Returning to Yourself and to God in Walt Whitman

By Samuel Bennett

According to David L. Weddle, religion rests on two pillars: miracle stories and practices of sacrifice.[1] The miracle story announces good news: the mundane plane upon which we typically live and have our being is not the whole story; and the divine side of reality occasionally crosses over to ours. Energized by the knowledge that the divine and mundane poles are not in fixed separation, religion is an organization with the purpose of bringing the willing, through self-purification or sacrifice, closer to the Divine.

Exemplifying the logic of sacrifice are two practices found in the Old Testament. On the one hand, we have zebah, a temple slaughtering whereafter the community[2] eats an extraordinary meal; as Ludwig Köhler explains, “one of the participants in the sacrificial meal is God.”[3] But the participants only deserve this blessing with the help of minhah, wherein participants lay bare their hearts, by allowing the temple flame to entirely devour a sacrificial gift, such as a lamb. Indeed, the practice is initially puzzling. As much as Warren Buffett needs your pocket change does the godhead need your lamb. But Köhler enlightens us, “The purpose of the gift is to acknowledge the majesty of the recipient and to express the donor’s feeling of respect […].”[4] The minhah is less about God than it is about you. I imagine it saying: “God, the temple flame is currently turning my perfectly good lamb into ash. Please take this otherwise bizarre act of wastefulness as signaling a heart that burns for you, and nothing of this world.”

Now Weddle’s interpretation of religion’s two sides opens up a vantage point from which to consider something remote from the Old Testament —the poetry of Walt Whitman, who is typically considered America’s most eminent poet.[5] Specifically, it is debatable as to whether Whitman is a fan or foe of religion. Following Weddle, we can ask: where does he stand regarding miracles and sacrifice?

The first question is settled easily. Whitman is a theist; in a way, Song of Myself is a miracle story: “Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle. Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touchd from.”[6] Whitman’s poem considers the human-self (the Me myself and the You yourself) as testifying to a divine upper region. Incidentally, by connecting the self and divinity, Whitman does not pretend to see, control, and move all. Divine literally means god-like. Whitman is endorsing the idea that a human self is, by nature (hence through no special deed), embraced by God.

As this quote already indicates, the extreme proximity Whitman sees between the human-self and Divinity appears to straightaway cancel the need for sacrifice. The very idea of sacrifice, where the self purifies itself for the sake of Divine approximation, requires a crossable gulf, but a gulf nonetheless. If the everyday self and the Divine are naturally joined, sacrificial practice is time wasted, as its goal is already accomplished.

If the self is naturally embraced by God, and you are naturally enough yourself, sacrifice is unnecessary. As paradoxical as it may sound, however, Whitman follows a tradition of including the self on the long list of things that can be lost. In other words, it is not entirely absurd for a person to ask themselves: “Now where exactly did I put myself? Where did I see myself last?”However, unlike other losable things, when the self is lost, the self is far from itself, because losing yourself entails being distanced from yourself. In contrast, if I lose my iPhone, while perhaps far from me, still it is near itself.

If this is a correct reading of Whitman, the sacrifice affirmed in Whitman’s poetry is the sacrifice of detaching yourself from whatever introduces a gap between yourself and yourself, and hence between yourself and God, since the self, according to Whitman, is naturally embraced by God.

To take an example from the philosophical tradition, St. Augustine believed the self could be far from itself: “Thou alone art near, even to those that remove far from Thee. Let them be turned and seek Thee […] and behold, Thou art there in their heart.”[7] Augustine says that, for some people, God is far —yet with the puzzling caveat that for the same people, God is near. So the possible ways you can be “spatially”related to God are: just near, near and far —but never just far.

Augustine later laments, “too late I loved thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad.”[8] If Augustine was abroad relative to where God was, he must have been outside himself, or at a distance from himself, since God was within him.

Let’s seek an explanation of this phenomenon by way of considering what the self is. Whitman asks, “What is a man anyhow? what am I? what are you?”[9] and answers, “What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me.”[10] As mentioned, Whitman thinks the self is “divine inside and out”—so if the self is what is really common, cheap, etc., then these traits are naturally embraced by God, i.e., are divine.

If the self is really what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, and easiest, then by getting away from these coordinates, the self gets away from itself. Now notice that the common, cheap, easy, and near are what everyone calls the humble. Hence Whitman’s point is this: if a person is close to what is humble, then that is a humble person; but a person is what is humble, so a humble person is another name for those people who are close to themselves. In other words, pride is the method by which man gets away from himself.

