Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards Day 17: A New Sensibility

(A Collage taken from Deco Pages, @ Art by the Yard)

“But what is life but an experiment? And morality but an exercise?....
I consider Leaves of Grass and its theory experimental—“

“Poetry… is an evolution, sending out improved and ever-expanded types…the past, even the best of it, necessarily giving place, and dying out” (Whitman, A Thought on Shakspere).

I. (As Rica observed), there are multiple ways to
build a bridge between science and literature--

ONE (used by Darwin in On the Origin of Species, p. 288)
"I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone...Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language...being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life..."

A SECOND ONE (represented by my week in New Mexico, moving
from the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people to
the "Greater World Earthship Community") might be thought of

(back @ University Museum, in Philly:
Surviving: The Body of Evidence
--> "The Scars of Evolution":
"We are not perfect, but We are OK. We keep evolving....")

A FOURTH (the one Paul's reviewed for us, and which we're going to focus on for next few weeks) might look instead @ the DIMENSIONS OF CULTURAL CHANGE.

One of our primary guides in this process is Susan Sontag.
"One Culture and the New Sensibility"(final essay in her collection, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1966,
pp. 293-304):

"Art an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility response to this new function...artists [are] continually challenging their means, their materials and methods....

Marshall McLuhan has described human history as a succession of acts of technological extension of human capacity, each of which works a radical change upon our environment and our ways of thinking, feeling, and valuing...only certain artists in any given era...have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age....

The new sensibility understands art as the extension of life...the representation of (new) modes of vivacity...For we are what we are able to see (hear, taste, smell, feel) even more powerfully and profoundly than we are what furniture of ideas we have stocked in our heads....

A great work of art is...first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition...of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments...And the most interesting works of contemporary art...are adventures in sensation....Such art is, in principle, experimental...precisely in the sense that science is experimental...

Turning now to Walt Whitman,
as a case study/test case of Sontag's ideas.



Who among us has studied 19th century American literature?
What have you read, and what can you tell us about it?

If you were in a college English class in 1855
(the year Leaves of Grass came out,
four years before On the Origin of Species was published)
or a lover of popular American poetry of the time,
what would you have been reading?....

Not Whitman, but one of the five “fireside poets”:


William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier

Do you know any of their poems...
or anything about the type of poetry they wrote?
The Children's Hour
by Henry W. Longfellow

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair,
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, 0 blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

Describe the CONTENT AND FORM of this poem.

Standard, regular meter, rhymed stanzas,
well suited for memorization and recitation.
Its primary subject: the stability of domestic life…?

This is the environment in which Whitman appeared,
suddenly, self-published, and
prefaced w/ a very different image:

“I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual…eating drinking and breeding….

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!....

This is no book,
Who touches this touches a man....
I spring from the pages into your arms....

I believe in the flesh and the appetites….

Divine am I inside and out…
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body….

I dote on myself…there is that lot of me, and all so luscious…
That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors and schools…."


What happened?
What’s different?

How did it happen?
Why did it happen?

(Imagine that) we are biologists,
studying the evolution of a new organism,

which will become a new species—>

Whitman invented free verse:
replaced conventional meters with long lines, repetition;
blended poetry, prose, in incantation, catalogue, naming:
the "poetics of an ensemblist."

Changes in poetry since LofG include, among others,
the dominance of nonmetrical verse,
the precise, everyday images of “realism,”
sex and the body as fundamental topics; and
the concept of the poet as a counterculture prophet, @ the margins;
Whitman has become the model for long poems
as lyric explorations of self and culture.

His “followers” include
D.H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benet,
Woody Guthrie, Peter Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen,
Allen Ginsberg, Louis Simpson, Pablo Neruda
Langston Hughes, Jorge Luis Borges, Muriel Rukeyser,
the beats: Ginsberg, Corso, Baraka, Snyder….

while making high modernists like T.S. Eliot very nervous!
(remember Eliot, who wanted writing to be objective,
to approach the condition of science

Cf. Barnett Newman: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ… we are making [art] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look @ it without the nostalgic glasses of history.”

