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Evolit: Week 10--Exploring the Unconscious?

Anne Dalke's picture
Paul and I are glad you're here, to share thoughts about the story of evolution and the evolution of stories. This isn't a place for polished writing or final words. It's a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had before, in or after class, things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your mind or brain that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our class conversations have affected that. We are looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

As always, you're free to write about whatever you're thinking about. If you'd like a prompt: what do you make of Walt Whitman's representation of the unconscious? Of what use might it be to you? Of what use to you (as a student, academic, intellectual) is your own unconscious? What role might it play in the evolution of culture? In the story we are writing here together?
Hilary McGowan's picture

Science! Do not question!

I won't lie that in saying that I am extremely excited in reading Whitman. I have always meant to pick up Leaves of Grass for years now. I didn't have trouble trying to understand the class conversation of divergence and all the dfferent ways that were being explained, perhaps it is just because I've heard most of it all before. What was the most interesting to listen to was how people questioned the divergence in class. This is science! We are not supposed to question what the professor is saying! Or that's what has been shoved into my head since I was a child. You listen to science, and understand like our betters have understood it before us. I hope that I get to hear people question the science and ask why more often in my career here.
skhemka's picture


Walt Whitman's representation of the unconscious through his writing in Leaves of grass is an interesting one. Although I think it is not something that can be understood initially by anyone. When you first start out to read the book, you think that it is crap and not making sense and it is just this old guy rambling about everything and anything and nothing really. Why I think we don't understand it initially is because this representation of the unconscious is being presented to the conscious mind of the reader. The conscious mind understands pattern and organization. It only makes sense it the conscious can fully interpret it, but according to me the conscious does not have the faculty to understand the unconscious and that is why the book fails to make a good first impression.

Reading the poems helped me understand the randomness of the order of thoughts that go through my head. Sometimes thoughts that have no connection to any topic at hand might just pop in my head, some I might discard immediately and some I might relate to quite a bit. But this randomness even though at times unsettling is in my opinion an opening to the unconscious where everything is stored. I still haven't figured how helpful it is in the practical way but reading the book has made me look forward to letting my thoughts come to me without trying to think a certain way.

kgould's picture

For me, science and

For me, science and literature are linked by the consciousness. I know that many see boundaries between the two, but I've grown accustomed to seeing a veritable stew of subjects. (Cue corny metaphor.) They all came from the same pot: the mind.

I think we are able to explore the world around us, through investigation (science) and through narrative/ description (literature) in ways that are not so different from each other. What we see, feel, and think about our environment is only the interpretation of our brain. We are not seeing what is there, but what our brain tells us is there. For most of us, this is probably quite close to what is really there, but for other's like Oliver Sack's patients (the man who mistook his wife for a hat), the world is quite different. 

Our consciouness, subconcious, unconsciousness-- that is what interprets, feels, and represents everything. Both science and literature are derived from that place...

I don't know if I'm explaining this very well. For me, science and literature go hand in hand. 

It is through written language that we are able to express ourselves, and written language is derived from our mind. Thereby, literature is a cognitive process incorporating the conscious, the unconscious, and the subconscious. Literature is science.

And, in the same way, science can be literature. After exploring Oliver Sacks, Mary Roach, and countless other science writers, I can hardly ascribe to the idea that science writing can't be interesting, can't be literary. Literature is an exploration of the self, and of the human mind... as is science.

enewbern's picture

Dreams and the unconscious

I don't know if agree with the idea that dreams are processing of information that we encountered during the day, because I have definitely had many dreams that have been completely unrelated to anything that happened to me that day or even that week. I would like to think that dreams are more an expression of the unconscious rather than the brain processing information. It could be the unconscious' reaction to the information of the day or maybe not. I just feel that information processing is a very small part of what happens in the unconscious mind. I could be really off base though since this supposition is really my desire for reality rather than the actual thing.

All of this discussion of the unconcious lead me to a contemplation of some of the dream study that I have been doing this year in my archeology and classics classes. In the ancient world dreams were considered to be a message from the gods to give aide or send retribution. They were significant and unassociated with mere information processing. In many cases dreams were supposed to lead a person to a cure of a terrible ailment that they may be suffering. I just think that it is interesting that we have such different associations with dreams now but they are still no less mysterious in origin.

aybala50's picture

dreams, unconscious, Whitman

This past week of class has been particularly interesting for me. I found the topic of dreams fascinating because I tend to remember my dreams fairly clearly. Do my dreams have something to do with the unconscious? Well Freud may have argued that and it could very well be true. Maybe the dreams that I can make sense of are not a part of my unconscious, they are merely dreams, but those dreams I can't make sense of are a part of my unconscious...

