Never was there more hollowness at heart than at present (Walt Whitman)

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk’d much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician’s serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician’s serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.

From Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871).

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The dark patches fall (Walt Whitman)

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A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 2)

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[Context/editorial noteThis is the second and final part of a discussion between Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang and myself about Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04. You can read the first part of the discussion here, if you like---the gist of that conversation is that I am kinda sorta hating the book, while Ryan makes a strong case for my finishing it. Which I did. -- ET].

Edwin Turner: Okay, Ryan, so I’m still having a hard time with the book, and I think that Hari Kunzru pins down why in his (diplomatic) review at The New York Times:

Does [the novel's] ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.

I find the “hermetic undecidability” not so much unsettling—the proper rhetorical gambit to match the novel’s themes—but rather a dodge, an escape hatch even, to avoid adequately answering to the model that the narrator wants to find in Whitman. There’s this wonderful moment where the narrator says “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair” — and I take this to be something like the mission of the book — but the archness, the cleverness of the book, its frequent retreats away from (what I take to be) Whitman’s project (the kosmos, the roughneck with the unstopped throat) — I just don’t see much but a kind of stylized ennui (if not despair) about the “bad forms of collectivity” our narrator is forced (forces himself) to partake in.

My favorite moments of the book continue to be the essay passages, the art or literary theory that he spackles in—the riff on Peggy Noonan writing Reagan’s Challenger-explosion speech, the elements of borrowed language, etc. (Again, I’m almost the same age as Lerner. I was in Young Astronauts, and our field trip to Cape Canaveral was canceled because of inclement weather, so we watched it in the cafeteria—live. I did not understand what happened, but I remember my teachers crying).

Ryan Chang: Hey man, I just skimmed the NYT review—per the excerpt you provided—because I don’t want Kunzru clouding any of my response. It’s certainly a question I too grapple with, and I think Kunzru is right insofar that the question is “undecidable” but not for the reason(s) he suggests. I agree with you that he dodges the question, whether or not from editorial pressure or a reticence to actually address “hermetic undecidability.”

For one, I’m not sure myself if The Author ever arrives at the Whitmanic model of democracy he posits. I’m also not sure if he is supposed to “arrive” in the sense that a finality is set. I guess I also want to riff a bit on how finality might be described. Is finality then something static; as in, somehow 10:04 transmits–electrocutes, reverberates–through its readership, now coeval (the when negligent, the position of the reader enmeshed in the text is the same at 10 PM here as it is at 5 AM there), the novel’s theses and everything is suddenly Whitmanic? Community successfully reimagined and cemented? That sounds too easy, too convenient, too short-sighted. Or is it a kind of arrival into an embodiment of time that exists outside of conventional literary clocks, which is also a Market-based clock — it’s my sense that the kind of democracy Whitman envisions in his work is one constantly in flux, a “reality in process” and thus in opposition to the capitalist clock? That is, we know we are supposed to “stop” working at 5, the embodiment of the currency-based clock disappears after 5, but it’s a contrasting relationship. Our time outside of the currency then absorbs a negative value (I think The Author only mentions once or twice how we are all connected by our debt, a negativity projected into the future), though the illusion of the clock is that we are “free” in our time. OK: in a literary sense, wouldn’t this be a sense of a text’s world stopping, a suspension that retroactively pauses the whole book? That 10:04 ends not only with a dissolution of prose into poetry, but also The Author into Whitman and thus recasting the first-/third-person narrator into a lyric-poet mode suggests the book’s integration into our, the reader’s, time (and also, retroactively, the entirety of the text). In that sense, for me, the issue whether or not The Author of 10:04 integrates the book fully into a Whitmanic model is not necessarily the point — it is that he, and also we hopefully through him — actively participate in remaking a “bad form of collectivity” less so. Read More

The most smeared and slobbering idiot (Walt Whitman)

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“Old Walt” — Langston Hughes

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Portrait of Walt Whitman — Thomas Wilmer Dewing

May 31, ’82.—”From to-day I enter upon my 64th year” (Walt Whitman)

May 31, ’82.—”From to-day I enter upon my 64th year. The paralysis that first affected me nearly ten years ago, has since remain’d, with varying course—seems to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far; but my spirits are first-rate. I go around in public almost every day—now and then take long trips, by railroad or boat, hundreds of miles—live largely in the open air—am sunburnt and stout, (weigh 190)—keep up my activity and interest in life, people, progress, and the questions of the day. About two-thirds of the time I am quite comfortable. What mentality I ever had remains entirely unaffected; though physically I am a half-paralytic, and likely to be so, long as I live. But the principal object of my life seems to have been accomplish’d—I have the most devoted and ardent of friends, and affectionate relatives—and of enemies I really make no account.”

From an 1882 letter Walt Whitman wrote to a German friend.

