Walt Whitman: Sins Against Science
by Gary Sloan (e-mail: GSloan@liberator.net) [January 13th, 2002]
Whitman, a long-time chart-topper in American poetry, was the first important American poet to extol science. In 1855, when the first edition of Leaves of Grass, his epochal volume, came out, the Romantic aversion to science still chafed poetic sensibilities. Through its invasive procedures, the standard indictment read, science violated Nature’s pristine wholeness, disfiguring the beauty of natural forms. “We murder to dissect,” carped Wordsworth. Edgar Allan Poe depicted science as a vulture preying on the heart and the imagination. With its voracious appetite for analysis, it eviscerated myth, wonder, spontaneity, reverie, and awe.
Whitman deemed the charges anachronistic poppycock. He raised a toast: “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!” Geologist, chemist, surgeon, mathematician, cartographer, lexicographer, the whole menagerie of exact demonstrators were welcome in his poetic parlor: “Gentlemen, I receive you, and attach and clasp hands with you. Your facts are useful and real.” Useful, we shall see, was the operative word.
Though short on expertise, Whitman was conversant with the lineaments of contemporary science—astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, biology, including evolution. He was an avid, if unsystematic, reader of popular books and magazine articles on science. As newspaper editor in the 1840s and ‘50s, he supported scientific enterprises. Later, when The Origin of Species had become a cause celebre, the Good Grey Poet plumped for Darwinism: “It is needed as a counterpoise to widely prevailing and unspeakably tenacious, enfeebling superstitions. With its advent, the world of erudition, both moral and physical, cannot but be eventually bettered and broadened in its speculations.”
These superstitions were nourished by ecclesiastical institutions, for which the poet had meager respect. From his father, an admirer of Thomas Paine, he had imbibed anti-clerical sentiments. He scoffed at the myopic provincialism of religions, each claiming to see the truth through the colored lenses of its own dogmatism. Though never an agnostic, he liked the brash way unbelievers Robert Ingersoll and Thomas Huxley twitted the religious establishment: “It does seem,” he remarked, “as if Ingersoll and Huxley without any others could unhorse the whole Christian giant.” As prophet of pantheistic mysticism, Whitman may have harbored similar aspirations even though he sometimes sounds like a boisterous Jesus: “O despairer, here is my neck, / By God! You shall not go down! Hang your whole weight on me.” Whitman thought science could clear the way for spiritual regeneration by softening hidebound creeds, fables, and traditions.
Leaves of Grass bristles with allusions to science. Now, meteorology (“I” is the rain):
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely formed, altogether changed,
and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust layers of the globe.
Now, conservation of energy:
Myself discharging my excrementitious body to be burned,
or rendered to powder, or buried,
My voided body nothing more to me, returning to the purifications,
further offices, eternal uses of the earth.
And stellar life cycles:
The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending serving their longer, shorter use.
These lyrical evocations of natural processes show that a scientific outlook needn’t stifle the imagination nor swaddle the spirit.
Had Whitman been content to infuse the formulations of scientific discourse with the finer breath of poetry, he would have merited the epithet Poet of Science, the title of a study by Whitmanite Joseph Beaver. With a different temperament and background, he might have been a modern Lucretius, the great Roman poet of materialism. As it stands, the epithet is deceptive. Despite the hurrahs, Whitman relegated science to the role of data collector for a higher muse. While science was a useful antidote to superstition, it was hampered by a sublunary narrowness of vision. Scientific facts, Whitman believed, had esoteric ramifications best elucidated by sages, seers, and philosopher-poets: “The highest and subtlest and broadest truths of modern science wait for their true assignment and last vivid flashes of light through metaphysicians. The poets of the cosmos advance through all interpositions and coverings and stratagems to first principles.”
