Role of the Individual in Society at the Example of Poetry


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The Value of Mankind and the Individual: Walt Whitman and Octavio Paz

Humanity has often been regarded with a perpetually shifting sense of reverence or disregard throughout its entire existence. Walt Whitman and Octavio Paz explore the role of the individual in society in their respective poems “Song of Myself” and “I Speak of the City.” Whitman’s work connects to the idea of the American spirit that exudes the values of self-reliance, self-autonomy, and individualism that were exalted during the American transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth-century. Paz’s poem highlights the setting of the titular city rather than the people who reside within it, emphasizing the ideas of alienation, passiveness, and disillusionment of mankind’s abilities that became commonplace in works of twentieth-century modernism and postmodernism. The narrators’ actions, identity, and authority illustrate the differences in Whitman’s and Paz’s beliefs. These characteristics come to display Whitman’s transcendentalist belief in the power and importance of humans and the individual in contrast to Paz’s postmodernist view that they are ultimately dispensable and helpless.

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Whitman focuses on the internal qualities of the individual, while Paz focuses on the external qualities of the city. Whitman emphasizes the capacities of the individual: “I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured” (652 l. 1), so “… let us hasten forth,/ Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go” (652 ll. 15-16). Whitman upholds the dominance of the individual over the seeming inescapable constraints of the mortal realm, which people generally feel come to define and regulate them. For the human spirit, in Whitman’s eyes, transcends and surpasses such finite boundaries. At any point that Whitman does bring to attention the physical setting, it is usually to allow the narrator to take action upon it. Whitman thus characterizes mankind as active individuals that take command of their own lives and who mold the world as they desire. In contrast, Paz places attention on the inescapable city that confines the narrator: “we are in the city, we cannot leave except to fall into another city” (1429 ll. 27-28), the “…mother that gives birth/ to us and devours us, that creates us and forgets” (1431 ll. 139-140). The city, not the individual, is what truly matters in the long-run; for while the humans pass by through birth and death, the city remains standing in its basic components and presence. The narrator and people continue to be submissive and passive, only reacting to the events surrounding them. Each of their own existence remains barely noticeable as their actions hold little impact or consequence. The personification of the city shows that the human spirit, ironically, appears exemplified by the inanimate metropolis, holding greater life within it than any of the individuals moving through it, outlasting them and holding more meaning and significance than they can ever hope to achieve.

While Whitman and Paz set their poems within vast environments, the settings contrast in their diverse versus mundane qualities. Whitman’s narrator discovers security and contentment wherever he may find himself, whether that be “At home in the fleet of ice-boats, …/ At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine…” (649 11-12). The use of the repetition “At home” establishes a feeling of belongingness wherever he may roam in his country. The seemingly endless settings illustrate the boundless possibilities available to the narrator, which he may freely choose to pursue. He is not fixed to one location or one occupation, but is able to progress on a physical and spiritual level. The earth easily bestows upon the narrator and humanity as a whole a sense of liberty and rejuvenation, never judging them but encouraging and reassuring them in their personal and unique endeavors. In comparison, Paz’s poem brings to attention the familiar attractions that crowd a city: “… streets, plazas, buses, taxis, movie houses, theaters,/ bars, hotels, pigeon coops and catacombs” (1429 ll. 3-4). The use of catalogues allows the audience to visualize the extensive spectacles offered by the city. The continual listings of objects and scarcity of conjunctions, however, causes all of the places to blur together inside a person’s mind, allowing one to easily forget each recorded item, ceaselessly replaced by the next one. A repetitive and mechanical tone develops as the lists continue to be produced and lose their distinction from one another that represents the narrator’s own lack of opportunities and ability to leave his established routine that he must conform to with inauthenticity and superficiality. The two poets’ different portrayal of the activeness of their speakers connects to the values and beliefs that the transcendentalists and postmodernists held about themselves and their world. A core belief of American transcendentalism was “…that the physical world was the manifestation of an ideal, spiritual reality and an individual’s goal was to realize this reality” (Hooper). This desire for a utopia led transcendentalists to advocate for social reform, including women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Emerson stated, “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential” (Gougeon 39), as the transcendentalists believed only through direct action could they achieve such moral and spiritual betterment. After the horrors of World War II, the optimism experienced during the age of modernism shifted to one of disillusionment towards the individual’s capabilities and authoritative institutions. This led to the view that “this chaos is insurmountable; the artist is impotent, and the only recourse…is to play within the chaos” (Chaudhary & Sharma 2), emphasizing the passivity and detachment seen in postmodern works.

Although Whitman’s and Paz’s poems are both written in first person, the extent of the involvement of the narrators differs. Whitman includes details and characterization that provide the speaker a confident and zealous personality: “I celebrate myself…/ Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,/… Hoping to cease not till death” (648 ll. 1-9). The very first word of the poem, “I,” as well as the first line establishes the narrator’s importance and lets the audience immediately recognize that everything they experience will be according to the speaker’s own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. The audience comes to understand the motivations and innermost wants of the speaker, creating a greater personal connection and interest. Despite the prideful nature of the narrator, the audience shares a kinship with him for he represents the unbridled passions of all individuals, filled with the need to create their own respective path and set themselves apart. The narrator serves a distinct and purposeful role in leading the audience literally through the words of the poem, illustrating Whitman’s own belief that each person holds a role and identity in their own lives which they must realize and decide what to do with. In comparison, Paz’s narrator does not even use the word “I” until line 29, and he never speaks of himself: “I speak of the immense city, that daily reality composed of two words:/ the others” (1429 ll. 29-30). The only activity that he commits alone, speaking, solely relates to the city, and it still does not affect anyone else or the environment around him. The narrator holds no significant role in his world or the poem, for the audience soon becomes lost amongst the never-ending city structures, the guidance and company of the speaker becoming pointless. The narrator concludes that “are we asleep or awake?… we are nothing more…” (1429 l. 25), a question filled with the sentiment of an existential crisis resulting from a lack of self-identity, as he can only be defined and identified according to his relation to the city.

