Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Naturally Happy

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James discourses for a few pages on those people who are just naturally happy and can hardly be made downcast by any combination of events, or convinced by any argument that there is evil in the world. People like Walt Whitman:
“His favorite occupation,” writes his disciple, Dr. Bucke, “seemed to be strolling or sauntering about outdoors by himself, looking at the grass, the trees, the flowers, the vistas of light, the varying aspects of the sky, and listening to the birds, the crickets, the tree frogs, and all the hundreds of natural sounds. It was evident that these things gave him a pleasure far beyond what they give to ordinary people. Until I knew the man,” continues Dr. Bucke, “it had not occurred to me that any one could derive so much absolute happiness from these things as he did. He was very fond of flowers, either wild or cultivated; liked all sorts. I think he admired lilacs and sunflowers just as much as roses. Perhaps, indeed, no man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him. He appeared to like (and I believe he did like) all the men, women, and children he saw (though I never knew him to say that he liked any one), but each who knew him felt that he liked him or her, and that he liked others also. I never knew him to argue or dispute, and he never spoke about money. He always justified, sometimes playfully, sometimes quite seriously, those who spoke harshly of himself or his writings, and I often thought he even took pleasure in the opposition of enemies. When I first knew [him], I used to think that he watched himself, and would not allow his tongue to give expression to fretfulness, antipathy, complaint, and remonstrance. It did not occur to me as possible that these mental states could be absent in him. After long observation, however, I satisfied myself that such absence or unconsciousness was entirely real. He never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of men, or time in the world's history, or against any trades or occupations—not even against any animals, insects, or inanimate things, nor any of the laws of nature, nor any of the results of those laws, such as illness, deformity, and death. He never complained or grumbled either at the weather, pain, illness, or anything else. He never swore. He could not very well, since he never spoke in anger and apparently never was angry. He never exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt it.”
Whitman, says James “infected others with his own gladness that he and they exist,” and meant quite literally his famous line,
What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as perfect.
How amazing that there should be such people. Do they serve some evolutionary purpose, or do they just sometimes appear by sport, among the many unlikely outcomes of the complex wiring of our brains?


G. Verloren said...

I wonder when it was that Dr. Bucke wrote this, and whether or not it was before the Civil War. I struggle to imagine how this account could be true of a Whitman who had suffered through all the horrors and misfortunes that he would eventually experience during the years of the war and its aftermath.

I also wonder about what motivations might have been in play for the author himself, and particularly what biases, conscious or otherwise, might have influenced his words. Bucke wouldn't be the first nor only of Whitman's supporters to lavish him with high praise that wasn't quite wholly deserved or based in fact.

Indeed, it's hard to reconcile a number of the facts of Whitman's life with the glowing testimony given by Bucke. Like many men of his time, Whitman held racist views and disparaged African Americans. He initially opposed Abolitionism, and although he would later change his mind about granting freedim itself, he would nevertheless retain the view that freed slaves should not vote.

Perhaps, then, when Bucke says that Whitman liked "all the men, women and children he saw" and that "he never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of men", he was actually referring only to those whom were white?

David said...

I recently came across a reference to Whitman's "When I heard the learn'd astronomer," in which he says that mathematical-scientific talk about figures and diagrams made him "tired and sick."

John said...

I'm sure that even the Walt Whitmans of the world can get cranky. But the letters he wrote while serving as a nurse in Civil War hospitals are beatific. There is hardly any woe in them at all. Mainly they focus on his love for the young men he found "beautiful" even as they were dying. The ones I have read are completely free of ranting about evil or even complaints about hospital administration. I got the impression that to him hospitals full of the dying were portals to heaven.

G. Verloren said...


Except he was already widely famous by that time, and he surely knew that his letters would be shared or even published.

This was an age in which many men consciously portrayed an air of genteel conduct and gentlemanly grace. In the same way that British army officers were expected to appear brave and enthusiastic to the point of ludicrousness, so too was a man like Whitman - particularly an author known for his emotional poetry - expected to display a certain public quality of patience, civility, politeness, and even piety.

That's not to say, of course, that he was or was not on some level sincere. His outward appearances might very well have reflected his inner nature to some degree. But just because he gives you a certain impression doesn't mean he didn't purposefully set out to give that impression to others. It certainly would have been entirely in his interest to give people such impressions of himself.

I also highly doubt Whitman would have written the same way about dying soldiers had they happened to be black, serving in "colored" regiments as unpaid volunteers.

Moreover, what's so noble or praiseworthy about choosing not to complain about the shortcomings of hospital administration? Should figures like Florence Nightengale not have bitterly remarked, both in private and in public, about the horrible conditions of battlefield hospitals during the Crimean War? Such complaints did not go unheeded, and remaining in silence would never have achieved better conditions for the wounded and dying.

Perhaps instead of devoutly worshipping the specter of death in his florid prose, Whitman could have used his influence to help raise awareness of the need for improved conditions, and inspired the public to raise funds or take action to help remedy such deprivations. But I suppose he wouldn't have wanted to be deprived of the bleak beauty of the situation?

I'm sorry, I just have never bought into Whitman's "saintly" reputation one iota. I don't suspect he was a cynical con man conducting an elaborate ruse or anything. I just think he was probably an order person who for some reason receives an absurd amount of praise and is granted an excessive degree of freedom from scrutiny, doubt, or judgement.