Ego Psychology and the Interpretation of Walt Whitman's Struggle

by Stephen John Mack

May 13, 1999


I intend in this paper to show how the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, in the throes of a severe psychological crisis, used poetry to reshape a textualized version of his ego and thereby manage that crisis. In the process, I will demonstrate how Whitman's "therapeutic" use of poetry had the further and unintended effect of altering his entire poetics. My focus will be the "Calamus" homoerotic collection poems, including several of the draft poems known as "Calamus-Leaves," which Whitman wrote around 1858 in preparation for the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.


    For very good reasons, psychoanalytic interpretation has always appealed to literary critics; and with the introduction of the various conceptual revisions associated with the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, this popularity has only increased. Freudian thought offered many commentators a compelling and ready-made vision of the "deep structure" of the psyche, of art, of civilization--in short, of meaning, the object of interpretation. The critic who uses psychoanalysis has often felt liberated to play with the many ingenious ways a work expresses and also represses the author's inevitable motivations. More recently, Lacanian theory, despite its differences from the Freudian model, similarly offers a glimpse of the creative human beneath the text. As Meredith Skura (1981) points out, both conservative analysts as well as "the radical Jacques Lacan, for whom all tropes are defenses," in effect, "carry on Freud's work of seeing all tensions, ambiguities, and rhetorical strategies in literature as the result of repression" (p. 27). Unfortunately reducing literary texts to artifacts of repression, whether it be done in Lacanian or more traditional terms, sheds very little light on the complexities of literary art--or the art of a human life, for that matter.

    The psychoanalytic interpretation of literature need not, however, be an exclusively reductive practice. Skura (1981), for example, writes approvingly of an interpretive model based upon "the entire psychoanalytic process," as psychoanalysis itself moves beyond Freud's "original concern with instinctual conflict (the definition of neurosis) to a much more general psychology of human development and experience" (p. 24). Skura would not so much repudiate the older interpretive models based on repression, but rather integrate them with, for example, the work of those critics who draw upon "the newer developmental theories" (p. 27). "The process promises," she writes, "to provide a more subtle and more appropriate model, which considers art not as neurosis or symptom or dream but as the dynamic movement toward self-conscious wholeness that encompasses phenomena like these" (p. 12).

    In the spirit of Skura's challenge to locate art within the "dynamic movement toward self-conscious wholeness," I intend in this paper to show how the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, in the throes of a severe psychological crisis, used poetry to reshape a textualized version of his ego and thereby manage that crisis. In the process, I will demonstrate how Whitman's "therapeutic" use of poetry had the further and unintended effect of altering his entire poetics. My focus will be the "Calamus" homoerotic collection poems, including several of the draft poems known as "Calamus-Leaves," which Whitman wrote around 1858 in preparation for the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, about three years after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass which featured his most famous poem, "Song of Myself." And I will illustrate how ego-psychology, particularly as it was elaborated by David Rapaport, offers the critic a far more complex set of analytic tools than either the older and reductive "basic drive" interpretive paradigm or the Lacanian notion of the unconscious text--especially as it is used by one particularly creative literary critic, Michael Moon.

Whitman's Crisis

    Whitman's poetry is indeed a rich subject for psychoanalytic interpretation. That the poet was in personal turmoil between 1857 and 1859 is a commonplace of nearly every biography written about him. Professionally, Whitman had lost his job as editor of the Brooklyn Times somewhere in June of 1859--about the time he famously complained in his notebook of being in a "Slough" and needing "to stir--first for money enough, to live and provide for M---." But, as most biographers point out, the "Slough" Whitman was struggling to stir from was also, perhaps primarily, personal. Though drawn almost exclusively from interpretations of his twelve "Calamus-Leaves" draft poems, the evidence is nonetheless compelling that during this time Whitman was deeply involved in a difficult romantic relationship with a man. The particulars of Whitman's undoubtedly failed romance, even if they were more clearly known, are not of importance here. Most critics do agree that it was almost certainly a homosexual relationship, perhaps his first. There is less agreement on whether or not it was consummated, or even requited. Controversy over biographical details notwithstanding, for our purposes here it is sufficient to say that the episode amounted to an intense emotional crisis in the poet's life that threatened real loss--first, of course, loss of self, but also and more concretely, loss of a genuine flesh-and-blood love object; and whether or not the crisis was unprecedented in Whitman's life, it is important to observe that its documentation and resolution in poetry was. More than just biographical, this fact has poetic and philosophical significance, because for Whitman to have resolved such a crisis in poetry required that he invent for himself a new, more functionally pragmatic, form of poetic language which was deeply antithetical to the poetics of laissez-faire freedom he had pioneered. In other words, Whitman's crisis required him to develop what I would call "poetic agency," a verse form that was not exclusively concerned with representing the free play of cosmic and social forces, but rather one that was designed to enable the subjective "I" to negotiate the psychic dangers such forces entail.

