Whitman's Desire to Merge and its Implications

jrlewis's picture

“Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape… you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless… and can never be shaken away.” (Whitman 26)

What does this invitation mean to you?  Is it sexual?  Threatening in its boldness?  Which feelings does it evoke in you?  Disgust? Offense? Anger? Fear? The desire to distance yourself from this prying person?  How would you respond to its speaker?  Would you continue reading another eighty-seven pages of this same author?  Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is an experiment in divergent thinking and writing from American literature of the eighteen-fifties.  It presents unanticipated observations to its readers, previous and current.  Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the narrator’s invitation to merge with him.  In this paper, I would like to explore what merging might mean. 

Leaves of Grass is littered with Whitman’s attempts at merger of two separate entities are present in various forms.  He is interested in breaking apart the traditional binaries inherent in the written word.  The literary genre he chooses, autobiography, fuses the author and the narrator of the text.  The reader can not differentiate between them.   At the stylistic level, Whitman integrates poetry and prose by placing them in the same piece of work.  The first twenty pages of the original edition of the Leaves of Grass, are a prose essay.  The remaining ninety-three pages are a form of poetry he pioneered, free verse.  Both sections contain a common theme, content, and diction.   Whitman’s merging of traditional disciplines is disconcerting to the reader.  It is disorienting to the interpreter or literary critic, who can find no category to contain the work. 

There is a second kind of merging present in the text that complicates the act of interpretation further.  This merging is the amalgamation of three or more distinct entities.  For example, Whitman intersperses the past, present, and future tenses throughout his poems.  This practice bestows an atemporal quality on the experiences he is portraying.  The text is reminiscent of thought patterns yet diverges from the stream of consciousness narrative style in places.  Whitman also attempts merger with many, as opposed to one, other people.  He uses the first, second, and third person singular and plural throughout the text as the subject.  This is an instance of his refusal to make explicit his relationship to other characters, the reader, or even the universe.  By classifying his relationships, he risks locating himself somewhere and therefore distancing himself from those further rather than nearer.  Therefore, he complicates the relationship between the reader, the text, and the writer.  In a more explicit example, he writes,

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” (Whitman 68)

Whitman is certainly trying to foreground the merger part of the literary experience.  His offer of merger is an invitation to blur the boundary between the self and other.  He is trying to complicate the subject object duality inherent in the act of interpretation.  A precondition for interpretation is the potential to distinguish between the object of interpretation and the interpreter.  He has backgrounded the act of interpretation or literary criticism.  The meaning of his text is less important than its novelty and emotional value.  In order to appreciate the Leaves of Grass one “need[s] an erotics of art … in place of a hermeneutics,” (Sontag).

In his essay, “The Work and the Pilgrims of Music,” Giridhari Lal Pandit characterizes a philosophy of music that might be considered an “erotics of art.”  He describes the combination of creative act and interpretation as musical consciousness.   “A creative artist such as a poet-seer is likened to a musical instrument, to the play of the instrument as an effective medium of creation,” (Pandit 297).  A prerequisite for understanding music is the special receptive state of a person’s mind.  The listener must assume a meditative state in which their perception of time in minutes is replaced by the rhythm of the music.  Each composition posses an internal time, a beginning, middle, and end.  The mental states an ideal listener experiences are informed by this journey or story. 

Musical interpretations generate yet another kind of kind of complexity.  There is not a simple relationship between the object of interpretation and its interpretation.  A musical score might be considered the object of interpretation, and its performance the interpretation.  Therefore, a deaf person could comfortably enjoy a piece of music by acting as either conductor or playing an instrument. 

Pandit describes the manner of understanding music as analogous to a dream state.  This characterization applies to the composer, performer, and audience alike.  In order to approach the musical form, the person must embrace musical consciousness; this entails an extra linguistic mental state.  More radically, it is an extra symbolic mental state, where no symbol or metaphor is competent to convey the meaning of music.  Characterizations of these experiences might employ such metaphors as “interpenetration” of subject and object, or “fusion” of artist and work, or “overcoming” or “dissolving” or “transcending” or merging such binary oppositions as subject-object duality. (Krausz) Pandit and Whitman are exploring nondualist experiences of music and literature.  They are both interested in proving that such experiences are properties of music and literature. 

More generally, nondualist experiences might be a property of all cultural objects.  This implies that disciplines such as science and teaching might share an uninterpretable element with literature and music.  For example, the field of neurobiology is essentially brains experimenting, observing, and thinking about brains.  Ultimately, what our brains can know about our brains is constrained by our brains.  It is a self-reflexive activity absent of clearly characterized relationships and binary oppositions.  My own experience with training my young horse, Bailey, has revealed a reciprocal relationship between us.  She learns new behaviors a different way of going around the riding ring during our training sessions.  While I learn how to help her perform the desired tasks.  A former trainer of mine told me that the ultimate goal of horseback riding is to achieve unity with the horse.  On rare occasions, I have had such a nondualist experience while riding a horse.  It is the sensation of sharing one body between the two of us.  I am as conscious of the position of my feet as her hooves and it takes the same sort of effort to move them.  There is more than a mere physical merger to it though, a common mental state between both my horse and I.  That part of the experience I can not begin to describe.  The lack of a sufficient form to communicate nondualist experiences challenges any general theory of interpretation.  Therefore, it might be appropriate to call for an “erotics” of all cultural objects.  

