Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pointing out transcendentalism is tough

After a little research, find a working definition of “transcendentalism” that you are comfortable with using in this discussion. Do the same for “naturalism,” but be careful not to confuse Whitman’s sense of naturalism with the sense of “naturalism that developed towards the end of his life in the American novel (Dreiser, Norris). They are quite different.
In what ways does Whitman identify with nature? Section 24 of the Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass details many of Whitman’s views on natural and the natural man and woman. What are they? This section, as you have learned, caused some problems with prudish censors at the time, especially his comment that “copulation is no more rank to me than death.” Were Whitman’s praises of death and sexuality unusual in his time? How do these views fit in with natural and transcendental views? In what sense does Whitman say that he is “divine”? How does Section 32 (“I think I could turn and live with animals”) fit into this world view.
Throughout Leaves of Grass there are innumerable passages that reflect Whitman’s philosophy of nature and the self. In what passages do you find these views most prominent and well-expressed? In many ways, Whitman is trying to “express the ineffable,” that is, give words to what cannot be put in words. What does this mean? Where in Leaves of Grass do you find him attempting to express the “mystery” of life and perhaps failing—although the failure is magnificent? Is this ineffability what he is referring to in the last three lines of Section 52? Here they are:
• Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
• Missing me one place search another,
• I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Pointing out transcendentalism is tough to newcomers because it is a new way of thinking. Try to tell someone to think of a higher spiritual power without giving it the name of a god. I like to think Emerson’s one vision of the transparent eyeball holds much in this respect:
I become a transparent eyeball;
I am nothing;
I see all;
the currents of the Universal being circulate through me;
I am part or parcel of God.

And Emerson also said, “To create—to create—is proof of a divine presence.”

I like the following definition of transcendentalism to give meat to the fact that they believed in something, not the dogma that organized religion provided: William Henry Channing(1810-1844)
"Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul. It was a putting to silence of tradition and formulas, that the Sacred Oracle might be heard through intuitions of the single-eyed and pure-hearted. Amidst materialists, zealots, and skeptics, the Transcendentalist believed in perpetual inspiration, the miraculous power of will, and a birthright to universal good. He sought to hold communion face to face with the unnameable Spirit of his spirit, and gave himself up to the embrace of nature's perfect joy, as a babe seeks the breast of a mother."

In this regard, naturalism comes out as a way to identify humanity’s place in a post-Darwinian world. I, myself, have this contradiction and have always liked the transcendentalists. I want to believe in the power of the spirit but see the Kansas song lyric, “All we are is dust in the wind,” just as true. How do you combine the two philosophies? Whitman tried to exemplify this with thinking that copulation was just another natural act, as death was. Years later, Freud would expand these theories. I remember getting in trouble in high school talking about Freud’s view of sex, basically anything pleasurable not necessarily copulation, in vulgar terms. It is not vulgar, but a simple drive. But in those days, the era of Victorian England, people would cover up the table legs to prevent uncouth thoughts. I think along these lines for simple bathroom functions—no one talks about them but we all do them, and shouldn’t we as a human race have been past this nastiness? The answer is no because we are natural creatures. So when Whitman praises these basest of the human frailties, he was seemed as a bit deviant. We want to think we have surpassed these things, but we simply cannot escape these basest of natural functions.

In the poem “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman tries to talk about the fact that he may not be as divine as he would have liked to think. He wanted his poetry to be this great manifestation of the ideal, of everything that he idealized. He realizes that it isn’t, at times, the work of a man looking back on it and creating true poetry out of the junk. He thinks that some of it is junk, yet still creates poetry out of it, because the junk is part of the everything that he is idealizing. “But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch'd, untold, altogether unreached... / ...I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, man ever can." He thinks he “can turn and live with animals” because we ARE animals. In a way, he realizes that what he is creating is ineffable and can’t put words to it. He has great ideas, but expressing such a concept is hard. Look at the fact that there are numerous definitions of exactly what a transcendentalist is. He tries to create it, does his best, but in the end, all it is is himself standing there, planting the seeds of thoughts that maybe someone greater can help him with.

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