previous sub-section
3— Luck and Love
next sub-section

Grammatical Subjects: "Song of Myself"

I begin with Walt Whitman, a poet whose commitment to democratic justice is, not least of all, a formal commitment, whose poetry, with its endless catalogs, its endless collections of attachable, detachable parts, one as good as the other, one substitutable for the other, is perhaps as close as any poetry can come to being a generative grammar. Within the terms of our discussion, we would expect this to be a poetry governed by syntax, and that is indeed the case in "Song of Myself." Perhaps also not surprisingly, then, at the heart of the poem is a grammatical entity, the "myself" who is both the author and subject of his song. And, since this "myself" is democratically defensible only as a formal universal, it too has to be purified, extracted, turned into a categorical idea, so that it can remain structurally inviolate even as it goes through any number of substantive variations, even as it entertains any number of contingent terms. By means, then, of a series of grammatical distinctions—a series of complexly articulated and carefully differentiated uses of "me," "mine," and "myself"—Whitman too (even more than Rawls) works his way through the various syntactic modes of the subject in order to recover a truly foundational self, one whose democratic dignity is absolute, transcendent, and unconditional.


Given this categorical conception, the problematics of the subject that we have seen in Rawls—its much-discussed "thinness," its tendency to propagate a corresponding thinness in human affections, its rational practice of substitutability and interchangeability—would perhaps plague Whitman as well. In any case, as much as it is a poetry of accumulation, "Song of Myself" is also a poetry of divestment, a poetry that spins out an endless catalog of the self's many attachments only to distinguish the self from all those attachments. We see this in familiar lines such as the following, in which, beginning with things that are obviously external, Whitman moves on to things that are less obviously so, things that might even have been thought of as intrinsic to him. These he nonetheless disavows and imagines as being somehow distinct from him, distinct from the "Me myself" which is anterior to, and curiously untouched by, what he happens to be possessing or even experiencing at any given moment:

My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues, The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love, The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss __or lack of money . . . or depressions or exaltations, They come to me days and nights and go from me again, But they are not the Me Myself.[53]

By the time Whitman is through, quite a few things that might have been considered a part of him—things like physical well-being and emotional affliction or satisfaction—are all consigned to the realm of the fortuitous, which is also to say, the realm of the unessential. To consecrate a democratic subject, Whitman, like Rawls, is quite willing to do some ontological cleansing, rearranging the very contents of the person. In practice, this means removing the self from all its contingencies and defining these contingencies as the "not Me Myself," so that, finally detached from them, the self can also be defined against them, as a principle of absolute necessity. As Whitman spins out his catalogs, then, the domain of the "not Me Myself" thus becomes broader and broader, more and more crowded, even as the "Me Myself" is increasingly stripped bare, put through an increasingly rigorous set of refinements, until it is purified into no more than an idea, an empty form, but, for that very reason, a form of transcendent dignity. Like Rawls, Whitman is quite willing to give up what is "mine," to write it over to the world as part of its bounty as well as part of its caprice, in order to rescue "me" as an absolute concept, free


from all circumstantial encumbrances, free from the vagaries of the accidental.

In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass , Whitman writes that the poet "judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing" (9). This statement stands not only as a democratic manifesto but also, I think, as a noncontingent poetics, which, in its unfastidious, unconditional generosity, in effect eliminates luck by eliminating the invidious distinctions it fosters, so that the whole world is now taken in, wrapped in a kind of cosmic tenderness, without exception and without fail, leaving nothing to chance. The objects of Whitman's attention are admitted as strict equals, guaranteed equals, both by virtue of the minimal, universal "Me" they all have in common and by virtue of a poetic syntax which greets each of them in exactly the same way, as a grammatical unit, equivalently functioning and structurally interchangeable. To say this is perhaps to say the obvious: there is an intimate connection between Whitman's poetic language and political philosophy, a shared commitment to syntax. This grammatical disposition not only underwrites the universality of the self in "Song of Myself" but also inscribes in it a democratic hospitality to the world, a refusal to tolerate exclusions, a refusal, indeed, to register distinctions, an openness as impartial as it is impersonal.[54]

