Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Reincarnation
Author:
Chari, V.K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

That Whitman believed in reincarnation or rebirth of the soul in some form may be gathered from his poems, especially "Song of Prudence," "To Think of Time," "Song of Myself" (sections 44 and 49), and "Unnamed Lands." This idea proceeds from his belief that the soul is deathless because it is distinct from the perishable body and that it has not only an endless existence but endless possibilities for enrichment. Whitman's triumphant optimism rests upon this faith, but it is also fused with the notion of evolutionary progress and meliorism. However, the idea of progressive improvement and a future perfection is inconsistent with his other statements affirming the fullness and felicity of the present moment—an inconsistency that needs to be explained.

The belief in reincarnation was shared by many primitive cultures, but it was in the Indian religious systems that it was formulated more elaborately and erected into a major theological doctrine. Briefly stated, this doctrine postulates a soul that does not perish with the material form with which it is invested, but passes through a cycle of births and rebirths until it realizes its true identity or it is finally reunited with the supreme being. Pain and imperfection, which are a necessary part of its incarnated state, appertain to its material nature and hence are illusory or impermanent.

Associated with the idea of reincarnation is the doctrine of karma (action), which states that the soul is driven by desire to engage in action as long as it is attached to its material body and that since every action, good or bad, must produce its consequences, man's happiness or sorrow is the result of the deeds willed by him over many lives. Karma, like Ralph Waldo Emerson's "compensation," is an inexorable law whose fruits must be enjoyed till all traces of it, even from previous lives, are completely extinguished and the soul is liberated. Karma and rebirth are not immutable, however: they may be obviated through the discriminative knowledge of the soul's true nature (in Vedanta and Samkhya) or through surrender to the will of God (in theistic Hinduism).

Whitman expresses similar ideas regarding soul, body, and existence beyond death. The interior soul or "real body," he says, is immaterial and transcends the senses and flesh, and it is impregnable to the laws of nature ("A Song of Joys"). "Prudence" or spiritual knowledge he defines (echoing Emerson in his essay of the same title and in "Compensation") as the understanding that whatever a man says, does, or thinks has consequences beyond death and affects his past, present, and future, and that no consummation exists that does not follow from long previous consummations. This leads him to the conviction that the entire cosmic process, the known life, is duly tending toward, and is a preparation for, the unknown, permanent life ("To Think of Time"). Life is a seamless continuity and should not be viewed partitively. In many places, he expresses the belief that there are many births (he does not, however, speak of transmigration of souls) and that life is the "leavings" of many previous deaths. He says that he himself has died many times before ("Song of Myself," section 49). But, like Emerson again, he asserts that while all else is caught up in the law of action and consequence, the soul is "of itself" ("Song of Prudence")—that is, autonomous and untouched by the law of karma, as the Hindu would say. Also suggested is the idea that the spirit's attachment to its material form is not an ineluctable modality, but is simply what is contributed by the soul itself—an idea presupposed in the Hindu conception of karma and one that ensures the possibility of the soul's eventual liberation (although the implication of Whitman's statement bearing on this point that "The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body" ["Song of Prudence"] is not exactly clear).

In the Hindu systems, including Buddhism, the doctrine of reincarnation, and its corollary, the doctrine of karma, are resorted to as a solution to the problem of evil, sin, and suffering. The Hindu conception, however, is more austere and regards the chain of births and deaths as the outcome of man's false attachment to his material nature and hence as a bondage, liberation from which is the highest goal of life; Whitman, on the other hand, sees rebirths and continued existence as a guarantee of the soul's immortality and as an opportunity for the soul's endless self-enrichment. He is alive to the presence of evil, disease, and death, but minimizes them as being inessential. He views them as parts of an harmonious becoming and hence as being in their rightful place. And this belief is the source of his euphoria, his "unrestricted faith" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 7). (In his later period he came to believe, under the influence of Hegel, that evil is dialectically necessary for the progressive unfoldment of universal good; see "Song of the Universal.") Yet, almost in the same breath, he declares that he is beyond good and evil, that there is in fact no evil. There was never any more perfection than there is now, he declares ("Song of Myself," section 3); he has "the best of time and space" (section 46). Thus Whitman's faith in progressive evolution and meliorism, on the one hand, and in eternal perfection—the mystic's eternal now—on the other, continue side by side.

One way of explaining this discrepancy may be to view the two statements as referring to two different planes of existence—one representing his own enlightened state, in which he feels that he is at the acme of the evolutionary ladder, and the other representing the state of being of other people, of unrealized potentialities, in whose development Whitman had a passionate concern. To such people, other births can bring opportunities to evolve spiritually. But with reference to his own accomplished self, which he celebrates, more births can only bring more richness and variety ("Song of Myself," section 44), so as to satisfy the "glut" of his soul ("Song of Prudence").

In the final analysis, it appears that Whitman seizes upon the idea of reincarnation, not as a serious religious belief with its implication of sin and personal salvation, but rather as an additional support to his own intuited faith in the goodness of the universal order, or alternatively as a dynamic symbol, the amplitude of time—the extensive future and the extensive past—providing an infinite scope for the spirit's self-expansion. In his last writings, however, he does not think of rebirth, but more and more of union with God and of death as deliverance.

Bibliography

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Mercer, Dorothy F. "Walt Whitman on Reincarnation." Vedanta and the West 9 (1946): 180–185.

Sharma, Om Prakash. "Walt Whitman and the Doctrine of Karma." Philosophy East and West 20 (1970): 169–174.


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