A theme that keeps arising in Whitman’s work is that of the body. He makes it very clear that, to him, one’s body is also one’s identity. In the poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Whitman claims “I too had receiv’d identity by my body,/that I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I/knew I should be of my body” (310). This line is the one that struck me as the most directly addressing this point that I’ve read so far, but throughout his poetry he makes comments such as “I believe in the flesh and the appetites,/Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.” in “Song of Myself” (51).
This reference to the body-as-self seems unremarkable at first but considering the time frame it is a rather remarkable thought. Until Husserl published his work in the 1900’s, although much of his work was influenced by Kant who wrote much earlier, the standard understanding of the self was that of a mind or soul which simply used the material body until it could free itself and become pure. For example, Descartes with is famous cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, is the most well-known representative of the mind-body dualism argument. Descartes argued that the senses, since they could relay false information, must be false and therefore the mind (thought/idea/soul) was the only thing which could be considered real. He went on to show that the rest of the world was also real due to God not being a deceiver (a very boring and flawed argument that I won’t spell out here), but in the end what he accomplished was setting the mind as the highest and purest part of human experience.
Granted, he wrote all this in the 1600’s but it became the pervading thought throughout the world until many years later. This is why Whitman’s body-as-self imagery is interesting, it’s somewhat out of place, particularly with the religious feelings of the time. The body was generally considered as a prison of flesh for the soul/mind. I think that the reason for Whitman’s difference of opinion with this pervading theory was his love of the individual.
Whitman spends much of his time detailing a variety of actions by a variety of people, we talked some in class about how this was due to a wish to give everyone a possibility to relate, which I think was a result of it, but I think it was more about showing the expansive range of people, each one an individual and separate identity. In the mind-as-self view, each person’s individual traits are really only accidents, or added characteristics, of the basic form. At every one’s essence there is only mind, and all mind is the same. Whitman on the other hand puts the body as equally important to the mind.When that is done, individual characteristics cease to be mere accidents and become important and defining features of the person.
Sartre, a later philosopher who based much of his study on Husserl, extolled the importance of the body in one’s experience of the world. He spoke of how a paraplegic experiences the world in a very different way than an athlete, or even an average non-disabled person. I think it is this kind of idea that led Whitman to speak so highly of the body and to describe it so thoroughly (although that was probably not done simply as an innocent philosophical study). Whitman has an undertone throughout his work that pleads with the reader to see him or herself as truly individual and important because of that. Whitman claims “I am the poet of the body,/And I am the poet of the soul” (46), but I think that Whitman is truly the poet of the person.