sublimity and abjection in Song of Myself
This paper deals with Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in relation to Julia Kristeva's theories of abjection--my paper does not point to abjection in the text, but rather the significance of the abscence of abjection. This abscence, looming and revolting, arises from Whitman's attemt to refigure a conception of sublimity which delimits the material which can trigger the sublime moment. Whitman's democracy of the sublime is inclusive of those figures on the American landscape, their lives and voices, which are functionalized into his world. This paper employs the theories of George Lukacs and Julia Kristeva allow the unearthing of the archeological layers of Whitman's text.
The most literal adjective that could be applied to them is arresting. We are seized by them. (I am aware that there are people who pass the over but about them there is nothing to say.) As we look at them, the moment of the other's suffering engulfs us. We are filled with either despair or indignation.
John Berger, on Photographs of Agony.
Here I am, bent over the keyhole; suddenly I hear a footstep. I shudder as a wave of shame sweeps over me. Somebody has seen me. I straighten up. My eyes run over the deserted corridor. It was a false alarm. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Jean Paul Sartre
If in the paneled objectification of Eakin's Whitman there lies something in the (re)presentation which unsettles, one could suffer the seizures of revulsion. The viewer stays to uncoil the snare, to locate it outside of one's own "perversion" and locate it inside the text; the viewer indicts the bleached figure who stands as stark harpee against the shadowed relief. For Kristeva, "there looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced."
The strange elegance of this specter looms in the relief, in the archaic layers of Song of Myself. It is beyond the foregrounded inversive space--at times utopic and sublime, the space is permeated with universal brotherhood, happiness, the "compelled-sentimental"-- that I attempt to delve into, that source from which generates the repulsive, hidden quivering of a text which, though cast out and forced into absence, looms in the shadowed relief. The edification of his text and of his readership is attempted through the construction of an inversive space which refigures the sublime: the apex of the "cultured." I have chosen those moments in the text in which the poet nears the threshold of bordering abject in order to construct his sublime utopian vision. It is here, this marked refigurement where ecstasy occurs, where material which triggers the sublime is the signal of another text; a repulsive reading looms from the absence of abjection
An invocation of the self begins Song of Myself, positioning the text as an edification of the American readership: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as god belongs to you" (lines 1-3). Thus Whitman's work joins with the paradigmatic "literature of coercion" which is a variation upon a theme which links several works of 19th century American letters: Stowe's abolition in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Douglass's Narrative of the Life, Emerson and his sublime. Though their respective works contain the "prodding" of Thoreau, they are not the record of a utopian experiments like Brook Farm or Walden, but instead works who drive forward a vision which leads toward the "ideal." Thus as works whose dissemination into the American readership is conditioned by a coercion made explicit or implicit, they oscillate around the notion of a reality-shaping power in art; of which George Lukács has theorized:
What does the writer see and how does he see it? The question grows essential and decisive only when we examine concretely the position taken up by a writer. What does he love and what does he hate? It is thus that we arrive at a deeper interpretation of the writer's true Weltanschauung, at the problem of the artistic value and fertility of the writer's world-view. The conflict which previously stood before us as the conflict between the writer's world view and the faithful portrayal of what he sees, is now clarified as a problem within the Weltanschauung itself, as a conflict between a deeper and a more superficial level of the writer's own Weltanschauung.
Thus Lukács' theory, "art as means to shape the reader perception of reality," crystallizes the very ideological foundation of these writers, and more important in this context, Whitman's Song of Myself. Lukács serves as a significant theoretician of this order of literary "coercion" by underscoring his theory with "nation formation" Nationalism is thus intrinsically yoked to works of the order of Whitman's Song and his contemporaries. Again Lukács:
If literature is to be a potent factor of national rebirth, it must itself be reborn in its purely literary, formal, aesthetic aspects as well. It must break with reactionary, conservative traditions which hamper it and resist the seeing-in decadent influences which lead to a blind alley.... There is to-day in the world a general desire for a literature which could penetrate with its beam deep into the tangled jungle of our time. A great realist literature could play the leading part, hitherto always denied to it, in the democratic rebirth of nations. 3
Though Lukács requisites the "imperative-revolution in form" as necessary to break from the normative hand of tradition--manifest most obviously in Song of Myself's revolution of poetic form--it is the basic cognizance, and artist's perpetual functionalization of the literary form to engender a "change," or "rebirth" that I am concerned with: this cognizance underlies the "coercive-circle" of these respective American authors and their works. Within the Lukácsean model of form-shaping-perception, the ostensible project of Song of Myself can be situated which demands an examination of the compositional material, the rhetoric of Whitman's vision as indicators of, and participants in his edified space.
The Whitman "caress," his move to seize and portray "life wherever moving, backward as well as /forward slung," allows him to absorb "all to [himself] and for this song" (232-234).
