“Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Symmetry and the craving for balance have run through my creative work for the past few years.
I have been reminded that deeply held principles of symmetry can be found within politics, religion, and science. Examples like equality within the Rule of Law, and the biblical corollary “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are perfect examples.
I have also been searching for symmetry in other works of art.
I found what I had been looking for within Walt Whitman’s epic poem described as the “song of egalitarian mystical union” Song of Myself.
Inspired, I collaged macro and micro views of humanity, along with butterflies, jellyfish, snails, flowers, fish, honeybees, and a single spectacular blanket octopus to create a pair of video broadsides honoring a fragment of Whitman’s words.
My Whitman homage lives in the modern world, in the glitzy burlesque animation of the lines “Urge and urge and urge,” and the 1980s dance party glam section fueled by music from the British band The Art of Noise.
But it draws from the past as well; I blended fragments of Antonín Dvořák’s 9th symphony “The New World” to run through both broadsides.
Dvořák created his most famous work as a uniquely American symphony, with creative assistance from African American composer Henry Burleigh. He honored the influence of Indigenous American and African American rhythms as part of its creation. The impact of the 9th Symphony has sustained ever since its debut. Astronaut Neil Armstrong took a tape recording of The New World during the Apollo 11 mission, the first Moon landing, in 1969.
This recording is from 1937, performed by the Czech Philharmonic, with a 25-year-old Georg Solti conducting. I think the tension and uncertainty of that time, just a bit more than a year away from Nazi occupation, must have influenced everyone involved in this performance.
With all these elements in place, I had planned to post my broadsides on Esthetic Lens to celebrate Walt Whitman’s May 31st birthday. But sitting at my computer through the weekend of May 30th and 31st, I felt anguish and outrage over the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Posting my flashy, joy-filled Whitman broadsides seemed wrong.
In the days and weeks that followed, as America was roiled by grief and protest, I immersed myself in reading. I read about the post-Civil War period and the systemic racism that became entrenched across America.
This was how I discovered an excerpt from Whitman’s letters during his time as a secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And how I learned that Walt Whitman, the famous embodiment of American idealism and tolerance – called by some an Egalitarian prophet – has a well-documented history of racism.
Humans are wildly uneven, contradictory, hypocritical.
We grow unevenly throughout our lives and sometimes stagnate.
There is so much more to consider and understand when historical narratives contain contradictions; I can think of no better example than the personal life of Thomas Jefferson and the lasting global influence of his written words.
These contradictions should be looked at and measured, rather than obscured. For me, there is some redemption when the life of Sally Hemmings is recognized and honored alongside Jefferson’s, as it is now when visitors tour the famous American landmark, Monticello.
I offer this final sentence from the Walt Whitman Archive:
“How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.”George Hutchinson and David Drews
The whole essay, titled Racial Attitudes, can be read here: https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_44.html