Also, it was interesting to talk about Whitman trying to access the readers unconscious with his ambiguous writing. It is true that some psychological tests focused on learning more about the unconscious, involve ambiguous figures (such as the Rorschach tests). It is believed that if a figure has no apparent meaning, then the unconscious will answer the question of what is seen in the figure.

Walt Whitman's writing, at least to me, is so random or ambiguous, that the thoughts that come to my mind could be from my unconscious, or maybe not.  

kbrandall's picture

Time and Abstract Writing

I've been thinking about the connection between the abstract quality of Whitman and the abstract quality of the visual art we've looked at over the last two weeks, because they don't seem the same to me. Someone (I've forgotten who) suggested in Dalke's Thurday section that writing is less abstract/ less likely to be abstract because it is in words, and words we read are inherently supposed to have meaning. We didn't really pursue the subject. Professor Dalke also brought up, during our reading out loud, that Leaves of Grass doesn't really have a chronological order.

It's true that we can put together fragments of Leaves of Grass in different orders and still have the same impact, but the fact remains that writing, unlike painting, must be read in a chronological order. We read a word, then the next, then the next. We can only really "see" one word at a time, even when skimming, even when trying to let the poem wash over us. I think this is another reason that writing is less abstract than other forms of art, where it easier to step back and gain an overall "impression"

So while we can rearrange Leaves of Grass without disturbing any traditional sense of narrative, it will still change it completely. Because we, as readers, have to go linearly we can only relate each new section to the ones before it, and not the ones that come later-- at least in the first reading. 

Anne Dalke's picture

tangled alphabets

....i've been thinking some more about this idea that reading must happen chronologically; see tangled alphabets.
Sophiaolender's picture

I was not expecting to like

I was not expecting to like Sorrows of an American. It is a novel and I tend not to like fiction, and the back cover did not look particularly interesting, so I was worried about reading it. But when I started, I couldn't put it down. I found myself forgetting to get bored between paragraphs. It is a really great story, and although I'm only half way through, I am really enjoying it. I think it helps that the main character has psychiatrist tendencies, so characters are explained deeper than they might normally be. It helps me pick up on the intricacies of each character and formulate a greater understanding of them. I am really enjoying the book right now.
kapelian's picture

As I start thinking about my

As I start thinking about my own dreams and the unconcious, I always think back to my psychology class back in high school and talking about Freudian theory.  How every symbol means something deeper then what you think it is at the time, and their combination can enlighten someone as to what you're really thinking about, or something like that.  But, everyone interprets things differently.  Even if in the unconcious we all see the same thing, when we step back and think about it everyone will come up with a different response like what we did with the abstract art a few weeks ago.  I think this is the feeling that Whitman is trying to get at.  By keeping his basic drunken thoughts so simple that everyone can relate to it, even if they relate to it in very different ways.  I think reading Whitman's poems just as they are, and trying not to make too much sense of it is the best way to go.  If Whitman is really a drunk man blabbing away on paper, even if we all got as drunk as Whitman when he was writing this, every person would still say it meant something different about it.
jrlewis's picture

horses are a metaphor or metanym for me?

We seem to keep coming back to the problem of how to read Whitman’s poem, how much meaning to make.  So I am offering the suggestion that we think of Whitman, not as a writer trying to convey content to us, but rather as a horse trainer.  He has invested years of his life in taming wild words into a well-behaved beast.  Our role as rider is to simply sit on the animal and enjoy the ride.  Anyone who has ridden a horse recognizes that the hardest part is relaxing, allowing the horse freedom of movement, and following the horse.  The very best rides happen when this process becomes unconscious; both horse and rider are of the same mind.  I seem to gain an awareness of where my pony’s feet and what she wants to do with them.  It feels like I have access to her intentions.  So when we do something insane like leave 3 ft early for a 3’6” fence, I, unlike my trainer, am not at all worried.  More generally, the boundaries between the horse and rider dissolve; it is a non-dualist experience for the rider.  (I would love to know what this experience is to the horse…)  When the ride ends, the rider, at least, is in a new place.  I mean this beyond the plain fact that the horse and rider have travelled a physical distance together.  Sometimes it is possible to learn something about oneself only through interaction with another.  This relationship is an important component of the psychotherapy.  When I started jumping my pony, I learned that I could be both bold and brave. 

