Carving Without the Least Bit of Intimidation: Love, War, and Food in Jhumpa Lahiri

I’m just going to jump right in and get us started with two interpretive questions:

1. What, precisely, is the “temporary matter” of the first story?
2. What does a pumpkin have to do with the partition of India?

Obviously, the title of “A Temporary Matter” refers to the brief electrical outages that occur each evening in the story, but by the end we are so far from minor inconveniences and so deep into the intimate pains of living a human life that this is clearly no longer the answer. And, of course, the pumpkin is simply what Jack-o’-Lanterns are made out of, and the Bangladesh Liberation War simply takes place in the autumn of 1971, so the presence of Halloween could be merely an accident of history.

These two questions, only seemingly simple, are going to run us over a very wide gamut of world history, geography, and culture. We could talk about many, many, many things just in these two stories, but I would like to focus your attention on a few key themes that are going to weave together this collection of short stories into a whole that will, by the end, emerge as something greater than it’s parts (though the parts are exquisite): marriage, food, genealogy, and partition. In piecing this list together, I excluded many things. For instance, I said marriage instead of love. Why do you think I made that choice? Why food, instead of music, or culture, or language? Genealogy I’ve used to stand in for that whole complex of our relations to our own past, “our native land, native language, and the laws that govern us” (#). And though the Partition does not appear in every story, a partition occurs throughout (see the end of “A Temporary Matter”).

Nilanjana Sudeshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for the short story collection you hold in your hand. Published in 1999, it is and was a breathtaking debut for a writer. For me, still slogging my way through the American fiction of the early twentieth-century in 1999—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner—it is a harbinger for the literature of this new millennium, telling at times shockingly similar stories about our everyday experiences, but changed fundamentally by a seemingly simple shift in perspective. Who is telling stories about whom can transform the work of art. You can read her writing about her own writing in her essay “Trading Stories: Notes from an apprenticeship” (here).

Stepping back, one way of viewing our final two texts is precisely this prism of who is telling stories about whom. Some scholars would emphasize the postcolonial context of this writing, emphasizing the thematic similarities of the art produced in the aftermath of the global fall of colonialism in the twentieth century (see Homi Bhabha’s Nation and Narration). Transnationalism, hybridity, and mimicry, not as matters of artistic choice but as matters of historical fact—think of the girls mocking Amusa in the marketplace, or Olunde’s studies abroad. Another aspect of this context is white supremacy: Elesin in slave chains, committing death as his final act of resistance against his colonizers. This is present in Lahiri as well, though often more subtly—think of how Lilia’s teacher thinks that in the context of wars of independence and national origins, the Partition is irrelevant and the Liberation is happening somewhere else (it is, of course, happening in her living room).

But let’s step back in to our stories themselves. I am going to start with our second question first, because it will give us some purchases on the deeper forces of history that are driving the stories in this collection. BUT, I think it is of the utmost significance that Lahiri puts “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” second. “A Temporary Matter” comes first, because the human drama of her characters comes first for Lahiri. The historical forces are crucial, but secondary. I think that just as for Wole Soyinka, the human situation comes first. As he says in his “Author’s Note” to Death and the King’s Horseman: “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely. The confrontation … is largely metaphysical, contained in the human vehicle” (6).

Yayoi Kusama – Pumpkin (2008)

I. Carving the Jack-o’-Lantern

What do the end of British Colonialism in South Asia, the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts, and the Irish potato famine have in common?

To answer this question here, I’m going to violate my own essay-writing dictum and put my thesis at the end instead of the beginning. If you want, though, you can jump down to the end of this section and see me lay it all out. Or just follow along on this Mr.-Toad’s-Wild-Ride through the history of colonialism …

The Partition of India by the British Empire in 1947 marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism, and western colonialism more broadly (a process that is still ongoing to this day). Through the hallowed, long-established practice of “white men wielding crayons,” India and Pakistan were created by fiat, and three-quarters of a century of war, violence, and bitter recrimination have followed this act. One of those wars is the subject of our story.