So (again): where did this new thing/mode--
making art out of one's own feelings
(out of the unconscious?)
come from?

What is its history?

Jonah Lehrer, “Walt Whitman: The Substance of Feeling,”
Proust Was a Neuroscientist: “Whitman had no precursor.”

Not true, of course; everything has a history.
So: who were Whitman's ancestors?
What does this poem remind you of?

(Multiplicity of sources-->
putting the crucial significance of
any one of them into question)

For starters: The King James Bible.

And the epic form:

cf. opening of the Aeneid: “Of arms and the man I sing.”

Transformed (lyricized, personalized) by Quakerism:
As a 10 year old he had heard the “very mystical and radical” Elias Hicks, who...pointed “to the fountain of all naked theology,
all religion, all worship…namely in yourself.”

“I am personal…In my poems, all revolves around, concentrates in, radiates from myself. I have but one central figure, the general human personality typified in myself.”

The inner lawfulness of the individual is that he is himself a term of what law is…”The law of laws,” Whitman calls it: “the law of successions.”

Later, Transcendentalism ("intellectual form of Quakerism"):
Emerson’s view of individual consciousness as the creative center of the universe; of a perceiving consciousness structuring what it perceives;
able to enter the not-Me, in an affective, sympathetic projection;
like Adam, naming a new world into being.

Because of the essential unity of the individual mind and the universe, any voice can be representative.

Also: a phrenological reading,
which gave him an expanded sense of him….

Note: only five years of schooling:
“Oh, damnation, damnation! Thy other name is school-teaching.”

There is a history; there are contributors...
but Whitman was also NEW
(in the way new organisms, new species
while evolving from the old, are new).

Randall Jarrell, “Some Lines from Whitman,”
Poetry and the Age, 1953 (recommended by Sontag):
“HE HAD HIS NERVE..the rashest, the most inexplicable and unlikely—the most impossible…of poets…it is Homer, or the sagas, or something far away and long ago, that comes to one’s mind…for sometimes Whitman is epic…grand, and elevated, and comprehensive, and real with an astonishing reality…

the critic points at his qualities in despair and wonder, all method failing, and simply calls them by their names…when he comes again it will be the end of the world…There is something essentially ridiculous about critics anyway: what is good is good without our saying so, and beneath all our majesty we know this.”

Some of us shared Jarrell's sense of both admiring and not knowing what to do with Whitman:

Elana: I am loving Leaves of Grass. I feel like it is just so true. Other books we have read in this class have been so determined to prove a point that they almost force you to be on the lookout for mistakes and fallacies in logic, however Leaves of Grass doesn't try to prove something, Whitman is simply telling the reader his interpretation of life and its wonders. It occured to me that Darwin, Dennet and Whitman are all talking about the meaning of life and the realities of life, yet in such different ways. With Whitman however, I don't feel defensive or combative, even though he doesn't really offer up concrete proof besides his own somewhat vague experiences and beliefs. Whitman might be the ultimate non-foundationalist because he doesn't try to base his experiences and beliefs in any one structured way of thinking. Instead, he seems to take life as it comes at him and experience it with no thought of how he should be experiencing it, only with whatever emotions and feelings come to him at the time. This idea also relates to "Against Interpretation" in the sense that it discourages analyzation (and especially over-analyzation). Although the article doesn't seem practicle or possible to me, somehow Whitman seems to make it work.

Katie: If art is something new, if its purpose is simply to be something new for you to experience, what good is writing about it? What good is discussing it?...near the beginning of Leaves of Grass Whitman says that experiencing the world is far more important than anything you find in books. If so, how do we read his book? How do we look at this poem in this class? What can we say about it beyond description, and how can description be anything but a flawed reflection of the poem itself? If we can't interpret, if the point of Leaves of Grass is to see and feel it, why are we talking about it at all? Maybe we should just read part out loud, pause to let the experience wash over us, and then leave.

What advice does Whitman himself give us about
how to handle this new/old/recycled material?
How does he teach us how to read his poem?

"Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems…

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…not look through the eyes of the dead…nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."

To be continued...