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Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

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Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text

Longitud:
275 página
4 horas
Publicado:
Aug 1, 2016
ISBN:
9781469620633
Formato:
Libro

Descripción

This book combines literary and historical analysis in a study of sexuality in Walt Whitman's work. Informed by his "new historicist" understanding of the construction of literary texts, Jimmie Killingsworth examines the progression of Whitman's poetry and prose by considering the textual history of Leaves of Grass and other works.

Killingsworth demonstrates that Whitman's "poetry of the body" derives its radical power from the transformation of conventional attitudes toward sexuality, traditional poetics, and conservative politics. The sexual relation, with its promise of unity, love, equality, interpenetration, and productivity for partners, becomes a metaphor for all political and social relationships, including that of poet and reader. The effect of the poems is protopolitical, an altering of consciousness about the body's relation to other bodies, a shifting of the categories of knowledge that foretells political action.

Killingsworth traces the interplay in Whitman's poetry between sexual and textual themes that derive from Whitman's political response to the historical turbulence of mid-century America. He describes a subtle shift in Whitman's prose writings on poetics, which turn from a view of poetry in the early 1850s as morally and politically efficacious to a chastened romanticism in the postwar years that frees the poet from responsibility for the world outside his poems.

Later editions of Leaves of Grass are marked by the poet's deliberate repression of erotic themes in favor of a depoliticized aestheticism that views art not as a motivator of political and moral action but as an artifact embodying the soul of the genius.

Publicado:
Aug 1, 2016
ISBN:
9781469620633
Formato:
Libro

Sobre el autor

M. Jimmie Killingsworth is associate professor of English at Memphis State University.


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Whitman's Poetry of the Body - M. Jimmie Killingsworth

Body

One: Original Energy 1855

Creeds and Schools in abeyance, . . . . . . . . With accumulations, now coming forward in front, Arrived again, I harbor, for good and bad—I permit to speak, Nature, without check, with original energy.

Starting from Paumanok, 1860

The merge, as Whitman conceived it, is the tendency of the individual self to overcome moral, psychological, and political boundaries. Thematically and poetically, the notion dominates the three major poems of 1855: I Sing the Body Electric, The Sleepers, and Song of Myself, all of which were merged in the first edition under the single title Leaves of Grass but were demarcated by clear breaks in the text and the repetition of the title. Song of Myself was the first poem in the volume, The Sleepers was the fourth, and I Sing the Body Electric was the fifth.

By reversing Whitman’s order and studying the fifth poem first, we can begin with an overtly programmatic poem and work back toward the more subtle mixture of sexual politics and poetics in Song of Myself. Critics have complained that I Sing the Body Electric windily preaches and teaches, but does not move or please. All of its important themes are handled with more grace, beauty, and energy in Song of Myself. Yet in that large cosmic drama, the themes protrude quickly, mix, meld, and vanish in the multitudes contained therein. In contrast, these themes, which are central to the sexual morality of the Leaves, are sharply focused and clearly expressed in the fifth poem (I Sing the Body Electric). It thus provides a place to begin an analysis of sexual politics in the early Leaves, a clear shallows in which to test the water before diving into the more difficult and important poems.

THE MORALITY OF THE BODY

The 1855 version of I Sing the Body Electric was heavily revised in later editions, as were most of Whitman’s early poems. The eventual first line and title—so technologically splendid, so scientifically Active that Ray Bradbury adopted it as the title of a story—was absent in 1855. So was the challenging philosophy implicit in the 1856 line, And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul? Although it is unlikely that Whitman could have answered that question himself, it has tantalized philosophically minded scholars, who have devised all manner of monisms and inverted mysticisms to account for it.

But the metaphysics and the technological imagery that were to come later only detract from the original ideas of the poem as it stood in 1855. It is a typical case. In 1855, it was plain, direct, somewhat old-fashioned (The Body before Electricity might make a good title), as well as vague in places and predictable in others. Later it would take on its scientific airs and become as cluttered and contradictory as a Victorian laboratory.

