Friday, February 4, 2011

Originality of Thought

Section 17 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself clearly expresses Whitman’s feelings about his role in society as a poet. Whitman sees this poem, “thought” as being “of all men in all ages and lands.”(15) He also states that if this poem and his thoughts cannot be considered universal and encompassing all of humanity, then they are essentially worthless. I find this belief interesting when compared to some of Marcuse’s statements: “the spoken phrase is an expression of the individual who speaks it, and of those who make him speak as he does, and of whatever tension or contradiction may interrelate them.” (193) He goes on to write that when an individual speak (or writes, I assume) “people also speak the language of their masters, benefactors, advertisers.” (193) Marcuse is essentially arguing that because we live in a society of domination, what we chose to communicate might reflect our own personal thoughts and feelings, but these thoughts are merely a lens for the information and “reality” being presented to us by society. While both Whitman and Marcuse argue for a certain amount of universality in speech and thought, I believe their beliefs of what this universality means are essentially different.

After his initial statement in section 17 about the role of the poet and his thoughts, Whitman states, “This is the common air that bathes the globe” and then continues to list the different people he means. (15) This list includes “the illiterate,” “the admirable communes of literary men,” and “the endless races of working people,” and is clearly meant to encompass people from all different backgrounds, both the uneducated and highly educated. By including even those who would be unable to read his poem in his list of “all men,” it seems that Whitman is saying that everyone should be able to appreciate the messages of his poem, even if they can’t appreciate his words. This does not mean, however, that Whitman is willing to compromise his use of language and imagery when he is communicating these messages. Even though Whitman often portrays himself as arrogant in Song of Myself, I believe that he has a great appreciation of the work of even the most uneducated man, and his respect is shown when he includes these people in his poem and counts them among the people with whom he can share his thoughts.

While Marcuse may have had respect for working class men, he clearly has contempt for the system that necessitates their work. I also believe that he shares Whitman’s view that most of humanity is connected. Unlike Whitman, however, who seems to appreciate the connection he shares with the rest of the American society, Marcuse obviously feels that the society is the common connection for humanity, and also clearly believes that this society is holding humanity back from reaching its full potential. Marcuse might agree with Whitman that he is speaking for all men, but Marcuse’s reasoning for this would be that Whitman is speaking for a system that controls all men and that he is simply incorporating some of his own thoughts into a message that has been essentially given to him by the society in which he lives.

This difference in opinions about the connections shared by humanity underlines a more substantial difference in Marcuse’s and Whitman’s view of society. Marcuse argues that we are under the control of a system that essentially makes us slaves to technology and consumerism. He understands the important power of new technology, but feels that humanity is not using its own creations for the right purposes. He takes a very pessimistic outlook on life and on man’s abilities to express himself in the face of a system of dominance. Whitman, on the other hand, clearly knows how to express his own beliefs and thoughts. He even states that his thoughts and poem are “the true sustenance.” (15) He takes a more positive outlook on life, and uses original images and phrases to communicate this outlook. I don’t think it would be easy to prove that Whitman’s words are merely the messages of a society of slaves or consumers, or of a society whose goal it is to have dominance over nature, as Whitman clearly has a great appreciation for nature and wildlife.

Although society had clearly undergone some major changes in between the time when Whitman wrote Song of Myself and Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man, I think that Whitman’s poetry and view of society shows some of the weak spots in Marcuse’s arguments. Marcuse seems to underestimate man’s creativity, while Whitman shows that man, even in an imperfect society, possesses the ability to create and express original works and thoughts.


  1. Your first paragraph is fantastic. One way of expanding on it would be to dig into Marcuse's difficult but instructive discussion of universals; one could follow that up, of course, by thinking more about why and how Whitman, in turn, thinks he is capable of articulating universals.

    2nd paragraph - one thing I'd argue is that he is being arrogant *on behalf of* other people, incl. the illiterates who interest you. That's just an aside. This paragraph is fine, but I'm a little unclear on how the 1st and 2nd relate.

    One aside on the 3rd paragraph. By Marcuse's argument, appreciating nature (e.g., in a national park, which is his recurring example) is not at odds with being the object of domination. Let me point out the role of nature in much advertising (SUV and truck commercials are a starting point).

    Your fourth paragraph doesn't connect well with your other material, especially in the 1st paragraph. "Marcuse seems to underestimate man’s creativity, while Whitman shows that man, even in an imperfect society, possesses the ability to create and express original works and thoughts." In the first paragraph, you did an outstanding job of articulating how, according to Marcuse, we think our own thoughts, and yet those can be shapes by what masters/advertisers/etc. want us to think. I don't think Marcuse believes in any way that creativity doesn't have a role in the system. He believes, however, that the system can *control* creativity.

    Maybe that's your point of disagreement - if so, I think you have a start at articulating that disagreement. But although your initial discussion of Marcuse is great, and your followup discussion of Marcuse is good, I think your discussion of how Whitman can undermine Marcuse is severely underdeveloped. That's the obvious place to develop this essay - clarify the connections between thoughts, and explain (over pages!) your justification for your closing argument.

  2. I really like your argument and how you wrote it. The only thing that I can think of is to maybe elaborate on your last paragraph. These statements were quickly stated and could be expanded, like on how Marcuse undermines man's creativity. I think more could be said about how Whitman points out weak spots in Marcuse as well.