Celebration and the Road: The Holy Calculator of Walt Whitman

3 December 2021

Celebration and the Road: The Holy Calculator of Walt Whitman

Portrait of America—the New Freedom (detail), Diego Rivera, 1933; Image Credit: theglassmagazine.com

Democracy and technology in Whitman’s works are linked to each other in only two manners: through celebration and the road (as itself and as a metaphor for communication.) For Whitman, celebrating is essential to democracy and forming a “community” is essential to celebrate. In this paper, communication is considered from two perspectives: in the first perspective, it is shown that Walt Whitman celebrates the development of modern communication tools (obtained through technological advances), from roads to telegraph and telephone lines; in the second perspective, the concept of communication is considered as a literary act: the reader-writer communication, which is in fact the basis of the formation of the literary community. In the middle of the twentieth century, the development of weapons of mass destruction was a new technological achievement that would probably not have met Walt Whitman’s approval because it neither helped to expand the concept of celebration nor facilitated communication. In the poem “Somebody Blew up America,” Baraka showed us that technology, which was originally linked to democracy, is now linked to terrorism. This article is dedicated to Professor Éric Athenot who read this article over and over again and shared his valuable comments with me.

Introduction: Technology and Democracy

Almost seventy years after William Wordsworth wrote, in the 1800s, that “there hath past away a glory from the earth,” (1) Walt Whitman saw the glory in “the great achievements of the present.” (2) In his poems, “London 1802” and “The World Is Too Much With Us”, Wordsworth, as a Romantic poet, complains that the people of England have become so dependent on technology that they have become alienated from nature. But Walt Whitman saw the glory that romantics saw in nature in modern technological achievements: In the poem “Passage to India,” he praises the achievements of “engineers” in opening the Suez Canal and building railroads:

Singing my days,

Singing the great achievements of the present,

Singing the strong light works of engineers,

Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)

In the Old World the east the Suez canal,

The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,

The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires; (3)

In fact, Whitman was the first poet to deliberately praise technology. Three decades of Walt Whitman’s life, from 1846 to 1876, coincided with three decades of tremendous industrial development in the United States, when the expansion of new generations of steam engines and the massive industrial production of steel gave an extraordinary impetus to the construction of roads, railroads, and buildings. Robert V. Bruce describes those decades as follows: “By mid-century […] technology was riding high and carrying science with it. The professionals themselves verged on hubris. ‘Never was there such an age of progress,’ wrote a leading civil engineer in 1849, ‘and it has hardly commenced yet.’” (4)

But Whitman is also commonly regarded as the poet of American democracy. George Kateb, the political theorist and the author of Utopia and Its Enemies, describes him as “the greatest philosopher of democratic culture.” (5) In the poem “For You, O Democracy,” Whitman clearly considers himself to be a servant of democracy:

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!

For you, for you I am trilling these songs. (6)

In the poem “Rise O Days from Your Fathomless Deeps,” he explicitly links the modern city and democracy:

Thunder on! Stride on, Democracy! Strike with vengeful stroke!

And do you rise higher than ever yet O days, O cities! (7)

This paper wants to show that democracy and technology in Whitman’s works are linked to each other in only two manners: through celebration and the road. Using these concepts, we examine the relationship between technology and democracy in a historical course, from the time of Walt Whitman to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: in the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), which was published in 1956, and in the poem “Somebody Blew up America,” which was written by Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) in 2001.

Whitman was an admirer of technology because he saw it, as it will be shown in this paper, in relation to the development of democracy, when the development of technology helped develop ways of communication between people around the world. But in the middle of the twentieth century, the development of weapons of mass destruction was a new technological achievement. Erik Mortenson writes: “Americans were in awe of the bomb’s immense destructive potential, and the power of the detonation reinforced American pride in an unprecedentedly optimistic time in American culture. The atomic bomb and the mushroom cloud thus became symbols of American technological strength and superiority as the United States assumed the role of leader of the free world.” (8) Walt Whitman spoke of the glory of technological advances, but the advent of atomic bomb technology led Henry Miller (1891-1980) to write in his book, The Time of The Assassins: “Are we thinking of Beauty, however bitter, or are we thinking of atomic energy? And what is the chief emotion which our great discoveries now inspire?” (9) He added:

