Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Favourite Whitman Line.

"A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he."

I found this line to be particularly arresting. The child seems to be asking a simple question, and one which the reader, and indeed Whitman, would perhaps pay little thought to. What makes it so profound is the apparent simplicity of the question in conjunction with the ineffability of the answer. What is the grass? We can posit a response based on its properties, its function, its origins; but the child seems to be asking more than this. He is after a concrete existential definition of what grass is, to which of course, we are as ignorant as the child.

For me this became emblematic to a host of other concepts which we are equally alienated from. For example I thought of gravity and how Newton expresses its function. Much like Whitman explaining to the child, Newton's account of gravity can only appeal to what it does not what it is. The notion of gravity's function is almost ubiquitous in our collective consciousness, yet it is impossible to attempt to establish what it actually is. The child's question therefore undermines humanity as the privileged observer of nature, instead establishing the world as remote and unknowable. Concepts are only knowable through their function, not their existential significance. To be as ignorant as the child to some may be humbling, and to others distressing. That's what I liked.

No comments:

Post a Comment