Thursday, May 5, 2016

Corresponding Ideas of Nature in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass & Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching by Emily Baksic

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman blends right into the cultural landscape of China. Whitman has had a Chinese following for nearly a century, and during that time he has been labeled as a force of modernism, a promoter of the middle and the lower classes, and an original influence in Chinese literature (Killingsworth). Most of the world remembers the Statue of Liberty that some Chinese students created during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. A debate developed on whether the statue was inspired by America’s symbol of freedom or if it stemmed out of Asian traditions and just looked like the Statue of Liberty to Americans (Folsom).
What is less well known is that a translated edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass by Peking University professor Zhao Luorui was going to be released when the student demonstrations started. However, the Chinese government intervened and delayed publication because a leader in the political party deemed it unwise to make Leaves of Grass available right away. A new translation of the book could threaten the student demonstrations and cause them to get out of hand (Folsom). Some conservatives viewed Whitman as dangerous fuel on the fires of reform because he held radical opinions about women’s rights, immigration, and working issues.
After the protests in Tiananmen Square, Zhao Luorui’s masterful translation finally appeared in 1991. The whole book of Leaves of Grass became available for the first time in one version by a single Chinese translator. Whitman became a safe and respectable foreign author during this time of capitalism and Western investment (Folsom). In recent years, scholars have discovered that a lot of American writing develops from many styles and different cultures (Carreiro). Walt Whitman now appears in many languages and civilizations. One of the most enticing prospects in literature today is the discovery of new authors like Whitman from other cultures. Guo Moruo, a Chinese author who practices Taoism, embraced Whitman right when the American poet became introduced into Chinese culture. Leaves of Grass helped Guo become a huge voice in the modern movement of Asian literature. The similarities between Leaves of Grass and Tao Te Ching reattached Guo to his original Taoist roots (Folsom). Chinese critics see Whitman’s view of god as the manifestation of the universe, just like Taoism (Chen). Guo even read "Passage to India," which embraces non-duality (advaita). By reading Whitman, Guo recalled his memories of Chuang Tzu’s philosophy and Lao Tzu’s teachings. The East reveres Lao Tzu as the father of Taoism because he developed the religion and wrote Tao Te Ching in the sixth century BC, which contains philosophical ideas, metaphors, practices, and ways of life (Verellen). Leaves of Grass basically reattached Guo to the origins of Taoist thought.
The enticing and thought-provoking Leaves of Grass contains numerous similarities to Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu on themes of cosmic identity, character, nature, spirit, death, and freedom. Whitman continued to rewrite the book throughout his entire life (Bucke). Whitman never identified himself as a Taoist or read the Tao Te Ching, but he definitely thought and perceived the world like a Taoist (Chen). For example, Whitman’s pleasure of nature reaches the point of a religion because he worships nature and sees god everywhere (Killingsworth). “I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (Whitman). This beautiful line from Leaves of Grass represents the acceptance of all life, even the physical and the sublime, along with human misery and the heavenly expressions of the divine. The grass is Whitman’s proof that everything in the world moves on in life and is everlasting: “Look for me under your boot soles.” This line echoes “Great minds are selfless, their generosity is nature’s” from Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu’s saying corresponds with Whitman’s because he sees a person's life in correspondence to nature, since all life is accepted (Depoy).
Lao Tzu