The discovery of atomic energy is synchronous with the discovery that we can never trust one another again. There lies the fatality—in this hydra-headed fear which no bomb can destroy. The real renegade is the man who has lost faith in his fellowman. Today the loss of faith is universal. Here God himself is powerless. We have put our faith in the bomb, and it is the bomb which will answer our prayers. (10)

Although Miller, like Walt Whitman, remains an admirer of modernity and cities, he no longer sees the development of modern technologies to be in the service of expanding communication. He writes: “Men no longer communicate, that is the tragedy of modern times. Society has long since ceased to be a community; it has broken up into aggregations of helpless atoms.” (11)

The development of technology, which in Walt Whitman’s poetry is associated with the development of democracy, became a problem for democracy in the middle of the twentieth century. For many of the Beat Generation poets and writers, technology was a tool to develop control tools, just as it was used to kill more people in a shorter time:

“The image of a central control, a ‘Master Switch,’ by which a dehumanized population would be [subjugated] and regulated was also employed by Kerouac in his short story ‘CITYCitycity,’ a dystopian vision of the future of the world extrapolated from certain alarming tendencies the author observed in American society during the mid-1950s. In ‘CITYCitycity’ Kerouac envisioned a grim future in which a three-tiered steel city encircles the entire earth. The inhabitants of this colossal, overpopulated, mechanistic megapolis are utterly regimented and manipulated by a ruling elite by means of computers, tranquillizing drugs, mass media (Multivision), and ‘Deactivation,’ which is a surgical process of general psychic pacification comparable to a prefrontal lobotomy. A parallel vision of dehumanizing control through the collusion of technology and government may be seen in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, in particular in the episode of the ‘The Complete All-American De-Anxietized Man’ and in the ‘Interzone’ sections.” (12)

The chapter “Meeting of International Conference of Technological Psychiatry” in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch begins as follow:

Doctor “Fingers” Schafer, the Lobotomy Kid, rises and turns on the Conferents the cold blue blast of his gaze:

“Gentlemen, the human nervous system can be reduced to a compact and abbreviated spinal column. The brain, front, middle and rear must follow the adenoid, the wisdom tooth, the appendix... I give you my Master Work: The Complete All American De-Anxietized Man...” (13)

We can see that the relationship between technology and democracy is a complex and serious one that has undergone significant changes throughout the history of modernity. Although Allen Ginsberg, like his beloved poet Walt Whitman, admired modernity and its achievements he somehow felt threatened by modern technology, when a “Sphinx of cement and aluminum” had destroyed “the best minds of” his “generation” and had stood against the democracy which was Walt Whitman’s ideal: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” Ginsberg answeres: “Moloch!” And who is Moloch? “Blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” (14)

For Walt Whitman, the development of technology in the nineteenth century was directly related to the development of democracy, but in the middle of the twentieth century the development of the atomic bomb and the tools of control made the relationship between technology and democracy so critical: a turning point in the history of technology-democracy; but finally, at the beginning of the 21st century, as we see in the poem of Amiri Baraka, Somebody Blew Up America, the connection between technology and democracy has been completely severed, and in practice, technology has come to serve terrorism.

The road

Walt Whitman and the authors of the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, shared an almost identical vision in praising the great achievements of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels, in 1848, like Whitman in 1872, praised those achievements as follows:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (15)

They were also fascinated by modern roads, but not for the same reasons. Like Walt Whitman, Marx and Engels praised modern roads because they facilitated “communication,” but at this point, their path diverged: Whitman’s “Communism” is pure communication (Communism and communication share the same etymology: later, between the 1930s and the 1950s, George Bataille wrote at length about the relationship between community, communication and Communism) (16), but Marx and Engels had different expectations about modern roads. In the Communist Manifesto one can read the following: “And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.” (17) While Whitman is inclined “[t]o know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for travelling souls,” (18) Jacques Rancière writes: “Whitman embodies the unanimist dream, the democracy of naked souls who walk along the highway, with no aim but to travel, with no other form of society than one born in the ability to recognize oneself along the way.” (19)

For Marx and Engels, however, democracy was not an end in itself but a battle in which the proletariat must win: “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” (20) Marx and Engels were well aware that democracy could become its own enemy, just as roads could turn into something against themselves, similar to the New York highways that Marshall Berman described later in the mid-twentieth century, and that middle-class freedom did not mean freedom for all. When Marx spoke of the necessity of a radical rupture, Whitman seemed to have a wishful-thinking view of concepts such as democracy and the technology, but is that really the case?

