Walt Whitman and Crossing the Boundaries of Consciousness

My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.


Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

BY WALT WHITMAN

1

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

3

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left the rest in strong shadow, Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sunlit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and south-westward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sunset,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite storehouses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges, the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black contrasted with wild red and yellow light over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

 

5

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

 

How does this poem strike you, my reader? What jumps out at you? I read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as a kind of song to experience (the ambiguity of this last phrase is intentional). Whitman tells us about, “The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,”—Whitman is sustained by his experiences not some particular experience, but his experience of all things all hours of the day. And in this experience he finds, “The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,”—he finds the paradox of one and many. His individual consciousness disintegrates, as do all others. But none of these disintegrate into nothing; rather, this claim of disintegration is the questioning of boundaries. These boundaries are further questioned in the next line, “The similitudes of the past and those of the future,….” Which “similitudes”? Those of experience, of consciousness. Through this sameness of experience, Whitman sees the disintegration of boundaries. From section 4:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

And from section 5:

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,

All that Whitman does, all that Whitman experiences in his comings and goings around New York is just what those around Whitman are doing and experiencing, and what those a hundred years hence will be doing and experiencing.

It would be easy to gripe and deny either the similitude that Whitman claims or its importance. Regarding the former, of course not everyone’s experiences are the same. Taking a cue from intersectionality, a poor gay Latina experiences the world quite differently from a poor white trans man. Nevertheless, perhaps we can find room amongst all of the rightly acknowledged differences in all of our quotidian experiences for some similitude. While we all might see, “…the reflection of the summer sky in the water,” in a way that is uniquely colored by our own experiences, both “good” and “bad,” is there not some common aspect between us? Assuming there is, let’s speak to its importance.

In Buddhism, one of the Brahmavihara, or “the Four Immeasurables” or “Divine Abodes,” is mudita or “Sympathetic/empathetic joy.” It is the taking pleasure in the joys of others. For example, if your friend is experiencing great joy at seeing their loved one for the first time in years, your own heart is filled with joy, perhaps even joy that is imaginatively similar to theirs. A sillier example would be foregoing the doughnut one was about to eat so that another may enjoy it; and as they eat it, expressing pleasure, one experiences pleasure, too. I take it this is something that many of us have a hard time doing. We experience our experience as ours. That is, if you bite into the doughnut, say, a fresh, hot Krispy Kreme doughnut, you experience the hot, gooey, sugary taste on your tongue; I don’t experience it on mine. Thus, if I’m longing for a doughnut experience, it will do me no good for you to have a doughnut experience. So we think.

I read Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” as a questioning of the resistance to the idea of sympathetic joy. That is, Whitman is questioning the “distance,” i.e., distinction and difference, between our consciousnesses, our experiences. I am not saying, that Whitman intends to say that just as the Morning Star and the Evening Star are both Venus, that my consciousness, no matter how precise the similitude, is identical to yours. Rather, it strikes me that he wants to express the intuition that divisions of time, space, and body are not sufficient to divide your consciousness from mine, or anyone’s from anyone’s. I struggle to try to spell this out in explicit prose. But let’s return section 5, again:

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.

I take Whitman to be acknowledging that the central thing that pins down his consciousness as his, his experiences as his, is his body. Hence, “I too had receiv’d identity by my body,…” We each find ourselves at the center of a world, our world, one that is rooted in the spatio-temporality of the body. The body is the reference point for all experience. It is the location of these eyes and this head that gives me this experience; and even if you exist now, your eyes don’t exist in this space—and if you didn’t exist now, but in the past or future, then just forget it. This experience is mine.

And that is all certainly true. Nevertheless, Whitman is not satisfied with that. Yes, my experience and my self are rooted in this body. And in one sense, that makes these experiences mine. Nevertheless, there is another sense in which there is no distance, again, no distinction or difference, between my experiencing the crossing of the Brooklyn ferry and yours. I do not think he means this disintegration of distance in the way that we might make sense of colors as universals in philosophy. That is, on one view all instances of scarlet that occur in the world are one and the same color, just as the Morning Star and the Evening Star are one and the same planet. With such universals, as they are called, the very same thing can be in multiple places at the same time, and of course different times. I think the problem with this way of understanding Whitman’s point, is that it operates with our common understanding of sameness and difference; it just flaunts it. That is, it operates with the usual idea that two qualitatively identical things, but which occupy different spaces, cannot be numerically identical. It then just denies that, saying that actually some things can. In doing so, the idea is that each of those things occupying different spaces are literally identical. And, again, I don’t think that Whitman wants to say that they are literally identical in a way that the Morning Star in the Evening Star are.

Another option would be to appeal to a drop in the ocean kind of analogy. That is, each person’s experience of crossing with the Brooklyn ferry is a similar drop of water, which can be collected into a whole that is all experience of crossing with the Brooklyn ferry. This whole is the collective experience of humanity and dissolves boundaries of space and time, perhaps much as the set of all cats transcends space and time. However, I don’t think this is quite right either. I might be able to come up with an argument as to why it is not the right reading. But I’m not so sure it would be adequate.

As a trained philosopher, one who is used to argumentation as the only valid currency of thought, I find myself in the awkward position of saying that I think perhaps we can only do as well as reading Whitman. And we can try to say explicitly what the poem is not saying, as above; but what we are meant to realize from reading it can perhaps only be had by reading it. And if you are the “right reader,” if I am reading it “rightly,” then perhaps there will be no distance between us. Then: I am with you.

 

 

 

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