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.)



Cicero on Inconsistency with Yesterday

You appeal to my writings, and testify to what I may at some time have said or written. You may deal in this way with others, who in their discussions follow prescribed rules. We live for the passing day ; we say whatever strikes our minds as probable ; and so we alone are free.

Look Homeward, Look Back

It is about time for us to leave Bordeaux.  We fly back home tomorrow.  I then head almost immediately to a conference on Early Analytic Epistemology, a conference at which I present an essay on Sellars I have been struggling with for quite a while, but which shows very little evidence of that fact (I fear).

When I return from that conference, I begin teaching my usual summer course on the Seven Deadly Sins.  I enjoy that course and look forward to it.

I have gotten a chance to talk a lot here with my friend, Jean-Phillippe Narboux, a wonderful man and wonderful philosopher.  We’ve spent some hours reading Merleau-Ponty together–those hours were very rewarding.  I also met and got to talk at some length with Joseph Urbas, who teaches American Literature here, and is writing these days on Emerson and Thoreau.  It was good to talk about Emerson again–it has been a while for me–and Joseph makes a most rewarding interlocutor.

I thank both of them. I also thank the folks who attended my papers and asked questions.  The papers will be better because of those questions.

Goodbye, Bordeaux, and thanks again!

Bordeaux May 4, 2013 011

Carlyle, from Heroes and Hero-Worship

It is well said, in every sense, that a man’s religion is the chief fact with regard to him. A man’s, or a nation of men’s. By religion I do not mean here the church-creed which he professes, the articles of faith which he will sign and, in words or otherwise, assert; not this wholly, in many cases not this at all. We see men of all kinds of professed creeds attain to almost all degrees of worth or worthlessness under each or any of them. This is not what I call religion, this profession and assertion; which is often only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him, if even so deep as that. But the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it even to himself, much less to others); the thing a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe, and his duty and destiny there, that is in all cases the primary thing for him, and creatively determines all the rest. That is his religion; or, it may be, his mere scepticism and no-religion: the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World; and I say, if you tell me what that is, you tell me to a very great extent what the man is, what the kind of things he will do is. Of a man or of a nation we inquire, therefore, first of all, What religion they had? Was it Heathenism,—plurality of gods, mere sensuous representation of this Mystery of Life, and for chief recognized element therein Physical Force? Was it Christianism; faith in an Invisible, not as real only, but as the only reality; Time, through every meanest moment of it, resting on Eternity; Pagan empire of Force displaced by a nobler supremacy, that of Holiness? Was it Scepticism, uncertainty and inquiry whether there was an Unseen World, any Mystery of Life except a mad one;—doubt as to all this, or perhaps unbelief and flat denial? Answering of this question is giving us the soul of the history of the man or nation. The thoughts they had were the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual;—their religion, as I say, was the great fact about them.

Emerson and Montaigne 2

I find it natural to parcel out my reflections on Emerson by addressing first Emersonian sentences, then paragraphs, then essays.  (This is more or less Firkins’ approach.)  Emerson uniquely composes each.  Although I have had a go once at Emerson’s sentences, I want to try to say something about them again.

I reckon that Firkin’s is right to claim that the obscurity of Emerson’s sentences has more to do with strangeness than dimness.  But I judge the strangeness more strangeness of form than of content, although content is strange too.  Emerson does something strange with sentences, he puts them together in his own peculiar way.  Part of what Emerson is doing is striving for aphoristic integrity, a cut-from-diamond hardness and perfection, for sentences that can withstand judgment simultaneously literary and philosophical, and severe.  He plays for high sentential stakes:  No sentence may be mere filler, or only a very few, at most.  Virtually every sentence has to be such as to retain perfect integrity even if isolated from its particular paragraph and particular essay.  Wittgenstein in TLP accounts for sentences so as to render the sense of any one independent of the truth of any other.  Emerson tries to write sentences such that the understanding of one is, in some sense, independent of the understanding of any other.  Sentential self-sufficiency.

But, even so, Emerson writes these sentences into paragraphs and these paragraphs into essays.  How?  How can these aphoristic atoms become molecular?  How can sentential self-sufficiency be retained in a paragraph in which sentences stand in mutual relation, perhaps even in some sort of mutual dependence?

I will let the questions hang for now.  –Back to sentences.

Emerson is also handles his lexicon strangely.  He so words sentences that often the words in them mean more, and mean it differently, than the words do in the sentences of others.  But assigning that differently meant different meaning cannot be done unless the word is left where it is.  It does what it does there, in that sentences, flanked by just those other words.  (The phenomenon is most familiar in poetry.  Emerson manages it in prose–and not in prose-poetry, in prose.)  These words play something analogous to the role that technical terms play in other writers, although they are not technical terms in Emerson.  (There are no technical terms in Emerson.)  Instead, they are carefully managed flections (inflections or deflections or reflections) of the meaning of the word, fully contextually bound, but carrying forward much of what is most completely his own in Emerson’s writing.  (Consider: ‘aversion’.)  Sentences featuring his truly characteristic lexicon cannot be paraphrased.

Emerson and Montaigne 1

I will begin with a quotation–as I so often do.  But–“we are all quotation”–so, why hide it?

This is from Firkins’ strange and compelling book on Emerson.  He is addressing the issue of clarity in Emerson.

Dr. Garnett writes of the individual sentence in Emerson:  “His thought is transparent and almost chillingly clear.”  For most men, the clarity is hardly of the sort that regulates the temperature.  It is true, nevertheless, that for Emerson, as for Browning and Meredith, around the fact of obscurity and illusion of greater obscurity has grown up.  The trouble with Emerson is more often strangeness than dimness; the indistinctness of the moral Monadnock or Agiochook which he points out to us is due rather to the distance of the peak than to the haze of the atmosphere.

I will let this quotation stand alone for a moment.  I will have something to say about it, and about other moments in Firkins, in the next post.

Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

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