Approximately fifty pages into Leaves of Grass, in the 1892 version that is referred to as the deathbed edition, Walt Whitman seems to pause and take a step back from his rolling, practiced effusion about everything human. In some ways the sweeping momentum of the poem comes to an abrupt halt and lands in what philosophers call an aporia, or a troublesome conflict. Whitman surmises:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in
their possession. (52)
On some level it’s a remarkable passage, complicated in its way because it not only goes against the Enlightenment position, which reinvigorated the age-old belief in human superiority, but in some sense it contradicts the Romantic view of animals as well. After all Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the granddaddy of the movement, had written in his “Discourse on Inequality” that “Every animal has ideas because it has senses; it even combines its ideas up to a certain point, and, in this regard, man differs from beasts only in degree.” That is, for Rousseau, animals almost reach human levels of thought. They share a kinship with humanity, but they also fall short of human greatness, even if only by a matter of “degree.” But Whitman goes a great deal further. In effect he reverses the hierarchy hidden in the binarism human/animal. What he proposes is the notion that animals are better than us. He prefers them for what they don’t do, including whine, regret, grovel, kowtow, strive or own. Setting aside the question of the empirical accuracy of his assertions, the passage begs deeper consideration for how it relates to the humanist tradition. After all, one of the consequences of that tradition was for cultures to denigrate their own by reducing groups or individuals to a name, including “animal,” “beast” or, most damning of all, “savage.” In a sense Whitman reverses these labels, or he rehabilitates them. He says later in the text: “[G]ive me serene-moving animals teaching content” (262). And “How beautiful and perfect are the animals!” (369). And he enthuses about “the satisfaction and aplomb of animals” (415). The big question is why he is so insistent on this theme. Is it merely a poet’s game or is he serious? And if the latter, what are the consequences? If animals behave in ways preferable to humans, does that imply that all the mean-spirited labeling no longer possesses any bite? That is, if animals no longer constitute an Other to humans, if the slash in the binarism human/animal is removed or, more aptly, the hierarchy is reversed, then what happens to the hierarchies between humans? What does it say about the many traditions that served in the nineteenth century as bases for inequality, including Christianity, but also capitalism and bourgeois culture, as well as one of their most pernicious forms, the slave system? If all these are what he’s after in the language of the passage above, how does this leveling relate to all his inducements elsewhere in the text to think of America broadly, allegorically, as a place where difference is the rule, requiring a radically new approach, an entirely new understanding of democracy? Again if the hierarchy between humans and animals is overturned, then can’t the same be possible in human hierarchies, all of which are founded on perceived differences? Finally, do any of these considerations challenge the way we think about and treat animals themselves? Would Whitman genuinely have cared?