Throughout the work, and as discussed in class, there were many points where Whitman came across as being over the edge arrogant and again, self-centered. After re-reading and further analyzing the work a little more, I started to have some doubts on these views of Whitman and decided I wanted to look further into this. For when I hear the word arrogance, I think of a person who shows an overexuberant pride in their own importance; that they have placed their self upon a pedestal, and quite frankly I do not believe Whitman exemplifies this definition of arrogance, although the title “Song of Myself” screams this idea. So after completing some research, I happily came to find that Whitman truly is not an arrogant or egotistical man at the least.
I found a work done by Princeton University’s Political Theory professor George Kateb, to have interesting and relevant information on Whitman for the purpose of this paper. This work is entitled Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy. The article exhibits Whitman and democratic culture, individuality, unity, equal rights, arrogance, empathy, and discusses several of Whitman’s works including “Song of Myself.” Throughout the discussion and analysis of Walt Whitman in the article, the statement was made that Thoreau viewed Whitman as “the greatest democrat the world has ever seen” (Kateb 545). With this, he had great views on democratic culture, with one aspect of his view focusing on democratic individuality. Then, within the idea of democratic individuality is the idea of responsiveness to others; a form of connectedness to individuals unlike any other (Kateb 548). He shows responsiveness many times throughout “Song of Myself” but with the possibility of the line before coming across very arrogant, which may shield the meaning he is trying to convey. An example of this is shown in the very first section of “Song of Myself”:
“And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
The first line is arrogant and demanding while the second line is humbling and puts forth his responsiveness to the reader. Another point brought up in my research was that this “atom” he is talking about here could stand for potentiality. That “when I perceive or take in other human beings as they lead their lives or play their parts, I am only encountering external actualizations of some of the countless number of potentialities in me, my soul” (Kateb 549). This shows where Whitman is coming from when he is coming across as being arrogant. That he has a part of everyone else in him, and that everyone else has a part of him as well as everyone else, a society of sharing, and that’s why you should take his word in what he says because it is also your words. Therefore, Whitman speaks not in arrogance but in confidence of his belief that everyone shares one another. Now we can redefine “Myself” in the title “Song of Myself.” “Myself“, now more understandably, means everyone, and we can turn the arrogant stigma we have on Whitman to more of a positive attitude of confidence towards everyone in society. That Whitman has belief that there is importance in everyone which makes every person great.
Continuing on the issue of potentiality, is another issue that was brought up in class; how Whitman shows some forms of hyperempathy syndrome just like Lauren from Parable of the Sower. Lauren was everything but arrogant and selfish. Due to hyperempathy she established strong point of views of right and wrong towards the world that empathized towards society being more united under her religion. Her views were based on the realization that she had the potentialities of everyone within her; very similar to how Whitman felt how he belonged and how everyone should belong in society. One of Lauren’s beautiful poetically written Earthseed verses that demonstrates the idea of potentiality, empathy, and utter shocking confidence in her own words and beliefs is the following:
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you-
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
Learn or die (Butler 279).
This has potential to be found arrogant but can be humbling knowing she is hyperempathetic and has a clearer more understanding head than the average person. Lauren throughout the novel, “Parable of the Sower” writes these confident bold-faced poetical verses to show her belief of how people should live. She wants everyone to understand the meaning and importance behind Earthseed and learn to love and enjoy living under this God; this is completely parallel to Whitman and the way he goes about his similar beliefs.
I see Whitman’s democratic views to having a connectedness among the people to be very similar to as if everyone had hyperempathy syndrome. The way Lauren felt other peoples’ pain and pleasure, is to Whitman’s democratic connectedness of how you view others is how you view yourself. So if you reject someone for whether it be a good reason or a bad one, then you are also rejecting yourself (Kateb 552). To show the connection of hyperempathy and lack of arrogance and egotism that Whitman contains, I found this quote to be useful:
“One lifetime is not enough to realize more than a few potentialities, so that one lives many lives (on earth) only through the ability to perceive and identify with others, and thus, in an unarrogant sense, to become them, if only for a minute now and then.”
A quote from Whitman’s earliest Notebook is “A man only is interested in anything when he identifies himself with it” (Kateb 554). Whitman is not trying to say that everyone is the same person, he wants democratic connectedness but knows there are the individuals that create this whole. Everyone has a personality in which is the most copious potentiality is shown by, this then masks all the potentialities that are held with in, some are down deeper in the soul than others, but they are all there. This is what makes everyone have a sense of hyperempathy syndrome, that everyone shares each others personality within oneself, which enables us to understand and empathize with other individuals on a higher level (Kateb 553).
To understand where Whitman is coming from, that everyone is everyone you can look at a situation that where a persons life is now would not be the same if you put them into a whole different social setting and was raised differently. Therefore everyone has the potential to be someone else, but what you choose to be is your business, but to remember that you hold with in you even the people you don’t want to be (Kateb 569). With this, Whitman is far from arrogant and egotistical, just views the world in a different way than most and is trying to show how a person really is and what people may fear to believe. That just like hyperempathy syndrome in Lauren, every individual should be able to empathize with everyone else, causing a more understanding democratic connectedness. Hopefully now, knowing what all is engraved within the word “Myself”, it is clear that “Song of Myself” is proof of Whitman’s lack of arrogance, but connectedness to society as well as the reader.
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 1993.
Kateb, George. "Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy." Political Theory 4th ser. 18 (1990): 545-71. Sage Publications Inc.. University Library System. University of Pittsburgh. 03 Feb. 2011.