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.