Friday, February 4, 2011

Grass Everywhere

In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 6 begins with a child asking the narrator “What is the grass? [fetching it to me with full hands]”. The narrator is then perplexed as he finds himself unable to answer the child’s seemingly simple question and stumbles with various different theories before he indulges in a deeper meaning altogether. The narrator is first forced to try and derive meaning through this question using symbolism; “it is a handkerchief of the lord,” “babe of the vegetation,” before breaking down his own personal ideas into individual principles.

This leads Whitman to revolving around the idea that the grass within the child’s hands is a symbol of life, mortality and ultimately the cycle of regeneration in nature itself. The narrator then uses this thought of death and rebirth to relate to the idea of democracy and the current state of war found in the United States during this time. Whitman uses grass as a way to symbolize it as an empowering source of democracy; grass grows naturally almost everywhere and only helps move on the cycle of life. The narrator mentions how the grass reminds him of death as grass feeds on the bodies slain from war but yet is necessary in order to provide a better “forward life” for the “offspring taken soon out of [their] laps.” Although the narrator is deeply saddened for the “dead young men and women”, he reminds the reader that everybody dies eventually one way or another and strongly believes that death is inevitable in the path towards democracy.

Although Whitman passed away before Marcuse was even born, both authors deal with many of the same issues relating to democracy in “Song of Myself” and “One Dimensional Man” despite in very contrasting ways. Whitman seems to generally support the idea of democracy as he feels a few lost lives are necessary for the progression of the greater cause. Marcuse on the other hand would probably frown upon this and even argue that this is the thought is the exact kind of idea that would be “pushed” or forced onto the population by the “democratic” government. At one point found in One Dimensional Man, Marcuse argues that although in theory democracy and liberty for all sounds like an ideal plan that satisfies everyone, liberty itself can be used as a tool for controlling the masses as an unreachable goal that just dangles right in front of the general people. Whitman seems to truly believe that democracy is the ultimate way to go as it gives power to the common people but Marcuse would probably dispute that claim as he believes that the ability to chose ones leaders does not completely bring the absence of totalitarianism and tyranny. Something that was ultimately the very thing democracy was aimed to rid the country of.

Marcuse reasons that the very solutions created by democracy also create more problems as well. One of the main public demands from democracy was the right to freedom of speech, something that Whitman would thoroughly stand behind. Marcuse on the other hand would debate that despite the positive reasons for freedom of speech, this right also allows the act of free censorship, which is counterproductive of the intended goal. Also with progression in society comes technological advances that although should benefit the common good of society, Marcuse believes that the government would uses the advances for oppression of the common people rather than helping.

Marcuse and Whitman both wrote based on the economical and political during their lifetimes. This contrast between these two times can be seen simply in the content found in these author’s works. During Whitman’s lifetime, the current political stance of the United States was still readily evolving, eager to become the utopian society the common people envisioned. Therefore much of Whitman’s literature was written generally supporting the progression of democracy as he justly felt that democracy was the end to all of their problems, Marcuse on the other hand grew up after Whitman’s time period and he saw the emerging problems and harms found within the democratic system. Consequently, much of Marcuse’s literature is somewhat opposing the advancement of democracy as he shines light onto the dark problems he foretells.


  1. This flows very well throughout, which makes the beginning of the essay, especially, engaging. But a number of problems accumulate throughout, in spite of the clarity and directness of your language.

    Take, for instance, the multiple references to "the current state of war". What war is this? Our edition is the 1855 edition; this is well after the Mexican-American war and well before the civil war. So do you think that Whitman is meditating on the Mexican-American war? On various conflicts with Indian tribes? This is an example of how you toss of an idea that seems fine at first, but doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.

    Or take your discussion of Whitman and Marcuse. "At one point found in One Dimensional Man," begins one line. This is actually the *closest* you come to a particular claim made by Marcuse. Everything re: Marcuse remains very high level, very abstract, and while it's not that you're exactly wrong about anything you say about Marcuse, it seems very much as if you're not engaging with him, either. What are you *arguing* about the relationship we could, or should, or shouldn't, be making between Marcuse and Whitman?

    Short version: this reads well, and the high-level ideas are fine, but especially past the beginning this is vague and general throughout.

  2. I would have to say that this essay is pretty well written and well organized. It's interesting how you interpreted Whitman's view of death as being necessary for democracy. I realized that he was talking about life and death, but I didn't think that he was talking about democracy the first time that I read this poem.

    I agree with the arguments that you think Marcuse and Whitman would make, but it would be nice if you were to give more quotes to enforce these arguments.