“My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues […] loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations […] These come to me days and nights and go from me again, But they are not the Me myself.”[11] After these lines, the reader realizes that when Whitman proposes to “sing myself,”what he means by “myself”does not have much to do with what “myself”typically means, for we normally describe and evaluate ourselves by appealing to “dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues.”

Another example from Whitman: “Have you outstript the rest? are you the President? It is a trifle.”[12] As mentioned, Whitman informs us that the entire point of the poem is to sing about the self; so if something is unrelated to the self, it is trifling to him. Now, normally, we would think that an occupation is part of what defines someone. However, as this quote indicates, Whitman does not think occupations —because“they come and go”—go deep enough to characterize the You yourself.

Following Whitman, it would be a delusion for the President to think and really believe “I am a President.” The fact that he once was not a President, and will later not be a President (upon death, for example), indicates that the person is not really a President.

Whitman thinks the individual is really what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, and easiest, so getting back to oneself is getting back to what is commonest, cheapest, etc. Moreover, the self is divine; hence God embraces what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, and easiest. Why would God embrace those things, or why does God naturally embrace the self?

Of course the emphasis on humility is Biblical: “whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”(Luke 14:11). But why does God embrace the humble? The English humblecomes from the Latin humus, meaning ground or earth.[13] Since “God formed man of the dust of the ground”(Gen. 2:7), humus refers to our common origin, as well as common destination (cf., Gen. 3:19). Now if you consider the word humble in a speculative light, you think: really, it just refers to whatever is grounding or common. But, if the humble is really about what is grounding or common, it is really about God. That is because nothing is more common than God: whatever exists, from the beginning of time to the end, shares a commonality, which is that it would be nothing without God. Moreover, nothing is more grounding than God, because all things stand on God’s shoulders.

If the humble is really what is grounding and common, then God is really what is humble. This explains why God embraces what is humble —He embraces what is humble because, naturally enough, God embraces Himself.

Here is a quote from Whitman that is puzzling, but we can use what has been said to give it an interpretation:

only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of Individuality may the spirituality of Religion positively come forth at all. Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight.[14]

Spirituality comes forward when someone is spiritual. Being spiritual is being full of the spirit, i.e., full of God. Whitman says being full of God requires two things: perfect uncontamination and solitude. Perhaps perfect uncontamination means not being contaminated by what you are not. If so, perfect uncontamination means being close to what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, and easiest; in short, perfect uncontamination is being humble.

But being humble is also solitude. For solitude is when a person leaves other people behind and communes with their own self alone. However, if you think about it, when you return to yourself, or when you get back to yourself, you are communing with yourself alone. Hence self-retrieval is achieving solitude. But since self-retrieval is becoming humble, becoming humble is achieving solitude.

If God is what is most humble, then becoming humble is moving toward God. Since becoming humble is also moving toward yourself, becoming humble is achieving solitude. In other words, we discover an orbit of concepts: sacrifice, humility, solitude, and finding God. Each concept leads to the other, because, in a way, all of them describe the same thing.

Let us try to get from one end of the orbit to the other. Sacrifice is self-purification for the sake of moving toward God. Since God is what is humble, sacrifice is becoming humble. However, since according to Whitman, the self is really what is commonest, cheapest, nearest, and easiest, sacrifice (or becoming humble) is retiring from what is not yourself and communing with yourself alone. So sacrifice is achieving solitude. But sacrifice (as becoming humble) is meeting what is humble, which is God. In short, the perfect sacrifice is perfect communion with God, which takes the form of perfect solitude, or perfect humility.

Reading Whitman gives us a concrete picture of humility. It has to do with where you place the intensity of your being —that is, where you direct your thoughts, and the objects toward which you strive: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”[15]

[1]David L. Weddle, Sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, (New York, New York University Press, 2017), 6.

[2]Patrick D. Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel, (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 112.

[3]Ludwig Köhler, Old Testament Theology, (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press), 183.

[4]Ludwig Köhler, Old Testament Theology, 183.

[5]Harold Bloom says “Whitman, with only Dickinson as near-rival, is the great American poet, but merits an even higher accolade. He is the principal writer that America —North, Central, or South —has brought to us”. Walt Whitman, edited by Harold Bloom, Selected Poems, (The Library of America, 1984), xvii.

[6]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 29.

[7]S. Augustine, The Confessions, (Oxford, John Henry Parker, 1838), 16. The line occurs near the beginning of the fifth chapter.

[8]S. Augustine, The Confessions, 203.

[9]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 23.

[10]Walt Whitman,The portable Walt Whitman, 16.

[11]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 7.

[12]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 24.

[13]Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7.

[14]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 432. This line is from the essay “Democratic Vistas”.

[15]Walt Whitman, The portable Walt Whitman, 3.


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