Where this metaphor breaks down is at the level of directing the horse.  The rider, the not the trainer, is steering, unless the horse is on a lunge line.  To translate out of the metaphor, this implies that the reader provides necessary direction to the writing.  A piece of writing is not completely determined by the writer.  Maybe we are supposed to make our own story of images and ideas Whitman offers us?  

Rachel Townsend's picture

Dreams, Unconscious, and the mind

I've been thinking about dreams lately because of our conversation on the unconscious.  I think it is interesting that some of us remember our dreams, while others don't and some people have "nonsensical" dreams, while still others have perfectly "normal" dreams.  Why is it that some people can "conscious dream" in which they control what happens throughout the dream as if they were awake or simply daydreaming? Does this mean that these people are less in tune with their unconscious or that their unconscious just comes out in different ways than their dreams? If we all have a conscious and an unconscious how come some of us are more in tune with one or the other? I wonder whether dreams are a good guide by which to know how in touch one is with their unconscious.  If our unconscious comes out in our dreams then are we also more closely listening to it in our waking hours or are we less and those who don't seem to be connecting with their unconscious in their dreams connecting with it more during their waking hours?  I obviously don't have any of the answers to these questions but I just thought I would bring them up as some food for thought as I myself have been thinking about them quite a bit.
Marina's picture


I think the unconscious is very important and useful. Although the unconscious may seem unnecessary and unexplainable, the unconscious is actually very related to human behavior and thought. The unconscious is at work in our thoughts and behaviors every day, we just don't notice this because it is all happening unconsciously. Entire schools of psychodynamic thought rest their foundations on the belief that the unconscious plays a pivotal role in everyday thoughts and actions. A window into this unconscious could lead to a fuller understanding of the self. Whitman's writing attempts to break into this unconscious by writing in a sort of stream of consciousness style capturing scenes that would usually be unconsciously experienced. I appreciate this in his writing as it allows me to experience the unconscious, or as close to it as I can get. Therefore, even though the unconcious may seem unexpainable and useless it is important to note that the unconcious does play a role in our everyday actions and behaviors, even if we aren't aware of it.
unidentifiedflyingobject's picture

week 10 response

What our classes are beginning to remind me of, more and more, is the Nietzschean Apollonian and Dionysian split: the difference between rational and irrational, chaos and order, conscious and unconscious, mind and body, and maybe "interpretation" vs "against interpretation"? The Apollonian mindset always attempts to ascribe and create order in the manner that Sontag seems to be against.

Whitman seems like a pretty good example of the Dionysian mindset: his poetry is chaotic, frequently jumps from one subject to the next and is written in a free-verse form. He rambles. He declares that he has no problem contradicting himself. He celebrates nature, as well as himself, and he seems to be trying to describe the intuitive. He embraces paradox.

From what I understand, the purpose of our class may be to balance these two mindsets. Our professors seem to be suggesting that the Apollonian mindset is valued too much in academia and the Dionysian, not enough.

Rica Dela Cruz's picture

I do not see much use of my

I do not see much use of my own unconscious. I feel that I get more out of learning from being conscious and knowing what is really there than what is in just my head. Although my unconsiousness may be entertaining at times and may provide me with ideas, I do not think that it is useful. I believe something is useful when it brings about progress and change and I do not think I can do that with my unconscious. Although, this may be possible I guess if it was in myhead, but not in reality.

Going off of that thought then, what is reality? Can we distinguish between what is real and what is fake? Can we say that consciousness is real and unconsciousness is fake? Can it be the opposite? Those with schizophrenia  have a different perception from most and have an "altered reality". It seems that at times, their unconsciousness is their reality. Perhaps, for them, the unconsciousness is useful since it is real. I do not think unconsiousness is useful because I do not believe it is real. For me, it is something intangible. 

Serendip Visitor's picture

you are clearly a left brain

you are clearly a left brain opperating human being - a mathematician an ordering sort. If you were right brain oriented person - an artist, a writer, a composer, the right brain unleashing unconscious thoughts and creativity into the realm of reality would be evidetnt and you would be able to grasp this notion more readily.

eolecki's picture

Week 10


I found our description of metonymy very useful in helpingunderstand Whitman’s writing. Going back over some of the passage and transitions I see how it makes alot of sense that he was using unconscious associations rather than logicalconscious thoughts.  Also, Iunderstand the use of this type of writing.  By reading Whitman’s unconscious creation of associations thereader is supposed to start thinking like that.  Even though a lot of what Whitman writes seems to make nosense, the point is each individual person is supposed to assign their ownmeaning, make their own story.  Iwould call Leaves of Grass borderlinenonsense, Walt Whitman’s random thoughts all pasted together.  The people who like it are the ones whocan assign their own meaning to it, because most of it really has no meaning,even to Whitman himself.       