Properly illuminated, the lore of science corroborated Whitman’s eclectic mysticism, grounded, he thought, in the first principles. Scientists may have been bemused by his metaphysical extrapolations. Evolution, both cosmic and Darwinian, was constrained by an idiosyncratic anthropic principle:
My embryo has never been torpid. Nothing could overlay it;
For it the nebula cohered to an orb, the long slow strata piled to rest it on,
vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me.
Evolution also ratified a quasi-Hegelian dialectic of inexorable spiritual progress, the whole creation spiraling toward an Absolute Idea of immortal love:
All, all for immortality,
Love like the light silently wrapping all,
Nature’s amelioration blessing all,
The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain,
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.
The ceaseless permutations of “atomies” warranted belief in transmigration of souls: “No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before. Whatever I do or say, I also return.” The First Law of Thermodynamics, the conservation of energy, certified personal immortality. After the final transmigration—“promotion and transfer,” Whitman termed the process—the soul both merged with the cosmos and retained individual identity. Though he offered no details, he “had no doubt of it.”
Scientific concepts were a portal to Whitman’s true abode: “I enter by them,” he said, “to an area of my dwelling.” This mental domicile was furnished with a potpourri of notions derived directly or indirectly from a long succession of philosophers, sages, and seers East and West. Like Pythagoras, Plato, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and other philosophical idealists, Whitman believed the sensory world is but the shadow of reality. “Real reality,” as he called it, was an immaterial mind, soul, or spirit (the terms were fungible) that filters, interprets, and even creates the data of sensation. The objects of thought had more reality than the objects of sense. Unlike sullied and corruptible matter, mind was eternal, unfettered by time or space, its own constructions. Whitman’s idealism was tricked out with a mishmash of moral assumptions culled from American transcendentalism, Quakerism (his mother was a Quaker), enlightenment optimism, and Eastern mysticism.
The idealism, in its unadulterated form, arrived late. In his early thirties, still brimming with animal vitality, Whitman had dubbed himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul.” He gave flesh and spirit equal billing. “There is that lot of me, and all so luscious,” he exulted. Such scrumptiousness merited dispersion in the gene pool: “On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes, / This day I am jetting the stuff of more arrogant republics.” He reveled in his own anatomy, lovingly itemizing its sundry delights. No part was excepted. The scent of his armpits was “aroma finer than prayer,” the fat on his bones incomparably sweet, his “firm masculine coulter” miracle enough to “stagger an infidel.” His tactile sensations gave him an electric thrill:
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to someone else is about as much as I can stand.
Is this a touch? quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins.
By forty, his senses dulling, he no longer vaunted in his youthful sap. He abandoned dualism for a monism of soul. He was explicit: “I affirm now that the mind governs—and that all depends on the mind.” Matter was now a mask that disguised reality. Whitman’s demotion of matter coincided with a diminution in his poetic powers. He was more the poet of the body than he knew.
Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, his immediate mentor, Whitman considered material phenomena cryptic symbols for spiritual truths: “The kernel of every object that can be seen, felt, or thought of has its relations to the soul, and is significant of something there.” Everywhere he turned, he found “letters from God” waiting to be deciphered:
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
Decoded by the Intuition, the letters revealed a suprasensible world infused with forces, purposes, designs, and patterns emancipated from mundane causality, coherence, logic, consistency, and probability. This ethereal wonderland obeyed a motto enunciated by the mystic poet William Blake: “Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.” Truth needn’t be verifiable or amenable to falsification. It was circumscribed only by the limits of imagination. Afoot with vision, Whitman saw much that mystics before him had seen.
■ Life is indestructible:
There is no stoppage, and can never be stoppage;
If I and you and the worlds all beneath or upon their surfaces,
and all the palpable life, were this moment reduced back to
a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run,
We should surely bring up again where we now stand.
■ Death is illusory:
All goes onward and outward and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
■ God is immanent in the creation:
I hear and behold God in every object.
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my
own face in the glass.
■ Love unites all:
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are my brothers and the women my
sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.