A Jack-o-Lantern is an object celebrating the Christian holiday Halloween, comprising a hollowed-out pumpkin with an image carved into it, usually of a grotesque face, lit from the inside by a candle, and placed outside a family home. The Jack-o’-Lantern’s origins, however, are obscure to almost every American who, like myself, sits down with their seven year old and their nine year old to draw spooky, impossible-for-dad-to-carve-before-the-heat-death-of-the-universe faces on pumpkins. In fact, it came to America as a practice with “the great wave of Irish immigration” in the nineteenth century (Santino; for something a little less scholarly, check the wiki). One of the great movers of which was another colonialism-induced disaster, The Great Hunger, in Irish an Gorta Mór. If you would like to become blisteringly angry about the depredations of a colonial power, go read about it. It was bad, and it was unnecessary, and the people the did it not only had very little remorse, they often said that all that starvation was actually a good thing. Of course, the Irish anti-colonial struggle also lead to another 20th-century partition by the colonial power, one that is still a live wire in European politics to this very day.

There’s only one problem here: pumpkins are not Irish. In Ireland and Scotland, the tradition involved “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins” (Hutton). Pumpkins are a North American crop, though widely dispersed by the colonization of native North America. The etymology of the word is obscure, traditionally traced to the French pompon, or melon, though since that word has Latin roots and is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as being in use before 1492, it gives credence to some who argue that the word might derive from a word from Massachusett or the closely related Narragansett (see, in brief, the wiki). Frankly, I see no reason it cannot be both, a sort of linguistic convergence in a contact zone between two different people. What isn’t in dispute, though, is that Cucurbita pepo is a species native to North America and whose introduction to Europeans has long been ascribed to the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (or rather, Massuchusetts is of the Wampanoag, since it is their name and they were there first). Traditionally, it is one of the foods served at the first Thanksgiving.

So, the Halloween pumpkin on Lilia’s porch is carved by a Pakistani man, soon to be Bangladeshi, and an Indian-American girl out of a Wampanoag vegetable that is a means of warding off evil spirits out of pagan Irish folklore that is repurposed as part of a Catholic holiday that was probably written over a pagan Roman harvest festival (“probably” because I didn’t check this last one, but it’s a pretty safe bet), a concatenation of cultural practices marked by a violent history of colonization, partition, migration, and adaptation.

In this one seemingly-benign object, a whole history of histories is symbolized. Indeed, food serves as a continual touchpoint for the history of colonialism. Lilia’s father explained to her the history of partition thusly: “‘One moment we were free and then we were sliced up,’ he explained, drawing an X with his finger on the countertop, ‘like a pie. Hindus here, Muslims there.'” Or take, for instance, the “austere biscuits [dipped] into successive cups of tea” he and Mr. Pirzada have for dessert. This taking of tea is a very British practice. And of course, then, there are the recipes that will figure so prominently in “A Temporary Matter.”

Why does food serve this function? The taking of tea is a very British practice, but tea is not from Britain. In a cup of tea is a whole history of the modern world, and yet it is something that these two men, of different religions, possibly on opposite sides of a war in which their families lives are at stake, are united thousands of miles a way. Food retains this deep symbolic resonance for many reasons. Most deeply, perhaps, is because it may be the singular practice that defines our humanity. Many anthropologists have argued that the cooking fire is the first communal space, the sharing of food integral to not just the survival of the individual, but the thriving of the group. Indeed, cooking our food is likely what freed up all the extra energy for humans to a) grow big brains, which are energetically very expensive and b) expand into every space and ecosystem on the planet. Our cousins, the Great Apes, spend a massive amount of their time and energy just chewing and digesting their food. Cooking is basic; it makes us human. More concretely, cooking is not only culture, it is portable culture. It is portable materially, because seeds are small (that detail of the movie Fury Road is actually quite good, for instance). But more so it is portable immaterially, as culture itself. Consult your own experiences here. Almost all of your families cultural touchstones are organized around food; at times, a religious reason (also portable culture) might predominate, but food is always there, like a bowl of oranges set beside the front door for the new year, or cookies for Santa Claus, or Sugar Skulls, or Jack of the Lanterns warding the house at the time when we remember the dead, as the world dies into winter, and the leaves fall from the trees.

In short, food is a deeply human focal point for culture, survival, and memory. It’s history is our history. We pass it down from generation to generation, and with it the memory of those who came before us toward the promise of those will come after. Sometimes we are ignorant of it’s meaning, but it is there. Think of Lilia praying while eating pieces of candy. Why does she do this? Who is she praying to? To understand this, we need to understand food.

