Friday, February 4, 2011

False Needs

I am intrigued by Walt Whitman’s poetic style. His poem is erratic, yet it retains a sense of consistency. The portion I focus on is section 32; I believe it exemplifies many of Whitman’s themes. He starts off this section professing that he can live amongst the animals for some time, and then lists a number of reasons why:

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 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. (Whitman 28)

This section really stood out to me, because I was surprised to see Whitman, an eccentric believer of the glorious American lifestyle, critiquing human behavior in such a way. He mocks humanity for their petty bickering about minor problems, their never-ending religious arguments, and their need for unessential materials. This last critique brought my mind right to Marcuse’s ideas of “true needs” and “false needs”. He describes false needs as, “needs that are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs that perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse 5). Marcuse and Whitman both agree that humanity is chained to the social ladder; we cannot be happy if we are not ahead of others—it does not matter if we have enough nourishment and safety… we are not satisfied until we have the most glamorous possessions.

On the other side of the spectrum, Whitman simultaneously lionizes animals while denouncing humanity. There is no doubt that he still sees these organisms as simpler beings than us, but ironically this allows animals to be uninhibited by Marcuse’s false needs. Whitman exclaims that animals, despite their much harder lives, can be completely satisfied with a constant food source and shelter, or “true needs”. I don’t believe, however, that Whitman thinks animals are in any way superior to us; he is simply stating that maybe humanity should take a look at other organisms in order to get insight on the real problems in life—he continues to do just that.

Whitman then transitions into talking about these animals much more intimately, which is an example of his erratic style—he goes from a pessimistic look at humanity to a very erotic and almost disturbing description of a mundane act. He describes a brief ride on a stallion:

His nostrils dilate… my heels embrace him… his well built limbs
Tremble with pleasure… we speed around and return. (Whitman 28)

As discussed in class, this is a prime example of Whitman sexualizing everything around him. I believe this is his way of satirizing the image of sex as taboo, which is still how it is viewed in today’s culture as well. Another irony about humanity is that reproduction is part of the short list of Marcuse’s true needs, while the things popular culture is most entranced about are all false needs. Marcuse seems to have a different view on sex in society: “It has often been noted that advanced industrial civilization operates within a greater degree of sexual freedom—operates in the sense that the latter becomes a market value and a factor of social mores. (Marcuse 74). So in his eyes, he sees sex as being another false need that humans have industrialized as something they can buy. He goes on to describe the high marketability of suitable mistresses and the glossy finishes on high quality stores.

I think this is where the two philosophical figures differ the most. However, I think the reason is because they view the world on two different continuums. Marcuse sees the world in a very generalized way; he uses words like society, industry, and culture to try and explain how trends and nature work. Whitman, on the other hand, tries to see nature on the smallest of scales in order to understand the world; he examines a plate of grass and compares it to the handkerchief of the Lord (Whitman 5) and describes objects that man doesn’t take the time to notice. With this in mind, I understand both of their perspectives on sex in culture. Whitman wants to eroticize things that are trivial to us in order to show humanity that sex is part of everything we do, while Marcuse seems to criticize the act as being marketed as a cold and logical process. Despite this polarization in opinion, I still believe the two paint a similar picture on human nature—our needs of the unimportant and the repression we are left with when we cannot see the world for its true beauty.


  1. There's a lot going on here, and I genuinely think all of it is good and interesting. That isn't to say that there is no room for improvement - by the end, at least, I'm beginning to think that your focus is wandering a little bit - but as an initial comment, this is very good material.

    It's good not only because you have a firm, opinionated grasp of both Marcuse and of Whitman, but you put them in relationship with one another in ways that we didn't in class - you're doing your own work, and you're doing it well.

    So here's my central comment. If your revise this, your challenge isn't to do a better job reading Whitman or Marcuse, because you're already doing well with both. Your challenge is to clarify and develop *your* point of view on what we can learn from, or do with, both of them together.

    Along the way to that, I do have a couple possibly relevant questions.
    1) Is this essay primarily about sexuality and the erotic in the two authors, or is it primarily about true and false needs, with sexuality operating primarily as an example? I think clarifying that could help clarify your overall focus.
    2) Do you think you have a firm grap on the tension Marcuse is trying to create between sex per se and Eros? I don't think you 100% get it (which is fine, given the difficulty of that particular subject, and given that we didn't say much about it in class), and I suspect, again, that getting a better handle on that issue in Marcuse could help you focus.

    But those two questions are really just asides. What do you want to do here? The obvious question, at least for me, is how you think we ought to, or ought not to, use Marcuse and Whitman in order to understand *our* true needs and false needs. I just feel like you ought to be going somewhere with this - and your grasp on both authors is strong enough to use them to bring your own point of view to light.

  2. Anthony:
    I think your arguments in this essay are very well thought out. In fact, I think that the revision process will be very easy for you because you have no major errors. However, I do suggest that you make your transition from talking about Whitman & animals to sex in society a bit more smooth; it seems as if you just abruptly skip from one topic to another. Otherwise, I think this is a great essay.