Memetics as an Approach to Whitman and Hustvedt

Marina's picture

Richard Dawkins first introduced the concept of memetics in his text The Selfish Gene. In the text, Dawkins coined the term “meme” and introduced it as a new approach to understanding cultural evolution. The concept of memetics is a useful one when trying to comprehend the mechanisms involved in cultural evolution, but it is also controversial as it presents a threat to human creativity claiming that all ideas are recycled and borrowed from previous ideas. When applied to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Siri Hustvedt’s Sorrows of an American, whether intentional or not, there is some subtle evidence of memetic transmission in Whitman and Hustvedt’s writing. The memes shared between Whitman’s poem and Hustvedt’s novel include their similar approaches to the unconscious, their rare scattered styles of writing, and their emphasis on the self.

In order to understand the memetics betweeen Whitman and Hustvedt, memetics itself must be explained. Essentially, memetics is a scientific approach to the study of cultural evolution through memes. Memes are units used to measure the transmission of cultural ideas, styles, and innovations that serve as a means to further understand the process of cultural evolution. Memes are the cultural equivalent to the biological notion of a gene, which are units used in the measurement of biological evolution. The core concept of the meme is to show how everything in culture is borrowed and then mutated slightly to create something new. This concept is highly controversial because it suggests that there is no room for human creativity and that people, at best, can only recycle old ideas, modify them slightly and label them as new. In a way, memetics threatens the concept of free will because it implies that not only do people not come up with original ideas, but they can’t even attempt to do so without using memes from previous ideas. Ironically, even memetics itself cannot be considered a new idea because it is borrowed from ideas based in genetics- it borrows from the genetics meme pool and then modified the previously existing idea of genetics to procure a new concept- the concept of memes. At their most basic level, memes are comparable to the game of telephone because as one idea passes through the brains of others, it mutates and evolves into a different idea. The people passing the phrase in telephone remember bits and pieces (the memes) of the whole phrase and the original phrase mutates into an entirely different phrase in the end, while still retaining fragments of the original phrase. As this example shows, the transmission of memes keeps some of the old idea but with the help of the new brains and ideas, it becomes a markedly different idea than the original. The notion of the crack is another way to approach the concept of the meme as peoples’ different backgrounds, personal experiences, and opinions are at work in meme transmission and affect how the memes alter the original idea. To clarify this idea further, Dawkins includes some examples that illustrate the work of memes. He writes, “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain” (Dawkins 192). According to Dawkins, meme transmission occurs every day in our jokes, technology, and styles. Another example of meme transmission is the evolution from the transistor radio to the iPod. Clearly, ideas were borrowed and memes were transmitted to produce the evolution from a handheld radio to the technologically-forward mass-media storage device.

As Dawkins has shown, meme transmission happens every day and is omnipresent in the evolution of cultural ideas. Memetics, then, could have easily taken place when Hustvedt wrote her novel Sorrows of an American. Hustvedt could have, consciously or unconsciously, modeled her book after something she had previously encountered borrowing from the meme pool of previous influential writers. Although there is no explicit mention of Whitman in her works, there seems to be some subtle hints of Whitman memes in her writings. The most present seems to be her emphasis on the importance of unconscious perception that Whitman also capitalizes in his writing. In Hustvedt’s novel, one of Erik’s patients, Ms. W, refers to the unconscious in a way strikingly similar to how Whitman represents the unconscious in Leaves of Grass. She states, “ ‘Not long ago, I read an article about unconscious perception. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re seeing something, but we are’ ” (Hustvedt 266). Interestingly this notion of unconscious perception that Ms. W refers to is of crucial importance in Whitman’s writing as well. Leaves of Grass is, at its core, an exploration of that unconscious perception that is silently and unconsciously experienced every day. Whitman attempts to catalogue the unconscious perception in his writing through his exhaustive lists of observations and descriptions of the atmosphere around him. He writes, “In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests / …The many moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail’d / …And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on and on…/ And the streets how their throbbings throbbed, and the cities pent” (Whitman 14). Both show a similar approach to the unconscious, as they seem to imply it is a constantly operating mechanism that influences our perception of the world. This idea of unconscious perception could certainly be due to memetic transmission of ideas from Whitman’s writings to Hustvedt’s novel.

The similarities in form and style in both Whitman and Hustvedt could be another possible occurrence of  meme transmisson. Whitman and Hustvedt seem to have a style marked by scattered and unorganized thoughts. Whitman jumps from one idea to the next without reservation, writes long lists describing city streets, and abruptly changes to new subjects mirroring the random, non-sequitor processes that occur in the unconcious. Hustvedt’s writing does this as well with her jumble of characters and use of several different writing modes to construct her story.  Hustvedt’s jumpy transitions from Lars’s letters to Inga’s laments to the stories of Erik’s countless patients along with numerous other storylines gives the book a choppy, scattered feel that seems to be attempting a similar unconcious effect.  Therefore, Hustvedt and Whitman’s choppy, scattered styles is are comparable and may be the result of a common meme shared between the two works.

Another possible meme that could have influenced Hustvedt’s work is the idea of the importance of the discovery of self. This theme is clearly significant in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as it celebrates the self and the importance of the individual. Similarly, Hustvedt’s novel is introspective and stresses the importance of self-worth and self-understanding. Whitman stresses this self-understanding in Leaves of Grass, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then … I contradict myself / I am large … I contain multitudes” (Whitman 67).  Here, Whitman shows his self-assurance, his complete comfort with himself and his self-discovery. Hustvedt has a similar phrase in her novel as Erik has an epiphany about his friend Burton. He writes, “I understood that my friend has terrirories within him I had never known about…aspects of him come to light, both mad and feminine” (Hustvedt 191). It seems that Burton too “contains multitudes” and Erik finally realized the importance and significance of Burton’s self. The similarity of their emphasis on self-discovery and importance could be another common meme shared among the two influential texts.

         Memes are a strong cultural force that influences many ideas, innovations, and styles that are seen everyday. The similarities in both Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Hustvedt’s Sorrows of an American show some evidence of a common meme that is shared by the texts. Whitman and Hustvedt seem to have borrowed and used very similar ideas from the same meme pool that influenced their work greatly. The possibility of a common meme among the two works is evident in their similar references to unconscious perception, their scattered styles, and the importance of self-discovery in both texts. The memetics that takes place between Whitman and Hustvedt is largely due to the use of common ideas and styles and can be explained by their sharing of a common meme.


Works Cited

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2006.

Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American A Novel. New York: Henry Holt and Co.,   2008.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass The Original 1855 Edition (Thrift Edition). Minneapolis: Dover Publications, 2007.


Anne Dalke's picture

reaching back to memes


What I like about this is your reaching back into the second section of the course—excavating Dennett’s concept of “memes”—and then applying it to the two texts that we’ve been working w/ in this third section of our study. You do a very nice job of highlighting three important similarities between the work of Whitman and Hustvedt; it’s great to have those catalogued.

What you don’t do, though, is begin to think through the implications of the similarities you have traced so effectively here. You begin your study not only by defining memes, but by highlighting the controversial nature of the concept: “memetics threatens the concept of free will because it implies that people not come up with original ideas.” But you don’t return to reflect on what it means, for our understanding and appreciation of Hustvedt in particular, to see her as re-working Whitman’s memes. Or (since @ the end you make her less his successor than a sharer in a common gene pool) what it does to Whitman’s status as “an original,” to make him also a participant in the common pool.
How might you work through this conundrum? I’ll be interested to hear more….

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