Thursday, February 9, 2012

Whitman, Longfellow, Aldrich

Whitman and Longfellow (The Village Blacksmith) both celebrate the physical, and there the similarities end. Longfellow's backsmith is an upstanding citizen, a hard-working widowed man that takes his children to church on Sunday.
Whitman is the patron saint of dedicated loafers, Our Lady of the Leisurely. The blacksmith is sweating over his anvil and Whitman is napping naked in the woods.
The blacksmith, also, is presented as a very masculine character, a manly man that beats molten metal with a hammer to earn his keep. Whitman, in his quest to merge with the cosmos and everyone in it, has a broader take on his own humanity. It's not quite that he's more feminine, but that he's softer and less adversarial to the world around him.

Aldridge (I vex me not with brooding on the years), like Whitman, acknowledges the cyclical aspect of living and dying and the naturalness of death. But Aldridge's focus is on the afterlife, the sweet by and by where Whitman seems to hint at something more like reincarnation.

Aldridge and Longfellow probably sit beside one another in church on Sunday while Whitman takes a nap under a tree somewhere. But for all of that, Aldridge and Whitman both have a sense of the mystical, while Longfellow's blacksmith is more proper and puritanical.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Over And Over Again : : Companionship as a motif in Song of Myself

Song of Myself is an extended argument for getting uncivilized (out of the houses), getting naked (loafing in the great outdoors), and merging to close the distance between the I and the Other.

That merging is a search for companionship, but not partnership. All the references to connection and intimacy Whitman makes in Song of Myself are fleeting. There is no romantic fairytale of happily ever after. Instead what's celebrated is a brief, deep encounter between two people (or a person and nature)  before they part.

"As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of day" (p. 3)

Here's Whitman, never alone, yet still not tied to any one person. Talking about God in this way has roots in the Sufi tradition, where the poets Hafiz, Kabir and Rumi speak of God as a lover more so than a creator. Most of the Christian prayers implore God (or the angels) to watch over a sleeping person, but Whitman here is sleeping with God. Maybe he thinks God needs a rest before Sunday. I can't tell if the "and close on the peep of day" part means that God takes off before the roosters start crowing for a little early morning Walk of Shame, or if Whitman is trying to show that God stayed with him all night long.

"[The runaway slave] staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north, I had him sit next me at table..." (p. 7)

This is another intimate and brief encounter. Whitman takes a stranger (and a fugitive) into his house and nurses him for a week, sharing his home and table while knowing from the start that the runaway slave isn't going to stay. That's not part of the plan, and it isn't what either of them want. The relationship is no less meaningful for its brevity.

"I am he that walks with the tender and growing night; 
I call to the earth and sea held by half-light" (p. 15)

This reads like a verse from the Hebrew Bible. But it's Whitman, enjoying the evening, knowing that the night doesn't last, that the seasons will grow dark and cold, that the moon moves the tides. Or maybe Whitman sees himself as God-like. If he were a painter, he would stand there on that shore until he'd fixed the scene in his mind before retreating to the studio to try catching it with paint. It's an example, also, of an experience so intense that it couldn't be borne if it didn't fade so quickly. Whitman here, is at peace, taking it all in.

"To any one dying...thither I speed and twist the knob of the door,
Turn the bedclothes toward the foot of the bed,
Let the physician and the priest go home." (p. 33)

"I am not to be denied...I compel...I have stories plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow,
I do not ask who you are...that is not important to me," (p. 32-33)

This is Whitman the war nurse in the hospital where nobody stays for very long. I picked these few lines, but the whole few pages tell a better story. It's a place filled with dying and disfigured people, but Whitman doesn't shut down to the wretchedness of it. He sits with the dying until they're gone and then turns to the next wounded soldier.  

The punchline: Whitman is never alone. He never relies on a single companion and takes comfort in those around him or the solitude of the uncivilized world. This is part of the reason he is able to claim that he is everything and everyone and shares all with everything and everyone. By approaching life this way he steps out of space and time, by ignoring boundaries he becomes boundless.

Tweet A Week : : Barnum's American Museum

It was a museum, brought to life by P.T. Barnum before he created a circus rather than running off to join someone else's. The building was in Lower Manhattan, which is as much a circus as anything I've ever seen.

And it was as much a carnival freak show dressed up as an Old World museum. Rather than separating the high arts from cheap entertainment, Barnum's museum showed off bearded ladies alongside Shakespeare. Of course, if the bearded ladies had been performing Shakespeare that would be even better. 

The museum didn't invert or mix the Fine Arts with entertainment, but it placed them side by side. Why go to Coney Island and the New-York Historical Society both when you can get all of your kicks in the same place?

But there's a tension. While different kinds of art and entertainment cohabited the same space, the museum itself was off limits to African Americans (and I assume other ethnic minorities). It may have been in New York, but it was antebellum New York, and while slavery was illegal, African Americans weren't as free as their white counterparts. 

The first museum was completely destroyed by fire less than a month after the Civil War ended. After his second museum burned down three years later, Barnum left for the circus.

Specimen Days : : Mulleins and Mulleins

What's a weed? 
A plant where you don't want one.

For the farmers, mullein is a weed taking over neglected spaces. 
For Whitman, it's a way to mark the time of year, both of them arrive (he doesn't say where) at the same place and time every year for three years running.

It's a hearty plant, and not a loafer. Instead of being cultivated and coddled by a gardener, it grabs onto whatever dirt and rock it can find and shoots up on its own. It's not a loafer, but it is fiercely independent, and as uncivilized as possible. This, I think, is why Whitman is so fond of it. Every year it arrives, it does its thing, it spends a season pushing up toward the sun and then it dies. 

Mullein is a medicinal herb, hung and dried at the end of the summer, taken as tea for a cough or cold. An echo of warm robust summer in the middle of cold hard winter. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Walt Whitman and Martin Buber

From Song of Myself:

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.

First, and maybe most interestingly, I read this very differently than the interpretation discussed in class. 

Rather than seeing Whitman pleasantly pinned to the ground by his companion who touches his heart with his tongue–a nifty trick, no doubt–I understood this to mean that Whitman's companion, in their careful attention, succeeded in touching every part of dear Walt, body and soul, from the inside out.

Which brings us to the Buber part. 
In 1923 Martin Buber wrote a long essay called Ich und Du. Early English translations had this as I and Thou, newer ones have it as I and You. 
Long story short, there are two possible relationships between people: I-You and I-It, we treat people as subject or object, as ends in themselves or as means to other ends. The dynamic Whitman describes is I-You. How he gets there is by diving into all the trappings the I-It and stripping away (literally) all the nonsense. 

Buber is trying to get past the physical, and Whitman is trying to get to it. That's probably a religious difference. Walt seems content to take his pleasure now, instead of waiting for a heavenly reward. 
I can't blame him. I'd rather be frolicking, barefoot, howling in the woods rather than behaving myself in the hopes of a sweet by and by.

Nerdy, and readable, stuff about Buber here:

- ch.h.m.