“A Visit to Walt Whitman”

“A Visit to Walt Whitman”

From James Huneker’s Ivory Apes and Peacocks

My edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is dated 1867, the third, if I am not mistaken, the first appearing in 1855. Inside is pasted a card upon which is written in large, clumsy letters: “Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, July, 1877.” I value this autograph, because Walt gave it to me; rather I paid him for it, the proceeds, two dollars (I think that was the amount), going to some asylum in Camden. In addition, the “good grey poet” was kind enough to add a woodcut of himself as he appeared in the 1855 volume, “hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” and another of his old mother, with her shrewd, kindly face. Walt is in his shirt-sleeves, a hand on his hip, the other in his pocket, his neck bare, the pose that of a nonchalant workman—though in actual practice he was always opposed to work of any sort; on his head is a slouch-hat, and you recall his line: “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.” The picture is characteristic, even to the sensual mouth and Bowery-boy pose. You almost hear him say: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” Altogether a different man from the later bard, the heroic apparition of Broadway, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Chestnut Street. I had convalesced from a severe attack of Edgar Allan Poe only to fall desperately ill with Whitmania. Youth is ever in revolt, age alone brings resignation. My favourite reading was Shelley, my composer among composers, Wagner. Chopin came later. This was in 1876, when the Bayreuth apotheosis made Wagner’s name familiar to us, especially in Philadelphia, where his empty, sonorous Centennial March was first played by Theodore Thomas at the Exposition. The reading of a magazine article by Moncure D. Conway caused me to buy a copy, at an extravagant price for my purse, of The Leaves of Grass, and so uncritical was I that I wrote a parallel between Wagner and Whitman; between the most consciously artistic of men and the wildest among improvisators. But then it seemed to me that both had thrown off the “shackles of convention.” (What prison-like similes we are given to in the heady, generous impulses of green adolescence.) I was a boy, and seeing Walt on Market Street, as he came from the Camden Ferry, I resolved to visit him. It was some time after the Fourth of July, 1877, and I soon found his little house on Mickle Street. A policeman at the ferry-house directed me. I confess I was scared after I had given the bell one of those pulls that we tremblingly essay at a dentist’s door. To my amazement the old man soon stood before me, and cordially bade me enter. Read More

“A sublime murkiness and original pent fury” | Walt Whitman on Millet’s Paintings

The Diggers, Jean-Francois Millet

April 18.—Went out three or four miles to the house of Quincy Shaw, to see a collection of J. F. Millet’s pictures. Two rapt hours. Never before have I been so penetrated by this kind of expression. I stood long and long before “the Sower.” I believe what the picture-men designate “the first Sower,” as the artist executed a second copy, and a third, and, some think, improved in each. But I doubt it. There is something in this that could hardly be caught again—a sublime murkiness and original pent fury. Besides this masterpiece, there were many others, (I shall never forget the simple evening scene, “Watering the Cow,”) all inimitable, all perfect as pictures, works of mere art; and then it seem’d to me, with that last impalpable ethic purpose from the artist (most likely unconscious to himself) which I am always looking for. To me all of them told the full story of what went before and necessitated the great French revolution—the long precedent crushing of the masses of a heroic people into the earth, in abject poverty, hunger—every right denied, humanity attempted to be put back for generations—yet Nature’s force, titanic here, the stronger and hardier for that repression—waiting terribly to break forth, revengeful—the pressure on the dykes, and the bursting at last—the storming of the Bastile—the execution of the king and queen—the tempest of massacres and blood. Yet who can wonder?

Could we wish humanity different? Could we wish the people made of wood or stone? Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?

The true France, base of all the rest, is certainly in these pictures. I comprehend “Field-People Reposing,” “the Diggers,” and “the Angelus” in this opinion. Some folks always think of the French as a small race, five or five and a half feet high, and ever frivolous and smirking. Nothing of the sort. The bulk of the personnel of France, before the revolution, was large-sized, serious, industrious as now, and simple. The revolution and Napoleon’s wars dwarf’d the standard of human size, but it will come up again. If for nothing else, I should dwell on my brief Boston visit for opening to me the new world of Millet’s pictures. Will America ever have such an artist out of her own gestation, body, soul?

—From Walt Whitman’s journal of 1881

 

“Democratic Vistas” — Walt Whitman

“Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman

Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success. Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us. Not for nothing does evil play its part among us. Judging from the main portions of the history of theworld, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of the protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not. The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out-but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate. Vive, the attack–the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause–the spirit that audacious]y aims–the never-abandoned efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.

Once, before the war (alas! I dare not say how many times the mood has come!) I, too, was filled with doubt and gloom. A foreigner, an acute and good man, had impressively said to me, that day-putting in form, indeed, my own observations: “I have traveled much in the United States, and watched their politicians, and listened to the speeches of the candidates, and read the journals, and gone into the public-houses, and heard the unguarded talk of men. And I have found your vaunted America honeycombed from top to toe with infidelism, even to itself and its own program. I have marked the brazen hell-faces of secession and slavery gazing defiantly from all the windows and doorways. I have everywhere found, primarily, thieves and scalliwags arranging the nominations to offices, and sometimes filling the offices themselves. I have found the north just as full of bad stuff as the south. Of the holders of public office in the Nation or the States or their municipalities, I have found that not one in a hundred has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering, not capacity or desert. I have noticed how the millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians. And I have noticed, more and more, the alarming spectacle of parties usurping the government, and openly and shamelessly wielding it for party purposes. Read More

“I Hear America Singing” — Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman’s Handwritten Drafts of “Come, said my Soul”

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(Via/about).

“On Journeys Through the States” — Walt Whitman

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“Sometimes With One I Love” — Walt Whitman

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