Writing by Hannah Udall. Illustration by Hazel Laing.
‘I celebrate myself
And what I assume you shall assume.’
I am a big fan of Walt Whitman’s free form poem ‘Song of Myself’. He conjures up the joy in the world; worshipping and absorbing this place we call home in swirling pirouettes of sensation.
Yet… with the line ‘what I assume you shall assume’ we are within our rights to stop and question. Who is the ‘you’ that Whitman presupposes so much power over, and why the contentious ‘assumption’ and not a more respectable ‘knowledge’?
Walt Whitman celebrated America, the state of democracy. In the past year we have seen this democracy come under threat. The storming of the White House on the 6th of January and the number of Americans discrediting the election is alarming. Salman Rushdie recently did a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and he said it is easy not to realise how close democracy in America came to collapse. People thanked the institutions in place which prevented this collapse however Rushdie claimed that it was not the institutions that saved us. It was a few individuals, the officials and particularly the republicans who went against party lines and did their job, decreeing the election legitimate. If these individuals had been different, it could have ended very differently.
The population of people living on planet earth is huge. We all have an individual experience of this life, and are connected to other people in the collective experience of being part of mankind. These are two co-existing realities on vastly different scales. However they intersect and it is essential we are aware of this interdependence.
Walt Whitman revelled in his own individual experience and promoted the individual freedom that democracy gave people. Yet when Whitman was alive the British Empire was still an entity, subjugating people and not allowing many human beings to have the free life Whitman praises. Walt Whitman was privileged to feel so free.
The pandemic has resulted in things we previously took for granted to be curtailed. However, self-isolation, wearing masks, rules on mixing households, have all at their root been personal choices. Some rules have occasionally been made law, however the lack of policing and the personal aspect of what the laws were decreeing has meant it has still been a choice. This is freedom, and a blessing- imagine what mandatory enforcement of the precautions would look like, and thank the democracy we have today for these ‘choices’. We live in a world of privacy, freedom, and personal autonomy. There is a trust in the individual to make choices which are good.
Some people feel the pandemic has curtailed their freedom an unacceptable amount, and as such there has been reparations. Conspiracy theories are flying around the internet, allowing an outlet for uncomfortable emotions at the unfairness of it all. Wearing a mask is deemed by some as a ‘violation of their freedom’ and there is a big proportion of people who are against vaccination due to fake news sites and conspiracy theories. There have been anti-lockdown protests. Yet all these are instances where the right of the individual is seen as more valuable than that of the collective.
It's safe to say, this past year has been difficult. We live in an age of constant connection, increasing automation and growing population. Yet along with these things comes the rising in importance of individual action - so many people acting in small ways creates big changes. Today we see a catastrophic climate crisis but we also see individual solidarity to black lives matter movements and both monetary and practical help in the relocation of Afghan refugees.
Divya Victor wrote a poem call ‘W is for Walt Whitman’s Soul’. It is a prose poem full of luxurious sounds and an abundance of colour and decadence of imagery. It lists all the things Britain exported from India at the time when Whitman was writing ‘Leaves of Grass’. The beauty of the words is framed by the context of what is being said and this juxtaposition comments on the audition of luxury. The words run at a fast pace and try to hide the desecration underneath, however the injustice of what is happening is portrayed through the odd grotesque word dropped inamongst, and the overarching story of the poem- that of Walt Whitman shitting into the Suez canal. A totally natural unanalysed individual action is poisoning India’s waterways and making its way to religious sites, with Whitman totally unaware. Walt Whitman might have had freedom, but when does a necessary accompaniment of ignorance make the freedom foul?
Are we living in an age of alienation, where our individual experience is what matters and our connection to the collective is weakened? Where is the unconditional compassion on which the world runs best? We are living in an age of give and take and hostility ensues.
Our freedoms have been impacted this past year, but without such measures we will never get back to collective freedom. A freedom which refuses to say one life is worth more than another, a freedom which refuses to ignore injustice. Numerous metaphors have been written in regard to the pandemic, commenting on how it is ‘sending us a message’ or ‘teaching us’ something. However, as Susan Sontag said, ‘Illness is illness’ and it needs to be treated as such. What the pandemic has done is shown problems with how we live that have been there since the beginning.
Our society today is so interconnected that we cannot afford to be ignorant about the collective. We live in an age of migration and globalisation. The pandemic has been unique in the sense that no one has been unaffected by it. We can only survive it by acting as a collective. And a good place to begin is compassion to all fellow human beings.