The settings of Whitman’s and Paz’s poems are in locations filled with people, but they differ in the portrayal of those people’s connection to each other. Whitman’s narrator establishes a sense of unity and mutual understanding with all people for he is “One of the Nation of many nations…/ A Southerner soon as a Northerner…” (649 ll. 5-6). The narrator suffers no seclusion or apathy, but rather, finds great enjoyment and pleasure in his relationships with other human beings. The narrator discovers his perception of the world to be more valuable when his existence is filled with people of all walks of life, coexisting. The narrator celebrates not only himself but those around him, for they together form the identity and values of their country and society, creating a certain universal consciousness. In comparison, Paz’s narrator depicts himself as an outsider: “I speak of the immense city, that daily reminder composed of two words:/ the others” (1429 ll. 29-30). He holds no attachment with those who walk the same streets as him, being a part of something bigger than himself and his solitary perspective. The physical isolation of the words “the others” augments the people’s sentiments of alienation, viewing one another as strangers. They remain emotionally and psychologically isolated, ironically linked together only in their loneliness, finding the touch and communication of the lifeless city more dependable and stable than one another. Whitman’s patriotism and portrayal of the individual correlates with him living in the United States during the nineteenth-century, shortly after the American Revolution. Whitman and other American transcendentalist writers were adamant on establishing an American culture and identity “…that would leave European values and traditions behind to celebrate a modern, pluralistic democracy” (Puchner 647). Paz, however, grew up in twentieth-century Mexico, during which urbanization and globalization rose to prominence and which many believe has led to a loss of cultural and personal identity (Kaul 341-342). Paz’s belief that Mexicans suffered from a “…condition of solitude and despair…of alienation” (Puchner 1427), correlates to the narrator’s disconnection from his national and communal identity.

Whitman and Paz provide differing views on the influence of history and its effect on their current society. The narrator of Whitman’s poem displays himself as a person that does not fixate on past events and relationships or rely upon them to guide him and his future course as “The past and present wilt- I have filled them, emptied them,/ And proceed to fill my next fold of the future” (652 ll. 1-2). The narrator refuses to allow himself to be weighed down by his past decisions and his history or even that of the world, for he lives in the here and now. The speaker does not conform to the expectations placed upon him. They cannot restrict him or his actions as he holds confidence in his ability to influence his own future and that of his society. Whitman shows humans as passionate and indomitable, unquenchable in their pursuit of self-determination and autonomy. The speaker of Paz’s poem seems unable to lift the presence and burden of the past as he resides within “…the city built by the dead, inhabited by their stern ghosts,/ ruled by their despotic memory” (1429 ll. 32-33). Paz uses the metaphorical haunting of tyrannical and unrelenting phantoms to illustrate the inability to overcome the dominating influence of the past over the speaker and the city itself. Humans will never free themselves of the restrictions of history that encloses them as they repeat human tendencies and follies and replicate the history of mankind itself, breaking traditions to follow new ones, creating nations to tear them down.

Whitman and Paz utilize a free verse style in their poems, but the content and structure of the works parallel the narrators’ own power within their environment. Paz’s poem is written as one extended sentence that is not punctuated until the very last word on the third page. A feeling of chaos and instability emerges that parallels the speaker’s own lack of purpose and direction. The first sentence, which serves as the only sentence of the entire poem, begins with a lowercase letter rather than being capitalized: “a novelty today, tomorrow a ruin from the past…” (1429 l. 1), highlighting the feelings of insignificance and powerlessness of the speaker. His words and he himself barely hold any value before being swept up in the overwhelming description of the city. The free verse and long lines of the poem do not display the liberty and the vast possibilities the world has to offer the speaker but a lack of meaning in life that leads one to experience hopelessness and even indifference. Whitman’s poem uses standard capitalization and numbered sections in contrast to Paz’s work: “I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,/ By God” (651 ll. 10-11)! The form of Whitman’s poem underlines the authority of the speaker. The world is not a maze to lose oneself but an expansive landscape to explore, develop, and make order. The variety of punctuation and line length as well as the free verse style of the poem portrays the personal freedom of the narrator who openly expresses his thoughts and emotions. The two speakers’ level of control can be attributed to the philosophical ideas at the time that were affected by political and social conflicts. The success of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 influenced the democratic ideals of the transcendentalists that emphasized the citizens’ power over their government and society. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau declared, “I think that we should be men first, and subject afterwards…The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (339), affirming mankind’s free will and the upholding of one’s conscience. Modernism and postmodernism stressed the irrationality and meaninglessness of the world and mankind, especially through the philosophies of absurdism and nihilism that arose from the ideas of Camus and Nietzsche, as well as Freud’s teachings on the id (Puchner 1009). These sentiments increased as a result of the continuous violent warfare and authoritarian oppression seen throughout the twentieth-century.

The significance and worth of the individual are often established through their own self-perception concerning their contribution, individuality, and influence within their community. Whitman’s and Paz’s beliefs concerning the role of the individual appear heavily influenced by their own respective cultures that formed from the countries and time periods they lived through. Both of the poets’ communities endured international and national strife but differed in their reacting to it with optimism and idealism or weariness and despair. Throughout history, people have shown themselves to be courageous and cowardly, determined and hesitant, passionate and apathetic, and formidable and feeble. Whitman’s and Paz’s contrasting yet honest portrayals of their narrators come to demonstrate the complexity of humankind as a whole.

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