The yin and yang accept the flow between one’s life and the universe counteracting together. The yin and yang represent the integration of opposites not merely as polarities, but as complements. Whitman embraces this idea by asking, “Do I contradict myself? I am large, I contain multitudes.” Similarly, a key principle in Taoism is self discovery, which starts from balancing the yin and yang with one’s environment (Verellen). Next, one learns that the body and the soul are equal, along with oneself and the world. Whitman knows that he is in harmony with his soul, body, consciousness, and environment (Carpenter). He has an awareness of his own mortality, which allows him to reach out, connect, and help all different people by accepting the motto of “Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me” (Whitman). Just like a Taoist, Whitman understands life is cyclical and his physical matter will be transferred to another form. This observation eases his soul because he has a sense of identity (Noel). Whitman’s ability to identify himself and others gives him insight. His humanity allows him to feel and recognize a sacred significance in all types of people, whether they are rich or poor (Noel). He is “no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them, no more modest then immodest” (Whitman). He also lives in the present and does not dwell on the future, which is another key idea in Taoism (Bucke). “More than mortal” describes Whitman’s universal perception and comprehension, just like “the Tao as the elemental nothing from which all things are born, a deep pool into which all things go” (Lao Tzu).
Throughout Whitman’s life, he developed his work in the West even though his personality seems to be manifested from the East (Noel). In reality, Walt is not specifically a Christian because he sees god everywhere in nature. The poem “Greatnesses” in Leaves of Grass references Tao-like ideas, especially the acceptance of old age, wealth of the soul, and value of the earth (Whitman). Nature in relation to religion speaks to Whitman. He listened to bush crickets and recorded his feelings by stating, “The Katy-Did, how shall I describe its piquant utterance- every night it soothes me to sleep.” When talking about nature, the only tone of pathos that comes from him is the thought of losing his touch with nature during his elder years. Whitman says, “I want to get out, fly, swim, I am eager for my feet again. But my feet are eternally gone.” Similarly, Lao Tzu states, “It blunts sharpness and levels mountains. An eternal void, it is eternally filled.” Both sayings relate to being one with the universe since they are everlasting.
Lao Tzu defines the universe as unnamable. However, it is the same as everything in the world that is identified (Verellen). Similarly, Whitman says, “There is that in me, I do not know it is, but I know it is in me. I do not know it, it is without name, it is a word unsaid, it is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.” Song of Myself exemplifies Whitman's appreciation of life according to Taoism. He understands that he is one with god because humanity and the divine, as well as heaven and earth, are parallel. Whitman states, “And as to you life, I reckon you are the leaving of many deaths, no doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.” Additionally, death does not scare Walt because he understands that death will set him free (Folsom). He even says, “To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.” Whitman believes that everyone will die, but they will always be themselves because each individual is eternal in nature (Noel). Similarly, Tao Te Ching states, “When you lose yourself you will be everywhere.” Whitman and Lao Tzu understand that the universe and everything in it are connected. “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (Whitman).
More similarities between Whitman and Lao Tzu include the resistance of the conventional and materialistic world, which creates a place for Whitman in the center of nature-loving people all over the world. Walt’s identity between himself and nature surpasses the average human (Killingsworth). Dr. Bucke, a friend of Whitman's, attests: “Walt’s favorite occupation was to stroll about out of doors, sauntering away by himself, looking at the grass, flowers, trees, vistas of light, and all the hundreds of natural sounds. It was evident that these things gave him a pleasure far beyond what they give ordinary people.” As a young man, Walt always found comfort laying on the sand, gazing into the sea, because of nature’s mystic beauty (Noel). When Whitman grew older, his heart kept getting larger by feeling and seeing nature all around him (Killingsworth). He discovered happiness in the bountiful air and sunshine, which created his purpose to embrace love. “The old man even drove his horse into the ocean and sat an hour enjoying the sunset and got the cold that brings on death” (Bucke). According to Tao Te Ching, “In the perfect land, there is reverence for what has come before,” which is similar to Whitman’s appreciation because he discovers himself in nature.
Whitman evokes Taoism in his nature poems, along with religious poems embracing Taoist elements. However, Whitman never labeled himself with a specific religion because he encountered various viewpoints and perceptions (Killingsworth) which gave him a big, open heart that led him to roads that wanderers traveled. Historically, a great many Taoists have been wanderers who no doubt would have put great stock in Whitman's opening lines to "The Song of the Open Road"—“Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” He grasps faith tremendously because he understands the bigger picture. For example, he is a “friend of publicans and sinners” (Noel) and can be described as an unorthodox believer, since he claims: “Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from.” His faith grows out of his personality because he is unconventional (Noel). Religious ideas flow throughout "To Workingmen." Whitman starts by addressing both men and women, which shows his acceptance of gender equality. He also understands that all races and ethnicities are equal by saying, “I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me.” Similarly, Tao Te Ching states, “The needs of others are their only needs, and to them he gives alike.” More ideas in "To Workingmen" include: “We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine; I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still; It is not they who give the life—it is you who give the life.” Whitman explains how we create and alter religion because of the changes in the world. Change upsets the flow in us and the universe. Lao Tzu agrees: “In each change of perception, there are the seeds that follow” because adaptation is inevitable.
Not only did Whitman have a unique perception on nature and religion, but he also created his own literary style based on the relation between emotion and nature (Killingsworth). Whitman’s voice is a literary form of expression related to the outdoors. Edward Carpenter can attest to seeing this type of writing from Whitman. Edward was a disciple of Whitman, who would venture outside to write in Whitman's style. Carpenter says, “If I attempt to write inside, my thoughts insist on rhyming, but the minute I go outside Whitman verse is the result.” Whitman’s verse and the great serene flow like untouched facts of the Earth (Carpenter). Edward Crosby also followed Walt Whitman and appreciated his lessons and philosophy. Relating to Whitman’s style, Crosby says, “The trim balance of a Christmas tree with colored candles and gilt balls and stars is beautiful in a way, but it is the want of symmetry that helps make the oak and the pine, kings of the forest. And even blank verse with all its grandeur is too suggestive of landscaping gardening, or the studied roughness of rock gardens.” All in all, Whitman’s verse comes from the natural form of outdoor expression, which allows his ideas to derive from the feelings we get deep within our souls when we are out under the trees or sitting in the grass (Killingsworth).
Similarly, since property and material do not entice him, Whitman’s faith comes from nature amd grows out of the very roots of his own personality (Noel). A line in Song of Myself says, “My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,” which attests to Whitman’s intuition of knowing that religion is ambiguous. We all believe in something, but that something vacates the truth. Similarly, Tao Te Ching states, “What is true and what is not true exist together” because some perceptions are correct, false, or both depending on one’s comprehension. Even though Tao Te Ching and Leaves of Grass are from completely different time periods, both texts refuse to sit still, which makes them similar. Moreover, the views on faith and nature in the text blend homogenously.
Whitman perceives the universe as a form of connection to people, god, and nature (Noel). Tao Te Ching states that everything in the universe interconnects and flows together. We might as well live in harmony if we are all connected (Chen). An example from Song of Myself says, “To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow.” Tao Te Ching also emphasizes the importance of living in harmony by developing a relationship with nature (Chen). Whitman agrees by saying nature “calls my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush.” Additionally, the Tao resembles the absolute principle of the world in harmony with nature (Carreiro). Te in Tao Te Ching explains the differentiation between the perfection of nature and moral virtue. Whitman desired to allocate the characteristics of peaceful harmony in nature, which comes from the concept of balance (Chen). To find a happy balance, he reached out to nature, which motivated and helped him with his writing (Killingsworth). Tao, nature, men, and women must be continuous with one another in order to discover harmony and freedom (Chen).
Walt Whitman discovered balance and independence by appreciating nature. Leaves of Grass revealed numerous perceptions on nature similar to ideas in Tao Te Ching. Even though Whitman never labeled himself with one specific religion, he embodied Lao Tzu because of his ideas on nature, religion, and self discovery. Most importantly, Whitman understood one’s connection to the universe. Lao Tzu would label Whitman as: “A traveler who has no destination always arrives at the right place” (Lao Tzu).