To summarize: the pumpkin in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is clearly a symbol, but for what? I think there are two plausible alternatives here: the trauma of partition or, conversely, the healing of that trauma. On the one hand, it is a symbol of the trauma and violence of partition. Mr. Pirzada carving it is a miniature of the violence being inflected on his home, and the pumpkin smashed at the end is a whole world smashed to pieces, irretrievable—even though we know what the pumpkin looked like before, there will be no putting its smashed pieces back together. On the other hand, though on the surface it seems like it is just another carved pie, even in the repetition of that trauma, the pumpkin is transformed into something else, into a way beyond the partition of the world by white men with crayons, a warding off of evil spirits. Lilia’s father thinks she is ignorant of the realities of the world, and that she must come to accept the inevitability of the differences that the past has created. For him the partitioning of the world is obvious and permanent, even if he personally deplores it and its consequences, and sees both sides with fairly clear eyes. But for Lilia, these differences seems small in comparison to all the similarities. She is indifferent to those differences. This seems at first to be a naive, childlike perception, but there is wisdom in it. In the carving of the pumpkin, they create a new tradition, one that reaches across all those differences in time and space to create a new way not just of viewing the world, but of being in it. Even though pumpkins are smashed or rot away on our porches, that’s not the point. No pumpkin is forever. The next year, the next generation, we will carve another one.

The Isothermal lines of India (1863) – A map of India indicating the rainy seasons, with drawn anotations indicating residency areas of various ethnic groups (British Museum)

II. Strangers in a Strange Land

First things second. “A Temporary Matter” is a story that I loved when I first read it. It drew me in to all these other wonderful stories, and between beginning here and ending with “The Third and Final Continent” is to begin and end with a literary work of profound beauty. Between now and when I first read it, though, I have completed my dissertation, gotten married, had two children, and moved thousands of miles across America, here to where I was born but did not grow up, Houston. My wife is an editor. The deadline I set myself for finishing my Ph.D. was before my daughter was born; if not, I thought to myself, it might never happen. I was in my thirties. Between finishing the 299th page of my dissertation and walking across the stage in my robes, Lilah was born, just 4 lbs 8 oz.

Which is all to say, that while I loved this story the first time I read it, this time I wept at the end. Then, driving to see my grandparents for the first time in over a year last week, I listened to the stories on tape so that I could keep writing this essay in my head while I was on the road; I wept again.

Why do I tell you this? Because I think this is Lahiri’s great gift. She tells seemingly simple stories of regular human lives that resonate beyond all reason, making and building connections with our own lives that seem deeply personal. And as I was driving across Texas, I realized that there was another reason that I was connecting so viscerally with these stories this time around. In this time of plague we have all, in some small way, had the experience of Shukumar and Shoba, or Mr. Pirzada with his watch set to Dacca time. We have all been in a sort of internal exile. My entire life, if I had merely desired it, I could have shown up at my grandparents door within 12 hours, 24 at the most. Usually much less. But for fifteen months, there was simply no prospect of visiting them, in their late 80s, at a retirement home. This compelled us all to relate to our families the way that millions of immigrants have been forced to for centuries anyway, by phone or letter, slowly, with our thoughts and hearts often somewhere else besides where we are right now. And throughout, this strange guilt of not being there, and this strange fear that those we loved might be becoming strangers. Or, if we just had to see them, something so basic and so human that of course many of just had to, that we might be, from the unbearable burden of our love, our absolute need for their love, be the cause of their deaths. Or that they might die anyway, alone, and no matter what we wanted to do, how much we wanted to be there, we could do absolutely nothing about it.

I switched between “compelled” and “forced” in the last paragraph for a reason, but I want to come back to it in a minute. First, I want to return to our text, and think about why it made me react the way it did. Maybe it was deeply singular and personal, the way a great work of art often is to us (like the lyrics of a song that we later learn are wrong, but we keep singing it that way in our head anyway). But let’s use it as a way into the text anyway, and by diving deeply into a text dive deeply into ourselves.

My question here is, what does the “temporary matter” of the title refer to? Let me lay out a series of possibilities:

1. It’s just the work on the electricity and I’m just reading too much into it;
2. It’s their marriage;
3. It’s their love;
4. It’s Shooba’s pregnancy;
5. It’s the funk their marriage is in, which is part of every long relationship, and will be better soon if they try and make it work;
6. It’s the food in the fridge, because even frozen foods goes bad eventually;
7. It’s the honesty they find in the dark;
8. It’s life itself.