The problem in Whitman (to the extent that it is one) can be restated, then, as one version of the conflict we have been discussing: a conflict between the opposing claims of universality and particularity in the definition of personhood, and between the opposing domains of experience to which each corresponds. How can we reconcile the categoric conception of the self in democratic theory with our experiential sense of the self in human attachments, attachments that are, after all, not universal but highly particular, anchored to the self not in its commonality but in its distinctive features and substantive attributes—anchored, in short, not to what is "me" but to what is "mine"? How can we reconcile the grammatical dictates of substitutability and interchangeability with the phenomenon of memory, with our selective attachment to our past and to figures from our past, and with the sense that people never matter to us uniformly, not at any given moment, and certainly not over time? How can we, in short, imagine a "me" adequate both to the requisite impartiality of political life and to the requisite partiality of personal affections?

These questions have been raised by Whitman himself—or at least


raised by him in the form of a statement—in section 3 of "Song of Myself": "Out of the dimness opposite equals advance. . . . Always substance and increase / Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life" (27). Identity and distinction, the contrary claims of personhood and the contrary claims, I have tried to suggest, of democratic politics and affective preferences, are here conjoined by Whitman, made to appear as syntactic equivalents: in a parallel construction, with neither one subordinated to the other. But if this raises one's hopes, there is also a sense in which the hope is rigged, since the form itself of the syntax, the logical primacy it assigns to equivalence, would seem to have foreclosed the very question it is meant to address. This sense of foreclosure—of a conclusion syntactically settled ahead of time—is especially noticeable in the lines we examined earlier, Whitman's catalog of all those things that compose the "not Me Myself."

In that fateful passage, a succession of objects and events are adduced, paratactically, as analogous terms: equally contingent, equally peripheral to the self, and equally detachable from the self. Since the syntax here focuses only on the phenomenon of equivalence—only on the fact that all the items enumerated are equally "not Me Myself"—what cannot be registered is not only the appositional difference between those items but also the sequential difference generated by each, the legacy or constraint each might bring to what comes after it. In "Song of Myself" that difference hardly exists, since the fact of prior occurrence is in no way a determining condition for what follows. To mention just one example, "the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love" is offered here as a sequel, a syntactic equivalent, to "My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues," and is in turn followed by yet another syntactic equivalent, "The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss or lack of money . . . or depressions or exaltations"—as if all three were comparable, separated by no emotional distance, and as if the significance of each were exhausted by its appearance, so that each departs as it arrives, leaving behind no residue, no constraints on the syntax, nothing to make it less open or less ready for more parallel additions.[55]

"Song of Myself" is thus a poetry of sequence without sedimentation, a poetry that sallies forth, its syntactic vitality unmarred by what it has been through. It is a poetry that dwells ever in the pres-


ent, not because it refuses to look back but because past events are so strangely foreshortened, so devoid of any weight of time, that they have the effect of being contemporaneous with all events subsequent to them. The operative process here is something like the transposition of seriality into simultaneity—the constitution of memory as a field of spatial latitude rather than temporal extension—a process that, I argue, makes for the perpetual openness of the poem, its boundless horizons of experience. Since I see this as a crucial feature of Whitman's democratic poetics, I want to discuss in some detail one particular stanza in "Song of Myself"—the famous encounter with the runaway slave in section 10—in which the word "remember" actually figures, and figures curiously:

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsey and weak,
And went where he sat on a log, and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table . . . my firelock leaned in the corner.

In its scrupulousness and restraint, restraint especially from undue effusiveness or familiarity, this passage must stand as one of the most compelling moments of democratic affections in "Song of Myself." The runaway slave is not a particular slave, he is any slave, for the poet would have done as much for anyone bearing that generic identity. His goodwill is also offered generically, occasioned not by any qualities peculiar to this slave but by his membership in a collective category, and it is transferable, one would imagine, to any other member of that category. The poet is behaving "grammatically," then, as I have disparagingly used that word. But if so, what becomes clear in this passage is the tremendous need for grammar in this world, the tremendous need for structural provisions unattached to particular per-


sons and responsive to all analogous persons. Substitutability and interchangeability, from this perspective, hardly detract from human dignity. They guarantee it.