In the poem “For You, O Democracy” Whitman wrote: “I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,” (21) He seems to be saying there are roads which, in fact, are the arms linking cities to one another. The road is one of the main themes in Whitman’s poems, and he wrote extensively in praise of railways, roads, and other transportation routes. In the poem “Song of the Open Road,” (“Poem of the Road” in the 1856 and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass) Whitman invited everyone to step on the road, which he associated with celebration and joy: “The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.” (22)

Harold Aspiz, who describes this poem as “a celebration of wanderlust,” emphasizes that Whitman was not alone in his enthusiasm for the road. For instance, “[H]enry David Thoreau saw the road as the ancients’ Hesperides; he described its lure as a ‘needle’ pointing ‘between west and south-southwest.’” (23)

Whitman’s persona appears alone in the first lines of the poem:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. (24)

But in the last lines of the poem, he wants to form a community with his reader:

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live? (25)

The importance of roads and travel can be traced forward to Henry Miller’s novels, especially The Air-conditioned Nightmare (1945), about his one-year travel to American cities. Walt Whitman was one of the most important sources of thought and inspiration for Henry Miller, just as both of them were a great source of inspiration for the Beat Generation.

Gregory Stephenson in his book, The Daybreak Boys, writes: “The Beat inheritance from the Lost Generation is less from its illustrious figures-such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos than from the more radical wing: from Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, and Eugene Jolas; from the ‘Revolution of the Word’ proclamation in the literary magazine transition; from the later Ezra Pound; and, in particular, from Henry Miller.” (26) He also sees Cassidy, the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, as the fusion of Walt Whitman and Henry Miller: “the reemergence of a heterodox, syncretic, religious impulse that has previously found expression in such figures as Whitman and Henry Miller.” (27)

Along with political and historical factors such as the end of World War II, the US involvement in the Vietnam War, and the dominance of McCarthyism in American social and cultural life in the 1950s, the development of roads and railroads, the mass production of affordable cars, the expansion of airlines, and the American economic boom after the 1930s crisis were all important factors in shaping the Beat Generation in the United States of the 1950s. They could now, as Whitman had exhorted his readers to do, easily travel across America, travel to Mexico, Africa, Europe, and even Asia, and meet new people. As mentioned, Walt Whitman was one of the most important sources of inspiration and thought for the Beat generation, both as the father of American free-verse poetry, and as a harbinger of road travel and free life.

The importance of these roads can be clearly seen in the poem “Howl”, by Allen Ginsberg, and in Jack Kerouac’s novels such as On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur.

In “Footnote to Howl” Ginsberg wrote: “Holy the sea holy the desert holy the railroad holy the locomotive” (28) Ginsberg, more than any other poet of the Beat generation, had accepted Walt Whitman’s invitation in the poem “Song of the Open Road” to step on the roads of the world and see the world as a road. Although Ginsberg admired modern roads and many of the achievements of modernity, he also revealed the terrible aspects of modernism in his poem “Howl.” The poem begins as follows: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” (29) And then, by drawing a picture of mid-twentieth-century modernity, Ginsberg shows how a Sphinx called Moloch has emerged from the heart of modern technology to destroy the lives of his generation. In his book All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman describes the contemporaneous New York of “Howl”:

So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of ‘traditional’ and ‘pre-modern’ institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself. Here in the Bronx, thanks to Robert Moses, the modernity of the urban boulevard was being condemned as obsolete and blown to pieces, by the modernity of the interstate highway. (30)

In Marshall Berman’s description, highways have become an entity against roads: they no longer help more people communicate in New York, but rather limit the possibility of any kind of communication. Most of those who have taken part in anti-government protests probably hate highways: one cannot protest on highways (unlike streets), but these highways bring the repressive forces of the government to the protest site as soon as possible.

In the first part of “Howl”, one can read the following:

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railway yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night. (31)

But almost half a century after “Howl”, in 2001, these modern roads, airlines in this case, were suddenly in the service of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led to the writing of the poem “Somebody Blwe Up America” by Amiri Baraka.

Community and Communication

Whitman was a fan of technology because modern technology facilitated communication. In Democratic Vistas, published in 1871, Whitman wrote about his anticipation of the end of the century as follows: “There will be daily electric communication with every part of the globe. What an age! What a land!” (32) He also sought to form a literary community with his reader, through the reader-writer communication. To delve deeper into this subject, it seems essential to examine these concepts in twentieth-century French philosophy.

