- Lauren Shufran's "Walt Whitman's Inscriptions"
Passage to more than India!
Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"(line 224)
It is not an obvious time to return to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855-1892).1 Though, as we witness the United States venture ever closer to what seems like civil war and/or the dissolution of a nation, taking insistent strides, in Ibram X. Kendi's formulation, in our "racist progress," perhaps a serious quarrel with Whitman will get us to the heart of matters.2 Or so wagers Lauren Shufran's searching, poem-by-poem entanglement with the "Inscriptions" section of Whitman's magnum opus, a project that reckons not with what we could more comfortably call contradictions borne of his containing multitudes, but with his repressed racist legacy. Yet rather than turn to the direct expression of racism in his lesser-known white nationalist journalism (such as his Free Soil writings of the 1840s3), or to various of his odes to Manifest Destiny (such as "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," first appearing in the 1865 edition of Leaves of Grass), Shufran chooses to interrupt our familiar, homey sense of Whitman's cosmic, absorbent self-dilations by digging into the logical underpinnings of the brief lyrics, mainly on nationhood and democracy, that open his American epitome, and challenging their semblance of political universality.
Yet it is the particular intertextual angle of Shufran's exposure that adds a crucial complexity to her work, as she joins a long tradition of commentary on Whitman vis-à-vis his adaptations of Vedantic thought. That is, her queer but partial and critical identification with Whitman specifically takes on both the poet's work and the Whitmanian dimensions of the robust racism current today in the U.S. by attending to a triangulation that haunts Leaves of Grass: its relation to the 700-verse, synthetic Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. In "Walt Whitman's Inscriptions," Shufran engages in rigorous commentary on one of her chosen spiritual tradition's core texts, its parallels and contrasts with Whitman, and its potential capacity to illuminate our racist predicament, while, resurrecting Whitman as a 21st-century companion practitioner of yoga who joins her on a journey to India, she also gently reflexively mocks Western tourism on the subcontinent and its consumption of yoga and related services.
Direct self-satire enters Shufran's portrayal of Walt availing himself of the amenities India has to offer the queer Western spiritual traveler from the opening premise of the first poem featured here, "To Thee Old Cause": "Walt is on Tinder in India." Noting that only the first twelve lines of Whitman's "To Thee Old Cause" can be fit in his 500-character Tinder tagline, her persona dangles the scenario that she herself (and given the uncertainties of deixis, the reader too) is in turn cruising the website and finding appeal in Walt, "Because you are in India, trying to find yourself." As this exemplary burlesque in which Americans leave home to find the self in India only to have Whitman then stand in some wise as India's essence might suggest, what Shufran's layered reading and positioning throughout these poems makes evident is that the cultural traffic in Whitman goes both ways. "Whitman has been read in other cultures and into other cultures," as Ed Folsom writes, "looping into other traditions and finding its way back."4 Whitman's most intensive cross-cultural intersection is with Hindu thought, and Shufran's "Walt Whitman's Inscriptions" in part responds to the tendency of past and present yogic teachers and followers of every nationality and ethnicity to idealize Whitman in their frequent citation of him as Vendantic seer to forget his racism, his jingoism, his white supremacist thought, in turning to Whitman at just those moments, ironically, when poetry is called on to heal or transcend political rifts and their violence. If contemporary Hinduism often uses Whitman not only as Whitman himself envisioned his cosmo-political-poetical role, but also as Whitman had made use of the Bhagavad Gita, Shufran gives the dialectic another turn, reading and troubling that return circuit while cannily setting up Whitman as...