden Pond...

 

A great book on the Concord authors of the time: American Bloomsbury --

http://www.amazon.com/American-Bloomsbury-Nathaniel-Hawthorne-ebook/dp/B000N2HBKC/ref=sr_1_16?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1238348198&sr=8-16

 

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 9

I struggled this week to fit Leaves of Grass into the evolution theme of this course. Maybe Walt Whitman represented a literary definition of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection because his poetry was different from his predecessors? Why do we read Whitman instead of another author representative of a literary transitional period? We seemed to focus on Whitman's personal life- Whitman's sexuality? The sexuality of many writers (Willa Cather?) was questioned and, in my opinion, would have probably been easier to discuss within the context of the course.

Although Leaves of Grass was a difficult read for me I do appreciate the opportunity to read the poetry of an important American writer. It is also interesting to learn that Whitman revised Leaves of Grass several times over his lifetime. Within the 1855 edition I read elements of the civil war, the political rise of America around the world and the transition between Transcendentalism and realism. I look forward to listening to my classmates' opinions on the last half of Leaves of Grass.

selias's picture

Why Whitman?

I think the reason we are reading Whitman is because there is evidence that he too was thinking about the world and change along the same lines as evolutionary theory describes the world.  In class with Professor Grobstein on Thursday, he pointed out several lines from the first "prose" part of Leaves of Grass that say things that sound very much like statements that Darwin made in "On The Origin of Species" (and it is interesting to note that Leaves of Grass was published first).  So I think I understand why we are reading Whitman: not only is his work itself a great example of a transitional and important piece of the history of American poetry, but there are also similar themes in both Darwin's work and this book of Whitman's.

Something else that we discussed in our class was whether or not Whitman himself was similar to an evolutionary process...a parallel that sounds silly at first, in my opinion, but the more we explored it the more it made sense.  Evelyn said that she found "Song of Myself" to be strange because there were moments when Whitman seemed brilliant, but the rest of the poem feels like too much (even useless).  An evolutionary process creates some brilliant things which will go on existing, but it also creates things that are "useless" in that they do not persist.  Whitman and this process, then, are similar in that they create both things that are brilliant and useless. 

I guess my main problem with this comparison is that I don't think that Whitman wrote what he did at random, whereas an evolutionary process works in a very random way.  While Whitman's writing does seem random and scattered at times (like he was on drugs, as many people suggested in class), I have to believe that Whitman was aware of what he was writing.  Maybe this is just me looking for meaning, and therefore believing that Whitman had a definite purpose while writing.  I don't think he would have taken the trouble to revise "Leaves of Grass" as many times as he did without having a purpose for writing and revisiting his work.  I don't think you can dismiss this book as just random ramblings of some man, and it deserves our attention (whatever that may mean).

Jackie Marano's picture

A process of processes

      In Prof. Grobstein's section on Thursday, we talked about how Walt Whitman may, himself, be an evolutionary process; just like Evolution, Whitman is boring at times and exciting at times, he tries out new things (his writing style was so new that it was/is difficult to understand), and he creates something  like "Leaves of Grass" that is on the border of having no meaning, until it is assigned (by humans, of course).

     But I think that all people and things perceivable to us are fragile in this way. We are all on the verge of having no meaning, but what saves us is our compulsion to establish it, to keep things interesting. Maybe we can't help but assign or search for meaning in things, and maybe Evolution favored this. I think our need for 'meaning' directly affects our actions (learning, constructing, working, eating, traveling, cultural/religious practices, socializing, etc...). And such actions are a source of something new, something different that can be 'worked on' by Evolution.

      So then what is the role of someone like Whitman, who writes in such a way that meaning is hard for us to assign? Is this like a stop sign on the road of Evolution? I would argue that it isn't. I believe that recognizing that there is no clear meaning is, itself, very meaningful, and that it contributes to our own evolutionary process. The idea of being a process is understandably disturbing, but maybe the Evolutionary process is nothing more than the sum of many interacting sub-evolutionary processes. And if form defines function, as is a common 'rule' of science, well then Evolution is just as understandably dependent on us, these sub-processes, to be a functioning process. I also don't think that Evolution revolves around humans alone, but as some of the more sophisticated 'processes' out there, I think we certainly carry our weight. Maybe this why Whitman 'celebrated' himself?      

rmehta's picture

Jackie, I agree with your

Jackie, I agree with your statement that “our need for ‘meaning’ directly affects our actions”.  While Whitman’s representative significance may be difficult to understand, it is the process by which we work to understand his “meaning” that translates on our personal evolutions.  The continuous movement of confronting current and developing new evolutions in science seems to be paralleled in literature.  Perhaps it is not what Whitman writes, but how we use and interpret his significance as a historical source that affects our personal meaning and evolution. 

One of my favorite quotes from Leaves of Grass so far is:

“This is the city…and I am one of the citizens;Whatever interests the rest interests me…politics, churches, news-papers, school,Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, streamships, facto-ries, markets,Stock and stores and real estate and personal estate” (59). 

We all collectively share in this interest in our surroundings and a want for understanding our context in relation to our environment. We utilize our collective presents and past as a point of reference for the interpretation (and the evolution) of our own histories.   