Still, it must be said as well that this dignity, while guaranteed, is also carefully shielded from that very substitutability and interchangeability which make it possible. And so, the object of the poet's attention is introduced not as a runaway slave but as the runaway slave, as if he were some previously mentioned figure, specially known to the poet, rather than the categoric person which he is. What Whitman encourages us to forget, then, is the very condition under which the slave is admitted into "Song of Myself," as one of its representative figures, one of its formal equivalents, succeeding the trapper and his Indian bride in the previous stanza and to be succeeded, in turn, by the twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore in section 11. Indeed, these other figures—the trapper and his bride, and the bathing young men—must be forgotten as well, their lack of connection to the slave being not at all a lapse but a necessity, a desired effect. This tender forgetfulness—this ceaseless transformation of "a" into "the"—thus generates a peculiar shape of time in "Song of Myself," turning it into an arena of simultaneity, an arena in which antecedence carries no particular weight because it is simply not registered as antecedence.

The transposition of seriality into simultaneity thus makes memory in "Song of Myself" democratic in a rather troubling sense, in that no particular event can claim to have a special place in it, no particular event can claim to be more cherished or more enduring.[56] The extension of time, or rather the emotional weight inhering in that extension, is something of an incomprehensible (or inadmissible) phenomenon, and it is this, I think, that accounts for that strange confusion of tenses here surrounding the word "remember." That fateful word is used not once but twice, in two consecutive sentences: "And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness, / And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles." Indeed the entire stanza, from the "swung half-door of the kitchen" to the famous "firelock leaned in the corner,"[57] might be read as a tribute to the minuteness and tenacity of memory. And yet, this tribute notwithstanding, the exact status of memory, its location and extension in time, remains more than a little puzzling. After all, the most striking feature of the stanza is surely the odd, incongruous


placement of the act of remembering—something supposedly being done in the present—among the recorded deeds of the past. Presided over by the conjunctive "and," "remember" becomes syntactically equivalent to all the verbs that precede it: "went," "led," "brought water," "filled a tub," "gave him a room." It is made analogous to, and put into the company of, verbs depicting concrete acts of definite duration and tangible result, acts begun in the past and ended in the past.

Yet what makes memory special is surely that it resembles none of the above: it is not concrete, has no definite duration or tangible result, and knows neither beginnings nor endings. It can be put in the midst of the others, can be pronounced the equivalent of the others, only through a syntactic dictate that amounts to a kind of epistemological violence. Being harnessed in this manner by the syntax, memory becomes coterminous and coextensive with the event that occasions it. It is woven into the incident that it recalls, sealed and sewn within it. This is what gives memory in Whitman its tapestry-like quality, its strange sense of being without compulsion, without mobility in time. Relieved from the weight of antecedence, past events can now become cheerful additions to the present, swelling its ranks and multiplying its opportunities. The transposition of temporal extension into spatial amplitude thus makes for a self so resilient, so able to accommodate all contingencies as to be beyond contingency. This is, of course, the fantasized ideal in "Song of Myself": a self endlessly renewed by its procedures, a self whose perennial innocence translates into a democratic largesse, a self always open to new experience but always unencumbered by that experience.

An "unencumbered self," Michael Sandel has argued, is the ideal citizen for a "procedural republic,"[58] a Kantian political utopia, observing always the imperatives of the categorical and generalizing those imperatives into the idea of a universal subject, one who might "be made the ground for all maxims of action."[59] If so, "Song of Myself" must count as one of the most compelling portraits of that utopia, an experiment to devise for the unencumbered self a credible embodiment and a credible home. From the poem, though, we might glimpse not only the political necessities for such an ideal but also some of its experiential difficulties. For more dramatically here than elsewhere, we see the extent to which the language of democratic justice is a language of syntax, a language signally porous both in


relation to the varieties of human experience and in relation to the particularities of affective life. It captures for us the openness of space but not the endurance of time, the rhythms of fresh beginnings but not the music of familiar affections, the renewability of syntax but not the sedimentation of meanings.

previous sub-section
3— Luck and Love
next sub-section