In 1983, two different readings of the philosophy of Georges Bataille led to a dialogue between Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot. Nancy published an essay called La Communauté désœuvrée (1983), in which he used the concept of désœuvrement from Blanchot. Then, Maurice Blanchot responded to Nancy with his book, La Communauté inavouable (1983). This dialogue would reinvigorate philosophical reflection on the ideas of community, Communism, and communication. For Blanchot, the possibility of community is because of its impossibility, when he concluded in his book, The Unavowable Community (1984), that: “The community takes upon itself and inscribes in itself the impossibility of the community.” (33)

In “The Task of The Translator,” Walter Benjamin asked: “what does a literary work ‘say’? What does it communicate?” And he answered immediately: “It ‘tells’ very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not communication or the imparting of information.” (34) In his article, Benjamin implicitly argued that translation is impossible, and that the possibility of translation is the result of this impossibility. He wrote:

The extent to which a translation manages to be in keeping with the nature of this form is determined objectively by the translatability of the original. The lower the quality and distinction of its language, the greater the extent to which it is information, the less fertile a field it is for translation, until the utter preponderance of content, far from being the lever for a well-formed translation, renders it impossible. The higher the level of a work, the more it remains translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly.”(35)

In the same way, Georges Bataille in Literature and Evil, in a chapter devoted to Jean Genet, argued that communication is impossible, and ironically that is why literature is communication. Bataille wrote: “Sartre himself noted a curious difficulty at the basis of Genet’s work. Genet, the writer, has neither the power to communicate with his readers nor the intention of doing so. His work almost denies the reader. Sartre saw, though he drew no conclusions, that in these conditions the work was incomplete. It was a replacement, half-way from the communication at which literature aims.” (36) Furthermore, Bataille discussed communication through the concept of “sovereignty” in this way: “Literature is major communication: a sovereign author addresses sovereign humanity, beyond the servitude of the isolated reader. If this is the case, the author denies himself. He denies his own peculiarities in favour of the work, at the same time as he denies the peculiarity of the reader in favour of reading. Literary communication – which is such in so far as it is poetic – is this which allows sovereign process to exist, like a solidified instant, or a series of instants, detached both from the work communication and from the reading of the work.”(37) Bataille quotes from Sartre, who credits “[o]nly Mallarmé, who certainly expressed it clearly, with a universal supremacy of communication over beings who communicate: ‘In Mallarmé, [...], reader and writer are cancelled out simultaneously: they extinguish each other mutually, until the Word alone remains.’” (38) That is why Jean-Luc Nancy in a part of his book, The Inoperative Community, called “Literary Communism”, which begins with a quote from Bataille, writes: “The community of interrupted myth, which is community that in a sense is without community, or communism without community, is our destination.” (39) And he continues: “Community without community is to come, in the sense that it is always coming, endlessly, at the heart of every collectivity (because it never stops coming, it ceaselessly resists collectivity itself as much as it resists the individual).” (40) As for Jacques derrida “[d]emocracy [just like Communism] is always a promise.” (41)

The concept of community, as one of the key concepts proposed in Blanchot’s works, is associated with the concept of “literary community.” As Ullrich Haase and William Large write: “Blanchot sees the major danger of our age in the way that we dissolve any important part of our lives into objectified knowledge. Yet, as neither literature, nor death, nor the other can be made into objects, we live in danger of losing the human community and, subsequently, ourselves. Blanchot thus develops the thought of the literary community […] as a way to escape this reduction of human life.” (42) Blanchot spoke of the idea of a literary community, an inherently democratic community from which no one can be excluded: every reader who begins to read a text enters this community. Through this idea, he reaches the idea of Literary Communism. Haase and Large explain: “Following the unity of the words community, communism, communication, communion, we can see that Blanchot has something more essential in mind than a particular political view.” (43) In The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote: “Each writer, each work inaugurates a community. There is therefore an unimpeachable and irrepressible literary communism, to which belongs anyone who writes (or reads) or tries to write (or read) by exposing himself.” (44)

In the poem “Thanks in Old Age,” Whitman explicitly speaks of the idea of a literary community:

(You distant, dim unknown—or young or old—countless, unspecified,

readers belov’d,

We never met, and ne’er shall meet—and yet our souls embrace, long,

close and long;) (45)

And in the first lines of “Salut Au Monde” he denies himself to be, with the words of Bataille, “a sovereign author.”

