Scripture For A Dead God
Walt! You should be living at this hour! America is in need of you.
America is in need of you because last month a man whose heart burnt with the disunity you deplored murdered nine men and women at prayer. And America is in need of you because last month our highest court sided with the better angels of our nature and recognized and legalized that persecuted love that you yourself knew. Walt, in your incarnational voice, your individual tongue which transubstantiates into all of ours, we need you once again to justify the ways of man to God, always a more noble task than the inverse.
Walt, America is in need of you because we are still large, we still contain multitudes. America is in need of you now more than ever because as in every moment we are the home of the best and of the worst. You have said that we but need only look under our boot soles to find you, well now is the time we must check our souls. We need you now so that you can mourn with us; we need you now so that you can celebrate with us. Do I contradict myself? Very well then…
In the 79th year of these states Walt Whitman received a revelation, and he recorded it in a book of sacred scripture he entitled Leaves of Grass. That we think of it as primarily a book of verse is a mistake of history, an interpretive error, for it is first and foremost a new gospel, a type of revelation that came from within, and has the wisdom to know that voice is the same as that which all other prophets thought they heard from the kosmos. For there is no moment any more sacred than that which is now. Whitman set the type himself and printed it at his own cost in a Brooklyn shop; he sold barely any copies of that first edition, that new birth of divinity on July 4th of 1855. He was an American poet, New York born, but he was also of all time and for all ages. The child of Dutch and New English ancestry, raised on the preaching of Elias Hicks and inner light Quakerism, he spoke not just in a prophetic voice, but an individual one that reaches out across those chasms of time and which seeps into the lonely spaces between words, illuminating that which we’ve always known but don’t have our own words to express. It sounds its barbaric yawps off of the rooftops, unscrewing the locks from the doors, the very doors from their jambs.
Now in the 160th years of those leaves, we are desperately in need of Whitman’s songs of himself (which are of course really songs of us all). Being a poet and a prophet need not be exclusive, indeed one thing those vocations (if we can use such a word, Whitman might) share is the understanding that rhetoric is reality. It’s not so much that Whitman discovered a new doctrine, but that he defined it. The poet and the prophet are not scientists, rather they tell us the important things, which somehow we always knew but which we aren’t eloquent enough to explain ourselves. The poet and the prophet are able to give breath to the ineffable, and to find the numinous in the material. The poet is the one who fashions and fuses the mirror and window together.
I would argue that Leaves of Grass is the first great work of scripture to be penned since modernity killed God. Copernicus and Newton, Nietzsche and Darwin signed the Lord’s death certificate, but our most American of sages, Whitman, arranged the funeral service. The brilliance and importance of Leaves of Grass is that it has the bravery to acknowledge the current state of theological affairs, and the pragmatism to fashion an ethic of living in spite of it. Whitman told us to argue not concerning God, that he who was curious about each was not curious about God. Where the talkers of earlier faiths were always talking of the beginning or the end, Whitman did not talk of the beginning or the end. He admitted that he did not understand God in the least, but knew that there was nothing more wonderful than himself. “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed, /by God’s name. /And I leave them were they are, for I know that wherever I go, others will punctually come for ever and ever.” Whitman teaches us not how to live without God so much as in spite of God. Like Spinoza, Whitman is either an atheist or the most God-intoxicated of prophets, or maybe something more – the rare figure who understands that neither of those categories exist, or that if they do they are synonyms.
Whitman’s nineteenth-century colleague Dostoevsky supposedly said that if God did not exist than all would be permitted, and Nietzsche observed that after God’s murder life’s meaning is irrevocably different. But where these old Europeans couldn’t help but barely hide their despair at the divine theocide, Whitman constructed a new system and a new language with the gross practicality his carpenter father showed in building a house. Whitman’s is the first great faith to incorporate the discoveries and the undeniable implications of positivist science and materialist philosophy – “A word of reality…. Materialism first and last imbuing” and “Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!” – and he acknowledges that we must at least confront the fact that God’s absence may alter how we live, how we organize our societies, how we face the finality of death. And where Dostoevsky feared the possibility of all being permitted, Whitman fashioned an antinomian morality of finding the theophanic in the moment, among the union of men and women, brothers and sisters. While those Europeans were still at the funeral, Whitman was enjoying a drink at God’s wake, and making plans.
What Whitman understood is that the abolition of mere immortality allows for the liberation of eternity. Wittgenstein said that there was never any more eternity than now, something Whitman anticipated decades earlier. He writes “There was never any more inception than there is now, /nor any more youth or age than there is now;/and will never be any more perfection than there is now, /nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.“ In shining, luminescent verse, even when recounting his epic lists of anonymous nineteenth-century Americans from the president to the pimple-covered prostitute, the Missourian trapper to the Yankee girl at her loom, he crystalizes the sacredness of the moment–all moments.
