On a Certain Use of ‘Democratic’ in Whitman

I have come to Whitman slowly, zigzag, reluctant.  I do not know why.  I do not know fully why.  I do know that my youthful exposure to him left me in flinty indifference.  (I must have pulled Leaves off the shelves in, say, 10th grade.  I worked in a library and stood and read what I shelved or read what caught my eye near what I shelved.  I was not–and was–an ideal library employee.)  I reckon that part of my (lack of) reaction was tied up to the ceaseless singing of ‘democracy’.  I have always had a hard time with art that slummed with politics.  My thought must have been somesuch:  “Yeah, right, democracry.  It’s great and all.  But come on.  Canting for democracy?  Not just any democracy, but an earlier version of the one I inhabit?  No, no, not for me.  Go your own way, Walt.  I will go mine.”

I am not here to apologize for my 10th grade self.  He was my 10th grade self–sophomoric by definition.  I have not, at any rate, put that child away entirely.  He is still along for my ride.  I still shrink from the appearance of politics in poetry.  That’s a reaction of mine not yet completely owned.  I hope one day to own it completely or to shrug it off.

Whitman with butterfly

But a couple of days ago, caught up now in a much different general reaction to Whitman, I came across this, from the “Preface Note to Second Annex”:

I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first–and am not now–nor of parrot-like repetitions–nor platitudes and the commonplace.  Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances.

That use of ‘democratic’ stopped me.  (It is, I admit, in the half-hug of ‘perhaps’.  But I rate that staginess and not an expression of actual half-heartedness.)  I had made a very similar use of it myself earlier in the day.  But my use of it was not meant to be political, but rather ur-political, a recognition of a fact about human relations that underwrites any political use of ‘democratic’ I could vote for.  So too,  realized, was Whitman’s.

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her rights upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (Salut Au Monde!)

His, my, our use of ‘democratic’ is a use as a greeting-word, as a profound acknowledgement of others, not en masse, not as a political body, but as an each-in-all, as individuals too distinguished to be the same and too similar to be entirely distinguished.  Such an acknowledgement makes demands, demands even on art, on poetry.  (And on philosophy.) It demands writing poetry to such individuals and for such individuals.  It demands an unclamping, letting the poetic machinery run free, acquiring a careless, carefree touch.  It demands liberation from an over-active poetic conscience, from concern about repetition, about platitude, about commonplaces, about saying something too trivial and obvious, something insincere, something unworthy of reader or occasion.  The poet must overcome scruples and take the breaks off his heart, and let his tongue wag unleashed, garrulous to the very last.

This feature of Transcendentalism-of Emerson and Thoreau, and, yes, I now admit, Whitman–is one that makes it honorable, and that ties it to writers and philosophers I care about, each of them a Transcendentalist in his or her way:  Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, James, Wittgenstein, Lawrence, Frost, Murdoch, Anscombe, Robinson.  It demands that we lift up our ordinary lives into our philosophical imagination, making them receptive to intense reflection, without making them fodder for scholarship or museum preservation, never forgetting that the point is to know those lives better so as to live them better.

(I am not claiming to have made a discovery for anyone else here, only for myself.  I now suppose that this use of ‘democratic’ is all over Whitman, and that everyone but me has known it.)



4 responses

  1. I’ve been thinking of your use of “demands” here. It strikes me as revealing a fundamental point, which might be missed when reading the text too casually (democratically?): This democratic sentiment you’re talking about is really an achievement. One must feel the appeal of the tyrannical sentiment before one can become democratic.

    • That’s helpful. Let me think about it more. I believe you are right. Real democratic sentiment withstands an urge to tyranny (humility resists pride).

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