"Song of Myself" and Indian Philosophy", by Malcolm Cowley
A Century of Whitman Criticism, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1969: 231-246
Reviewed by Jessica Ozimek
A look at Indian philosophies about spirituality may lead readers of Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" to a better understanding of Whitman's suggestion that "all is one." Malcolm Cowley argues in his critical essay titled " "Song of Myself" and Indian Philosophy," that Whitman's poem is in fact more "Eastern than Western"(Cowley 232). Cowley sites that Thoreau remarked to Whitman upon reading the first edition of Leaves of Grass that it was "Wonderfully like the Orientals"(232). It is quite unlikely that Whitman had read any of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text, or other Indian texts before his first edition of Leaves of Grass was published. So what are the elements common among Whitman's work and Indian philosophy and how did his texts mirror these elements given the authors ignorance on the subject?
Through his prose, Whitman sees an opportunity to liberate his fellow man from the shackles of convention. He attempts to explain his prophecy through the idea that there is no difference between God and the self, that instead one should seek a union with God. In the 5th chant of "Song of Myself" we see Whitman trying to explain this relationship, "Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,... " Cowley claims the feeling of ecstasy that Whitman is describing is a recurring trend throughout history(234). Throughout time, enough people have had mystical experiences that have given rise to new philosophies and religions, causing many people like Aldous Huxley, to label these experiences part of "perennial philosophy"(Cowley 243). Whereas these mystical experiences are usually seen as heretical in Western religion, these experiences are often the goal of practicing Eastern religion. The Upanishad texts of Ancient India describe a notion of God, or Brahman, which represents an all-enfolding consciousness. The idea that God is everywhere permeates Whitman's text and lends support to the sense that all things are equal; all things are a part of God. Whitman's states his notion of divinity, " I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass." This sounds similar to the idea of divinity expressed in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, " The Image was Consciousness, the altar was consciousness, the door-sill was consciousness, the marble floor was consciousness-all was consciousness..."(Cowley 243). This idea that we are all a part of the same matter, or the same energy, is the essence of Whitman's cosmic consciousness. It is this consciousness that drives Whitman to see the beauty in all things, and the need to celebrate all things, from the blade of grass to the breaking waves. Cowley explains that this is where Whitman diverges from Indian philosophy because, "[h]e was too good a citizen of the nineteenth century to surrender his faith in material progress as the necessary counterpart of spiritual progress"(242). So where yogis sought to subjugate the senses to form a union with the Soul, Whitman sought to surrender to the senses and to celebrate them. The following line supports this, "I believe in the flesh and the appetites; Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle." Cowley argues that Indian philosophy can help students of Whitman make sense of his use of optimism and realism and the idea that he advertises the world as perfect(244). Whitman often couched lofty, optimistic ideas in harsh, realistic terms, evidenced by the following line, "All truths wait in all things...[t]hey do not need the obstetric forceps of a surgeon." Whitman saw imperfection all around him, from his family life to city life, but he was confident in the notion that evil was part of a universal design and that everyone had a chance for better fortune in their next life. Whitman explains his view of a redemptive universe, "And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait." This optimistic attitude in the face of realistic hardship is echoed by Henrich Zimmer when he explains that in India, "Philosophic theory, religious belief and intuitive experience support each other...in the basic insight that, fundamentally, all is well. A supreme optimism prevails everywhere, in spite of the unromantic recognition that the universe of man's affairs is in the most imperfect state imaginable..."(Cowley 244) Like a prophet, Whitman invites us on a spiritual journey through his prose, much like the Buddhist Eightfold path attempts to lead followers to nirvana (Cowley 245). Whitman ignites this process, but the journey, like most Eastern meditations is an individual one, as Whitman explains, "Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you; You must travel it for yourself."
Whitman's ability to identify with Indian philosophy, conscious or not, stems from several sources: the transcendentalist movement, experience and intuition(Cowley 234). Whitman's text belongs to Huxley's "perennial philosophy" given Whitman's ignorance of Indian literature and philosophy. From the vantage point of Eastern thought, the Western reader can find context by which to understand Whitman's prophecy, radical to readers even today. The idea that we are all a part of a larger whole, a greater being represented by a God, an Oversoul, a Cosmic Consciousness, or a blade of grass, is a difficult concept for many students of Western hierarchical thought. This universal idea has many by-products, such as equality. Whitman explains, "And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of a wren." However, Cowley does not give enough credit to the influence of Whitman's own cultural context on "Song of Myself." The ideas of equality and democracy were nowhere as rampant in the world as they were in America. As explained in lecture, the poem is a product of Whitman's American experience, where he ideally sees fertile fields of promise for freedom and change. Whitman's thoughts must also be judged in the climate of the mid-nineteenth century, where Darwinian theories of evolution had displaced the role of God and a Romantic sense of self emerged. In a time where people's ideas of cosmology where being questioned and threatened, Whitman's work offered readers of his time some solutions, or at least alternative perceptions. The Romantics struggled to make sense of this changing cosmology and formed the notion T.E. Hulme termed, "spilt Christianity," which displaces the role of god with a romantic sense of self. Whitman advocates celebrating the self, thus aligning his ideas with not only the reverence for material progress, as Cowley claims, but also with popular thought of the time.
Whitman's "Song of Myself" is a hybrid of the Romantic's "spilt Christianity" and Indian ideas of consciousness. His ideas where facilitated by the opportunity he witnessed in America and reinforced by the promises he saw around his country. His poem also reflects Eastern ideas. Later editions of Leaves of Grass include Sanskrit words like maya, or illusion, which speak to his interest and curiosity on Eastern philosophy once he was exposed. Ultimately, his experience in America and intuition about cosmology led him to write a poem that would, in a sense, bridge a gap between Eastern and Western thought.
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