For Whitman, each second is a portal through which the messiah or the devil may pass, which is in fact always what is happening. He writes that “The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,” echoing one of the truest and wisest lines in the old scripture when Isaiah has the Lord say “I form the light, and create darkness.” There is no eternity in the hereafter, the hereafter is now; immortality is acquired by opening your eyes and clearing your ears. It is—to borrow the language of Whitman’s older brother-prophe—an issue of cleansing the doors of perception. Infinity is not somewhere else—it is here. Eternity is not in the future—it is now. When Whitman looks out at the flows and eddies of the East River traversing the waters of his loved New York on the Brooklyn Ferry, thinking of us (he tells us that he thought of us!) and informing us that what he saw we will see, he understands that past, present, future are illusions. In collapsing them all together into that singularity he lets us know that it’s not that death need not be proud, it’s that death herself never existed anyhow. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”
Now, one must be clear, Whitman is agnostic on the issue of whether consciousness survives. He offers no consolation that there is life after death; what he offers is a vision of how to live as if the answer to that question didn’t matter. In this way he matches the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, and Leaves of Grass is to us as his De Rerum Natura was to the classical Mediterranean. The gods are mute, and their pronouncements cannot be trusted. The only oracle who is still speaking after the great god Pan is dead necessarily speaks in our own accent. For Lucretius there were but atoms organized into matter, and our will was only expressed in the clinaman, in their random swerve. And for Whitman, he asked, “Who need be afraid of the merge?” The fear of death is an issue of ego. Lucretius said either there is a realm of the living dead or there is not; either way we should not be afraid, since either we will continue to be aware or we will not, in which case it doesn’t matter. And for our American Lucretius, “the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow.” Nothing truly dies because that smallest sprout’s manure is us, we’re never separate from that system, we’re never divorced from the world, we’re always a peninsula on the continent. “All goes onward and outward… And nothing collapses, /and to die is different from any one supposed, and luckier. /Has one supposed it lucky to be born? /I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.”
It is my contention that all that one need know about either God, death, or America (which are all really the same thing anyhow) are contained within the complete works of the Sage of Camden and the Bard of Amherst. Both Whitman, who is the poet of the exclamation point! and of the ellipsis…. And Dickinson, who is the poet of the dash –.are descendants of a culture that had at its center the elegant and parsimonious words of The King James Bible and of the Book of Common Prayer. And they took that rhetoric and saw no shame in pouring new wine into old casks. Whitman may have internalized the free verse of the King James Bible more than any other artist to speak English, yet his language was not marshaled in the service of God for James, England, and Saint George but rather for you, himself, and me. “We consider the bibles and religions divine… I do not say they are/not divine. /I say that they have all grown out of you and may grow out of you still, /It is not they who give the life… it is you who give the life.”
His inspiration was that he crafted a narrative voice that speaks beyond the grave, which collapses distinction between people. It is the most vibrant literary voice I know of, which sounds like it is coming from inside your own head. In him we become not just his audience, but narrator as well. He is not a poet of egoism, far from it; rather he is the poet of the collapse between the listeners and listened, between reader and book, the singer and the song. When he addresses you directly he is literally addressing you directly, for Whitman the meaning of poems is that they convey immortality, not just because of posterity but because they are able to have almost a spooky presence in being able to communicate beyond the grave. “And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each other, /without ever seeing each other, and never perhaps to see each/other, is every bit as wonderful.”
Though he has the cadence, the chiasmus, the Hebraic and biblical parallelism of William Tyndale and Launcelot Andrews and Miles Coverdale and all the other English translators of the scriptures, he marshals that voice in the service of a different god, for as I have said Whitman was composing a new scripture for a new world:
Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah and laying them away,
Lithographing Kronos and Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,
Buying drafts of Osiris and Isis and Belus and Brahma and Adonis
In my portfolio placing Manito loose, and Allah on a leaf, and the
With Odin and the hideous faced Mexitili, and all idols and images,
Honestly taking them all for what they re worth, and not a cent
Admitting they were alive and did the work of their day,
Admitting they bore mites as for unfledged birds who have now to
rise and fly and sing for themselves,
Accepting the rough deific sketches to gill out better in myself…
Bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see.
Whitman’s theology was large; it contained multitudes, and a characteristic American enthusiasm that is not only pluralistic, but also promiscuous, if not queer. We do not reject these past gods; Whitman did not. We take what is useful in them and we discard the rest. From the detritus of their pronouncements he fashions a new system, lest we be enslaved by those of another man. The great “I AM!” may now be silent, the fiery Tetragrammaton’s voice now mute and silent, but Whitman has proven it is still possible to write scripture. This fact alone may be Leaves of Grass’s most important lesson, that the oracles need not be dumb even if God is dead, that we may still deliver supplication even if the kosmos is silent, a lesson that in and of itself may be as important as anything contained in scriptures new or old. Walt Whitman was a christ, for he taught us that we are all christs.
I have said that Whitman provides us an ethic from this new metaphysic, how do we live in light of the seeming moral irrelevance of the transcendent? Yes, perhaps we can experience the infinite in an object, or eternity in a second, and maybe we can collapse the sacred into the profane. But why care for our brothers and sisters in a world without the threat of reward or punishment? But Whitman is a great mystic. Like the Sufi nun who wished she could burn heaven down with the flames of hell so that one worshiped God only to worship God, Whitman knew that an ethic predicated on apple and lash was no ethic at all. Rather, like a good democrat, his was a system of how to live, and it did not just logically flow from his ontology like some Euclidian syllogism. Instead, his metaphysics and his ethics were simply identical. Much as the founding document of Whitman’s Holy Land claimed that human rights were “self evident,” Whitman’s ethic of brotherly affection and democratic egalitarianism was similarly so.
Democracy need not have a recourse to those transcendent signifieds that theocracy must prop itself with. The principle is simple: there is nobody, no matter how talented, rich, or brilliant who as a matter of principle has the right to control another capable person without that person’s consent. And this simple ideal is what the society we strive for should be built on, and it’s what must be celebrated. “It is also not consistent with the reality of the soul to admit that there is anything in the known universe more divine than men and women.” Our union is not just mystical, it is literal, and our systems of governance must reflect that. But unlike that cynic Churchill, Whitman knew that democracy isn’t simply the worst form of government that happens to be better than all other forms; democracy is a faith as vibrant and strong as that of the prophets who came before him. It is not simply a way of organizing our government; it is a way of organizing ourselves. He famously begins “Song of Myself” (in the superior, 1855 edition) with “I celebrate myself, /and what I assume you shall assume, /for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” This is the first principle of Whitman’s democratic faith. It is not a mere principle of equivalence, and it is not the show of egoism his readers often misinterpret it to be. It is rather a radical, theological assertion on the commonality of all of us; it is the foundation for his anarchic democratic vision. This, in our year of “owning our privilege” and intersectionality, of trigger warning and microaggressions, contains the radical core of the most simple progressive message: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Nothing is sacred because everything is sacred; this is the basis of both his religion and his politics, which are identical. This is the fundamental truth of Whitman’s bible; the rest is but commentary. Now go, and learn.
Despite my apparent declarations, Whitman was neither god nor messiah but a man, and inheritor of all the petty bigotries, small-mindedness, and prejudice of his era, even if in verse he could be visionary. He of course knew this himself, the man who not only placed a line-drawing of himself (with a purposefully enhanced crotch bulge) in lieu of a byline on his book of poetry’s first edition, and who felt no shame in composing “advertisements for myself” was no hypocrite in admitting his own deficiencies – it was only consistent with his poetic vision. And he admitted that when he composed those lines, about the non-existence of death, the love between citizens, the simple ethic of kindness and embrace, that these were more theoretical than lived for him.
A parable: In 1862 the poet was worried that his brother who was serving the Union cause was among the fallen at Fredericksburg, and he journeyed to the capital to discover what he could. His brother was fine, but in that city he found the moaning body of America’s youth, and for the next three years he years he would attend to the thousands of wounded and dying who clogged the makeshift hospitals of Washington DC. Whitman’s Civil War-time service was true to his Quaker roots, where the bearded man looking older than his 43 years consoled the maimed and dying sons of both North and South. He would sit by their side, talk to them in their infirmity, read to them from a Bible that he did not believe (understanding that the essence of religion need not be belief), distribute candy to the men who were scarcely older than boys.
Shortly after May 1, 1865, the mother of one of those boys, a Mrs. Irwin of Pennsylvania, opened a letter postmarked Washington DC. There is little doubt that she would not have recognized the signatory’s name, a name that would fill anthologies and book titles, syllabi and monuments. The name “Walt Whitman” would have been just the name of a stranger. He writes, “No doubt you and Frank’s friends have heard the sad fact of his death… I will write you a few lines – as a casual friend that sat by his death bed.” Whitman goes on to recount the wound Frank Irwin received in Virginia a month before, the pain her son went through, his amputation. He recounts the fever that Frank suffered, and that he passed on Mayday, the year the Civil War ended.
Whitman writes, “I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him, and soothing him, and he liked to have me… Toward the last he was more restless and flighty at night…. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good…I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpass’d…. I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while – for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him.” Whitman did not give Mrs. Irwin a gift of verse, but rather the knowledge that her son did not die alone, that though she could not be there with him he still had consolation and love in his last moments.
In his introduction to Leaves of Grass Whitman writes that to internalize its teachings is to live as if “your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in it words but in the silent lines of your lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” In consoling this mother – in consoling her dying son – we see how one’s very life can be as of the greatest of poems. Even after a millennium we may not deserve one as holy as Whitman, but grace, like love, is undeserved and still given freely. Walt Whitman’s kiss is still on America’s lips, like that undeserved gift.
Walt, we have need of you. And we pray. He stops somewhere waiting for us.
Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.