The pastiche, Whitman's Song, are constituted by figures who range the breadth of the America horizon. Whitman's polyphony does not bestow upon these figures a autonomous voice, but instead the polyphony is typographic in that there are a multitude of voices and translations he assumes throughout the text. The voice, for Whitman, functions tropically--he speaks for the marginalized, the dis(en)franchised, whose relation to a hierarchy of power determines their presence on the American horizon:
I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their coun-
terpart of on the same terms.
Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas'd and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Through me the forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lust, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd.
I do not press my fingers across my mouth,
I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart,
Copulation is no more rank to me than death is.
Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or
am touch'd from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all creeds. (505-525)
The meticulous catalogue of voices identifies those voices for which he serves as "medium"; some voices, however, are peripheral, forbidden, or diseas'd. "I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young me and women," ( 121) or "What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain'd by decorum" (Whitman 162) are examples of that larger project of Whitman, the poet's attempt to name, to voice the unvoiced, to translate and signify the multitude he "encounters." His divination, the Midas touch which transfigures and clarifies the voice of the infidel, equivocate all into a non-hierarchical space. Within the layers of a scene, a moment, or anything which the poet witnesses, these are the speeches and voices surfaced by his archeology of language and give refuge, and freedom.
His conception that these voices run the gradient of societal morality and culture norms, lays bare Whitman's project: to question those norms which have buried these "hidden" voices and excluded them form the democratic polyphony of America. The inclusion of the voices constitute his idyll, his sublime utopia. Whitman wonders on this mean--" What behaved well in the past or behaves well to-day is not such a wonder / The wonder is always and always how there can be a mean man or an infidel"-- and thus issues a notion of societal formation which births and knows the beautiful or moral by establishing the mean, and ejecting (but always keeping to the periphery) the strata the infidel. Simultaneous to this construction is the emergence of a subtext whose marker is the tenuous usage of voices which are recognizable, certainly by him, as evil, diseas'd; and while divinated, cleansed, and purified so that they to can trigger the sublime, they were. and once were, abject. This process bears marked importance in that while Whitman can be seen both as inclusional, and also as an uplifting force which attempts to refigure the societal notion of the sublime. His noted challenge, which refigures notions on the sublime through contradistinction with outer society which already demarcated the space of and material for the sublime; the "wretched" the "forbidden" are both raised into the aesthetic locus of poetry and given the potential to edify the reader and "sublimate" him. Whitman: I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul, / The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue." His translation, and his tongue, are Song of Myself.
Kristeva's complex (theory) of abjection, for the purposes of my discussion will be utilized from three perspectives: the relationship of the abject and the sublime; the culture built upon abjection; and abjection in art, its signals and markers. These three categories of, or within abjection will be contextualized into my thesis of Whitman's edification of what constitutes the sublime text, and the problematics of such a wholesale project.
The sublime, as noted by Kristeva, collapses a distinct boundary with abjection. "The abject is edged with the sublime. It is not the same moment on the journey, but the same subject and speech bring them into being... the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy--fascination" (Kristeva, 11-12). The boundary collapses through a shared material, and the moment of terror/horror however whatever the scale. The sublime of the eighteenth century was "associated with fear, gloom, and majesty.... it was generally suspenseful, attended by terror and dread." Again Whitman's notion of pleasure which derives from both heaven and hell are transposed into the reader, the first, the heavenly are easily turned the sublime trigger, his divination makes ready the pleasure of hell. This act refers to the entirety of his project, but also the dangers and rupture which portend the possibly unwinding: Whitman is utilizing the sublime yes, but his transgression on what material can be used provokes, or potentializes abjection. The mountains of New Hampshire were for Thomas Cole "a union of the picturesque, sublime and the magnificent... the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent."  But what Whitman does in Song and Myself, and where a looming, repulsive text can emerge, is from this savage and the forced turning of horror into ecstasy. Thus the choice of his material, which embody the challenge against the "extratexutal" society, potentialize two types of response: the sublime ecstasy or abjection.
The phenomenon into which I am trying to locate the distinct species of response engendered by abject art is that intolerable simultaneity of horror and fascination, abjection. As Elizabeth Grosz suggests in her work on Intolerable Ambiguity, "it is not the gross deformity alone that is so unsettling and fascinating. Rather, there are other reasons for this curiosity and horror." The intensity of this moment hinges upon a narcissistic mirror--"the freak illustrates or so-called normal pleasure and fascination with our mirror-images, a fascination within the limits of our own identities as they are witnessed from the outside." The encounter of the freak stages a legitimization of the viewer's conceptions of beauty, of boundaries, and of self. The longer one stays in revulsion, the grander the denouement: the reader returns to the safe-guard of "I-not-that," back to his/her societal norms, an "proper" boundaries. This, however, concerns only the fascination; horror is the concurrent response. Again Grosz on horror:
The viewer's horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her own identity, for it is all that must be ejected or abjected from self-image to make
the bounded, category-obeying self possible. In other words, what is at stake in the subject's dual reactions to the freakish of the bizarre individual is its own narcissism, the pleasures and the boundaries of its own identity, and the integrity of its received images of self.
