• Sue

    It’s interesting to compare Wilmot with Whitman. Whitman celebrates his own self, but in the process, becomes more connected to the comunity around him. Wilmot seems to live truly for himself, the ultimate consumer. the result of which is a solitary hell. A friend of mine, a Girardian scholar, talks about love as desiring the subjectivity (the fullness) of both one’s self aAND the other. They should not be in conflict. And I think that one may start either with concern for other or concern for self and if open and truthful, make the bridge toward the other, as Whitman shows.

    Interestingly enough, this generation also seems to be very compassionate, and concerned about what is going on in the world. I think you’re right to notice that not many people are helping them to put the pieces together, to think through how what I do affects not only me, but my society, which in turn affects me. Both Thoreau and the Greek philosophers were well-trained in reasoning through issues. Why do we do what we do? What will happen if we take this path? How does this contribute to meaning? etc.

    I, too, was struck by the depth and rigor of Carl’s teaching method and glad for people like him who insist on helping us (whether young or old) reflect and reason.

  • Carl

    Sue beat me to the connection to Whitman (thank you for the kind words about the article, by the way) that was the first thing that occurred to me upon reading Robin’s post.

    On the one hand, Whitman can be — and was, of course — seen as solipsistic to the point of hubris, as in the famed opening line, “I celebrate myself,” and myriad other self-exaltations: “Clear and sweet is my soul” ([line] 44), “I cock my hat as I please indoors or out” (397), “I know I am august” (410), and — an annual favorite among my students — “The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer” (527), among dozens of other suitable citations.

    But intermingled with the self-admiration is at least as much humility, or, perhaps it would be better to say, extreme democracy. Indeed, Whitman may be the perfect elitist: he has to elevate himself because he elevates, even apotheosizes, humanity, and he, to be capable of not only life but poetry, must be human. Unapologetically, then, he marries his introductory self-celebration with his assertion that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (3). He listens, respects, even (eventually) presumes to assume the roles of those who have been battered by injustice and war and all the other iniquities of history. Yes, “Clear and sweet is my soul” but also “clear and sweet is all that is not my soul” (44). He admires the mountaintops, but who doesn’t?; he does, however, stoop to adore the brown ants and “the mossy scabs of the wormfence” (88-89).

    I ask my class to comment on whether the poem is a greater statement of Hubris or Humility. To return to Sue and to Robin, Whitman to me is the epitome of what Pride can be — productively — because he so deeply respects that which he honors. He is solipsistic in the sense that he dwells in himself, but his energy makes it so that he dwells everywhere. He really knows how to live deliberately, at least in his art!

    The problem this suggests with society today is that we may have the pride without the humility. That sounds an alarm with me. Whitman does love himself, but he never struck me as a narcissist. Narcissus ignored everything but his own beauty, as I recall. Whitman’s self-regard is exceeded only by the catholicity of his engagement and appreciation. I wish for today’s students to have the latter — ideally, before feeling themselves worthy of the former!


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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