Ed Simon: Why we will need Walt Whitman in 2020

Walt Whitman, circa 1860. (Library of Congress via The New York Times)

When Walt Whitman arrived in Washington at the end of 1862 to take up residence in the city and serve as a hospital volunteer, the construction of the Capitol dome was not yet complete. In a dispatch published in the Oct. 4, 1863, edition of The New York Times, Whitman described this “vast eggshell, built of iron and glass, this dome — a beauteous bubble” that “emerges calm and aloft from the hill, out of a dense mass of trees.” The poet recounted how a “few days ago, poking about there, eastern side” he found the yet to be hoisted Statue of Freedom that now crowns the Capitol dome “all dismembered, scattered on the ground, by the basement front.”

In retrospect it’s a rather on-the-nose metaphor, this personified representation of liberty “standing in the mud” while the nation immolated itself in civil war, yet still visible to our greatest poet and prophet of democracy, perhaps signifying the incomplete task of the American project.

When the war began, Whitman was despondent, but the violence of those years seemed to strengthen and clarify his faith in democracy, a faith that would take on a transcendent dimension. For the poet, democracy wasn’t simply the least bad form of government, it wasn’t reducible to dreary policy and endless debate, but it was rather a vital, transformative and regenerative ethos. Even as the survival of what President Abraham Lincoln called the “last, best hope of earth” was in doubt, Whitman’s belief in the philosophical and political foundation of the nation flourished.

If the war against illiberalism takes place on many fronts, including the economic and the cultural, then one domain where the revanchists are clearly gaining power is in the realm of the transcendent. In the delusions of “blood and soil” there is for many the attraction of a deeper meaning. Authoritarians claim that they offer their nations (or at least a segment of the population) unity and purpose. The 20th-century German philosopher (and victim of the Nazis) Walter Benjamin warned how fascism engages an “aestheticization of politics,” where spectacle and transcendence provide a type of ecstasy for its adherents. Watch clips of fevered crowds, from today or the past, chanting against “enemies of the people”; they are malignant scenes, but ones that in no small part mimic religious revivals.

Critics of democracy often claim that it offers no similar sense of transcendence. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche castigated democracy as a system of “quarantine mechanisms” for human desires, and as “such they are … very boring.” If the individual unit of democracy is the citizen, authoritarian societies thrill to the Übermensch, the superman promising that “I alone can fix it.” Yet I would argue that all of the hallmarks of authoritarianism — the rallies and crowds, the marching and military parades, the shouting demagogue promising his followers that they are superior — are wind and hot air. What fascism offers isn’t elevation but cheap transcendence, a counterfeit of meaning rather than the real thing.

Whitman understood that democracy wasn’t “very boring” but rather a political system that could deliver on the promises that authoritarianism only pretended it would. For the poet, democracy wasn’t just a way of passing laws or a manner of organizing a government; democracy was a method of transcendence in its own right.

Human beings are meaning-making creatures. A politics that is unable to translate its positions into some sort of transcendent language, pointing to something greater than the individual, is a politics that will ultimately fail. Whitman understood this. Though political theorists of democracy routinely speak of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence or Hamilton and Madison’s Federalist Papers, Whitman’s poetry of a half-century later explicates the metaphysical underpinnings of transcendent democracy. Where Nietzsche would offer the illusions of the Übermensch, Whitman would sing a song of the “divine average.”

Such was Whitman’s description of Lincoln in a March 1863 letter to two New York friends. The president, wrote Whitman, had a face “like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.” The essence of the “divine average” is that Lincoln was great not necessarily in spite of his supposed ugliness but in part because of it — that all of us have a divine greatness because we share in the common foibles of our humanity. A king, a dictator, an Übermensch will pretend that his lot is above the least of his subjects, but as Whitman would counter in “Song of Myself,” his most celebrated poem, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” whether from the slave or slave master, the refugee migrant or the president.

In Whitman’s understanding of democracy, we’re bound to one another in the experience of being finite creatures with bodies that will one day die. The scholar Kevin J. Hayes explains that in Whitman’s estimation, people must “feel the humanity within the self. Deep personal understanding can broaden individual perspective, creating a sense of humanity large enough to include everyone.” A demagogue may whip his admirers into a hateful frenzy and impart the illusion of unity, but the loving work of democracy actually provides that unity with others who may be very different from ourselves. Hayes describes Whitman in “Song of Myself” “going from the personal to the national” and finally “to the universal.”

What democracy requires is mutual affection over that shared predicament; what it needs is not just politics but also transcendence, enchantment, grace and love. We mustn’t be against transcendence but against the wrong kind of transcendence. Meaning is not to be found in the cheapness of “blood and soil” but in the mystic chains that connect every woman and man to one another.

Today democracy is imperiled not by civil war but by a citizenry torn apart by warring ideologies, in part because of the compelling, if nihilistic, story that authoritarians have told about nationality. An authoritarian promises a shallow union with others who look like you; the true democrat ensures that such a union is possible with everyone. In democracy there is the reconciliation of opposites, the elevation of the vernacular, the transcendence of the individual through the equality of humanity.

Writing about the Statue of Freedom, Whitman noted that the pieces “are at present all separated, ready to be hoisted to their place. On the Capitol generally, much work remains to be done.” Sadly, at the end of a tumultuous year and decade, this observation still rings true. All the more reason amid today’s national rancor to revisit Whitman’s open embrace of the democratic ideal, his declaration that “every atom as belonging to me as good belongs to you,” no matter where you were born.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions, an editor at Berfrois and the author of “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness."