Monday, September 04, 2006

Whitman sees the body as part and parcel with the soul

Whitman Unit 7

Matt Butcher

Whitman was accused during his life of immorality because of his views on the human body and sexuality. What does Whitman consider to be the importance of the human body? What are his views on the female body? On the male body? What sort of human body does Whitman praise?

Recalling our discussion in Units 2 and 3 on naturalism or Whitman’s notion of nature and the human role in it or as it, what does Whitman have to say about touch and touching? Were Whitman’s views on the body ahead of his time? What were the sexual mores and “Puritan” and “Victorian” attitudes on the body and sex and how did Whitman break from them? Although many of Whitman’s views are similar to those of our own time, they were not common in his own time? What are Whitman’s views on the body? What does he have to say about being fat? On being athletic? On cosmetics and clothing? What sort of body would Whitman find desirable?

Does Whitman call for sexual freedom? What are Whitman’s views on “modesty” and “beauty”? What are Whitman’s views on the corpse or dead body? In what way is Whitman a “radical empiricist”? What is the difference between sensuality, sensuousness and sexuality—and how does each of these terms relate to Whitman? What is Whitman’s philosophy of the body and the soul? What is the soul in Whitman’s understanding?

Whitman thinks the body is not something to be ashamed about. He praises it as the gateway to the soul, as I remember the old adage of calling your body a temple. In all of us, it is true. Whitman though was against Victorian attitudes, those same people who saw the need to dress up the legs of a dining room table so as not to be considered risqué having bare legs. I guess they thought we would all see bare table legs and then think nasty thoughts about bare legs of people. Think of the dress worn back then, including hats and bonnets, full dress outfits, women covered from the top of their necks to the bottoms of their feet in wide, unflattering gowns. Whitman was ahead of his time. He would see the need to discuss the body in order to understand it and to understand ourselves. He sees the female body as “the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul” (“I Sing the Body Electric” section 5). She is the way into reproduction, and understanding that joy, that power that she has to create, is something to be proud of and not shamed of. Be not ashamed women, your privilege encloses the rest, and is the
exit of the rest.” Men have their place too, he says “action and power.” He thinks every body is important in the great procession. “Each has his or her place in the procession./
(All is a procession, /The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)” (section 6).

Whitman sees the body as part and parcel with the soul. He uses the parts of the body as poetry but this is just the beginning. Without these parts, these desires, we would not have the soul. “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!” (section 9).

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