Whitman as a worshipper at a temple
Last class, there was a discussion of a section of the 1855 version of “Leaves of Grass” where the speaker and his soul meet in a holy and sexual congress and become one. While this is only the first section we have closely examined in which Whitman equates the physical with the spiritual, it is by far not the only example. There is an old saying that ‘the body is a temple’ and this seems intrinsic to understanding Whitman’s ideas on sexual spirituality. For Whitman, his body is a temple, my body is a temple, your body is a temple, and damn it he wants to worship at every single one of them.
The section from this classes reading that really tipped this idea going in my head is the ninth section of I Sing the Body Electric which at first glance appears as another one of Whitman’s seemingly endless lists, this one a list of body parts. But it ends with a closed section and not a segue into another train of thought as we’ve grown accustomed to in the 1885 version. It ends with the lines “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, / O I say now these are the soul.” These final lines of the section made me go back to reread the list and figure out what exactly he was up to.
The impression I got was that, at least this list, has the feel of a mantra or to use a phrase that one of Whitman’s biggest fan boys, Alan Ginsberg, was so fond of, a Khaddish. Especially the Khaddish, which if memory serves, is a Jewish prayer that lists what is holy, and what is sacred in the eyes of God. This serves as at least a basic answer to the question of why there is so much listing in this section of the text. Whitman does not want to leave any part out in his exaltation of the body as holy, and thus feels the need to take a full page to list them all.
Then after this massive listing, he makes his statement, which has almost a Christ like reissuance to it. That the body is fully body, but it isn’t fully body it is also spirit, and above that it is fully spirit. This point of transcendence of the body as holy, and the holy as body accounts also for the shear amount of sexuality in Whitman’s work; this is not a taboo topic for Whitman, sexuality is not something that should be shied away from, instead for him, the orgasm is a religious experience and the body is the type of temple in which frequent praising should be held.