Personal Desire, Societal Expectation: Whitman on Religion and Sexuality
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
As a member of society, one is encouraged – often through media, legislation, and cultural tradition – to meet certain social and behavioral expectations. The disregard of these social “norms,” which attempt to make human behavior more predictable through the standardization thereof, are what made author and poet Walt Whitman controversial in his time; he defied both individual and literary conformity throughout his work, choosing instead to personify the gap between personal desire and societal expectation. In his protracted and intimate epic Song of Myself, Walt Whitman reflects on this gap, specifically through the lenses of religion, or the lack thereof, and sexual imagery in his writing.
Born and raised in the early nineteenth-century, a time of political turbulence and white, evangelical supremacy, Whitman, influenced by the notions of deism, chose to respect all religions but follow none. “Jehovah… Kronos… Osiris… Brahma, Buddha… Manito… Allah… the crucifix engraved… Odin and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image, [I take] them all for what they are worth and not a cent more, admitting they were alive and did the work of their days… Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself… Discovering as much or more in a framer framing a house… Not objecting to special revelations, [I consider] a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as a revelation” (Section 41). Here, Whitman refuses to associate with any single organized religion, instead suggesting that all religions and deities are neither false nor absolutely true, but equally respectable in philosophy, tradition, and scrutiny – a rather revolutionary notion for his time, in which Christianity and its denominations ruled the American cultural sphere. Historically, he did not allow religion to dictate his behavior like many Americans who feared “sinning”. Whitman chose instead to carve his own path based on his own morals and desires, rather than religious expectation, encouraging his readers to “…no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres [of] books,” but rather to “listen to all sides and filter them for yourself” (Section 2, both quotations). Furthermore, Whitman’s rejection of religion is apparent in his distaste of the pious: “I think I could turn and live with animals… They do not sweat and whine about their condition, they do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God… Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago” (Section 32). Whitman, disgusted with the blind allegiance of the devout to their gods, churches, and holy books, finds solace in the purity of nature and her creatures. He would rather live among the Earth’s creatures than be pestered and dictated by those of God, choosing instead to follow his own spiritual path based on his own principles and ambitions, free from the influence of God and the promise of Heaven. This mindset was rather revolutionary for his time, as the promise of Heaven provided a comforting benefit of death to the largely religious American populace. Overall, Whitman did not give in to prominent American religion, or religion in general, nor did he allow its doctrines to dictate his path, to determine his personal moral rules, or to judge and influence his behavior – all of which are further evidenced by the author’s then-controversial sexuality and sexual imagery.
Humans within themselves harbor auto-, homo-, and heterosexual desires. Sex is simply a human experience, much stronger in uniting than in dividing a human’s relationships, both with his partners and with himself. Whitman himself, in search of communion with all living beings, hinted at homosexual tendencies throughout his literary work. In an early version of Song of Myself, Whitman said, “Prodigal! You have given me love! Therefore I to you give love! O unspeakable passionate love! Thruster holding me tight, and that I hold tight! We hurt each other as the bridegroom and the bride hurt each other” (Section 21 of Song of Myself, The Walt Whitman Archive). Disregarding social taboo by openly discussing his lustful desires, in this case with a man, Walt Whitman ignores social expectation and focuses instead on the cravings of his own soul – the craving to satisfy his human nature by intimately connecting with his partners. This blatant literary eroticism was uncommon for Whitman’s time and often met with controversy and disdain from the outspoken of America’s conservative mindset, wherein sex was stigmatized (The Walt Whitman Archive) as an act of guilt, domination, and overall impurity if done outside the confines of religious law. Whitman, however, continued discussing sex and ultimately human nature throughout his work, ignoring the criticism he received as his poems deviated from the genteel Eurocentric standard.
One example of this is his portrayal of a woman watching twenty-eight young men bathing naked in a stream, her heart and soul filled with the desire to join them and experience the beauty of human touch. “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore… twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome. Which of the young men does she like the best? … You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room. Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather, the rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them. An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies, it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs” (Section 11). It is neither modest, nor appropriate, for a woman to bathe naked with a group of strange men. Playing on the human desire of sexual discovery, however, Whitman ignores the social and religious expectations of modesty and virtue, describing in detail the lonesome woman’s burning desire to simply enjoy herself with the group of bathing men. Whitman attempts to unveil the woman’s “forbidden voices… of sexes and lusts” (Section 24), believing that sexual guilt and fright are harmful emotions, despite the stigma revolving around the public expression thereof. Following his own beliefs, Whitman seems to encourage the woman to forget the societal expectation of modesty and pursue her own path, forged from her own desire, sexual ambition, and timid experience with life; he seems to encourage her to take to the water with the men, sharing not only her body but also her emotion and desire of intimacy. Overall, openly discussing sex is, and was in Whitman’s time, often considered taboo. Acting as an open-minded sexual pariah, however, Whitman attempted to normalize the discussion and love of sex, both homo and hetero, causing ripples among the conservative American mindset of the time which had ultimately condemned it, embracing his personal desire as he forewent societal and religious expectation of modesty to express to his audience his love of communionship, which is only bolstered by sexual interaction.
In this manner, Walt Whitman, in his American epic Song of Myself, explored the gap between personal aspiration and societal expectations through the perspective of religion and through his controversial, yet natural, sexual imagery – both of which defied the common, conservative American standard of the time. As one of the most significant American writers to this day, having popularized American literature in an era where European-traditionist writing was the main consumption of literate Americans, Whitman’s influential message of choice and individuality has a rather widespread sphere of influence across the American public. He encourages his readers, above all else, to take the reins of their own lives, to rely not on institution, nor holy books, nor ancestral teachings and traditions to mold readers’ paths. He advocates individuality and the denial of conformity and of the embracing not only of oneself, but of “every caste and rank” of every nation in this great Nation of Nations that we call the United States. Walt Whitman, through his literary work, teaches not only how to live, but how to love without fear of stigmatization, how to embrace nature and enjoy the purity and the beauty of the Earth, and most significantly how to exist spiritually not only within oneself, but of oneself. One should ultimately embrace the very essence of who he is, love nothing more than the fat which sticks to his own bones, and forge his own path in this game of life, with desire and ambition leading the way.
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