Okay, that’s sufficient. Now let me approach this in a more straightforward matter than the last section. I’m just going to go down the list and say why it can or cannot be each one:

1. It can’t be that, I’m professional close-reader, and I need a job
2. All marriages are temporary, but yeah, okay, but that’s just factual by the end
3. Alright, this one is good. I think the tension between this one and number 5 is at the heart of the plot, driving it
4. See number 2, but really see number 8
5. Trauma is inevitable, and time is like a river, cleansing all wounds
6. I think that after our discussion of pumpkins, we can see that this is a lot more important than we thought at first
7. This one is, I think, the most intriguing and the biggest challenge to what I’m about to say; explore it if you so desire, but I’m going to leave it aside for now
8. It’s life itself, that’s the answer

I think the two big interpretations, for me, of the title is that it’s whether they are misreading their own situation (the flashbacks show they seem to really love each other, and have a lot in common) or that their relationship is already over and they just can’t face it. I would encourage you to explore the first one, because it seems so against the grain of where we end up, but I’m not sure it’s wrong even if it is a bit counter-intuitive. The question to ask is: how do they imagine their lives will be better? Do they think they can escape the trauma of the stillbirth of their child by escaping each other? That seems unlikely, to say the least, and probably the opposite. Do they think they will find other people more compatible with each other? Oof, that’s a lot harder than you might think (there’s even some good math on this question, go check the “Long Now” podcast archives if you’re interested). In short, isn’t the fantasy of the good life that they’ll have without each other just that, a fantasy? More deeply, how do you make a life, if you can’t make it through the inevitable traumas? Is marriage, much less love, even possible, or is it always a temporary matter?

I tend to think that, yes, those things are all inevitable, and the real trauma here is something deeper, which is that life is a temporary matter. Below the psychological questions the story poses is the existential one. As something like second-generation immigrants, Shooba and Shukumar are cut off from a place that one might call their homeland; they are trying to make a new home, in a new place. Shukumar feels some guilt that a white classmate knows the languages and history of his culture better than he does; but that’s because one doesn’t know culture, one lives it. Shukumar making rogan josh is him trying to communicate with Shooba in the only way he has left, through the language of food. Making rogan josh is making home; Shooba not making it anymore is why he makes it; he knows that she no longer lives here, with him. They are roommates, not a family. And he knows why, even if he cannot admit it: because they have not confronted the trauma they have shared. They have partitioned their own experiences of that trauma from one another, and shared culture is not able to overcome that distance because it is about something more basic, though just as human. This is why he cannot finish his dissertation; he feels guilty about the birth of this book, as if it is an insult to that small body he held in his arms, a desecration of that memory he cannot share until the end (reread the story for all the metaphors about generation and birth, then remember back to Plato and Socrates talking about giving birth in the body and giving birth in the mind, different forms of birth in beauty on the rungs of Diotima’s ladder).

In this way, the personal partitions in “A Temporary Matter” set the stage for the political partitions in “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” Lahiri starts with the existential, the personal, before recasting it in its broader context. And indeed, this is how I experienced rereading these stories. At first, they were deeply personal, resonating with my own life in a way that caught me off guard, even shocked me. Then, it took me outwards to the world, to this time of plague, and reflections on being a refugee and the experience of the immigrant. While I felt compelled to isolate myself, immigrants are forced to: leave, and never come back, or come back and be placed in a prison, separated from your children on purpose, as an act of calculated cruelty, perhaps never to see them again. And thus from the personal, existential questions, we are forced to move outward and ask political questions about the stories, which are also personal. Do we want to be a world of partitions? Of walls, deportations, and refugee flows? More specifically, do we want to be the partitioners, the wall builders, the deporters? Or do we want to become the place, always mythical, that drew so many so far, often bringing with them not much more besides the Jack-o’-Lantern or the rogan josh—namely, culture, that immaterial, extremely portable bundle of ideas, beliefs, and practices that make up the human situation? Lahiri’s stories compel us all to find our own answer to such questions.