O take my hand, Walt Whitman!

Such gliding wonders! Such sights and sounds!

Such joined unended links, each hooked to the next!

Each answering all—each sharing the earth with all.

And he continues:

What widens within you, Walt Whitman?

What waves and soils exuding?

What climes? What persons and lands are here?

Who are the infants? Some playing, some slum-bering?

Who are the girls? Who are the married women?

Who are the three old men going slowly with their arms about each others’ necks?

What rivers are these? What forests and fruits are these?

What are the mountains called that rise so high in the mists?

What myriads of dwellings are they, filled with dwellers? (46)

And the persona answers: “Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,/ Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east—America is provided for in the west,” (47) Whitman locates his and the reader’s sovereignty in the sense of celebration: where he celebrates himself, as he celebrates others, for instance in the poem “Song of Myself.”

As mentioned, Whitman’s ambition is to form a literary community with his reader, without any discrimination: anyone can enter his community, so there is no mention of property, that is, this community is not supposed to protect an asset from others not belonging to this communiy, this community is an open space, or in the words of Esposito a Void, that anyone can enter, just by holding Whitman’s book in his/her hands. In the fortieth part of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes: “Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity,/ When I give I give myself.” (48)

And in the last lines of “Song of the Open Road,” he writes:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live? (49)

Whitman’s persona is ready to offer himself as the highest gift to the readers of the poems. Roberto Esposito’s argument can help us better understand Whitman’s concept of community. In his book, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998), Roberto Esposito showed that community isn’t a property, or a territory to be separated and defended against others, but it is a void, a debt, a gift to the other. He writes: “As the complex though equally unambiguous etymology that we have till now undertaken demonstrates, the munus that the communitas shares isn’t a property or a possession [appartenenza]. It isn’t having, but on the contrary, is a debt, a pledge, a gift that is to be given, and that therefore will establish a lack. The subjects of community are united by an ‘obligation,’ in the sense that we say ‘I owe you something,’ but not ‘you owe me something.’ This is what makes them not less than the masters of themselves, and that more precisely expropriates them of their initial property (in part or completely), of the most proper property, namely, their very subjectivity.” (50)

Celebration and Celebrity

For Whitman, forming a community is essential to celebrate, and celebrating is essential to democracy. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins with such words:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. (51)

Betsy Erkkila argues that the first line of the poem “[i]solates the separate person of the poet as the hero of the poem, the following two conjunctive and parallel phrases link the I of the poet with the you of the reader. These opening lines immediately engage the reader as a participant in the action of the poem, which is simultaneously about the creation of a democratic poem and the creation of a democratic self/nation/world.” (52) Once again, Whitman denies his own peculiarities to get the sovereignty that Bataille speaks of, at the same time he denies the peculiarity of the reader too, “[F]or every atom belonging to” him “[a]s good belongs to” the reader. Allen Grossman writes: “Whitman devised a ‘song’ that would reconcile variety and order, equality and constitution, one and many without compromising either term … [He] situates his new American organic law and true sovereign … at the zero point of unanimity.” (53)

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1876); Image Credit: ft.com

The English word “celebrate” comes from the Latin word “celebrare”, which means “to assemble to honor.” So, every celebration needs a group or a crowd, a community. It is common that the verb “to celebrate” in Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is considered only to mean “to glorify” or “to worship,” but why ignore the other meanings, like “to feast” or “to fete”? In order to celebrate something, in the sense of glorifying it, there is no need for a crowd or a community, but for Whitman, first of all, celebrating is a collective and public act; and secondly, everything is worth celebrating. The concept of celebration in this study will also be discussed in relation to the concept of celebrity: for Walt Whitman, “fame” in the age of democracy has a different meaning than in, for example, Shakespeare’s time. Whitman needs a mass of people for fame, a crowd, so the importance of “communication” is once again evident in his poetry. Focusing on “Song of Myself,” David Haven Blake wrires: “In Whitman’s publicity, we shall come to share an eternal public life, for not only will we celebrate him, we shall identify that act as a celebration of ourselves.” (54) In the preface of his book, Blake writes: “Whitman defined poetic fame in relation to the crowd. […] Whitman’s poet sought the approval of his contemporaries. In the turbulence of American democracy, fame would be contingent on celebrity, on the degree to which the people exulted in the poet and his work.” (55)

In poems such as “A Song of Joys” and “Salut Au Monde,” we can see how Whitman saw modern life as a festival or a celebration in which everyone is joyful and celebrated, as anything is shared, where “Each answering all—each sharing the earth with all.” (56) Although it seems the joyful modern picture that he presented was a “promise,” as Derrida says, or an image “to come, in the sense that it is always coming,” as Nancy describes.

