The Best Way to Read Whitman

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I hadn’t eaten in four, maybe five days. I’m not sure how long, exactly, but I know I was hungry enough to have that ghost-headed feeling, like I was floating through a world of pictures on strings.

I’d screwed up somehow, somewhere, miscalculated my money and ability to get work. This was a time in my life when such things weren’t entirely uncommon, so the precise circumstances preceding the moment are unclear to me now.

There was plenty of food in the privileged trash cans of Aspen, Colorado, but “scavenger” wasn’t the brand of traveler I wanted to be. I’d worked for my bread since I was a kid, and I’d be damned if I ever let the world take that dignity away from me.

I would have eaten out of the cans before I ever took any goddamn charity, though— if it came to that.

So, I floated into the Aspen public library, got a copy of Leaves of Grass off the shelves, and sat down. The pain in my stomach didn’t bother me much. I was desperate inside in ways worse than hunger.

I’d gone off into the American wilderness, alone, at 18, instead of going to college or starting a career, possessed by an obsessive need to know and understand and see the world in all its scope at once. I very literally would have died in my quest, in necessary, so manic was this need.

Thinking back on it now, I see that young man in my mind’s eye, foolish boy he was, staggering dirty and skinny into the library on some idiot vision quest, trying to be Jack Kerouac.

Oh, but he was sincere, that young man I used to be. He truly believed there was something more out there and, foolish as he was, he did indeed have the balls to actually go looking for it, to put everything on the line — and for that, for that one thing, I do admire him.

Back now in the head of that young man in the public library, I wasn’t feeling well at all. Terrible confusion had overtaken my spirit. I’d begun to suspect there was nothing more in the world but bills and bones.

True despair filled my heart.

I sat down with that copy of Whitman in a library full of folks idly passing time, reading newspapers and magazines, thinking the warm, soft thoughts of warm, soft people.

I opened the book to “A Song of Joys.”

Prophetic joys of better, loftier love’s ideals, the divine
wife, the sweet, eternal, perfect comrade?
Joys all thine own undying one, joys worthy thee O

My hands began to shake, not with hunger (at least then I didn’t think it was hunger), but with spiritual electricity.

O while I live to be the ruler of life, not a slave,
To meet life as a powerful conqueror,
No fumes, no ennui, no more complaints or scornful
To these proud laws of the air, the water, and the ground,
proving my interior soul impregnable,
And nothing exterior shall ever take command of me.

Joys, joys, joys! I nearly cried right there in the public library, in full view of everybody.

It’s impossible to say exactly what I was feeling or thinking. I can’t even say which of those things it was, feeling or thinking, that weird epiphany.

I only knew that, for that one moment, my own being diffused into the whole broad swatch of humanity. “I” didn’t exist. There was only a volcanic joy, an ecstatic feeling of being wholly alive and dead at the same time. My soul touched the hairs of every breathing person in the world at once.

When I drifted back into my body and found myself in the library again, copy of Leaves of Grass in hand, I felt an overwhelming urge to grab everyone around me and scream at them to wake up! Embrace this moment! All these things thundered in my foolish, 18-year-old head.

We aren’t built for the present. Not for long, anyway. Our brains are designed for the horizon, always. Gurus have been selling people on a remedy for that for generations, but they only ever end up driving people to despair after some short foray into enlightenment.

None of those things occurred to me then, though. For that one moment, the world, and humanity, seemed to be heading somewhere that made sense, somewhere good.

For that moment of my life, I thank whatever there is to thank, God or cosmic accident.

That’s why I say, to this day, that the best way to read Walt Whitman is four, five days hungry, ten million miles from home in a public library full of strangers, alone and at the tail end of insanity.

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I’m not in the Matrix. I AM the Matrix.

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