The Gossip of Flames: Becoming Opposite Equals in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . always a breed of life.
[3]

In today’s lecture, I am going to address two seemingly simple questions:

1. How does Whitman’s poetry work in “Song of Myself”?

2. What does Whitman’s poetry mean in “Song of Myself”?

I believe that the answer to the first question, how does it work, is crucial to understanding the answer to the second question, what does it mean, perhaps as much as for any poet before or after Whitman. As we have progressed more than halfway through “Song of Myself”, we have all noticed that Whitman does not shy away from incorporating big questions, about good and evil, life and death, sexual ecstasy and brutal violence.

My more specific interpretive question revolves around the lines in my epigraph above, namely, the theme of “opposite equals,” the way they are “knit” together into a singular “identity.” The theme is a challenging one in Whitman, although one that his reader’s often avoid without knowing. It is challenging not simply because it is an abstract philosophical paradox, like those found in the Tao Te Ching that many of you read last semester; it is challenging because it is a very concrete problem in a country riven by strife, strife that will soon erupt into the bloodiest war in American history. Whitman is aware of this challenge, and his Leaves of Grass is a response to it, not just in its content, but in the very form of the poem itself.

To give a précis of the argument: the form of Whitman’s poetry is metonymic, building disparate connections into a grander whole, and this metonymic form reflects and performs a knitting together of opposites in a manner that avoids an attitude of resentment toward life and argues for embracing flux and change—becoming—over static forms of identity—being. In the next section, we’ll deal with the metonymic nature of Whitman’s poem.

Ansel Adams, Grass Meadow, Late Evening, Yosemite Valley (1944)

I. And, And, And, And; or, How Whitman’s Poetry Works

Flip to section [31]. Don’t focus too closely yet, but simply look at the form the poem takes here. Zooming out, the pattern is easy to see, and with just a little more work we can quantify it: starting in section [30], Whitman starts 14 out of 16 verses with the word “And.” Immediately thereafter, he starts another 9 lines with the phrase “In vain.” What is going on here? To answer this question, we need to first think a little more deeply about how language itself works to see how Whitman’s language here is working on us.

In his famous 1956 essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson identified two poles of language: the metaphoric and the metonymic.

“The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The METAPHORIC way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the METONYMIC way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively.” (Fundamentals of Language, 90)

Jakobson identifies these two poles that govern the movement of language by looking at a medical disorder, aphasia. Or rather, two medical disorders, each caused by organic trauma to different areas of the brain (think: a railroad spike through the head, like the famous Phineas Gage), and which prevented people from using either metaphor or metonymy when they spoke. It’s quite fascinating, and Jakobson discusses how it relates to art and poetry as well; you can find the essay and read more about it online just by googling it.

In any case, metaphor equates things together, building an identity or equivalence between different things; metonymy links different things that are close together. Metaphor stacks meaning vertically; metonymy moves sideways. The example Jakobson gives is a word-association test: you say the word “hut.” A metaphorical response, which builds an identity: “is a poor little house”; a metonymic response, which brings in contiguous associations: “burnt out” (91).

But let’s take an example from Whitman, the end of [26]. Here, in about half a page or so, we go from “the echo of sunset” to the “orbic flex of [a tenor’s] mouth” to whirling “wider than Uranus flies” to “bare feet … licked by the indolent waves” to “the puzzle of puzzles/And that we call being.” That is an amazingly long journey, and I skipped several steps. This ever expanding movement outward is characteristic of Whitman’s poetry. The poet chains together long, seemingly divergent descriptions, such as the long section [33], which starts a line with “Where” 35 times and “I” 22 times. As if free associating, Whitman moves from place to place, person to person, idea to idea, ever onward.

It is characteristic, and it is appropriate. This aspect of the form of Whitman’s poetry is part and parcel of its content. It embodies his broader democratic project: “I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy” [24]. In essence, Whitman is arguing that to be the poet of America, as Professor Vollrath’s lecture showed he most certainly aspires to be, is to engage in a project of radical, ever-expanding inclusion. This is where the central image of leaves of grass comes in; the leaves of the book are also leaves of grass. Grass is an organism with no true center, a single entity yet infinitely complex and connected with the world around it. Grass grows through the middle. Every blade of grass is similar, yet slightly different; out of all those little differences emerges one greater whole, but a whole that, despite being made of similar but different parts, presents an aspect of diversity, of non-uniformity. As Whitman famously says in section [6]:

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Yet it is also precisely in this moment that the problem, the difficulty in what Whitman is attempting emerges. How can you reconcile black and white in a nation that will, in less than a decade, fit a war over slavery? Is such a reconciliation even desirable?

