Kudos to Steven Hermann and Walt Whitman: A Review of “Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy, and the World Soul” by Steven B. Herrmann
By Matthew Fox
Thanks to Walt Whitman and to Carl Jung and to William Everson, mentors to the author whose in-depth probing of Whitman’s work unveils a treasure house of profound building blocks toward forging a post-modern spirituality. Just as Whitman has been credited with re-inventing poetry through free verse, so with this study we get a feel for how authentically he also accomplished a reinvention of religion. He and Hartmann are to be praised. As Whitman put it, “The people, especially the young men and women of America, must begin to learn that religion, (like poetry), is something far, far different from what they supposed. It is indeed too important to the power and perpetuity of the new world to be consign’d any longer to the churches, old or new, Catholic or Protestant—Saint this, or Saint that. It must be consign’d henceforth to democracy en masse, and to literature. It must enter into the poems of the nation. It must make the nation.” (p. 287)
Whitman’s spiritual genius breaks out everywhere in this profound study. Consider his position on spiritual democracy that is so inclusive of women’s wisdom and experience. “Democracy, in silence, biding its time, ponders its own ideals, not in literature and art only—not of men only, but of women. The idea of the women of America, (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady,) develop’d, raised to become robust equals, workers, and, it may be, even practical and political deciders with the men—greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, as always their towering, emblematical attribute—but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments.” (250) These words written multiple decades before women even had the right to vote!
Consider his position on deep ecumenism—and how it begins with the lower chakras (“throbbings”) in dance, where all shamanism begins, with our connection to the earth, and is cosmic because it embraces “all the voices of the universe.”
I hear the dance music of all nations…bathing me in bliss.
Give me to hold all sounds, (I madly struggling to cry,)
Fill me with all the voices of the universe,
Endow me with their throbbings, Natures also,
The tempests, waters, winds, operas and chants, marches and dances,
Utter, pour in, for I would take them all! (p. 250)
Consider his 150 year ahead-of-his-time inclusion of same-sex marriage as part of spiritual democracy. And consider his call for a truly cosmic and universal creation-based “spiritual democracy.” All his songs resonate with the labor groans of an emerging post-denominational, ecumenical, eco-based and justice-based spirituality yearning to be born in our time.
To entertain the themes that emerge from this in-depth study of Walt Whitman is like standing underneath a refreshing waterfall on a hot summer day. Here are some of them: vocation; work; joy; ecstasy; sacred body; mystical sexuality; evolution of consciousness; nature—trees!; animals (green man); conscience, justice; religion’s failure; Europe’s failures; chant and spiritual praxis; mysticism; prophecy; evil; “vocalism,” i.e., art as meditation; the return of the feminine; native American wisdom; democratizing of spirituality including ecstasy, prophecy and conscience; ecology; earth consciousness; deep ecumenism; symbolic existence, metaphor; throat chakra; drum, ecstatic dance and ritual.
As institutional religion continues to embarrass itself and lost its grip and interest and moral legitimacy with ever new revelations of hypocrisy, priestly pedophilia, hierarchical privilege and cover-up, heresy-hunting, denunciations of science, homophobia, sexism, power addictions, fear, selling of cheap guilt, conniving with empire-builders and just plain boredom masquerading as worship, Whitman’s invitation to an ecumenical, earth-based spirituality calls all the louder to souls hungry for solid, sane and intelligent spirituality. This book serves up many deep and tasty dishes. Wisdom food abounds. We are famished. We are ready!
Let Walt Whitman speak:
“If anything is sacred the human body is sacred.” (205)
“Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know nothing else but miracles.” (288)
“Comradeship, uniting closer and closer not only the American States, but all nations, and all humanity. That, O poets! Is that not the theme worth chanting, striving for? Why not fix your verses henceforth to the gauge of the round globe? The whole race…contributed by every nation, each after its distinctive kind.” (287)
Hartmann comments: “The idea of a new post-Judaic, post-Christian, post-Islamic, post-Hindu, post-Taoist, post-Buddhist religion is unique to America and the multi-culturalism that Whitman achieves in ‘Passage to India’ and “Democratic vistas’ is what makes him so unique among the poet-shamans of the world.” Indeed. His time has come. So has ours. This book opens needed doors for all of us. Dare we enter them? Dare we leave behind what we must to travel more lightly through these opened doors? Time will tell. And time is running out.