Sunday, May 31, 2009

Emancipation of the Soul

For nearly 150 years, the institution of slavery was a legal practice in the United States. Beginning with anti-slavery sentiments during the War of American Independence, a large movement to abolish slavery grew throughout the greater part of the 19th century eventually leading to the American Civil War and the emancipation of all African American slaves. Perhaps America’s most powerful speaker of the abolitionist movement was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s text, in which he relates his journey from a life of servitude in the south to his eventual freedom in the north, is an example of what is now known as the slave narrative, a literary form that documented the life experience of African slaves. Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, authors of Walden and I Sing the Body Electric, Song of Myself respectively, were contemporaries of Frederick Douglass and also fellow advocates of the abolitionist cause. The following aims to compare Walden and Song of Myself with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and examine them as slave narratives in service of the transcendent, pleas for liberation of the human soul.

In Narrative, Douglass demonstrates that the institution of slavery not only dehumanizes slaves but their masters as well. The spiritual health of slave owners is jeopardized by the horrors they inflict upon their slaves. He claims that slaveholding patriarchs have not only subjected their female slaves to brutal beatings but have raped them and fathered children with them as well. Such acts of barbarism, Douglass states, lead to a disintegration of family values as slave owners eventually sell their own children into servitude or subject them to severe punishments over the course of their lives. “The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves…for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother…and ply the gory lash to his naked back” (Narrative 2073) In an effort to deny the atrociousness of their transgressions, slaveholders such as Thomas and Sophia Auld adopt a transmogrified religiosity. Douglass makes a point to differentiate between genuine Christianity which teaches love for all of humankind and the perverted form of Christianity which proponents of slavery utilize to justify their subjugation and brutalization of fellow human beings. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Narrative 2125). He states that when slave holders claim to be Christian it is by no means an indication of their good nature, but rather a duplicitous act serving as a hollow justification of the horrors they enact upon their slaves.

Sophia Auld, who serves as Douglass's primary representation of the devastating consequences slaveholding has on the spiritual health of slave holders, is described as being transformed from an individual of lofty ideals into a callous fiend. “That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (Narrative 2086). By illustrating the devastating consequences slaveholding has had on the morality of Thomas and Sophia Auld, Douglass is essentially making the claim that the abolition of slavery is necessary in order to revitalize the spiritual health of all humankind.

In Walden, Thoreau reasons that true freedom can only be attained by becoming both economically and socially self-reliant. One could even say that Thoreau takes an approach to matters of economics that mirrors the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin who said that the greatest sin was debt. When one is in debt they are beholden to another person or an institution and therefore very much a slave. In other words, autonomy possesses the greatest weight in economics and human social interaction. To be in need is essentially to be in chains. However, Thoreau’s vision of self-reliance is the transcendent gratification of one’s ability to construct the reality in which they exist rather than merely living debt free.

To express the ability of the individual to construct their own reality, Thoreau speaks of life as a river and tells us to use a metaphorical tool he calls the “Realometer”. Like with the Nilometer, a measurement tool allegedly used in determining the depth of the Nile, we are encouraged by Thoreau to use the “Realometer” (our divine intellect) in order to sift through the sediment (trivial matters of the life) until we reach the bottom (reality). According to Thoreau, only when we reach the bottom can we can say “This is” reality. What is very interesting and important to discuss is this saying is reminiscent of God’s repeated command in the Book of Genesis “Let there be”. When Thoreau constructs his home on the shore of Walden Pond he likens this endeavor to God’s creation of the world. His intent in likening himself to God is not in any way an attempt to place himself above the rest of humanity, but rather to show all of humanity that they too possess the divine within themselves and can create little worlds of their own.
It is also important to note that Thoreau’s vision of self-reliance did not repudiate the value of friendship but rather welcomed it with open arms. “I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings…from…a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much…” (Walden 1944). It was the refusal of need that Thoreau tried to convey. One must remember that an important belief of the transcendentalist movement, influenced greatly by eastern philosophical traditions, was that the body and soul have always been entitled to ultimate provision. The natural world possesses everything required of the body for nourishment and the soul has always been in possession of everything there is to know. It is simply up to the individual to utilize nature’s bounty and to seek the knowledge that is inherent within their soul through various forms of meditation. True enlightenment or freedom comes with the ability to meditate and find peace in every act of life. Therefore, when Thoreau aggrandizes solitude he is not speaking of loneliness or seclusion but rather the act of looking deep within oneself. Thoreau states that one can experience lonesomeness amidst a vast crowd if they share no connection with those people. “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers…Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows” (Walden 1943). Thoreau sees solitude not in terms of physical proximity to others but rather as a state of consciousness which for him nears nirvana.
For Whitman, human bodies can unite with others sexually and spiritually, and are essentially one in the same. The body is the intermediary between one’s soul and the physical world. In the sections seven and eight of I Sing the Body Electric, the reader is presented with an image of a male and female slave at an auction. The poet tells us that he has aided in the auctioning of these slaves by offering a morbid taxonomy of their physical and reproductive the prowess. Both slaves are advertized as the progenitors of generations:
This is not only one man, this is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns, In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments

She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers, She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.

Ultimately these slaves become merely potential subjects of animal husbandry for would be buyers. This image of the slaves being treated like cattle ultimately employs Whitman’s own body-centric belief as a satirical device and reveals slave auctions as a transmogrified version of worshipping the human body that slavery has lead humanity to. In fifth section of Song of Myself, Whitman focuses less upon the body and speaks of wisdom that transcends the physical:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my
sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love (Whitman 2213)

In this stanza, Whitman is claiming unity with the God and unity with every man and woman that has ever been born. Because he is one with God and one with all of humankind, humankind is unified with God as well. Like Thoreau, Whitman is informing every human being of the divinity they possess within themselves. The peace and knowledge Whitman claims surpasses every human struggle is that because we are all one with God there can be no distinction made between us that condemns one and elevates the other. Though it is not said outright, Whitman vision of unity encompasses African American slaves and thus refutes the legitimacy of an institution that would seek to justify the subjugation of spiritual equals.
For slaves, the road to liberation was not simply comprised of the tales they would later relate but was ultimately defined by the telling of those stories. This was certainly true for Thoreau and Whitman as well. Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, Walden, I Sing the Body Electric and Song of Myself were not merely documentations of a journey from servitude to liberation, but were distinctive decrees of physically and spiritually freed men, the final chapter, so to speak, in the authors’ quests for spiritual freedom. These slave narratives were not merely stories but acts of liberation in and of themselves from the spiritual oppression of nineteenth century conventions. Though completely escaping racism was impossible for Douglass, Thoreau, and Whitman, despite the all encompassing nature of their progressive thought, they each created and taught to others a vision of self not bound by ignorance and fear. Whitman, Thoreau and Douglass all insisted on not merely liberation of the body but rather liberation of the soul. They sought liberation in service of the transcendent.

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Emancipation of the Soul by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
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