Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Myself: Walt Whitman's Political, Theological Creature

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Myself: Walt Whitman's Political, Theological Creature

Article excerpt

Examining Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" (from his 1855 collection Leaves of Grass), this article expounds upon the subject formation contained within it: the self. This self, developed through a variant of creation myth, is inflected with both political and theological agendas. The complex democratic negotiation of these poles places Whitmans poem in the realm of political theology. The first half of the essay traces the theological inflections in the poem: the impact, in other words, of the name of God on the formation, development, or thriving of the self. It also sketches the contours of Whitman's political context and lays bare some of his political agendas. The latter half of the essay speculates on some potential consequences of the development of this self and raises the question: How deeply is it already embedded in American democratic subjectivity?

I have heard what die talkers were talking. . . .

the talk of the beginning and the end,

But 1 do not talk of die beginning or die end.

There was never any more inception than there is now.

Nor any more youth or age than there is now.

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge, and urge, and urge,

Always the procréant urge of the world.

- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

These progentive, genetic invocatìons make it clear that this hymn of self, tucked into Walt Whitman's "new Bible"2 Leaves of Grass, was the birth of a moment in the democratic, American scriptural trajectory. Like William Blake and the Romantic poets, Whitman seemed to understand that the creation story - and invocations of it - played a key role in de-territorializing, and re-territorializing, sacred forces. Through the creation myth poets aligned themselves with divine, creative urges, signalling their intent to recreate the poetic symbolics of human being. Like the Gnostics, argued Paul Cantor, they realized "that the only way to add to a supposedly complete revealed text is, not as one might suppose at the end, but rather at the beginning."3 The poet as new creator returns to origins.

A mere ten verses into his song of the new political creature - the American democratic self - Whitman betrays his shrewd theological sensitivity. This American self is not a historical development or an arbitrary political doctrine. It is a messy, fleshy, breathing, dancing self of sacred origin. Whitman sings the birth of SL self -who understands a handful of grass to be "the handkerchief of the Lord,"4 a self who remains erotically faithful to the holy, individuated, human body. "Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from, /The scent of these arm-pits, is aroma finerthan prayer, / This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds. / If Ï worship any particular thing, it shall be some of the spread of my body. "5 Whitman s self, in other words, is immersed in a levelled reality where divinity is immanent, indiscriminately present in all matter, textual and tactile. "In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; / 1 find letters from God dropped in the street - and every one is signed by God's name."6

This confession, at least in theory, is not meant to be about one sacred, holy body, or one individual. Whitman begins this poem with a clear dogmatic standard: "I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."7 This is not a song about Walt Whitman the individual as sacred figure. It is a song for fellow Americans, about the American body politic. It is a free verse, hymnal invocation of a newly created, newly incarnated, American political subject - divinely, tactilely, erotically connected to all other subjects in the collective body.

Whitman, says political theorist Eldon Eisenach, was one of Americas great political theologians. …

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