In the poem “A Song of Joys” Whitman described modern life as “[a] poem of new joys,” while he heard “[t]he hiss of […] the laughing locomotive:”

O the engineer's joys! to go with a locomotive!

To hear the hiss of steam, the merry shriek, the steam-whistle, the laughing locomotive! (57)


O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!

To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on! (58)

And in the poem “All Is Truth” he wrote:

And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,

And sing and laugh and deny nothing. (59)

In his book, In Tune with the World, Josef Pieper says that “[i]t is a good guess that only meaningful work can provide the soil in which festivity flourishes. Perhaps both work and celebration spring from the same root, so that when the one dries up, the other withers.” (60) In other words, if there is no work, there will be no celebration, but where there is work, there can be no celebration: that is, they cannot exist at the same time. Josef Pieper adds:

In a totalitarian state labor is glorified, and government propaganda romanticizes rises in the production indices as if work were itself a form of celebration. At the same time, true festivity cannot exist in such a state; the very nature of the state is against it. (61)

Can we not assume that Whitman’s praise of technology is for making “work” easier and therefore making celebration easier and more widespread? In the poem “Salut Au Monde,” Whiman placed “slave-makers” next to “murderers” and “thieves.” Because they employ slaves but deprive them of celebration: “The pirates, thieves, betrayers, murderers, slave-makers of the earth.” (62)

In Whitman’s poetry, technology facilitates work and communication, making it easier to celebrate and develop democracy. About half a century later we would see in the poem “Howl” that roads have already made it possible to travel easily and connect people; there is also the possibility of celebration, as we see, for instance, in the novel The Dharma Bums, when in October 1955, Ginsberg read “Howl” aloud for the first time on a festive-like night, known as the “San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac describes this night as follow:

Anyway I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem ‘Wail’ drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness. (63)

But Ginsberg no longer saw life as “A Song of joys” the way Whitman did – he felt threatened, because a “Sphinx of cement and aluminum” had stood against the democracy which was Walt Whitman’s ideal: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” Ginsberg answers: “Moloch!” And who is Moloch? “Blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” (64) With the further advancement of technology, Ginsberg was faced the same danger that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the only eighteenth-century counter-Enlightenment philosopher (65), warned of:

Let men learn for once that nature would have preserved them from science, as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides are so many evils from which she protects them and that the very difficulty they find in acquiring knowledge is not the least of her bounty towards them. Men are perverse; but they would have been far worse if they had had the misfortune to be born learned. (66)

Allen Ginsberg saw the danger of barbarism in technological advances, as Walter Benjamin warned in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History:” “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (67) Technology that once made it easy to celebrate has now become a threat. In this study, in particular, two technological developments will be examined in this regard: the development of weapons of mass destruction such as the atomic bomb, and the development of control tools instead of communication tools.

In Baraka’s “Somebody Blew up America,” which was written after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and in response to them, we suddenly find that in the world described by Baraka that the great technology of today has come to serve terrorism. Amiri Baraka, also a Beat poet, showed us that technology, which was originally linked to democracy (as Walt Whitman had shown us) is now linked to terrorism.

Who made Bush president

Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying

Who talk about democracy and be lying (68)

Baraka talks constantly about “who” in this poem, just like Ginsberg in “Howl.” But in Ginsberg’s poem, “who” were the ones fighting against Moloch for freedom and life.

who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,

who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed, (69)

While in Amiri Baraka’s poem, Moloch, whom Ginsberg calls a “cannibal dynamo,” has already won the battle: “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!” (70) In Baraka’s poem, “who” refers to those who happen to be the soldiers of the Moloch, the enemies of freedom and democracy.

Who live on Wall Street, the first plantation?

