Whitman now offers us a reminder of one of the most profound insights of “Song of Myself”: Body and Soul do not reside in a hierarchy but rather co-exist in a democracy. So much of the sorrow of the world has derived from an insistence on the soul’s superiority to the body, on the idea that soul exists or continues to exist in some imagined dimension beyond materiality. This belief, Whitman indicates throughout his work, is what has led humans to devalue this life in the hope that some spiritual afterlife of the soul will be better, will somehow reward our suffering in this life. No, Whitman reminds us, “the soul is not more than the body” and “the body is not more than the soul.” Once we have accepted that equality, that mutual necessity of the body to have soul and the soul to have body, then our very conception of God changes. If there is no “time” outside of time, no “space” outside of space, then God is not hidden in some unseen “divine” realm. Instead, Whitman insists, God is visible to us each and every minute of our lives in each and every place we look. If all life is contained in the moment of “Now,” and Now is an ever-altering ongoing moment, then the fullness of that moment—all of life and matter in its ever-morphing forms—is what we might call God. Any one of us, then, “makes a hub for the wheel’d universe”: every sentient being is the center of what is—a part and parcel of the God that radiates out from us to the far reaches of the cosmos.
This democracy of soul and body is vital, Whitman suggests, because if we conceive of God as separate from us, separate from this life, and if we think of our souls as separable from our bodies, then we will be led to beliefs that degrade this life and this world as we put our faith in another (better) world to come. But if we conceive of God as evident and present in every face we encounter, in every moment we experience, “in every object” we grasp, then we know God—indeed, we are part of God—and we will then be given over to “sympathy” in this moment in which we live. “Sympathy” is the word Whitman uses for the awareness that every person, every thing, we encounter is equally part of the divine. To walk with sympathy through the world is to know that God is in each of us, and, knowing that, to realize that God is equally in all that is not us. Everyone has equal access to God and equal awareness of God. God is something, then, that we should cease being “curious” about: if God is the creative force of the universe, then God—just like each one of us—exists only right now, in this present moment in which all existence is contained. We cannot open our eyes or ears, we cannot walk a step, without encountering God.And every atom belonging to us was here at the first Now and will be present at the last, those atoms becoming parts of the endless array of matter and life that surrounded and constituted those who came before us, will surround and constitute those who come after us, and surround and constitute all of us at this very moment. Each of us, then, can “stand cool and composed before a million universes,” because the soul that animates us now is part of the ongoing soul of the universe, just as the atoms that compose us now are part of the endless vast strange materiality of the universe.
To grasp the meaning of Whitman’s first directive in this section—“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes”—I paid a visit to the Paleontology Museum of Liaoning, in Shenyang, China, and stood before displays of fossils unearthed from a layer of volcanic ash laid down 120 million or more years ago with what I hoped was a suitably objective regard for the mystery of life on earth. Here were femurs and jaw bones of dinosaurs, impressions of what may have been the first flowering plants, and, most wonderful of all, complete skeletons of microraptors—small, four-winged, fish-eating creatures which may provide the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. The microraptor was, in scientific terminology, a transitional form (marvelous phrase!), with iridescent feathers on its legs and wings, a fan at the end of its tail, and the ability to glide between trees, like a flying squirrel; an animated video accompanying the museum exhibit portrays it running to the edge of a cliff, stopping short, and then, desperate to get across, taking wing again and again. Desire, “the procreant urge of the world,” in the words of the poet, inspires the union of body and soul; expeditions; the founding of cities; flights of the imagination; faith and rituals, legends and laws; artistic, scholarly, and scientific discoveries; “a million universes,” in every one of which we are at home, whether we realize it or not.
As for Whitman’s second challenge to mankind—“Be not curious about God”? In fact his curiosity is always on display. He finds evidence of God’s presence everywhere; for everything is a letter signed in His name, thrillingly alive for those who can read it, ideally beginning with readers of this poem. Whitman is at peace with death, because it is a transitional form—a way station between our earthbound habits and our instinctive yearning for flight.
The sight of the fossils made me giddy.
What encounters with particular things in this world—or with particular people—have led you to sense the presence of “God” (however you define that term) in such a way that “God” did not seem distant but intimately near?