Essay of the Month: Walt Whitman & The 21st Century

Whitman #5, 8" X 8", acrylic pn paper, 2010, Mark W. McGinnis

Walt Whitman & the 21st Century

 

The 1850’s of Walt Whitman’s most
creative years and the early years of the 21st century hold some common
qualities: the business world was corrupt and in control; conflicts in
government led to a standstill; violent entertainment was rampant; pornography
commonplace; and the country was on an irreversible course to disaster. The
disaster of Whitman’s day was the Civil War – the disaster to come in our day
is Climate Change.

Whitman wanted to create a literature that
could change and reverse the march to chaos and the decline of culture. The
1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was his unabashed, bold, audacious, brilliant
attempt to create that literature. His poetry broke the rules of structure and
content. He cried out for an American culture that was vibrant, alive,
altruistic, individualistic, and passionate. His efforts were met with
acceptance by an intellectual elite, shock by a conservative few, and
indifference by the masses that he wished to influence.

When the war came in the 1860’s, in spite of
the incredible horrors of the war which he experienced to the maximum as a
volunteer nurse in army hospitals, he felt the war could be cleansing agent for
the culture. He believed the blood of the hundreds of thousands of young men
could wash the corruption from the American land. At the end of the war the assassination
of Lincoln, who he idolized, was to Whitman the ultimate sacrifice in this
effort.

As the corruption of the post-war years set
in with the Johnson and Grant administrations, Whitman realized his dreams of
completely renewed America was not to be realized. But his belief in the
evolution of human culture sustained him and he believed that the future would
bring American potential to fruition and future poets would sing this new
culture into being.

In the 21st century we are experiencing the
problems of the mid 19th century amplified by technology and a population of
unthinkable size. While the American culture is denying the magnitude of what
is approaching, it seems that chaos and widespread suffering on an
unprecedented level will be needed to create the drastically different level of
consciousness to change nearly every aspect of our way of life.

This drastically different way of living may
include the following as part of this change: population – a one child policy
will be needed globally; government – while a global government may be
impossible, a major consolidation of governments will take place as control of
resources will be necessary for survival; economically – the stratification of
wealth will no longer be an option. A leveling of resources among surviving
people will be reshaped according to subsistence needs and quality of life and
that quality will no longer be based on wealth but on basic physical and mental
comfort. The cult of the individual will end and natural selection will create
a society that is consciously symbiotic with all life forms on the planet.

While this speculation may seem optimistic
and utopian it is projected for a global population of a billion or less people
– one seventh of what we now have. One could also speculate a hellish, barbaric
future, or one that has no human population at all. Certainly all are possible,
but I do have some faith in the adaptable capacity of human beings. I believe
we can make a “leap” of consciousness over a period of centuries that can bring
a positive future. This reflects the same kind of hope that Whitman had in
human evolution after the Civil War.

To return to Whitman, will great creative
artists play a part in this transformation? Yes, I believe they will, but no
more than Whitman played a role in the transformations of his time. Artists
will be part of any culture that has human beings in it – they always have and
always will. And they will look to future – to what could be – what “should” be
– and as with Whitman, their voice will be heard quietly or sometimes not at
all, especially at the time they are sounding them. But in retrospect, cultures
look back on their great voices and learn from them, as we do with Whitman
today. The greatest change today is the question, “Will there be anyone to look
back?” This was always the future – eventually our species will come to end –
the question now, as always, is, “When?”

2011 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

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