Divinity, Sexuality and the Self

Through his poetry, Whitman's "Song of Myself" makes the soul sensual and

makes divine the flesh. In Whitman's time, the dichotomy between the soul

and the body had been clearly defined by centuries of Western philosophy and

theology. Today, the goodness of the soul and the badness of the flesh

still remain a significant notion in contemporary thought. Even Whitman's

literary predecessor, Emerson, chose to distinctly differentiate the soul

from all nature. Whitman, however, chooses to reevaluate that relationship.

His exploration of human sensuality, particularly human sexuality, is the

tool with which he integrates the spirit with the flesh.

Key to this integration is Whitman's notion of the ability of the sexual

self to define itself. This self-definition is derived from the strongly

independent autonomy with which his sexuality speaks in the poem. Much of

the "Song of Myself" consists of a cacophony of Whitman's different selves

vying for attention. It follows that Whitman's sexual self would likewise

find itself a voice. A number of passages strongly resonate with Whitman's

sexuality in their strongly pleasurable sensualities. The thoroughly

intimate encounter with another individual in section five particularly

expresses Whitman as a being of desire and libido.

Whitman begins his synthesis of the soul and body through sexuality by

establishing a relative equality between the two. He pronounces in previous

stanzas, "You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself," and,

"Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less

familiar than the rest." Here, he lays foundation for the basic

egalitarianism with which he treats all aspects of his being for the rest of

the poem. This equality includes not only his sexuality, but in broader

terms, his soul and body. In the opening to section five, Whitman

explicitly articulates that equality in the context of the body and soul: "I

believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you

must not be abased to the other." He refutes the moral superiority of the

soul over the flesh historically prevalent throughout Western thought. With

that level groundwork established, he is free to pursue the relationship

between the soul and the body on equal footing.

The mechanism of this integration may be one of a number of possibilities

included in Whitman's work. Whitman's notion that "All truths wait in all

things" very broadly defines the scope of his desire to distill truth from

his surroundings. He indicates that "...all the men ever born are also my

brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers," suggesting that perhaps

sensual understanding of the interconnectedness of man bridges the spiritual

to the corporal. Within the context of the passage, the cause/effect

relationship between sensual contact and transcendent understanding becomes

clear. His declaration that "I believe in the flesh and the appetites,

Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles" reinforces the concept that truth is

directly discerned through the union of the spirit and the senses.

Human sensuality thus becomes the conduit that bridges the spirit and the

flesh. Whitman demonstrates the result of that synthesis to be "peace and

knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth." He expands this

revelation of truth and understanding as the passage continues, linking it

to divinity as he invokes the image of "the hand of God" and "the spirit of

God." The union of the spirit with the body thus becomes a natural, common

pathway to divinity. This association to the cosmos, facilitated by a union

of the spiritual and the corporal, is then a direct result of the expression

of the sexual self.

Whitman's choice of the word "reached" in "...And reach'd till you felt my

beard, and reach'd till you held my feet," is a powerful image. It connotes

not only a physical bridging, which Whitman establishes as a elemental force

in its sensual nature, but also a direct application of the will. In this

context, this passage echoes Whitman's earlier "Urge and urge and urge,

always the procreant urge of the world," in its hunger and desire. Both

words "reached" and "urge" indicate willed effort, revolving around the

basic function of human nature in sexuality. The centralness of the

"procreant urge" to both these passages makes the sexual act the volta

around which comprehension and truth are achieved.

One of the key truths that Whitman explicitly communicates is the notion of

the interconnectedness of mankind. This theme echoes throughout "Song of

Myself" in the collection of voices through which Whitman speaks throughout

the poem, voices of his own and of other persons. In celebrating that

diversity among all persons and within himself, Whitman reiterates his use

of the sexuality as an instrument of bridging. Here, the power of the

sensual self binds all persons together through its universality and its

inherence in each human being. In claiming "all men ever born are also my

brothers," Whitman associates himself and his sexual being to the whole of

collective human experience. His presumption that all persons are fully

capable of expressing themselves as sexual beings is subtly hinted at in the

"uniform hieroglyphic" he mentions later. In this instance, Whitman's

relation between grass, the "uniform hieroglyphic"; and his catalogue of

different identities, proclaiming, "I give them the same, I receive them the

same," marks a commonality in the human experience. This notion of people

as blades of grass, same and equal yet distinctly individual, can be

extended to encompass Whitman's notion of the sexual self.

As Whitman's transcendental experience continues, the scope of his

understanding seems to continue outward. The exponential growth of his

knowledge through his sensual experience claims: "And limitless are leaves

stiff or drooping in the fields, And brown ants in the little wells beneath

them." The breadth of his comprehension increases profoundly on both

macroscopic and microscopic levels. In contemplating the nature of grass in

the next section, Whitman echoes this notion of infinities giving way to

infinities: "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses."

When taken into consideration with his later declaration, "Walt Whitman, a

kosmos," the concept of the sexual self as part of an external infinity must

also be weighed against the notion of the sexual self as an integral part of

an internal infinity. In Whitman's enumerations of different types of

persons throughout the poem, he strongly suggests that these people are also

voices manifested in his own being. He later proclaims, "In the faces of

men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass." This line near

the end of the poem strongly ties the sense of externally infinite being to

Whitman's sense of internal boundlessness. These two otherwise separate

domains of the external and the internal are thus coupled, completing the

cycle of the theme of union that Whitman imbues "Song of Myself."

By projecting his sexual self against such broad parameters, Whitman

generates a decidedly transcendental experience. With such vivid imagery in

his celebration of the sensual, he elevates the limited faculties of man to

being capable of limitless understanding. The role of the sexual in his

work is integral to this sense of active, individual discovery. Whitman's

notion of sexuality acknowledges it as one of the highest forms of sensual

pleasure, and one of great personal and communicative importance.

-another imperative from your friendly local interplanetary Imperial regime


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