The great simplicity of the 1855 version arises from its use of thematic oppositions and the rhetorical techniques of division, comparison, and negation. This version tends to push social and political elements toward opposing poles and urge the reader to take a stand on one side or the other. It is a radical poem that reflects the lingering mood of 1848.

It begins this way:

The bodies of men and women engirth me, and I engirth them,

They will not let me off

nor I them till I go with them and respond to them and love them.

Was it dreamed whether those who corrupted their own live bodies could conceal themselves?

And whether those who defiled the living were as bad as they who defiled the dead?

The leading structural principles are balance and contrast, the techniques of an egalitarian rhetoric that would level social morality by reference to physical causes and effects and that would isolate and condemn the institutions that neglect this physical morality. Conceptual pairing provides a means of questioning conventional values. The first two lines contrast directly with the second two, in form and content. In the first two the speaker and his lovers form a knot of bodies engirthed against corruption, which is attributed in the third and fourth lines to those defilers concerned more with the dead than with the living. The confident, declarative assertions of lines 1 and 2 establish the foundation from which the indictments, the questions, of lines 3 and 4 may be directed. That foundation is physical love, responsiveness, and the demand for reciprocal response. The exemplars of the ideal physical morality challenge those who, in revering the dead conventions of their dead forefathers, corrupt their own live bodies. The defilers are aware of their sin, for like Adam and Eve they try to conceal themselves. But their own corruption leaves them without protection, ironically without the security they seek in the conventions of a dead life (the dead). For here are their inquisitors, the perfect bodies of the speaker and his friends, who in their purity are beyond question, beyond even description or definition: The expression of the body of man or woman balks account, / The male is perfect and that of the female is perfect.

The defilers conceal themselves in clothes, the signs of social roles and the obligations of behavior according to custom. But the body makes its demands in defiance of customs, of clothes:

The expression of a wellmade man appears not only in his face,

It is in his limbs and joints also .... it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,

It is in his walk . . the carriage of his neck . . the flex of his waist and knees .... dress does not hide him,

The strong sweet supple quality he has strikes through the cotton and flannel;

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

You linger to see his back and the back of his neck and shoulder side.

The body demands attention, and the poet readily responds, following this description of the wellmade man with a series of images of bodies in action—swimmers, wrestlers, laborers, housekeepers, mothers, firemen. The bodies demand sympathy as well, and again the poet is willing: I loosen myself and pass freely .... and am at the mother’s breast with the little child, / And swim with the swimmer, and wrestle with the wrestlers, and march in line with the firemen.

The images are gradually amplified until the last—that of the patriarchal common farmer—becomes a full-blown portrait. His morally valuable traits, his wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person, are disclosed by his physical presence, the shape of his head [that is, his phrenology], the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes. Almost as an afterthought the poet remarks, He was wise also, and nearly in the same breath, placing physical beauty in a parallel relation with wisdom: He was over six feet tall. The farmer’s physical power finds proof in his offspring: his sons were massive clean bearded tanfaced and handsome, yet, When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang. The natural response to the man is absolute devotion; his sons and his daughters loved him ... all who saw him loved him . . . they did not love him by allowance . . . they loved him with personal love. Even you, the reader, though the man is a stranger, would feel the attraction of his physical power: You would wish long and long to be with him .... you would wish to sit by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

The poet’s adoption of this rural father figure as the consummation of bodily perfection is a reflection of the common early nineteenth-century myth of patriarchal guidance. As Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has indicated, the dangerous and endangered adolescents of Jacksonian America lived within a rural patriarchal family of fathers and grandfathers who would guide the young man past the maelstroms of sexual desire into a safe maturity of self-control and devotion to family (Disorderly Conduct 92). The urban adolescent, threatened by and threatening to bourgeois society, lacked such a stabilizing force. Although Whitman’s hero plunges recklessly into the maelstroms of sexual desire in the urban scene, he never loses sight of the memory of (or hope for) this marvelous patriarch.