The other point that I found interesting is that through this style of writing we are all supposed to be creating our own stories.  This is in contrast with one of his central messages of the "merge" or the coming together of all people.  I don't understand why this would be what he is writing about, while he is writing in his unconscious patterns that are supposed to make an individual story for each of us. 

sustainablephilosopher's picture

Domination of the unconscious

I wonder whether the unconscious is really a more primitive force in humans. Perhaps it is our bias that the consciousness is more 'developed' or 'advanced.' Nietzsche writes that "consciousness is our poorest and most erring organ." Given the fact that we are only conscious of 10% of the sensory-perception data that we are receiving at any moment, he certainly seems onto something. The focused, ordering structure of the conscious, rational mind scarcely seems capable of competing with the raw, free-associative power of the unconscious mind. I love having powerful, vivid dreams, where I wake up still attached to that powerful other world that had been crafted either by my mind or some nebulous realm. Waking up from dream worlds is often a huge disappointment; I often feel that nothing in my waking life is worth being woken up for, even on the best of days. There's just something preferable about the unconscious, a comfort to being ensconced in its languid, fluid realm that trumps conscious life. When I am caught in deep sleep, I often feel palpably connected to the primordial source of things, and this connection is rapturous.

I think the unconscious is more of a unity than the conscious, as it seeks to make experience whole and make connections, while the conscious mind dissects and distinguishes between things, drawing difference between yourself and the world. Unfortunately, I think we have created a society that has completely immersed itself in the practical so as that is our only reality, which is depressing and woeful indeed. Science, technology, and pragmatism dominate while art, imagination, and the humanities, which are equally or more vital to life, suffer. Einstein agrees:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
-Albert Einstein

ibarkas's picture

Memory or Dream?

I am really enjoying reading The Sorrows of An American.  This is mostly because I can just read it and I don't have to analyze- I can just understand it.  What I think I am enjoying the most about this novel though, is the fact that its set in New York City.  I agree with what was said previously in the forum about "reading unconsciously" (by L.Kelly Bowditch).  I feel the same way and I really like the idea that was proposed that it's easier to just "let your subconscious take over" as you read this novel.  I felt like it was easier for me to picture the characters walking down Varick street or taking the 3 train, or even running from Stuyvesant during 9/11 because those are all places I've been before and I feel like I can read, picture in my mind and get through 20 pages of reading without even realizing or trying to analyze what I am reading. Even so, without analyzing, I am able to put the story together subconsciously-and whether the story that I have created in my mind is the one that Hustvedt intended, I am not sure, but I do find that it easier for my subconscious to take over when I am reading a novel like this, than it was when reading Whitman.  Although Whitman may have intended to represent the unconscious and wanted us to allow our unconscious thinking to guide us in our understanding of his writing, whereas Hustvedt may have intended a bit more conscious thinking when reading her novel, I feel like I have been doing the exact opposite.  I have been trying to understand Whitman with conscious thought and analysis while enjoying Hustvedt's writing because I can read unconsciously.  Ironically, allowing my unconscious to take over allows me to understand the novel better.  Thinking about this, I remembered what Professor Grobstein told us in our Thursday section that rmehta also quoted above in the forum-"things that derive from incoherence are greater than things that can derive from coherence".  Maybe I'm enjoying this novel because I'm allowing my unconscious to take over when reading and in so doing, I am getting a better understanding.  Maybe it's an understanding I've created and not the one that Hustvedt intended.  but nevertheless, I do not feel frustrated as I did with Whitman's writing. 

The two most interesting ideas that I have come across so far in the novel is one proposed by the character Erik on page 105.  He states, "I believe meaning is what the mind makes, not wants".  I found this interesting because in class we have been saying that we as humans search for meaning-it is something we do consciously.  Is Hustvedt implying that the search for meaning is unconscious?  If so, then why was I having such a difficult time understanding Whitman?  I also liked the two ideas presented on page 86 that "there is no clear border between remembering and imagining"  and that "...we make our narratives, and those created stories can't be separated from the culture in which we live."  Both these ideas made me question all the subconscious thoughts I've had throughout my life-all those thoughts that I have interpreted , maybe misinterpreted, as vague childhood memories.  Were they really memories or simply something I imagined-a "narrative I had created", almost resembling a dream?  If so, then maybe some dreams are not distorted memories, but rather, perhaps some memories are dreams. 