Who cut your nuts off

Who rape your ma

Who lynched your pa

Who got the tar, who got the feathers

Who had the match, who set the fires

Who killed and hired

Who say they God, and still be the Devil (71)

The situation described by Baraka is that not all people deserve to be celebrated anymore, exactly the opposite of the situation favoured by Whitman. The latter shows us that technology, which made great strides with the rise of capitalism, is related to democracy in two ways: through celebration, and the road. That is precisely what writers such as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac depict in their novels: the importance of celebration and the road. But in Baraka’s poetry, we suddenly find that the great technology of the present day has come to serve terrorism in the absence of these concepts, whether it is the internal terrorism of governments against their people, or international terrorism.

The divine Average: The Calculator of Walt Whitman

In the poem “Starting from Paumanok,” Whitman speaks of the “divine average,” (72) a notion which helps us understand Whitman’s concept of democracy.

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Emile Durkheim writes: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” (73) In the foreword to College of Sociology, Denis Hollier quotes Goethe: “‘what is the sacred?’ Goethe asked. And he answered, ‘That which unites souls.’” (74) But what unites souls in Whitman’s poetry? The answer to this question should be found in the concept of celebration: where everyone celebrates and is celebrated without any discrimination.

Walt Whitman, Photo by Library of Congress; Image Credit: poetryfoundation.org

Back to the phrase “Divine Average” found in the poem “Starting from Paumanok”, from a mathematical point of view, to obtain the average, one must first perform the addition operation. It can be said that in Whitman’s works, roads are the same as the mathematical addition operators. To get the average, one now has to carry out the operation of division. In Whitman’s calculator, the division is operated by the celebration, where the division is the sharing. In the poem “Native Moments,” he wrote:

I am for those who believe in loose delights, I share the midnight orgies of young men,

I dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers, (75)

An orgy in which no one is denied, as in the second part of “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman wrote:

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,

The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;

The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,

The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,

They pass, I also pass, anything passes, none can be interdicted,

None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me. (76)

This is exactly the problem with bourgeois democracy from Marx’s point of view: ballot sheets are the only thing to be shared with workers. Whitman’s solution to this problem is a celebration, a celebration in which everybody is celebrated, as well as everything is shared. The main issue is not the right to vote, it is the right to celebrate and being celebrated.

Back again to the poem “Starting from Paumanok,” where Whitman talks of “The greatness of Love and Democracy, and the greatness of Religion.” (77) But in his religion there is no question of being pure and heavenly: his religion is earthy, because it has its roots in man and the earth:

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,

Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth,

than they are shed out of you. (78)

In The Infinite Conversation (1969), Maurice Blanchot wrote of a community that does not come together on the basis of an imaginary identity, but on the basis of non-communion – not as Christians, for example, who rely on the unity of the church and its communion believers. Religious communion is based on concepts such as purity, but Whitman sought a community without any communion: he sought it in two ways: forming the community of writer-reader with his reader; and forming a community around the axis of celebration.


1. William Wordsworth. Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807). Boston: D. Lothrop and Co., 1884, p. 16.

2. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892). New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 315.

3. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 315.

4. Robert V Bruce. The Launching of Modern American Science: 1846-1876 (1987). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987, p. 134.

5. George Kateb. “Walt Whitman and the Culture of Democracy”. Political Theory Vol. 18, No. 4, Sage Publications, Inc, 1990, p. 545

6. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 99.

7. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 229.

8. Erik Mortenson. Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (2016). Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016, p. 1.

9. Henry Miller. The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946). New York: New Directions Publishing, 1962, p. 34.

10. Henry Miller. The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946), p. 36.

11. Henry Miller. The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (1946), p. 132.

12. Gregory Stephenson. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (1990). Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009, Pp. 176-177.

13. William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch (1959). New York: Grove Press, 2001, p. 87.

14. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956). Introduced by William Carlos Williams. San Francisco: City Lights Book, 1973, pp. 17-18.

15. Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto (1848). London: ElecBook, 1998, p. 15.