Whitman follows this archetype of successful physical life with a generality, a summation of the values he has presented and a celebration of the completeness of physical experience:

I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,

To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough,

To pass among them . . to touch any one .... to rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment .... what is this then?

I do not ask any more delight .... I swim in it as in a sea.

Strongly suggestive of the interuterine oceanic feeling that Freud identifies with mysticism in the introduction to Civilization and Its Discontents, the last line conveys the speaker’s utter absorption in physical delight, the completeness of which—the enoughness—indicates to him the participation of the soul in the body’s experience, the melding of physical and metaphysical: There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them and in the contact and odor of them that pleases the soul well, / All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

Once the theme of the blend begins, the sympathetic urge is irresistible, and the poet launches into one of the most sexually charged passages he was ever to write. His own persona, the I, represents the male principle encountering the ideal female form. In addition to male and female, the description engulfs physical and metaphysical, as well as points of interaction between nature’s opposites—ebb and flow, night and day:

This is the female form,

A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot,

It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction,

I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor .... all falls aside but myself and it,

Books, art, religion, time . . the visible and solid earth . . the atmosphere and the fringed clouds . . what was expected of heaven or feared of hell are now consumed,

Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it. . the response likewise ungovernable,

Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands—all diffused .... mine too diffused,

Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb .... loveflesh swelling and deliciously aching,

Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous .... quivering jelly of love . . . white-blow and delirious juice,

Bridegroom-night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,

Undulating into the willing and yielding day,

Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-fleshed day.

The sexual experience, then, is the natural result toward which the demands of the body—its attractiveness, its corresponding sympathy—tend. Nature with its parallel mergings justifies the act. All that would prevent it—arguments falsely appealing to nature (the visible and solid earth . . . the atmosphere and the fringed clouds) and other moral constructs (Books, art, religion, time [. . .] what was expected of heaven or feared of hell)—are of no account. They fall aside, have no power before the ungovernable procreant urge. Hands that would restrain the act fall away, become negligent.

Lest the act be viewed as sacred merely because it produces children, following the standard Victorian attitude, Whitman adds, This is the nucleus .... after the child is born of woman the man is born of woman. The birth into manhood depends on sexual experience, which completes the development of the personality.

And yet the passage may be seen as a variation on a Victorian theme. The birth of the youth into manhood recalls once again elements of the myth of Jacksonian adolescence identified by Smith-Rosenberg. In the initiation of young men into adulthood, rural patriarchs like Whitman’s old farmer were assisted by a shadowy cast of virtuous and sexual mothers and daughters (Disorderly Conduct 92). In the adolescent’s union with the female form, productivity remains the major concern, though procreation is secondary to sexual development; the young man must find an acceptable path to sexual maturity in order to become an energetic, productive adult.

The concern for development and productivity predominates in the following sections of the poem. Here we find twin sermons, one for women, one for men. The female is enjoined not to be ashamed; she is the gates of the body and [. . .] of the soul. And The male is not less the soul or more. In the wake of the orgiastic wedding of the male and female principles, these fastidiously balanced and vaguely encouraging sermonettes are, to the modern reader, singularly anticlimactic, reminiscent of nineteenth-century social purist sex education. Again and again we will encounter in the early poems passages that skip blithely from conventional to revolutionary attitudes and language. The apparent purpose of this passage is to reestablish the moral tone and prepare for further inquisition of the corrupters of the body, the institutions of society that are at odds with the physical morality implicit in Whitman’s celebration of the body. The conclusion of the sermonettes—The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred—sets the tone and theme as well as the structure of the sections to follow.

Before the reader is presented with the famous parallel sections on A slave at auction and a woman at auction (which in 1867 would become even more obviously parallel —A man’s body at auction and a woman’s body at auction—but would lose the political pointedness of their specificity), the poet interjects an overtly political note: the physical morality he advocates has a democratic impetus. To his pronouncement that The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred, he adds, it is no matter who, then relentlessly directs his questions to the supporters of the institutions that corrupt the body:

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the welloff .... just as much as you,

Each has his or her place in the procession.

