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In 1917 Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, detached it from its usual setting, entitled it “Fountain” and called it art. By putting such a common, unglamorous object in this innovative context, Duchamp raised a new awareness of the urinal. Its familiarities dissipated as it was looked at as art, as sculpture, as a statement, or as a ridiculous joke. Regardless of the reaction, the urinal ceased to be overlooked or taken for granted. This act of taking the familiar and rendering it foreign by forcing people to interpret it differently and look at it in a new way is a method employed by Walt Whitman in Song of Myself. Although his methods and subject could not be more different from Duchamp’s, both artists are similar in their basic act of deconstructing and making unfamiliar something that is so commenplace it is never contemplated.
The idea of self is something that seems to make sense at first but loses its meaning rapidly upon contemplation. Most people cannot separate the idea of self from their individual personalities. “Define yourself,” a person could be asked, and they would probably reply something close it “it is me, who I am, myself.” It does not take long to see the problem. The idea of self is rooted in the everyday, but it is so abstract that it cannot be defined. The same can be true of almost anything, and it is enough to drive one mad looking at each object that surrounds them and asking “What is it?” However, this extensive questioning is impossible, impractical, and unnecessary. In the breaking down of something as basic as self, it is inevitable that other basic ideas are broken down as well. Walt Whitman realizes this in his Song of Myself, where, in questioning the idea of self, he questions other related ideas such as the body, death, and the relationship between the individual, others, and nature. By using vivid, evocative language to addres questions that are essentially unanswerable, contradicting himself, and oscillating between the assertion of individuality and the interconnectedness of everything, Whitman breaks down the meaning of self and creates a void in its stead.
The most accessible definition of self is that it is what makes someone who they are, and a large part of identity is the physical body. The body is a major theme in Song of Myself because it is so open to interpretation. Whitman takes full advantage of this range. In doing so, he makes something as familiar as the body into something foreign. Whitman addresses the issue of the body and how it is connected with the self in two contradictory manners. The first breaks down the boundaries between self and other by treating the body as continuous with the outside world. The body is conceived not as an individual entity, but as a part of a greater whole. In the first poem this is asserted with such lines as “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (3) and “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air” (6). These two lines connect the self to both other people and to the earth, a theme that continues throughout the poem. In poem 37, for example, Whitman speaks of “instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop, / They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me (615-16).” This seems to join his physical body to everything else around him, rendering him a part of the surrounding environment.
Whitman also seems infatuated with the idea that something foreign can become part of the self either figuratively or literally. He makes references to the acts of breathing and eating, both which bring in outside elements into the body, creating a bond between the body and its environment. In poem 33 he discusses how what one swallows becomes part of oneself. He writes, “All I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine” (831). Regardless of what the body is part of, Whitman specifies that what constitutes self is not contingent on the physical body. He states that he is “not contain’d between my hat and boots” (133) which illustrates his belief that the self transcends the body.
On the other hand are Whitman’s corporeal statements of bodily individuality. Numerous references are made throughout the poem to the specific aspects of the body in general and Whitman’s body specifically. He uses carnal, fleshy images such as “I believe in flesh an the appetites” (522) and “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones” (400) in order to celebrate the physical body. Not only does Whitman celebrate the body, he celebrates the normally neglected aspects such as “the scent of these warm arm-pits aroma finer than prayer” (525).
This idea that the individual body contradicts the former assertion of the body as continuous with everything else. However, this contradiction is the major device that Whitman employs in order to defamiliarize the body and explore many aspects and interpretations. If Whitman proposed one specific interpretation of the body and its connection to self, he would destroy the idea of the poem which asserts that there is no single answer to anything. Whitman acknowledges this method o utilizing contradictions in order to lead the readers into thinking for themselves when he states “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (1324-26). It is an essential sentence and Whitman incorporates it in the poem in order to allow the reader to understand that the contradictions do not have to make sense because there is no one correct answer to anything. This method of simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs further contributes to the deconstruction of the meaning of self. It states that self is not solid or true but rather open to various interpretations that are all correct.
The relationship between the body and other is continued and elaborated in the broader issue of the self in relation to others and to nature. This concept is another major theme throughout the poem. Whitman asserts his individuality through the very act of singing of himself, but he also refers to himself as closely connected, and even part of, every other person on this earth. One device he uses is repetition, both of words and or concepts. In poem 37 he lists various people and then describes how he feels their ordeals as if they are happening to him.
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go too, and am tired and sentenced
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp […]
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them, (953-56)
Whitman repeats that he is connected to everybody and that he derives himself from the things that he has seen others experience. He is not literally stating that he feels the pain of others but that the self is something that is constructed from experiences and that everything that happens in the world influences the creation of an individual self just as atoms and air can physically link people. This theme is consistent throughout the poem. Whitman often devotes long passages to vivid descriptions of people, from prostitutes to the president. Each person receives a line of evocative language, such as “The clean hair’d Yankee girl works with her sewing machine or in the factory or mill” (295) or “Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece” (284). These vivid descriptions summon certain images that Whitman later incorporates into himself, saying that “of these one and all I weave the song of myself,” (329) which means that what one perceives becomes part of oneself.
Ties with nature are important as well. Whitman expresses a link or desire to be linked with the air and grass, representatives of nature. In poem 2 he wants to be in contact with the atmosphere, he is “mad for it to be in contact with” himself (20). An almost sexual desire to be united with nature and the people of the world pervades this part of the poem. Whitman often uses the language of sex to discuss himself, whether he is talking of undressing in order to feel closer to the earth of the desire to create new life. The idea of undressing is particularly important because it represents the idea of stripping, something to uncover basic meaning , such as the poem strips the of self until it is naked and unrecognizable.
Death is another way that Whitman feels connected with nature and with others. Whitman regards death not as finite but as an extension of life. Because death is inevitable, it becomes a part of self that is fundamental. Whitman is interested in death in the way that it physically links him to his surroundings. He is not frightened of death. He challenges it, writing “And as to you death, and you the bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try and alarm me” (1289). He regards death as something that is necessary to produce life, speaking of the corpse as “good manure”(1294). He continues when he writes “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” (1340). Therefore the idea of self is not necessarily connected to living.
Song of Myself never answers the questions that it raises. Part of its arrangement is that it makes an assertion and then contradicts it, asking if the assertion really is valid. In the end of the poem Whitman reveals his goals. He wants to make readers come up with their own answers and their own definitions of self. However, in order for them to do that, Whitman must first make the idea of self such an unfamiliar concept that no remnants of prior prejudice remain. He addresses this goal specifically when he writes “It is time to explain myself let us stand up. / What is known I strip away,” (1134-35). It is not an accident that this statement, like his admission that he tends to contradict himself, comes late in the poem. By contradicting himself continuously, making a variety of statements, and exploring many aspects of the self, Whitman accomplishes this goal of turning the self into something foreign, something that demands interpretation and serious thought. After reading Song of Myself the idea of self is so foreign that it must be recreated. This is the basic goal of making something unfamiliar.
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