Friday, February 4, 2011

Marcuse v. Whitman; Passion

Let me start by saying that Marcuse is a new-found hero of mine, literarily and philosophically speaking, so that when I try to break down his logic later, it is for the sake of argument only.

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry; 8 by Walt Whitman, 1856.

Marcuse takes on a fire-and-brimstone tone as he journeys us through the mechanization and instrumentalization of our society. I have already disagreed with him on the point of contemporary sexuality and plan on doing it again here; this time with the help of Whitman. There is a direct conflict in the opinions of these two powerhouses of thought; one that is easily associated with sex (due to Whitman’s insatiable libido and desire to shock-and-awe). Marcuse goes to bat against the destruction of our sex lives in the machine, saying that we have become so lost in the ways of passion that the male and female organs are all that resemble sex. What about the love? The moment? Where did Bowlby’s theory1 of skin-to-skin go? Is the cheesy saxophone rift during a sex-scene on T.V. for nothing? Of course it is easiest for Marcuse to say all the rawest of our emotions have been swapped out for the cold, calculated logistics of a society bent on progress; sex as a tool to occupy us. “…A whole dimension of human activity and passivity has been de-eroticized” (Marcuse 73). It doesn’t stop there. In fact, Marcuse butts heads with Whitman in not only his idea of passion’s ongoing existence, but where it can take place. In his continued blaspheme of my favorite pass-time, he asks us to “compare love-making in a meadow and in an automobile, on lovers’ walk outside the town walls and on a Manhattan street” (73). Oh no he didn’t, Whitman says. Now, this may be an unfair fight, as Whitman has the ability of a teenager in finding or installing sex into just about anything you can write about. So to counter, I want to break down the argument to passion itself; an emotion that man himself has created. Whether it be literature or art, there is love and desire. More to the point, why not be turned on by the mere presence of something magnificent – like Whitman. “Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?” (Whitman Leaves of Grass). Whitman is the definition of libido. It is no wonder that he can find love in a place like this; love is everywhere. There is passion everywhere. I cannot help but agree. Marcuse places too much stock in how the machine affects us; brainwashes the individual. Not once in his narrative is there a mention of the true nature of art, love, or intuition of the people without saying that there it is a course of thought they follow based on the plans of the machine. “What is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face? Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you?” (Whitman Leaves of Grass). The bonds of something real in nature, intrinsically passionate, come out in these verses of Whitman. Though perverted and extreme at times, he is right. The world, though rigid, though it worships the fiscal year, has not lost all contact with what lifts the soul to heights beyond our world. “What gods can exceed these…?” Whitman asks. If one man is so in love with nature, so in tune with a fire that burns for elements outside of a system callous of feeling, then is there not a chance for us? To say that the world has lost the ability to find sex passionate; has lost the intention of lovingly reproducing (be it of children or the relationship between artist and art), is blasphemy in itself. The future does have the capacity for - at times beckons - a dark future. I keep coming back to the praises Whitman sends to the most trivial things, “river and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood tide.”

The machine is not unstoppable – even Marcuse believes a step back into scholarship and poetry would be an escape. “We understand then do we not? What I promised without mentioning it, have you not accepted?” Whitman is reaching out to the reader. We have understood what he finds in nature; the fervor and truth. Whitman though, unlike a lot of those who read his works or try to understand them, had the privilege of devoting his being to understanding what the machine wants us to wave off as excess; inefficient. What Marcuse says is frightening and evident, but not all-encompassing. Thank God, thank Whitman.


  1. 1 Bowlby's Attachment Theory states "...attachment means an affectional bond or tie between an individual and an attachment figure..." and usually occurs as a result of continued, caring skin-to-skin contact.

  2. This needed paragraphs!

    Now, on to the details. I'm very glad that you're continuing to engage Marcuse on the subject of sexuality. I'm not entirely in disagreement with you, but I think you could benefit from me briefly playing the role of Marcuse.

    Begin my Marcuse Voice

    You're missing two things here:

    1) I am arguing, not that the machine has completely destroyed or ruined sexuality, but that it has managed to strip sensual pleasure from other parts of life, displacing them onto sexuality. So sex and passion remain - but the ability to appreciate the rest of the world sensually has declined.

    2) I am arguing, not that sexuality has been stripped of power or of truth, but that it has been successfully instrumentalized. The subterranean ubiquity of pornography in contemporary America, in fact, illustrates my point: sexuality remains, but increasingly in a fully instrumentalized, packaged, and consumerized form.

    End Marcuse Voice

    In other words, while I think that Marcuse perhaps exaggerates (your characterization of his fire and brimstone is great), that his understanding of sexuality, if carefully reread, could be insightful to you, and maybe isn't as far off from Whitman as you think. After all, Whitman is interested in experiencing the sensual *world*, not just the sexual encounter - as is Marcuse.

    Structurally, this was awkard at best. It needed a good rewrite, starting with paragraphs that are paragraphs.

  3. Also, the discussion of attachment has potential - it would present many opportunities for revision ("attachment parenting" would be an interesting additional topic for this essay).