    The psychic conditions that initiated the development of poetic agency were poignantly rendered in a poem Whitman published around the same time he was writing "Calamus-Leaves." In "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the poem's speaker walks the shores of his beloved "Paumanok" (Long Island) late one autumn day and becomes fascinated by lines of debris and sediment left on the sand by the ebbing tide. The refuse he sees provides the melancholy poet ample material with which to identify; "I too am but a trail of drift and debris" (p. 321), he writes. His problem is two-fold: first, he must contend with a deep depression induced by a sense of alienation from the self, "the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me" (p. 319); second, he must also confront the reality that his poetry thus far--the grand and sweeping verse of a poet who wished to embody the "multitudes" of America's laissez-faire democracy--has been utterly irrelevant to his own very private emotional condition:

O baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,

Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,

Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,

But that before all my insolent poems the real Me still stands untouch'd, untold, altogether unreached, . . . (p. 320)

    The poetics of agency which I will describe begins then with this struggle to "touch" or "reach" the "real" self; but more precisely, as the poet's second adjective in the last line quoted above indicates, it will be seen as an act of "telling" the self. But "telling" the self should not be confused with what is sometimes naively called self-expression, as though the poem opened up a window to the psyche. The poetic process I will describe is one where the poem serves as a tool of that psychic manager--the ego--in its effort to gain leverage over both internal and external conditions. David Rapaport--whose work I will use as a supplement to Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia"--called this process the development of "ego autonomy" (1951a; 1957). As it will be seen to operate in "Calamus," poetic creation is the transference onto paper, as it were, of a kind of textualized self--not in the sense of a textualized miniature "model" of the self, nor in the sense of a reification of actual psychic forces--but an act whereby the ego restructures itself by fictionalizing some aspect of its own dynamic, making it thereby available for modification, and ultimately, identification. In an analysis of this sort, it will be important to recognize not only the lines that connect the poem to the subjective poet, but those which separate them as well.

Ego Psychology, Reductionism, and the Literary Text

     In his essay "On the Psychoanalytic Theory of Motivations," Rapaport asserts that it was the sheer magnitude and drama of Freud's radical new theory of instinctual drives that led him to an initial preoccupation with it, so that "when he turned his attention to his other discoveries and conceptual inventions, psychoanalysts and others found it hard to give up this old exclusive preoccupation" (1960, p. 856). Yet even so, Rapaport notes, Freud himself cautioned against turning a preoccupation with id forces into a "corner-stone of a psycho-analytic Weltanschauung" (Rapaport, 1960, p. 858; Freud, 1926). With that observation as backdrop, Rapaport goes on to establish the context for the theory of ego autonomy which will concern us here, by claiming that

if the instinctual drives (even if the defenses, that is, resistances, are thrown in for good measure) are taken to be the only causes of behavior, the result is a disregard for the other intrapsychic determining factors (for instance, ego factors other than defenses) as well as for the external stimuli (and their configurations and contexts, for instance their social context) as determiners or codeterminers of behavior (1960, p. 857).

    A cornerstone of Rapaport's development of Freudian thought is his distinction between primary and secondary motivational structures--a significant modification of the more simple id-ego-superego hierarchy. Rapaport continually stressed that psychological phenomena must not only be explained in the "dynamic" terms of drive forces and energies, but also in terms of "the abiding psychological configurations" which structure those mental forces (1959, p. 802). Maturation is a life-long process of layering "secondary" motivational structures atop an infantile, "primary" structure which they modify, ameliorate, or otherwise redirect in accord with the individual's experience of reality. The process of secondary structure layering is the process of ego development, but it is not quite accurate to say that secondary structures are the ego (and superego) while primary structures are the id. In fact,

    The dichotomy is a matter of presentation, and the transition between the processes each half describes is fluid. The primary model is as necessary to account for many normal and pathological processes in the adult (dreams, illusions, hallucinations) as for the processes of early psychological development. Actually, it could be said that the primary model is merely an abortive form of the secondary one, and the two are an indivisible unity, linking together phenomena qualitatively as diverse as infantile rage and intentional, value-regulated, goal-seeking adult behavior (1951b, p. 408).