rmehta's picture

For my Spanish class

For my Spanish class Surrealism and Magical Realism, we are currently reading One Hundred years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I highly recommend reading this if you are interested in Magical Realism and Surrealism. Márquez is known for his use of Magical Realism, and within this novel he creates a world in which the supernatural is perceived as reality and the natural (in our minds, the coherent) is thought of as unreal. He writes, “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay” (242).  The progression of time in the face of an evolving conscious helps develop the town of Macundo.  My encounter with this novel got me to thinking about how we must face the unreal to notice the real and how we must face the unconscious to realize the conscious.  In reading Whitman and Márquez at the same time, I have come to see the meaning in questioning our own thoughts.  We analyze what is outside our comfort realm in comparison to what we understand as our own reality.  


The other point that resonated with me from our Thursday discussion was what Professor Grobstein said about incoherence: “things that can derive from incoherence are greater than things that can derive from coherence.”  That which we do not understand (both outside of and within our own realm of thoughts) tends to offer the greatest space for contemplation; increased ambiguity allows for increased analysis. Is the reason we consider the ambiguous/the abstract so ideal because it offers a space for a varied analysis? Does the ambiguous unknown have more to offer than the coherent known? If so, then maybe the drunkard does in fact have more to offer than the sober person.

eawhite's picture

Walt Whitman’s poems

Walt Whitman’s poems Leaves of Grass left me with an unfinished, fragmented feeling. I ached for his inability to stay focused on any one thing for any period of time. Siri Hustvedt, on the other hand, wrote a more complete set of thoughts and feelings in her book The Sorrows of an American.  On page 276 she writes “We want a coherent world, not one in bits and pieces.” I wholly agree with this comment but even she wrote with some amount of bits and pieces when developing the characters and their story lines in this piece. Perhaps my inability to appreciate fully either the writing style of Whitman or that of Hustvedt is because of where I personally fall on the 'timeline of life.' My beginning and middle have already been experienced and recorded in the anals of my life. Hopefully I will live another 30 or 40 years or more,but no matter how you look at it, I'm in the last third of my life therefore I am in the process of understanding, experiencing and writing my end.  

Tara Raju's picture

Isn't that the entire idea

Isn't that the entire idea behind "writer's block"? I generally can't generate new ideas when I am concentrating on answering a prompt with extreme intensity. Some of my best papers and some of my best ideas (ha) are those that have come to me when I was at the dining hall or cleaning my room (another ha). I find that when I just let myself think about whatever topics that may come across my mind or allow whatever to just come over me I expose myself to the newest and most profound of ideas.

In class on Thursday, I finally saw the beauty in Whitman's way of writing. His words and ideas take you to a place that kind of put you in a lull, a place where everything just starts flowing and new ideas can come about. We all wanted to read Whitman outside, among nature, where we thought it was fittng. Why? I think its because nature is free place, there are no doors that close us in. We can just be.

It is that environment and that stream of unconsciousness that allows us to have the most generative ideas, to think of a new story that maybe "less wrong" than the previous one. We are allowed epiphanies in nature because there are no boundaries or confines that we can see- we can imagine and imagination is the one factor that has changed our society in absolutely unfathomable ways.

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 10

Whether stories about sleepwalking or drunken escapades, many of my classmates seemed to have their own interpretation of the unconscious mind. Could the unconscious mind have an influence on consciousness? Maybe the idea of an unconscious mind was only an interesting story popularized by Sigmund Freud? Until this course I have not seriously considered the role of the unconscious mind, but I feel even more skeptical after finishing Leaves of Grass. Many stories of the unconscious we discussed seemed to fit under the concept of pop-psychology (urban legends, inner child, myths etc.) and not formal psychology. Although I am not experienced in the field of psychology it looked as if most of my classmates attempted to force their unconscious experiences into a rational interpretation that was acceptable to their conscious mind.  
fquadri's picture

Week 10

First of all, I think I understand why a lot of people don’t like Whitman. D.H Lawrence had a point when he said that at some points, Whitman was trying to force himself onto your soul by merging with it. I guess I never took him that seriously and just wanted to take the overall idea of his work: enjoy yourself, your life, and everything around you.


I appreciate the representation of the unconscious.  I have never thought about the unconscious very much, so maybe that’s why I appreciate it when I see a representation of it. I admire people can delve into that part of themselves and extract something from it, whether it has a meaning or not. However, I prefer works of the unconscious where the reader can interpret it however he or she wants. An example of such a work would be Beckett’s Waiting For Godot – as we discussed in class on Thursday, the play is about nothing or whatever you want it to be about. They seem to be more fun to work with.