Paul Klee, In the Grass (1930)

II. The Plenum of Proof; or, What Whitman’s Poetry Means

I hear the bravura of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . . gossip of flames . . . . clack of sticks cooking my meals. [26]

Let us put this problem as sharply as possible: if the master and the slave are opposites equals, is Whitman’s attempt to knit the two together into a single identity not an\ violence to the latter and an apology for the former? Should we, in fact, choose not to knit the slaveholder into the poem of America?

Receiving black folk and white alike sounds good in the abstract, but Whitman characteristically does not allow it to remain abstract. He is talking about real people, with real problems, who he wants to find the best in, each and every one. From section [16]:

One of the great nations, the nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth.

A Southerner as soon as a Northerner, and a planter at that. Whitman constantly does this, balancing one perspective with another, opposing perspectives, not letting one predominate; this includes his references to slavery. Take the following lines from section [8] of “The Sleepers,” another poem in Leaves of Grass: “The call of the slave is one with the master’s call . . . . and the master salutes the slave.” Now, I’m not going to answer the question of whether or not Whitman is successful in what he attempts here, but I would like to come back to something I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, about how readers of “Song of Myself” have a tendency to internalize the things they like and ignore or avoid the things they don’t. Whitman is aware of this desire to avoid the unpleasant, to exclude it from the realm of life, to cut it out of his song. Death, shit, the stench of unwashed bodies, semen, blood, gore, venereal disease, pain, smallpox scars, suicide, what Whitman calls in a later poem in Leaves of Grass, “The Body Electric” is also at the same time for the poet the body electric broken. Maimed. Diseased. Murdered. Enslaved.

Whitman refuses to avoid this truth, and he is not ignorant of its consequences. The streets of New York City that he roams as a “rough” are the streets of Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), the streets that will explode into the racial violence and lynching of the New York City Draft Riots in 1863. This is the America in which Senator Charles Sumner will be brutally beaten on the Senate floor by a southern Representative offended by his abolitionist politics and where Bleeding Kansas has already begun. Whitman’s expansive vision of American inclusion is not in spite of this violence, it is because of it. Whitman knows the world he lives in, and he makes sure to punctuate his song of himself with it so that the reader cannot forget it. “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” [6]. Perhaps this is why he warns us early on about becoming intoxicated in the sensuous world he confronts us with as well [2].

In short, Whitman’s inclusion of the Southern planter is a conscious choice, a choice that is not secondary to his project, but central to it. Why? I think there are two answers to this question, two philosophical objections that Whitman has to such an exclusion. The first is general: rejecting any part of life builds in a resentment toward the present, a hatred of the world as it is that Whitman believes is the root of violence in the first place. The second is both general and specific: Whitman’s ultimate ethical principle is that the world is not static, but changing. To exclude any one thing does so on the basis that it could not become otherwise; it locks identity in place, and presupposes that meaning, and the world of meanings, cannot change. That is precisely what the poet does not want to happen; indeed, poetry itself is for Whitman the making-happen of that change. Whitman is a visionary of America, of America as a series of potentials, not free of violence, but open to change.

Ansel Adams, Grass and Pool, Sierra Nevada (n.d.)

i. Resentment

One of the constant imperatives of “Song of Myself” is that the “least” will not be excluded, and in the imperative to include the “least” is the argument that they are not the “least” at all. Thus, the negative eulogy (“Nor”, “Nor”, “Nor,” &c) at the end of section [43] begins with “I cannot fail …” and concludes with “Nor the present, nor the least.” I cannot fail the present, nor the least. This is the necessary conclusion of the shocking statement at the beginning of the poem, that there “will never be any more perfection than there is now” [3]. We could multiply examples of this gesture in Whitman, that of the perfection of the present moment, ad infinitum. But before we get to the why of this perfection, let’s think about the what of it, What are it’s implications?

