QOTD (2011-03-19)

In his Walt Whitman: A Study, Symonds blockquotes, but doesn’t really discuss, this passage from Whitman’s preface to the 1880 edition of Leaves of Grass:

To this terrible, irrepressible yearning (surely more or less down underneath in most human souls), this never-satisfied appetite for sympathy and this boundless offering of sympathy, this universal democratic comradeship, this old, eternal, yet ever-new interchange of adhesiveness, so fitly emblematic of America, I have given in that book [Leaves of Grass], undisguisedly, declaredly, the openest expression. Besides, important as they are to my purpose as emotional expressions for humanity, the special meaning of the “Calamus,” cluster of “Leaves of Grass”… mainly resides in its political significance. In my opinion, it is by a fervent accepted development of comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man, latent in all the young fellows, north and south, east and west—it is by this, I say, and by what goes directly and indirectly along with it, that the United States of the future (I cannot too often repeat) are to be the most effectually welded together, intercalated, annealed into a living union.

Symonds goes off on a tangent about the Phaedrus in response to this, and of course it isn’t totally ridiculous to compare Whitman’s vision of democracy to ancient Athens’. But I have been thinking a lot about mentalités in the past few days, and about clashes of cultural context. Just as we in the 21st century seem to have an awfully hard time “getting” what it was like to think like a Victorian, haphazardly imposing our understandings of sexual identity and morality on the Victorians’, I wonder if it is impossible, or at least really quite awfully difficult, for Symonds to ever get to grips with what democracy and politics and These States mean to a man who knows that adhesiveness and the love of comrades have a political significance, but who is not a classical scholar. Of course the parallels to Hellenism would seem obvious to Symonds, but I can’t help that think that he’s letting his sentiment get away from his discipline as a cultural historian when he assumes that Whitman, who was not nearly so well-versed in Plato, would have agreed.

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