Works Cited

Bardsley, K., Dutton, D., Krausz, M., The Idea of Creativity. (prepublication manuscript)

Pandit, G. L., “The Work and the Pilgrims of Music,” Interpretation and Its Objects. Ed. Andrea Deciu Ritivoi. New York: Rodopi, 2003. 293-302.

Sontag, S. “Against Interpretation and Other Essays,” New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1966. 4-14.

Whitman, W., Leaves of Grass. 1855 1st ed. New York: Dover Publications INC. 2007


jrlewis's picture

more implications

First my personal history with nondualist experiences.  When I was twelve, I rode a mare about my age, a little neurotic and a bit of a stopper.  Yet, I trusted her, perhaps beyond reason.  In the teeny tiny ring where we rode in Gladwyne there was really only one place to put a jump.  So it was never a surprise, you practically memorized the number of strides from the turn off the rail to the jump.  That was why it was slightly less insane to try to approach the jump with one’s eyes closed.  That crazy mare and I cleared a three foot six inch oxer on our best day.  That is the first nondualist experience I remember.  It is still very powerful for me.  Then came reading, neurobiology, and finally Bailey. 

There is way more to Pandit’s story, then I shared in the paper.  He describes the mental state associated with nondualist experiences as “pure consciousness.”  This creates a cute little paradox.  How do we define pure consciousness?  It is that which cannot be defined.  I would like to claim that this contradiction is cousin to Whitman’s assertion that he is comfortable contradicting himself he “contain[s] multitudes,” (Whitman 67).  Without categories and distinctions, perhaps interpretation becomes nonsensical?

Still it might be possible to integrate nondualist experiences into the work of engaging with cultural objects.  The interpreter/object of interpretation duality is necessary for interpretation.  This implies that the space the interpreter inhabits, their identity, their self, influences interpretation.  If a nondualist experience is a personal transformation, a redefinition of the self, then the interpretation will also change.  I am talking about a simultaneous evolution of the interpreter and the interpretation.  That is why it isn’t boring to read the same text multiple times.  A different interpretation is generated by a different self on each occasion.  It might look a lot like punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution, a sharp change or speciation event, metaphorically.  

Anne Dalke's picture

beyond dualism

What an expansive project, reading “out” from Whitman’s various forms of linguistic, psychological and spiritual mergings, via Sontag, to Pandit’s description of music, to neurobiology, to your experiences of “oneness” with Bailey. Tell me why it works in this order? Especially since, experientially, for you, I expect the sequence might actually have been reversed?

My big question, as always, has to do with the (further) implications of the pattern you’ve traced so exhaustively. You end by saying that the “lack of a sufficient form to communicate nondualist experiences challenges any general theory of interpretation.” Can we unpack that a bit?. Is it the lack of a form for communication—or actually the very existence of nondualist experiences—which challenges the theory of interpretation? Especially since, as you argue above, interpretation is crucially dependent on the dualist construction of interpreter over and against the object-being-interpreted?
jrlewis's picture

more implications

A long and really interesting article, Enlightenment Therapy, in the New York Times about the relationship between Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis.  It discusses the possibility of a reconciliation or productive exhange between these two fields that superficially appear opposed to each other.  A lot of talk about the relationship between the self and the meaning made of merging experiences.  It seems that there is a balance, continuum, or even a dynamic equilibrium that needs to be achieved.  My exploration of Whitman was lopsided in that sense.  My paper lacks an examination of whitman's dualistic perception or characterization of himself.  Now I wonder if that would be possible...


Anne Dalke's picture

how risky....

I had just mentioned that essay, yesterday, to a student in my gender and technology class, who challenged our semester-long fretting about "where the self is...in the machine? in the virtual world? extended beyond the biological skin-bag?"

...with a pretty amazing multi-media project that used a text-to-speech program reading Buddhist quotes. What had struck me, in the NYTimes article, was the admission made by the long-time Zen master, in therapy, of “how risky samadhi [oneness, ineffable joy] is from a psychological point of view"....

I'm not sure (in other words) that I saw the reconciliation you describe.

jrlewis's picture

a little wishy washy but...

My favorite metaphor for life is about chemical equilibrium, basically Le Chatelier's Principle.  If you take a reaction that has reached equilibrium and perturb it, then the equiibrium position of the reaction is shifted in the direction that relieves the stress. By equilibrium position, I mean the relative concentrations of reactants and products present.  The reactants being Buddhism and the products being self-awareness.  Or nondualist experiences are the reactants and dualist experiences are the products.  This metaphor assumes a reversible reaction.  A non reversible reaction such as boiling an egg or committing suicide is not applicable.  This metaphor is my pragmatic approach to dualities. 

Hopefully this is coherent, getting to be that stressful time in the semester...

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