53. Walt's Word

A word drew my attention a few nights ago. I was reading and falling asleep and from somewhere, possibly a dream, the word "multitudinous" popped into my head. From where this came and to what it was referring I wasn't quite sure. This did however stir me out of my slumber as I went directly to a bookshelf and got out two of my copies of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then .... I contradict myself;
I am large .... I contain multitudes. (Song of Myself. 1855 edition. Ed. Robert Hass. 69)


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large--I contain multitudes. (Song of Myself. Essential Whitman. Ed. Galway Kinnell. 94)


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (Song of Myself. 1891 edition. Ed. Robert Hass. 131)

Multitudes indeed! Whitman is a uniquely American writer. Whitman was a robust product of the 19th Century and he is the type of writer the 21st Century could never produce. The world was large in the 19th Century, but in our globalized 21st Century, the world has shrunk to a minuscule version of itself and we human beings have shrunk proportionally along with it. Whitman's world was big and expansive; it was growing and evolving; many things were still out of reach, so people vigorously reached for them; the language too was growing and expanding thanks to the bold inventiveness of writers such as Whitman. In our world we are shrinking away. Our focus is on ever smaller things: our individual wants, our individual needs, our individual problems. Whitman had wants and needs and problems too, but he sought his answers out in the big-wide-world; we withdraw into the confines of the internet as if the internet had all of the answers we will ever need in this life. (The internet has answers: some of those answers are correct, but many of those answers are neither helpful, nor correct; however, the internet is convenient.) But we feel safe in our minuscule internet world, as we close ourselves off further and further from other human beings on our desktop computers at work, on our laptop computers in our homes or in a coffee shop or on our slave-made-cell-phones (maybe the smaller the computer screen gets, the smaller we get). What will it take do you think to motivate us to be as actively involved in our own lives, as Whitman was in his? Will we ever once again seek answers (our answers, not someone else's answers) for ourselves? Will we ever once again seek our answers out in the big-wide-world? Seek is a word Whitman would understand and hail extravagantly--to seek or to be a seeker! This is something we no longer do in our lives or for ourselves. I too am large, I too contain multitudes. We all are large, we all contain these multitudes, but we will never live this larger life we are capable of living if we don't seek to understand our multitudinous selves. To seek or to be a seeker is to be active, but we 21st Century people are boldly passive, boldly hiding behind our computer screens, boldly hiding behind other people's answers, boldly hiding from the multitudes of our own existence and boldly hiding from the multitudes of our own life.

originally posted March 2016
reposted March 2018

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