Thursday, September 10, 2009

Romanticism and capitalism

It's a little odd, after ten years of marriage, to peruse one's bookshelves in vain for the Library of America volume of Whitman that you know you got for (temporarily) subscribing (along with their Emerson and Thoreau, which you find sitting snug in their slipcovers) ... and suddenly remembering that, for reasons of alleged fairness that you can't quite recall in detail, you gave that LOA volume to your ex-girlfriend in the post-breakup allocation of worldly goods, a fact that had slipped your mind for a good decade.

It also tells you how little time you spend reading Whitman.

Anyway, Amazon to the rescue, and I was reading back through "Song of Myself," which seems like a love poem to the entire country. But not *quite* the whole country. Walt does not seem to have much love for the merchant class.

He takes it as self-evidently absurd that one should "cipher and show me to a cent, /
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead." Buying and selling, dollars and cents, do not figure much. There are a great many people working, and presumably selling those goods and services, but I don't find much love for merchants per se.

This would make for an amusingly indignant post at the Volokh blog or somesuch, but it occurs to me that, assuming we can infer any antipathy from this omission in "Song of Myself" (and I am much too ignorant of Whitman's poetic corpus to make any broader generalization), the omission is a meaningful one.

If anything's clear from "Song," it's that Whitman allows exactly one person to place a value upon himself, and that person is Walt Whitman. The Romantic poet's self is intrinsically valuable.

Whereas it's fundamental to capitalism that the value of something is its exchange value, what someone else will give you for it. Value is external to the object.

Hence, alienation. Marx was a Romantic economist in this respect.

Now, we can get one more turn of the screw here, if we notice that there are two very important words in "Song," one of which is "I" and the second, "you"; much of the intimacy and power of the poem comes from this insistence upon "you." "I" and "you" are the first and last words of the poem, surely by design, and "you" indeed does not take long to appear in the first lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

* * *

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
There in the first verse we find the rejection of ownership/property -- "I" and "you" are deconstructed all throughout "Song of Myself" as a fundamentally flawed distinction which, nonetheless, pervades and haunts the poem. It does not seem too much to suppose that Whitman cares very much indeed what value "you" places upon "I"; indeed, by his own terms, they ought to be identical, and any difference is outside his philosophy.

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