To me, the consciousness can act as a filter of the unconsciousness. Consciousness is aware of the environment around the person as well as the culture of that environment that it must adhere to. So it can hide certain things from the world that the unconsciousness produces because it may not follow the rules of culture or social norms. This is where some vivid imagination can come from. The consciousness can hide some of the “true” you, a super personal part of you. Sometimes getting in touch with your unconsciousness can help you get to know more about yourself.


Since the emergence of consciousness helped the evolution of culture in significant ways, maybe thapping into our unconsciousness can help cultural evolution as well? I never thought of unconsciousness helping cultural evolution but I guess it can be a possibility.

kcofrinsha's picture

Week 10 Post

I have two thoughts today, one about dreams and one about the subconscious. What is the use of dreams? For me dreams reflect on my recent conscious or subconscious concerns. For example, my sister and I share a car, so lately I've been hoping that when I am a senior and she is a freshman I will get the car. I also recently had a dream that she got a new car and gave me the old one. It is pretty clear where that dream came from. What is the academic use of dreams? I'm not sure that there is one. Everybody's dreams are different and have different personal meanings. Apart from a few disciplines such as creative writing and psychology, I don't really think our dreams are useful in an academic context.

What is the use of the subconscious? The subconscious is more than just dreams and I think it is very helpful in thinking about cultural evolution. So much of culture is part of the subconscious and so thinking about the subconscious could be very helpful when thinking about cultural evolution.  

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

Reading Unconsciously

I haven't fully developed this idea, but I wanted to throw it out there to see what people think. On Thursday, we discussed how reading Whitman as if it were NOT for class made it a bit easier to refrain from analyzing and trying to find meaning that Whitman did not intend. When I started reading The Sorrows of an America, I attempted to do the same thing, I curled up on the couch, put some music on, and read it as I would read a book I might read for pleasure during the summer.

I think that maybe, by tuning out a bit, I was able to let my subconscious take the lead in my reading. My conscious mind occasionally wandered to the music, someone walking through the room, etc., and sometimes I'd find I'd read a paragraph without "really" reading it, but later, details I didn't entirely remember popped up in my thoughts. 

I've noticed this in the past, that when I read a non-school book, I don't necessarily read with the strict attention I give texts for class, but I end up thinking about them later and find I recall things I don't consciously remember reading.

Is this how Whitman wanted us to read and maybe even see the world? 

Jackie Marano's picture

Unconscious facilitates storytelling?

    After this week in class, I have been thinking about the 'unconscious' and also about the implications of dreams in general. There is most definitely a barrier of some sort between the conscious and the unconscious, otherwise wouldn't crazy and incoherent dreams seem less odd, random, or pointless to our conscious selves? It seems like the flow of thoughts and ideas is much more efficient from the conscious to the unconscious than it is the other way around. Why can't we penetrate our dreams? Why can't we remember more of them? Does the conscious self have less respect/use for the unconscious than the unconscious self has for it? I do not believe it is completely reasonable to separate ourselves into two distinct selves, as there is certainly some cross-over between these two domains that makes each one of us who we are, but there is something that distinguishes one 'self' from the other. They have different names, but they certainly overlap (semi-permeable barrier?). 

   But what I think is truly amazing about this strange perhaps semi-permeable barrier is that anything that passes from the 'unconscious' side to the 'conscious' side makes the conscious 'self' a fantastic storyteller with specialized knowledge. I do not see my conscious 'self' as one who can create stories, deliver jokes smoothly, or recount things as cohesively/clearly as it would like. BUT, when my 'conscious' remembers a dream, I find I can consciously, clearly, easily, and adequately describe extremely random or interesting things that my conscious self could probably never ever create without the aid of some sort of substance (Whitman?). I can communicate my dream to others because part of me was 'there' and witnessed it, and I can easily recount something so innovative, avant-garde, and cutting-edge without any effort or expended energy. It is strangely empowering, even though often times no one, not my 'conscious' nor my audience, knows what it means or why it came together that way. But does my unconscious know what it means? After all, didn't it put this dream together, selecting somehow the elements of its composition? But my unconscious can't consciously select, right? And as in most cases, even if I don't, myself, understand the meaning of my unconscious creation, the fact that it happened within me and passed through that semi-permeable barrier to my conscious gives me quite a lot to think or be perplexed does Whitman! Hmmmmm...

