Whitman Transcendentalism

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    About the Author

    Susan Setzer is Assistant Professor of Literature and Chair

    of the Department of Literature and Languages at Maharishi

    University of Management. She received her A.B. from the

    University of Nebraska, her A.M. and Ph.D. in English

    Literature from the University of Illinois. She has taught at

    the University of Nebraska, University of Illinois, and at

    Maharishi University of Management (formerly Maharishi

    International University) since 1981. She has presented con-

    ference papers on Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, and the teach-

    ing of English. With Rhoda Orme-Johnson she edited a col-

    lection of lectures on literature and language by MaharishiMahesh Yogi . With Terry Fairchild she publ ished Con-

    sciousness and Literary Studies in Modern Science and

    Vedic Science and is currently finishing a paper entitled

    The Self-Referral Source of Myth in Charlotte Brontes

    Shirley.

    2

    Address correspondence to: Department of Literature

    Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, IA 52557

    Modern Science and Vedic Science, Volume 9, Number 1, 1999

    1999 Maharishi University of Management

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    3

    Whitman, Transcendentalism and the

    American Dream: Alliance with Natures

    Government through Language

    Susan Setzer

    Maharishi University of Management

    Fairfield, Iowa, U.S.A.

    Abstract

    Whitman envisioned a unified America at a time when it was being divided by civil war,

    an America able to harmonize its differences through the power of language and poetry.

    For contemporary readers it is difficult to comprehend why Whitman believed poetry

    could be a force for balancing the needs of individuals and society. This article will

    evaluate Whitmans claims that his language program could unify the self, culture, and

    Natural Law through the aesthetic experience, a claim supported by the principles of

    Maharishi Vedic Science.

    Contents

    Introduction: The Culture Crisis and Whitmans Language Experiment . . . . . . . . . . . . 4

    Self-Culture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

    Cultural Unity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6

    Part I: Self-Referral Consciousness and the Levels of Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

    Transcendentalist Self-Culture and Maharishis Self-Referral . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8

    In Harmony with Natural Law: Natures Government . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10

    The Wealth of a Culture Is in Its Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11

    A Language Experiment Based on Natural Law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .12

    Consciousness or Presence in Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

    The Correspondence Theory of Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

    The Language of Nature: The Continuum of Consciousness,

    Language, and Matter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

    Vedic Language Theory Based on States of Consciousness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .19

    Levels of Language in Whitman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20

    The Evolution of Language According to Whitman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23

    Primordial Poetry and the Songs of Nations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24

    Primordial Language in Maharishi Vedic Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25

    Maharishis Theory of Cultural Integrity and the Mother Tongue . . . . . . . . . . . 27

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    Part II: Higher States of Consciousness and the Aesthetic Response . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

    How the Aesthetic Response Connects Us to Natural Law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28

    Whitmans Aesthetics of Perfect Health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29An Aesthetics Derived from Maharishi Vedic Science . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

    Is the Aesthetic Response Escapist? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

    The Aesthetic Response Integrates Mind and Body . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34

    A Practical Aesthetics of Consciousness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35

    Whitmans Rhythm of Nature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35

    The Psychophysiology of Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39

    Conclusion: The Competent Reader . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40

    Introduction:

    The Culture Crisis and Whitmans Language Experiment

    The topic of change was uppermost in Whitmans mind as the America of the

    1850s drifted inexorably towards civil war, and his Leaves of Grass embodied the para-

    digm shift he felt required to take democracy beyond the present crisis. The spiritual

    purpose of a nation, he believed, came out in its great literature, and America had so far

    lacked that vision of itself. Language would help make the shift happen through the

    vehicle of Whitmans poetry, a language experiment to unify a Union drifting apart.

    Language, Whitman knew, could preserve cultural values through stories. But language

    also had an inner value which could speak to the higher self of the individual, connect-

    ing him or her to cosmic order. Making that connection, Whitman says in the 1855

    Preface to Leaves of Grass, is the poets job: Folks expect of the poet to indicate . . .

    the path between reality and their souls (1980, p. 10).Pondering how to fix it, Whitman asked himself where was the Union of States

    located? He decided it was to be found in the hearts and minds of the countrys citizens,

    in their participation in the flow of natural evolution, not in a charter on paper: To hold

    men together by paper and seal or by compulsion is no account, / That only holds men

    together which aggregates all in a living principle. . . . (By Blue Ontarios Shore,

    1987, p. 198). He believed the poet could put this living principle into a language that

    would speak to and unite all classes of Americans. He was confident he himself could

    do this because he knew the secret which connected language to Nature and to the

    Being in all creatures. This power of language to connect with Nature, however, did not

    work so much through logic nor by representing things symbolically, but rather through

    direct contact with reality, through a languages sound and rhythm.

    Language could communicate the living presence of people and things and theunderlying Self or Oversoul of which they were a part. Whitman saw his poems, then,

    as ceremonies enacting a ritual of union, yet also as initiations pushing each soul onto

    its own quest for the Self.

    4

    MODERN SCIENCE AND VEDIC SCIENCE

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    Self-Culture

    Leaves of Grass, therefore, proposes a renewal of American democracy through

    what Emerson called self-culture, the transformation of the ego by the transcendentalSelf (Albanese, 1988, pp. 1314). Emerson thought a person needed both culture and

    self-culture for full human development, for to know culturethe refinement of the

    mind through contact with great ideas and artwithout developing the

    Transcendentalist inner Geniusthe higher selfwas a waste of time (The American

    Scholar, 1971, pp. 5357). Without awakening the higher creative self, a person could

    not add to or make use of culture; one could merely learn it by rote. Self-culture was,

    therefore, the prerequisite for existing in harmony with the divine purpose of the cos-

    mos: To live on earth while be[ing] transformed into the likeness of the eternal world

    . . . and speak the language of Heaven (Self-Culture, 1938, p. 104).

    Whitman in turn called this total self-development Personalism, the unfoldment

    of the full cultural and spiritual potential of each individual: The quality of BEING, in

    the objects self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing there-from and theretonot criticism by other standards, and adjustments theretois the les-

    son of Nature (Democratic Vistas, 1982, p. 960). In A Backward Glance Over

    Traveled Roads he said, In the centre of all, and object of all, stands the Human

    Being, towards whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything directly or

    indirectly tend, Old World or New (1982, p. 664).

    Kerry Larson (1988) notes that Whitman shifted from his early cultural concerns of

    political journalism to extrapolitical means of realizing his dream of consensus. That

    is, he began to speak the language of poetry, a far more culturally integrative system

    than polemics (p. xvii). The language of his poetry, he believed, would be the clarion

    call to establish a balanced republic that could accommodate both individual growth and

    national unity. Furthermore, Whitmans poetry would unify both culture and the self by

    means of self-culture through the aesthetic responsethat shift in the readers aware-ness that leads to the higher self.

    Cultural Unity