    Primary motivational structures deserve to be labeled as such, Rapaport explains, because they exhibit "certain structural givens," such as a "constitutionally given coordination between drive and drive object": unspent drive forces build up a charge ("cathexis"), a tension which demands release (that is, seeks equilibrium) through activity focused on a drive object (or "cathected" object). But the drive cathexis is also a "mobile cathexis"; that is, since it must be discharged, and since the drive object is not always (or even usually) present, the cathexis must be discharged in some way, for instance, onto some other object. For example, primitive cognition is expressed psychoanalytically as a "delay" of discharge sufficient in length to produce a memory trace, or hallucination, of prior gratifications and the objects which attended them.

    More germane to our discussion here, however, it is cathexis mobility which permits the formation of secondary structures or "derivative motivations." In short, whether to repress drives or simply to regulate them according to the subject's experience of reality, alternative motivations (which appear to function much like primary drives) arise by transforming some measure of cathexis into varieties of "countercathexis" which are then "bound" to goal specific intrapsychic organizations which may deploy their stock of "bound" energy in whatever way best suits its specific purpose. For Rapaport, this shows that "the ego and the id are limiting concepts, and that the processes and structures corresponding to them interpenetrate. . . . secondary process does not dispense with the pleasure principle, but rather modifies it, postpones it, and partially executes it" (1951b, p. 419). Thus,

    The claim that all actions are motivated--that is, cathected by need, and directed toward need-satisfying objects and discharge of need cathexis may be questioned on the ground that means actions, habits, and so on, do not conform with this pattern. . . . means actions and habits are not built in the elementalistic fashion of conditioned responses, but are automatized, skeletal, and structuralized forms of originally need-gratifying (motivated) actions (1951b, 419).

    It is important to reiterate here that one of the consequences of Rapaport's view of structure is that it casts suspicion on the various attempts to uncover some authoritative and coherent "deep structure"--imagined as either the authentic and primitive self or the cultural, ideological, or political unconscious--which, though censored from direct apprehension, nonetheless pulls the strings of behavior like a veiled puppeteer. For Rapaport, the unconscious does exist, but it is not definitive, monolithic, omnipotent, or even necessarily in sharp conflict with all that is conscious. Far more instructive are the many and varied ways the individual structures itself in the process of making a life.

    With this theoretical orientation towards ego development as a foundation, my analysis of Whitman's "Calamus" poems will specifically rely upon two other Rapaport ideas: his elaboration of the two kinds of ego autonomy--or "relative autonomy" (1957, p. 723)--as he will insist; and his metapsychological treatment of activity and passivity (1953). Rapaport derives the idea of relative ego "autonomies" (1957, p. 733) from the insight that the secondary structures of the ego operate between--indeed, are the very structuration of--the countervailing forces of internal drives and external conditions. Simply put, it is the function of the ego to guarantee against "drive slavery" on the one hand, and "stimulus slavery" on the other, by continuously playing one force off the other. Thus it is important to recognize that, since the ego can only gain a degree of independence from one force by utilizing the power of the other, autonomy from either is always "relative." And since the organism must escape the determinism of two influences, autonomy is always plural (pp. 725-7). The development of new, derivative motivations which are capable of balancing the conflicting influences are, of course, contemporaneous with the very problematic situations that occasion them; but clearly, to be of any use at all, they must also draw upon preexisting derivative motivations which the ego has already structured:

    These structures need nutriment for their development, maintenance and effectiveness and their ultimate nutriments are drive stimuli on the one hand and external stimuli on the other. But such nutriment is also provided by other ego structures and by the motivations arising from them, and the more autonomous the ego, the more the nutriment is provided from within these internal sources. . . .

     The ego's autonomy may be defined in terms of ego activity, and impairment of autonomy in terms of ego passivity. The old adage, that freedom is the acceptance of the restraints of the law, returns to us here with renewed significance (1957, pp. 740-41)

