Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Whitman's Mysticism and the Concept of Body and Soul in 'Song of Myself': Which is more important to Whitman-the soul or the body?

 As a devotee of Transcendentalism, Whitman also believes in mysticism. As we go through his 'Song of Myself', we find that he gives lot of emphasis on mystical experiences. Mysticism is not really a coherent philosophy of life, but more a temper of mind. A mystic’s vision is intuitive. It feels the presence of a divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of sense perception. He feels that God and the supreme soul animating all things are identical. He sees an essential identity of Being between Man, Nature and God. Song of Myself has several mystical undercurrents in this sense.

Whitman’s mystical experience of his self comes through various stages. The first stage may be termed the “Awakening of self,” the second the “Purification of self.” Purification involves an acceptance of the body and all its functions. This acceptance reflects the poet’s goal to achieve mystical experience through physical reality. This is an apposition to the Puritanical view of purification through mortification of the flesh. Whitman philosophises that the self can be purified not through purgation but through the acceptance of the physical. The mystical experience paves the way for the merging of physical reality with a universal reality.

For this very reason, we cannot call Whitman a pure mystic in the sense of oriental mysticism. He is not a praying man. Like all mystics he believes in the existence of the soul, in the existence of divine spirit, in the immortality of the human soul and in the capacity of a human being to establish communication between spirit and Divine spirit. But he differs from the traditional mystic. He declares that he sings of the body as much as of the soul. He feels that spiritual communication is possible without sacrificing the flesh.

When we call Whitman a mystic, then obviously the question arises on which he gives more emphasis, body or soul?  As we have already discussed he is different from the oriental mystics. Like oriental mystics he does not give over emphasis on soul. Rather to him both the soul and body are equally important.  Whitman himself makes it clear that  “the soul is not more than the body,” just as “the body is not more than the soul.” God is not even more important than one’s self. The poet asks man not to be “curious about God,” because God is everywhere and in everything. He says;

“ In the faces of men and women I see God, God in my own face in the glass.”

Whitman does not reject the material world or body. He seeks the spiritual through the material. He does not subscribe, to the belief that objects are illusive. There is no tendency on the part of the soul to leave this world for good. We see the soul is trying to play a significant role in the administration of this world of scenes, sights, sounds etc. He does not deny the achievements of science and materialism. In section 23 of “Songs of Myself” he says

Human for positive science!
Long live exact demonstration!

Section 6 presents and introduces the central symbol of “Songs of Myself”. We see that a child appears with leaves full in both hands and asks the poet “What is the grass?” Hesitating first, the poet muses that “the grass is itself a child,” or may be “it is the handkerchief of he Lord.” Here the grass is a symbol of the divinity latent in the ordinary, common life of man. It is also a symbol of continuity inherent in the life-death cycle. Like a true mystic, Whitman believes that no one really dies. It might be to him that death means rebirth; it is the way by which man can establish a certain relation being one with God. Whitman says that even “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death……….

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

As a mystic, Whitman believed that there was no difference between the creator and the creation. His “self” is a universal self. He sees people of both sexes, all ages, many different walks of life; even animals are included. The poet along with the divine spirit not only loves them all; he is also a part of them. Whitman says;

And these tend inward to me,and I tend outward to them
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of Myself.

Grass, a central symbol in “Song of Myself” suggests the divinity of common things. The nature and significance of grass unfold the themes of death and immortality. Grass is the key to the secrets of man’s relationship with the Divine. It indicates the God is everything and everything is God.

Whitman approaches democracy from a new angle. His democratic faith is related to his concept of mystical self. He believes that democracy must yield spiritual results. He takes recourse to metaphysical doctrine to discuss the material world. To him soul is limitless and this limitless itself speaks for equality. And the equality is potential. Not only that his poetry shown his faith in the unity of whole on oneness of all. “Songs of Myself” saying about this oneness

“ And that all men ever born are also my brothers,
        the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the  eration is love.”

Whitman seldom lost touch with the physical reality even in the midst of mystical experience. Physical phenomena for him were symbols of spiritual reality. He believed that “the unseen is proved by seen. Thus he makes use of highly sensuous and concrete imagery to convey his perception of divine reality. He finds a purpose behind natural objects-grass, sea, birds, flowers, animals.

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death. Indeed, one might say that mysticism constitutes the very poetic form of Whitman’s poems. He looked upon the universe as constituting a unity of disparate objects, unified the Divine Spirit. Thus his poems are “Leave of Grass” signifying at once separateness and unity. His dominant metaphor of grass presents a case for unity and harmony, a basic component of structure.

Thus, Whitman is a mystic as much as he is a poet of democracy and science, but a mystic without a creed. He sees the body as the manifestation of the spirit which is delivered by death into a higher life. What we may call Whitman’s mysticism is democratic mysticism which available to every man with equal terms and embracing contradictory elements. But it is undeniable that mysticism is central to the meaning of “Song of Myself.