Emily Baksic

Works Cited

Bucke, Richard. "Visits from Whitman." The Walt Whitman Archive. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Carpenter, Edward. "The Walt Whitman Archive." With Walt Whitman in Camden. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2016.

Carreiro, Daniel. The Dao against the tyrant: The limitation of power in the political thought of ancient China. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2013. Libertarian Papers. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Chen, Ellen Marie. "The Meaning of Ge in the Tao Te Ching." Jstor. University of Hawai'i Press, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Depoy, Phillip. The Tao and The Bard: A Conversation. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Folsom, Ed. "Whitman East and West." Whitman East and West (2002): 1-217. Whitman Archive. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Killingsworth, Jimmie. "The Walt Whitman Archive." Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics -. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

Lao-tzu, and Herrymon Maurer. Tao Te Ching: The Way of the Ways, Tao. Princeton, NJ: Fellowship in Prayer, 1982. Print.

Noel, Roden. "Essays on Poetry and Poets." Essays on Poetry and Poets. London: K. Paul, Trench & Co., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2016.

Verellen, Franciscus. "Taoism." The Journal of Asian Studies (1995): 322-46. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Vintage /Library of America, 1992. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific observations. I am currently writing an annotation of Song of Myself, and I was struck by the parallels between the poem and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. So I Googled those terms and your essay came up first on the list of results. Well done.