Grosz, in line with Kristeva, notes the potential response of abject art, and abject material: "dirt, hair, excrement, dead animals, menstrual blood, and rotting food"; or for Kristeva themes of "death, the corpse, food, the untolerable, the unthinkable...". But the seizing upon these topics in order to refigure them into his sublime space, attempts to conduct them all towards this ideal refigurement: which is also, significantly, combative.
While there are three moments in the text which I will single out as specific instances as the use of "base material" or "confrontation" these are two suggest both the duality of reading that is connoted, and to be suggestive of this thread which weaves Song of Myself. The voyeur who reaches ecstasy compels this mode of reading.
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of her bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their
Little streams pass'd all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to
the sun, the do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bend-
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
The space of the woman, as seen through the window frame, is her refuge; though bodily imprisoned, her desire, her imagined swimming and movement of hand occur unfettered after having escaped from the room. This duality of space, the room and the imaginary, constitute a moment permeated with this duality of reading. The desire is simple (but impossible) a beseeching outside the glass and room towards the lake. But the actual space, the requisite of a voyeur to be hidden, is a recognition of impossibility, intolerability; it is unthinkable to exist outside the room. Her actual conception of self (or that of Whitman's conception of her role as voyeur) exists with the overbearing necessity of forever hiding oneself, never actualizing, and always imagining. But the ability to exist in the room as deject (here) and in ecstasy (there) turns her masturbation into a model of reaching ecstasy. She is, as Kristeva notes with the sublime, expanded and overstrained, which causes her to be "both here, as deject, and there as others sparkling. A divergence, and impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy-fascination" (Kristeva, 12) Though desire beseeches and from which she reaches the ecstatic, reality (her room) reminds that she cannot exist outside, and must consign herself to oblivion. Though her role demands that she obliviate herself in order to desire, to desire outside of her room, in the light of the day, would annihilate her status as a voyeur. Whitman make possible her ecstasy, safeguarded, and transposes her exemplification of a "new" sublime into his Song. Though a person could perhaps actualize the moment, the voyeur must remain tantalized in the imaginary, in the refuge of oblivion. ere, troubling but nonetheless denoted by the text, the imaginary is the idyll of Whitman, though not actualized, he himself attempts to create such a world.
The dramatization with the unknown, the terror and ecstasy reached by Whitman in the act of naming and discovering, is a second instance of this duality: here, the section 50 moves as perfect abjection, and concludes with the perfect example of Whitman's sublime. Whitman says:
There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it is
Wrench'd and sweaty--calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep--I sleep long.
I do not know it--it is without name--it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death--it is form, union, plan--it is eternal
life--it is Happiness.
This first three stanzas and the Kristevan abjection of the self are starkly consonant: the grappling that leads inward in chase of that which is without name is dramatized in this section. The beseeching inward drive of the poet eventuates with a confrontation with the unnamable. Again Kristeva notes:
"If it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can
understand that it is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of
fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within;
when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject.
But this consonance is rupture by the last stanza where the unknown, ambiguous form inside of Whitman is turned into ecstasy, triumph. The dramatization of the struggle that does not end in abjection , but rather ecstatic sublimity, is the turning towards. The unknown, the possibly abject, is itself cast out from Whitman utopia, everything can be named and made sublime.
The corpse and death are the last, and possibly most stark contrast between Whitman's conception of death versus an abjected one. "The corpse, that cesspool which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. In the presence of signified death I would understand, react, accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live (Kristeva, 3) And what doe Whitman do with the corpse: "And as to you Corpse, I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me / I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing" (1194). The savage and death which are part of the sublime, are transfigure into fertilizer which emerges from the dialectic of life and death. There is complete absence here of abjection, there is the ease of the utopian vision. It is this absence that is deafening to Whitman's sublime, and where I would like to conclude my discussion.
David Simpson elaborates a principle on non-contradiction in Whitman's Song of Myself. He cites two passages:
I know I am august,
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or to be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never apologize,
I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by after all (1855, 44)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
I am large I contain multitudes.
I would like to compare these statements with another by Kristeva:
Thus fear having been bracketed, discourse will seem tenable only if it ceaselessly confront that otherness, a burden both repellent and repelled, a deep well of memory that is unapproachable and intimate: the abject. There is no urgent unceasing in Whitman's Song, all segments and voices are transfigured into the trigger of the sublime. His space cannot have the abject, for the "abject" signals the ejection of a culture, the refuse of society, whose culinary habits allow them to exist. But Whitman confronts there gradient and levels it: his polyphony is democratic. But there is that looming text, which, for all that Whitman has tried to conceal, is left as the burden, the subtext, from lack of attention, confrontation. With Eakin's panel and Whitman's Song of Myself there is only foreground, perspective is lost, and only sensed by the imaginary relief of the shadow.