 In my post last week I mentioned my confused frustration and abstract impaired-ness (I’m sorry for not being present to explain).  While I still believe I have difficulty in wrapping my mind around abstract profoundness, I am grateful to this course for forcing me to confront my unease. The need to confront meaning within the undefined has forced me to evolve my own way of thinking, my own analytical story.   

mcurrie's picture

Scared

One analogy that came up was if Whitman represents evolution and you don't want to live with Whitman it states that you don't want to live with evolution.  Well do I want to live with evolution?  Well if it is Whitman then no, because I would get so annoyed with the man's ramblings and randomness that he might be kicked out in a few days.  But what if the question was are you afraid of evolution, and that's why you don't want to live with "Whitman?"  No is the first answer that crosses my mind, but at the moment I'm not exactly sure.  If I knew everything there is to know about evolution, would I be happy with the result, would I be happy with knowing there might not be destiny that there is nothing in control?  Maybe that does make me a little uneasy because it is nice to have the comfort of knowing what is to come, it is nice to have comfort.  People say they know how an animal will act, and people say that they know how the world will change, but they are only guesses. So, am I scared of living with evolution?  Yes, I have my fear of not knowing what is to come; scared of the random process that affects my life and the people around me.  Whitman can go live with someone else, right now I don't need discomfort at my back, and I don't want to think about what is to come, try to figure out the meaning behind the randomness.  And yet with this class I have to think about the unknown, have to question myself, have to explore, and maybe with this exploration I can conquer my fear and begin to live with Whitman as he tries to show me how the world works through is eyes.  I guess I'm just going back and forth.

 

eglaser's picture

My thoughts on Whitman

Whitman is a strange poet to read. At first I found him to be a hopeless idealist, an odd mix of Ernest Hemingway's gruff macho man and Annie Dillard's interospective nature lover. I read Leaves of Grass as a possible lifestyle choice, one that involved rolling in the grass and living life as freely as possible. Nice in thought but not so nice in practice. I never exprected that Whitman would have been asking me to join him in his grass-rolling. As we discussed transcendentalism in our group today I realized that perhaps that was the point of whitman. His book was less of a window into his life, as a how to guide to lead it ourselves.

Whitman wants us to enjoy life as much as he does, and so he gives us his mind, his thoughts, his life, forever recorded in a poem. Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman, an extremely persuasive Whitman who (in his presentation of himself) makes sure to whisper sweet nothings in our ear in the hope that we will hear them and join him. I don't want to call Leaves of Grass a seductive book but I don't think Whitman would object to it being classified as seductive. 

epeck01's picture

I think that Whitman would

I think that Whitman would love being called "seductive," although he would probably say that he wasn't seductive and instead that everything is seductive and he is just a microcosmic example.  In my small group, we talked about why Whitman would write a book telling people, in essence, to stop wasting their time reading about other people's experiences, and to go have their own experiences instead.  It seems hypocritical.  I think Whitman probably meant it as a "do as I say, not as I do" message (although he seems to live his life in the way he describes except for the publishing aspect - selling out?).  As I continue his series of poems, I do find myself thinking about why I am sitting in my room, looking out the window at nature, rather than going outside and being in it.  I would love to live a more Whitman-esque lifestyle, however, he doesn't provide a convincing argument to me of how his lifestyle is sustainable and always interesting and entertaining.  It seems like it would take a lot of work at times to always love nature so much.
Anne Dalke's picture

Funky Structures

For another angle entirely on how to bridge the biological and the cultural, see this report on a study of "funky structures": an account of how sexual selection among animals leads to outlandish armament and decoration--but increasingly restrained use of them as weapons, as opposed to humans' manufacture of increasingly lethal (and increasingly used) weapons...
Paul Grobstein's picture

non-representational = abstract = deconstructed to unconscious?

Seriously interesting set of issues (to me at least).  Are there parallels in writing to the suggested sequence in art?  Can writing be "non-representational"?  Yep, I think so.  Or, more accurately, writing (like painting) can be representational to a greater or lesser degree, abstract to a greater or lesser degree.  Here's the sequence. 

Early Impressionism  Later Impressionism  Abstraction
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I --
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference.
A or B
Not A
Therefore B

For more along these lines, see Realism to impressionism to abstraction and back again, in words.  

Anisha Chirmule's picture

Evolution

When Professor Grobstein put up the first set of Cezanne and Mondrian pieces on the projecetor, I had a great deal of difficulty seeing the transition/connection (that everyone said was so easy to see) between the second painting of Mondrian's tree and his Composition piece.  My mind did not see any sort of logical connection between the two and I was left feeling very confused.  However, when he put up the other "story" where the paintings were reversed, the picture -- or Professor Grobstein's story of the evolution of art -- became instantly clear.  I immediately looked at the first order of paintings and then the entire connection clicked. This was my brain's ability to create a story when presented with a new situation -- or use an older story to explain a new one.  This is again where I became confused when we switched to the transition into literature.  I want to say that Leaves of Grass was an act of 'randomness' that occured during the era of typical 19th century poetry because it was so different in form and content from what was known that there was no fluid evolutionary process that occured.  However, I don't know if it was the best direction for evolution. I know that Leaves of Grass is a classic that it is read and studied by the best of the best, but I still just don't really understand it.  Maybe it is because I cannot relate (to Whitman, the time period, the content) or maybe it is just because I cannot seem to understand his form and thought process and why he wrote the way he did.  I, like Rina, seem to be abstractly impaired when it comes to understanding literature (however not so much art for some reason...).  When I read Whitman, I do not feel connected to him as an author and I do not feel emotions when I read Leaves of Grass (except my frustration for not understanding).  Therefore, I feel as though Whitman has accomplished the idea of writing in a non-representational fashion.  Although there may be passages which can be extracted from the poem as a whole that have meaning, I cannot seem to understand what direction Whitman is going with the Leaves of Grass.  However, I am more than willing for someone to open my eyes...
randomness