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Do you know so much that you call the slave or the dullface ignorant?

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffused float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and vegetation sprouts for you . . and not for him and her?

Democracy begins with the body, which is the link with nature and the common denominator among all classes, races, divided groups. And in fact the privileged, the welloff, and the middle-class reading public (you?) are not the most illustrative marchers in the great human procession, a pre-Darwinian metaphor for evolution. The democratic references here remind the reader that in the poem’s initial catalog of bodies in action, only members of the working classes are depicted—small farmers framing their own houses, laborers having lunch from their dinner kettles, firemen marching in line after the fire.

The antidemocratic institutions of society, therefore, are those most clearly out of register with the morality of the body. The most obvious are slavery and prostitution. When the speaker comes upon the slave at auction, he finds he must help the auctioneer; the sloven does not half know his business, for he cannot see the value of an excellent body, the product of eons of evolution:

Gentlemen look on this curious creature,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough,

For him the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant,

For him the revolving cycles truly and steadily rolled.

As the past has been spent preparing for him, so the present welcomes his excellent physical attributes and corresponding emotional power; within him are the allbaffling brain, the same old blood . . the same red running blood, the nerves, tendons, and heart, all passions and desires . . all Teachings and aspirations. The poet confronts the genteel reader with his blunt question: Do you think they are not there because they are not expressed in parlors and lecture-rooms? Those who frequent such secure, bourgeois havens are thus linked with the institution of slavery through their politics of complacency and avoidance. They share the blame with the slave-owner. Their crime does not stop in the present, but corrupts the future as well:

This is not only one man .... he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,

In him the start of populous states and rich republics,

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

The procession moves from past to future, but the corrupters of the body disturb the progressive march toward perfection. They tinker with the course of (Lamarckian) evolution itself. Toward them, the speaker aims his questions with slashing irony:

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?

Who might you find you have come from yourself if you could trace back through the centuries?

The line of reasoning and the questioning continue as the poet probes the public sale of women’s bodies. A woman at auction may as well be a prostitute as a slave; in other poems Whitman takes up the cause of women’s bodies sold for sex. The woman on the auction block is not only herself .... she is the teeming mother of mothers. The barbs of the questions are sharpened on the sentimental reverence for motherhood of the Victorian Age and the belief in the redeeming power of woman’s love:

Have you ever loved a woman?

Your mother .... is she living? .... Have you been much with her? and has she been much with you?

Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?

These passages show most clearly how Whitman could transform bourgeois myths—in this case, the idea that the well-behaved youth would be rewarded by becoming one healthy link in an endless chain of fathers and sons which would stretch unbroken into a physiological and social millennium in which order would reign (Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct 92). In 1855 he could freely apply such notions to the socially marginal—the slave or the prostitute. Like the adolescent and the homosexual, whom the poet champions in other poems, the oppressed deserve to be granted status as free adults in a society where such status has been denied them. In one sense, the poem is a critique of bourgeois ideology; in another sense, it is an extreme application of it. The democratic promises of equal opportunity and social mobility are broadly interpreted and applied poetically as the merge, the sympathetic overtaking of one class by another.

The poem closes with a restatement of the main themes: that those who corrupt their own bodies cannot conceal themselves, and that those who defile or degrade the bodies of the living are just as surely cursed as those who defile the dead. In this poem lies the moral basis for Whitman’s sexual politics. The body has its own politics, and there is a morality that conforms to physical existence. Both the politics and the morality represent a threat to the established institutions of American society. In fact, Whitman suggests, the body itself is an institution more sacred than any other. Its evolutionary function, even its very existence, should not be hampered by other, more artificial, institutions.

In his celebration of physicality, Whitman falls directly into the tradition of Enlightenment moral and social thought, especially the anticlericism and materialism of European writers like Volney. As Betsy Erkkila notes, while the "tendency to ‘spiritualize’ his heritage from the Enlightenment . . . sets Whitman apart from the more purely deist and rationalist conceptions of Voltaire, Volney,

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