After sections dealing with sight, voice, and hearing, Whitman turns in this and the following two sections to touch, the most dispersed of our senses, the only one that is not positioned on the face (where sight, hearing, taste, and smell all have short, direct connections to the brain) but rather is diffused across the entire surface of the body.
Whitman begins by raising again one of his most basic questions: “To be in any form, what is that?” We are all shifting, altering physical forms, our bodies changing second by second as we ingest pieces of the world and turn that nutriment into body. As Whitman has demonstrated time after time in the poem, each of us is a field of endlessly shifting atoms that have been here from the origins of the universe and will be here until its end (if it ever ends), so the particular form we exist in at the moment is not what is important. What is important is to realize that matter goes “round and round,” always exchanging, re-forming, living, dying, and being re-born. Even the New England clam (with its ancient Native American name of “quahaug”) would be miracle enough if evolution had proceeded no further than the bivalve mollusc. The clam, of course, can clam up, withdraw its sensitive tentacles back into its unfeeling shell and be immune to touch. But not Whitman, and not us: we have no shell, and our covering—our skin—is in touch with the world at all times. We have “instant conductors all over”: Whitman here uses the then-recent language of electricity to capture the way the body’s sense receptors are like lightning rods, receiving and directing the currents of experience through the self. In another of his poems, Whitman calls it “the body electric.” Our skin is so full of sense receptors that the merest stir or press of any part of our body comforts us, excites us, and—out of our shells, alive and awake to the world—the experience of touching our body fully with another body takes us to the very edges of identity: it is “about as much as I can stand.”
An Iraqi theater director once told me that on a visit to New York City he deliberately bumped into several people on the sidewalk to gauge their reactions. Americans, he concluded, always apologize—an observation that might have amused Whitman, who would likely not have begged forgiveness, and might well have surprised the stranger by embracing him. “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist sings—an imperative that Whitman follows according to his own lights in his psalm of the democratic self, substituting Life for Lord, seeing things in this section through the agency of touch, tasting the world. He does not shy away from anyone.
Not long after my conversation with the director in Baghdad, I traveled to Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, and one morning on a drive through a valley green from the spring rains, outside a village lying between two stark mountain ranges, my friend suddenly slammed on the brakes, veering around what I thought was a large rock. There in the middle of the road was a turtle (born for all I knew during Whitman’s lifetime), oblivious to the traffic, or so it seemed, its head barely protruding from its shell. “Mine is no callous shell,” said the poet, translating his every sensation into song. My friend and I gazed at the beautiful creature, kin to the quahaug and the mollusk and indeed every form of life, each a part of the whole to which we have all belonged from the beginning, and then, because we had somewhere to go, we drove on.
Most languages have some set of images that relate humans to clams or oysters or other shelled creatures. In English, we say that someone who won’t talk has “clammed up.” A shy person may “retreat into her shell.” What is the value of such figures of speech? Is Whitman’s assumption that humans live in skin that is continually sensitive to the world true to your experience, or are imagined shells important too?