Expansion or Negation of Self?
By Martin LeFevre
Jun 2, 2022, 10:02am

By invitation in the last few days, I attended a zoom reading and discussion of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Considered his masterpiece, the poem fuses the 'divine I' with the egocentric I in an originally and quintessentially American attempt to have things both ways.

There were about 24 attendees, with a dozen women and men reading pre-assigned sections of "Song of Myself," which lasted a full hour. Even at that, the organizer, and chief Whitman devotee, abbreviated the poem, which he said would take nearly two hours to read aloud unabridged.

Johnny prefaced the poem's reading by saying it was "a very cosmic version of who Whitman is and who we are," and that "Song of Myself stands with the greatest mystical literature of the world."

Though so-called mystical experiences began in my late teens, I've never felt much affinity for this poem. The egoistic language puts me off: "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy what I touch, and am touched from."

The divine, cosmically inflated 'I' ignores the self's existential contradiction with nature's wholeness. And the line, "Do I contradict myself?...I am large, I contain multitudes," just doesn't cut it.

Whitman was perhaps the first New Age American, which is why many aging New Agers have embraced him. He would have agreed with the central idea of New Age philosophy: "Consciousness is that in which everything arises and to which everything returns."

That's ultimately true in this mystic's view, but it conveniently and self-comfortingly skips a crucial step. Thought, self and conditioning aren't a manifestation of cosmic consciousness and awareness, but the antithesis of it. How and why did they emerge? We cannot bypass that conundrum, but are required as human beings to grapple with the contradiction between the seamless wholeness of nature and the destructive fragmentation of man.

Whitman's luxuriating in the senses is bracing, but his credo, "I dote on myself," and "nothing, not God, nothing is greater than yourself" evokes the sensation of fingernails on chalkboard in our violently narcissistic time. Did he inadvertently promote the self-worshipping individualism and expansionism that is the taproot of the darkness that saturates America's globalized culture in our time?

All in all, I found myself both soaring and sinking during the readings and comments. Soaring because the readings were good, and some excellent, full of feeling and nuance. I've only read Whitman's epic poem before, and never heard it read aloud. The poem hits many high notes with its vivid descriptions, and strikes many chords read aloud.

However as the readings proceeded, I found myself sinking with dismay. I wondered, what would Whitman say about the parlous condition of the America today, when the spiritual health of the nation is lower than it was even before the Civil War?

A few people mentioned children and schools (and there were even children visible at one point), but no one mentioned the elephant in the zoom - the Uvalde massacre that had just occurred two days prior.

We don't have to imagine the pain of the world; we are required, as human beings, to feel it, since we are inextricable from the causes and effects of the world's suffering.

The great teachers of the past can only speak to us through the liquid glass of the burning present. Our lenses are old and cracked; the heat of the forge is too far removed from us.

Have we become so inured to violence in the global society that nothing moves us beyond our comfortable narratives and conclusions? Have we become so sophisticated in our evasions of feeling, so detached in cunning ideas of detachment that we feel no responsibility to change?

When the fate of the age - every living and unborn generation for as far as even the most prescient eye can see -- hangs in the balance, taking refuge in past wisdoms, when spaciousness still characterized a largely unpolluted and unexplored Earth, is no refuge at all, but merely diversion.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.

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