■ Evil is part of the good::
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me. I stand indifferent.
My gait is no faultfinder’s or rejector’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.
■ Truth comes by intuition, not analysis:
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog
with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments. I witness and wait.
■ Truth is ineffable:
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.
Whitman’s mysticism poses many problems for the rational mind. Since he treats intuition as a higher mode of cognition than reason, logic, and science, his claims can’t be tested by his own criterion for truth. Everything he says could be true, just as you could have been created five seconds ago with stocked memories of a long past. Where reason must pander to imagination, anything goes. Submitted to vulgar analysis, the claims emerge as semantic vacuums, devoid of intelligible propositions. They have only psychological, metaphorical, or emotional import. Two examples should suffice.
Without a clear definition of “God,” we can’t know whether God is “in every object.” Even if it could be shown “he” isn’t, Whitman might still see and hear him there. Perceptions can be delusive, especially when core beliefs are at stake. In his poem “The Snow Man,” Wallace Stevens notes that few people can survey nature and “behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
If truth is ineffable, beyond words, we can’t determine whether it can be intuited. We don’t know what to test for. No one can tell us. Whitman doesn’t help: “There is that in me, I do not know what it is, but I know it is in me.” To elaborate is futile: “I do not know it, it is without name, it is a word unsaid.”
At first blush, modern physics seems to bulwark Whitman’s claim that ultimate reality is ineffable and immaterial. The quantum world exhibits a diaphanous elusiveness that challenges verbal formulation and basic notions of materiality. Niels Bohr is reported to have said that anyone not confused by quantum mechanics doesn’t understand it. Subatomic particles, considered the substratum of all reality, have been stripped of the irreducible thingness associated with matter. They are now treated as the bunching of force fields, best understood as mathematical constructs of human observers. Were Whitman alive, he might offer a triumphant toast.
While “Science Proves Mystics Right” might fly in a tabloid, it misses the point. The uncertainties of science can’t validate the certitudes of mysticism. Mysticism offers an immutable prescription of how the universe must be. Science offers provisional descriptions of how it is thought to be. Science remains in constant flux as it assimilates new data. New theories could render quantum mechanics obsolescent. The spirit of science is one of Olympian disinterest, unsullied by emotional bias. Mysticism plucks from the “incorporeal air” a host of moral tenets that cater to human desire.
Rather than science preying on him, Whitman preyed on science. That it might feed his cosmic affirmations, he mutilated its spirit. He wanted a universe suffused with love, goodness, joy, equality, and justice, not one pervaded by Melville’s inscrutable malice or Frost’s desert places. Hence, in his Weltanschauung, loves becomes a cosmic force, evil a virtue, death an illusion, truth an egalitarian influx, etc. He pertinaciously denied metaphysical clout to pessimism. At times, his incorrigible yeasaying flirts with smugness:
Were mankind murderous or jealous upon you my brother or my sister?
I am sorry for you. They are not murderous or jealous upon me;
All has been gentle with me. I keep no count with lamentation;
What have I to do with lamentation?
Notwithstanding his “defense” of science, Whitman was imbued with a Romantic mentality. Like Pascal, he thought everyone had an innate truth detector, the heart, which knew more than the head. Earnest feelings signaled extramental cosmic truths. In A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell spells out the problem with tying one’s own emotions to universal ordinances:
There are two objections to the practice of basing beliefs as to objective fact upon the emotions of the heart. One is that there is no reason whatever to suppose that such beliefs will be true; the other is, that the resulting beliefs will be private, since the heart says different things to different people.
Whitman thought all hearts spoke a common tongue because they had been instructed by the same cosmic tutor. What seemed true to him must be true for everyone. Had his mind been of a scientific cast, his reading of Ingersoll and Huxley would have raised a suspicion that hearts are multilingual. Fortunately for Walt Whitman, poetic license covers a multitude of sins when the sinner is a great poet.
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