It seems that what Whitman is arguing against here is a certain attitude toward life, one that sees the world as it is and can only see its flaws and failures. This attitude is what the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would later call ressentiment in his work On the Genealogy of Morality, which we often read in The Human Situation. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by authors such as Emerson, and we can see a strong affinity between Whitman’s argument for the perfection of the world and Nietzsche’s critique of an attitude of resentment toward life, of a way of perceiving the world as imperfect, fallen, broken, flawed, disgusting and only redeemable if fundamentally changed. Far from such an attitude being an accommodation to the status quo, with all its flaws, Nietzsche saw as the root of those flaws this resentful attitude toward life, a hatred of the world. The following lines from [22] would fit just as well in Nietsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra:

What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,
My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.

Ultimately, the question is, how do we understand what Whitman means by perfection? In the logic of section [3], is it that the slavery is also a form of perfection, or is that the slave is as perfect of a being as everyone else? The former is an apology for domination, while the latter is a radical vision of equality, a revolutionary vision. I think it is almost certainly the latter, and to offer some proof we will turn to another philosophical concept that comes after and is inspired by Whitman’s poetry, that of the precedence of becoming over being, of flux and change over static identity.

ii. Becoming

Let’s finish these musings up with a return to the question of metaphor and metonymy and the extended section of the poem on a runaway slave. Of course, even poetry which is predominantly metonymic still involves metaphors; the two poles of language are ultimately inseparable, so our analysis is interested in which one predominates and what effects that predomination has. Take the following passage from section [33].

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me . . . . crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence . . . . my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses and haul close,
They taunt my dizzy ears . . . . beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person,
My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

One objection to my insistence on metonymy, of building linkages between disparate elements, of slippage, connection, and cataloguing (Professor Vollrath again), is that there is one statement that reigns over the poem, and that statement is the ultimate metaphoric statement: “I am ….” Indeed, we see it in the above passage, whose very premise we might question: what is the ethical right of Whitman, a white man, to pretend to understand, much less inhabit, the suffering of a runaway slave? Is this not an unconscionable appropriation of that experience?

Perhaps. But I think that Whitman’s use of “I am” is much less metaphoric than it seems at first. Even in the passage above, look how it changes from beginning to end:

I am the hounded slave . . . . I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Agonies are one of my changes of garments;
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person.

The twentieth-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze has argued that Western thought has been obsessed with the question of pinpointing the nature of things-in-themselves (being), and that this has obscured the fundamentally fluctuating, changing nature of those things (becoming). In short, when we focus on the nature of what things are, we necessarily foreclose the basic fact that they can become different. We focus on objects, and not the relations these objects have to everything else around them. Whitman, despite his focus on the “I am,” seems much more interested in the question of flux, change, and becoming, of the relations between different parts of the world rather than their identity. In fact, the sheer profusion of “I am” proves this: no one person can be all these things, but one person can become connected to them, can write them into their poem. In the passage on the runaway slave, we see this philosophical transmutation happen in the words themselves, from being to becoming. I think this is the wager that Whitman is making, that a poetics of radical inclusion is ultimately one that does not colonize the world with the ego of the poet and lock it in place, but one that allows the poet, the reader, and thus the world to become something other than it is, something perfect in the same manner as before, but with a difference. As Whitman says later in the poem:

These become mine and me every one, and they are but little,
I become as much more as I like
. [36]

Yamamoto Baiitsu, Wild Geese and Autumn Grass (detail, 1845)


On teaching Achebe teaching on Conrad

Just got done giving a lecture on Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” I’m not sure if there’s a single more necessary essay than Achebe’s when it comes to reading a work of literature and, in fact, I cannot imagine teaching Conrad without doing it from Achebe’s basic starting point. 

Though this semester I taught it in a course with several other professors, I have also taught it in Intro to Lit courses before. It’s always a bit of a struggle, as Achebe’s argument that we should exclude the text from the canon are strong, to say the least. 

Yet it is such a powerful pedagogical text, one that seems worth reading if only because it allows one to introduce Achebe’s succinct, powerful critique of representations of Africa. I also feel as if there are few texts that have a similar ability to undermine our assumptions about civilization and subjectivity. In effect, we still live in the world that Conrad’s novel critique; this past is not, in any real sense, past. Apocalypse now. 

What I’m left with is this: does continuing to reread Conrad, especially when it trades off with reading a book such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, simply replicate Achebe’s diagnosis at one remove?