Student Blogger's picture

Dreams and Whitman

When Professor Dalke asked us on Tuesday what role our dreams had in evolution, I would say the same role that Whitman had in literary evolution.  Although many people have tried to analyze dreams and their meanings and how they reflect our true nature, many of those theories have either been disregarded or discounted.  They have been discussed and then people have moved on (no universal meanings have been accepted for dreams as a dream is a different experience for every person). 

I am making the comparison between dreams and the process that we are using to discuss The Leaves of Grass because in order to appreciate Whitman, little analysis needs to be made.  However, in order to appreciate Whitman, little analysis should be done and we should let the experience wash over us and then move on. The reason that I am having difficulty in enjoying Whitman is because I am trying to find some universal meaning (or any meaning for that matter) due to the way school teaching has shaped my thought process.  Also, no universal meaning can be made because Whitman does illicit different responses in different people (like dreams).

eglaser's picture

What's the use?

What's the use of the subconscious? This is something that has come up many times so far in our discussion of Whitman. What use does his exploration of the unconscious have? Other then creating a work of art that has been cherished as a classic for generations. Many great works of art an literature arose from the workings of the unconscious mind. Both Dracula and Frankenstein were based on nightmares that the respective authors had and elaborated on. Many painters (especially surrealist and abstract) work from an unconscious dreamstate that better allows them to express themselves.

what use is an exploration of a persons subconscious mind? Does it allow us to better understand that person as an individual and thus recieve insight into our own mind and how it works? Does it give cultural knowledge that may not be apparant on  a superficial level? (for example the potent sexuality of vampires in Dracula as an example of the repressions of the victorian age). Perhaps it serves only a cathartic purpose, allowing us to release the emotions built up inside us that we are not aware of, saving us trouble further down the road. Maybe it is just interesting to get the opportunityto see the workings of another person's mind (an opportunity that otherwise never presents itself). At the very least it creates beautiful works that enrich our lives and put into words or pictures the very stuff of thoughts. That alone makes it worthwhile.

amirbey's picture

Merging is the divergence...

During this last Thursday class, I was very confused with the fact that the merging led to the divergence.  What I think I understood of it was that it is not Whitman who merges with us, but we as lectors who merge in Whitman’s poetry.  By doing so, we let the poetry affect us and though it we find an idea that the poem reminds us of.  I think then it is from the different memories that divergence emerges and therefore it leads toward the evolution of the human’s ways of thinking.  Indeed, this poem could change our brain in a certain way.  In addition, the first thing that I noticed when I read Whitman was that his poetry seemed to be a representation of his mind in which we see the way he thinks, he jumps from one idea to another, not trying to make any sense.  By doing so, I believe he is giving a good representation of our unconsciousness, which corresponds to a sequence of associations.   

mcurrie's picture


I'm trying to get in my head that a drunk guy has more range of possibilities to explore then the sober person that stands next to them.  When reading Whitman we compared it to a drunk person or someone incoherent that you can't understand.  Sounds about the right decision since some of us figured he was high on something, maybe life.  But I don't think every writer gets drunk or high before writing their masterpiece or what not so I figure there is a way to reach your subconscious without being intoxicated.  I guess we see that with abstract artists.  But still, if Whitman was drunk, or going into his subconscious, writing down random thoughts that could be seen to come together, although for me it's difficult to put his puzzle of thoughts in one piece.  Anyway if Whitman was drunk then why should I care about his writing? What should I get out of it? Cause I'd rather avoid the drunk person going into a monologue about a grass, people, etc.  I guess I'm just wondering why I should care? What's the point? And I haven't found an answer for that yet, nor has anyone given me a clear answer.  But now we are moving on to a novel that actually has a story where things connect and come together, and that I can understand.  Now after reading some of Siri I'm wondering how Whitman ties into the novel or if we're just going to compare/contrast the two?  On to the next lecture to find meaning or non-meaning, either one will suffice as long as I understand where we are going.
Anne Dalke's picture

thinking about our own thoughts

One more thought from me-->then I'll get out of the way so you guys can talk.

For my other interesting class this semester, on Gender and Technology, I've been reading a 2003 book by Andy Clark called Natural-Born Cyborgs; it asks us to recognize how much of our "self" is embedded in our environment (think how lost you feel when your watch, or cell phone, or computer fails....). Clark's (very evolutionary) argument (which leans heavily on our friend Daniel Dennett, among others) is not to valorize the body, or the physical brain "contained" within its boundaries, or to but acknowledge instead how much of what we do--in particualr, how much of the information we call up--we do via extensions beyond our "biological skin-bag."