16. Discussing “the crisis of Communism”, “the development of a thinking of pure communication” by Habermas, and “the emergence of various neoracist movements” as the context, Roberto Nigro, professor of philosophy at the Leuphana University Lüneburg, in the article “The French Debate about the Community" writes: “Between the 1930s and the 1950s George Bataille had written a number of texts in which he talked about the relationship between community and Communism and the 'demand of community'. In particular he developed the notion of sovereignty as an ontological and aesthetic concept. […] Bataille analyzed the community as a negative community, as a literary community, and as a community of love. It was in this context that he placed the relationship between Communism and community. The international political situation and the socialism of Eastern governments formed the background. But in his considerations Bataille tried to think the necessity of community beyond the political situation.” (Roberto Nigro. “The French Debate about the Community”. Zurich: ONCURATING.org, issue 7. Pp. 19-20. https://www.on-curating.org/issue-7-reader/the-french-debate-about-the-community.html (accessed 19 May 2021))

17. Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto (1848), pp. 21-22.

18. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 127.

19. Jacques Rancière. The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing (1998). Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 160.

20. Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto (1848), p. 15.

21. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 99.

22. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 122.

23. Harold Aspiz. “Whitman’s ‘Poem of the Road’”. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12, 1995. 170-185. https://doi.org/10.13008/2153-3695.1449 (accessed 19 May 2021)

24. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 120.

25. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 129.

26. Gregory Stephenson. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (1990), p. 4.

27. Gregory Stephenson. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (1990), p. 170.

28. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), p. 22.

29. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), p. 9.

30. Marshall Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982). London: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 295.

31. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), p. 10.

32. Walt Whitman. Democratic Vistas (1871). Iowa: university of Iowa press. Ed. Ed Folsom. 2010, p. 60.

33. Maurice Blanchot. The Unavowable Community (1983). Trans. Pierre Joris. Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988, p. 11.

34. Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings, Volume 1 (1913-1926). Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 253.

35. Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings, Volume 1 (1913-1926), p. 262.

36. Georges Bataille. Literature and Evil (1957). Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2012, p. 80

37. Georges Bataille. Literature and Evil (1957), p. 80.

38. Georges Bataille. Literature and Evil (1957), p. 80.

39. Jean-Luc Nancy. The Inoperative Community (1986). Trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Ed. Peter Connor. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 71.

40. Jean-Luc Nancy. The Inoperative Community (1986). P. 71.

41. Nicholas Royle. Jacques Derrida (Routledge Critical Thinkers) (2003). London: Routledge, 2003, p. 44.

42. Ullrich Haase, and William Large. Maurice Blanchot. Routledge Critical Thinkers. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 3-4.

43. Ullrich Haase, and William Large. Maurice Blanchot, p. 123.

44. Jean-Luc Nancy. The Inoperative Community (1986), p. 68.

45. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 398.

46. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 398.

47. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 398.

48. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 66.

49. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 129.

50. Roberto Esposito. Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998). Trans. Rhiannon Noel Welch. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010, pp. 6-7.

51. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 29.

52. Betsy Erkkila. Whitman: The Political Poet (1989). New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

53. Mary Esteve. The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature (2003). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 29.

54. David Haven Blake. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (2006). New Have & London: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 134.

55. David Haven Blake. Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (2006). P. I.

56. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 112.

57. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 142.

58. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 148.

59. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 362.

60. Josef Pieper. In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity (1963). Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1965, p. 4.

61. Josef Pieper. In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity (1963), p. 4.

62. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 118.

63. Jack Kerouac. The Dharma Bums (1958). London: Penguin Classics, 2006, p. 9.

64. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), pp. 17-18.

65. In the book titled “Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes,” Graeme Garrard, the Canadian political theorist, describes Rousseau as the pivotal figure in the emergence of Counter-Enlightenment thought. (Graeme Garrard. Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment: A Republican Critique of the Philosophes (2003). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (SUNY Press). 2003, p. 124.)

66. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). Trans. G. D. H. Cole. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/125491/5018_Rousseau_Discourse_on_the_Arts_and_Sciences.pdf (accessed 19 May 2021)

67. Walter Benjamin. Illuminations (1968). Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p. 256.

68. Amiri Baraka. Somebody Blew up America (2003). New York: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2003, p. 3. http://www.lem.seed.pr.gov.br/arquivos/File/livrosliteraturaingles/sbua2.pdf (accessed 19 May 2021)

69. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), p. 11.

70. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956), p. 70.

71. Amiri Baraka. Somebody Blew up America (2003), p. 1.

72. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 22.

73. Emile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995, p. 44.

74. Denis Hollier. The College of Sociology (1938). Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. X.

75. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 94.

76. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 121.

77. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 23.

78. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass (1892), p. 172.

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