Saturday, February 5, 2011

Animals, Whitman and God

In “‘As If the Beasts Spoke’: the Animal/Animist/Animated Walt Whitman,” M. Jimmie Killingsworth discusses Whitman’s portrayal of the animal in relation to the human. He argues that Whitman wanted to undermine the distinction between the two, to draw them together. His poems expressed this desire because they constantly drew connections between modernity and nature, and the natural causality in modern progress. That is, human construction using modern techniques and tools still retains a link to the natural world, because it is a part of our Darwinian competitive instincts and the need for security and survival — however, Killingsworth makes it a point to say that Whitman would be disturbed by the contemporary loss of the human connection to nature, and that we now think of nature as an excursion into the wilderness rather than a breath of fresh air under a tree, listening to the sounds of insects and creatures as he would have preferred.

Killingsworth’s discussion also briefly touches on the role of religion, and the dichotomy between religion and science. “Religion disenchants nature by making spirit the exclusive province of God and a supplicant humanity. Science makes the material world the only reality but disenchants by denying spirit altogether” (Killingsworth 24). In Whitman’s animism, then, the animals and humans become the gods; it is the spirit of the animals that is meant to reflect the truth in humanity. Whitman looks to them for a deeper wisdom because they are not plagued by the attachments that human’s contain, such as the one to God. In section 32, Whitman writes:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their conditions,

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 is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

In this passage, Whitman expresses respect towards animals for retaining something that humans seem to have already lost sight of — the connection to the earth is the driving force for our continued species. We look too much to the superior role of humans, who are able to reason and connect to God. But, Whitman expresses this an irrational logic — animals love and care for one another, fight for their survival, but do not bother themselves with notions of the God who rules all. They do not let this God guide them, they are instead guides by their instincts and their brothers. He understands this ability as something stronger than a human God, and sees wisdom in their refrain from attempts based on greed and power — the animals don’t want to take over the world, they want to feed their children.

Killingsworth also argues that Whitman uses the animals in his poetry as the “echo” of himself. If he views the animals in their “self-contain’d” wisdom, then it would follow that he tries to guide his readers to imitate the behaviors of those animals. Initially, his words come from the spirit in nature, but “over two decades of development, then, the poet increasingly speaks not from nature or with nature, but rather comes to speak for nature; or worse, he plays the ventriloquist to the dummies of nature, the birds and the hissing ocean” (Killingsworth 26). This comment implies that Whitman began to take on a God role in his writing. In “Song of Myself” Whitman he still contains the connection to nature. But apparently, later on in his writing, Whitman feels that he must take a more direct role in teaching humanity about his ideas of unity and natural foundations. It is his desperation for Americans to understand animism, that the soul of the earth manifests the same in every creature that creates his own belief that he his the authority and, instead of leaving nature itself to guide Americans, he personifies the qualities that he finds respectable in the animals and applies them to the highest and lowest classes of characters.

Ultimately, Whitman believed in this sense of unity. Regardless of his later vain characteristics and God-like expressiveness, he believed in the final destination. He wanted to reestablish the connection to the earth, and to inspire a respect for Americanism that acknowledged its natural roots. He wanted humanity to continue to grow, but to recognize that the human ability to reason is not restricted to only our species, and it does not ensure rational reasoning. Whitman wanted to world to reflect upon our surroundings, and look past science and religion into the heart of the earth.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. ""As If the Beasts Spoke”: The Animal/Animist/Animated Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 28.1 (2010): 19-35. Pitt Digital Library. Web. 4 Feb. 2011. .


  1. There were two components to the assignment. The first part was to give a summary of the argument of the essay you read. You did this, and you did it well. I do have a couple mild criticisms of your summary: you touched on a great many details, but you were weaker on explaining the author's overall argument/agenda, which we are left mostly to deduce. So, you did a good job, but were at least in danger of losing the forest for the trees.

    Second, you were supposed to "Apply it to our class discussion - either extend or critique something we/I had to say about the poem, using this scholarly article." You didn't really do this much at all. There were moments embedded in your summary were you were kind of doing this, but this piece was overwhelmingly dominated by your (pretty good) summary - without any real insight into what you think we should take away from this essay, and how we should apply it to our discussion.

    What you did was 90%/10%, not 50/50, which would have been better. And it would have been fine to cut a few of the details in order to introduce your own point of view more clearly.

  2. The summary of the article you chose to use was good, but it became very overwhelming. I am unsure where your argument comes in rather than Killingsworth, as his argument is introduced as the main focus of three of your four paragraphs.

    You also lost me when you introduced the topic of religion versus science that Killingsworth presents. The section from "Song of Myself" that you chose was one of my favorites, but I believe you set it up in such a way that it was misinterpreted. Rather than a focus on God, I believe Whitman was bringing to light the flaws of our own species, with God as one factor of those flaws. Rather than relating this passage to religion, I think it would have been in your best interest to relate it to the the idea that you presented initially, that Whitman wanted to draw humans and animals together by showing the admirably qualities animals have that humans have lost/lack.

    What really through me off about your essay was this idea of "final destination". It seems like the most intergral part of your argument, however when I got to that point in your essay, I was completely confused by this idea of a final destination.

    Clarification of what you are trying to say versus what the scholarly article suggests is important. In the future, I would suggest containing the authors point to a paragraph, be it a long paragraph if you want to include detail regarding his argument. If you keep their arguments in one area, it is easier to distinguish what you are trying to get across rather than what you read about.

  3. I really like the article that you picked. I was struck my Whitman's words about animals as soon as I read them on the page and am sorry that we didn't really get to talk about it more in class. There is some great, very complex philosophical material in here that touches upon Whitman's views of the balance of nature and religion. If I could take the analysis of this post in any direction there would be two that I would really like to see. You already touched upon religion and analyzed it pretty well but I would love to see what you think some of the implications of this school of thought are. If we are the gods, do we seek instruction from just nature? from one another? is there any force that overpowers the other?

    I'd also like to see you elaborate more on the concept of "Americanism" and how this specifically relates to our nation. There's definitely something to be said about the attitude towards nature in the early years of settlement (and attitudes of natives of the land) but how has this concept changed as our views/respect towards nature have drifted further from Whitman's intent?