Along the way, Clark evokes another "excellent exploratory text," Donald Merlin's The Making of the Modern Mind, which, he reports,

usefully distinguishes two ways of using speech and language. They are the mythic, and the theoretic. Mythic uses focus on storytelling and narrative. The Greeks, however, are said to have begun the process of using the written word for a new and more transformative purpose. They began to use writing to record ongoing processes of thought and theory-building. Instead of just recording and passing on whole theories and cosmologies, text began to be used to record half-finished arguments and as a means of soliciting new evidence for and against emerging ideas. Ideas could then be refined, completed, or rejected by the work of many hands separated in space and time...The tools of text thus allow us, at multiple scales, to create new stable objects for critical activity.

I'd love to think about this idea some more with you all: the huge transformation that came about when our thoughts and ideas became objects of our own critical attention, making our own thoughts into stable objects for scrutiny. We began to think about our own thoughts...

Anne Dalke's picture

thinking metonymically

My group had a pretty rich time of it, y'day, rolling about in the unconscious of Walt Whitman: reading portions of his text aloud, exploring it, feeling it, thinking and talking together about its use-value for us.

One spot where we got a little tangled up, though, as we were thinking about the difference between conscious and unconscious processing, had to do with the difference between "metaphoric" and "metonymic" figures of speech. Wikipedia is (as often) very clarifying about where we got tangled up:

both figures involve the substitution of one term for another; in metaphor, this substitution is based on similarity; in metonymy, on "proximity." Metonymy is particularly important to cognitive linguistics, because it points to a very important aspect of how we make sense of things: we take a well-understood or easy-to-perceive aspect of something, and use it to stand for the thing as a whole, or for some other part of it.

Where our tangling up got really interesting to me, though, was in the various test cases in which we found ourselves able to turn metonymies into metaphors, and vice versa; talk about looping between consciousness and the unconscious!

Paul Grobstein's picture

deconstruction/reconstruction: conscious/unconscious in art/lit

I think there's a really important, if somewhat inchoate, idea bubbling around from our last Tuesday session and earlier ones. The idea, relevant to literature and painting and philosophy and ... life, is that one can find new lines of exploration by deconstructing one's current conscious understandings: that conscious understanding reflect simpler unconscious elements that have been elaborated in various ways, and that one can recombine the simpler elements to yield new directions of exploration that wouldn't have been accessible through the elaborated forms. Hence, against "method" and against "interpretation" not in the sense that we shouldn't try and make sense of things but rather in the sense that we should recongize that existing ways of making sense of things build on unconscious understandings and that if we genuinely want to find new ways to make sense of things it is the unconscious underlying understandings that need to be recognized and altered.

With that idea in mind, what's interesting in the language arena is not only Robert Frost and formal logic but also some transitional forms between them:

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Everything was different. The weather itself, the head and cold of summer and winter, was, we believe, of another temper altogether. The brilliant amorous day was divided as sheerly from the night as land from water ... The rain fell vehemently, or not at all. The sun blazed or there was darkness ... The moment is brief ... ; the mment is over; one long night is then to be slept by all.

Gertrude Stein, Buttons

There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother's money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. _Encore deux minutes_. Look clock. Must get. _Ferme_. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bits all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that's all right. Shake hands. See what I meant, see? O, that's all right. Shake a shake. O, that's all only all right.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast hell to heaven so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished ...

Like a late Mondrian painting, these linguistic creations are, to various degrees, offered not to be "interpreted" in terms of underlying meaning but rather as efforts to expose the bare bones of the unconscious (which has explanation but not meaning) out of which meaning may be subsequently elaborated. They require us not to "intepret" them but rather to ourselves create new meaning out of them.
mfradera's picture

Just keep swimming, I mean thinking

I was ridiculously excited to learn that fish (potentially) dream! I can't wait to tell my friend (she has a highly conscious beta fish named Monet, whose dreams I can only begin to imagine).

As to the purpose of dreams, I've always looked at them as another way to process the information being thrown at us, not necessarily in the immediate past (like the day you've just experienced) but the entirety of past experiences and absorbed information.

Another possibility I've considered is that dreams have no purpose but are the by-product of sleep; even though our bodies need rest, our minds may not. It may be that the conscious part of our brain sleeps with our bodies, but during sleep our unconscious frog brains continue hopping around. Evolution never gave us a mechanism to suspend mental processes. With no off switch or rest state, our minds just keep going. This is a natural state. Have you ever tried to completely “clear your mind” and think of nothing? It's hard work! It's possible, but it actually requires a lot of concentration and skill. That mental effort seems like more than you can dedicate while you're asleep.