    As the above suggests, the concept of relative ego autonomies informs Rapaport's distinction between activity and passivity. To begin with, activity and passivity are not terms which describe either the subjective experience of a given individual, or the degree of motion that individual may exhibit to an observer; at issue here is the question of volition. Much human behavior--even actions which appear "willful" in the common sense of that word--can be more usefully thought of as passive, while much that seems passive is in fact quite active (1953, p. 534-38). As used here, the terms refer to the relative capacity of the ego to control the demands of drive forces (not, for reasons which will be made clear in a moment, the capacity to control or manage external conditions). Recalling that the "original passive helplessness of the infant arises primarily in relation to the continuous tension of undischarged instinctual drives"--and also the fact that even the "discharge of these tensions too may be dynamically passive, i.e., not controlled and synthesized by a cohesive ego" (1953, p. 539) (that is, merely a function of whether or not the drive object is available)--Rapaport first offers a dual model for passivity as "(a) the helpless-passive experience of tension, and (b) the passive-gratifying tension discharge" (1953, p. 539). In other words, what might appear to be an excessive vulnerability to external stimuli is read in this model as an inability to regulate or control tension discharge whenever the drive object is available--or a similar inability to manage (repress or redirect) the experience of tension whenever the drive object is not available. Conversely, his model for activity is dual as well: "(a) the defense against and/or control of drive tension doing away with passive helplessness in the face of drive demands, and (b) the ego-controlled discharge of tension, through ego apparatuses by detour processes aiming to find the drive object in reality" (1953, p. 540).

     One final point with regard to the distinction between activity and passivity deserves mention here. Though in most circumstances, the phenomenon of regression would signal passivity in the face of intolerable external stimuli, there is nonetheless at least one conception of active regression. Borrowing an idea from Ernst Kris, Rapaport outlines what the former calls "regression in the service of the ego" (1953, p. 554). Essentially it is a process whereby normal ego functions are deliberately bypassed (much like they inadvertently are in dreams) in some acts of intellectual creation. Here, id material becomes available for use in experimental reconstruction through the inducement of a state of mind subjectively experienced as open to inspiration. Yet even here, Rapaport is quick to point out that the integration of any material so accessed remains an ego function "characteristic of all creative processes, and this ego integration--rather than the subjective experience--is decisive, whether the process in question is one of activity or one of passivity" (p. 556-7). This is to say, of course, that as instrumental as a "regression in the service of the ego" may be, it does not guarantee the formation of an active, autonomous ego.

    Ego psychology, then, imposes restrictions on the scope of claims that can responsibly be made in the Stephen John Mack of a psychoanalytic understanding of literary works; at the same time, it opens up fresh avenues of insight. Specifically, ego psychology militates against the many kinds of reductionism that so commonly characterizes the use of psychoanalytic language in the interpretation of literature. In some cases, for example, the text is equated with the psyche (perhaps the writer's, or, in the case of French psychoanalysis, a kind of autonomous fictional "universal" or cultural psyche which is presumed to operate as though it were human); often, the text is further reduced to the status of unconscious fantasy or dream--a drama of conflicting id forces which can only be read as pathology. The ultimate achievement of these reductions, of course, is a text which is now available for decoding by the critic armed with a psychoanalytic template. This sort of reduction is evident even in the best of traditional psychoanalytic criticism. For example, Edwin Haviland Miller (1968), the first critic to apply psychoanalytic concepts in a systematic or rigorous manner, begins with the assumption that Whitman's material "has its origins in unconscious and infantile sources; hence the results are regressive imagery, fantasy, and reactivation of infantile longing" (p. vii). Thus "Calamus" is not read as the poet's successful and healthy attempt to assert control over his personal life, but "an act of simplification, an evasive gesture, a retreat from nineteenth-century, and human, complexity" (p. 150). Likewise, Stephen Black (1975) interprets the same cluster of poems as a fantasy in which "Whitman can take momentary comfort by imagining his return to an oral, pre-Oedipal phase prior to the conflicts with young and old men, prior to the separtion from his mother" (p. 203). The tendency to reduce can also be found in biographical critics like David Cavitch (1985); though he is less explicit or technical in his use of psychoanalysis, he nevertheless acknowledges his debt to both Miller and Black. Hence his thesis that "Whitman gained his full power to write when he learned how to re-create his family relationships in the voice and structure of his poems" inevitably leads him to read the poetry as a screen upon which both past and on-going family antagonisms are projected. In Cavitch's view, Whitman's poetry thus "entraps" him by perpetuating a pattern of family relations that "deprived him of an authentic emotional life" (xiii).

    Not all psychoanalytically informed discussions of Whitman's poetry (or poetry generally) are necessarily or wholly reductive. In his Whitman biograophy, for example, Justin Kaplan (1980) uses the poetry to help explicate the many psychological tensions in the poet's life. But without explaining in detail, he nevertheless also acknowledges that "through poetry" Whitman "reconstituted himself and moved on to a new stage of composure and understanding" (p. 239). Ego psychology enables us to more deeply understand that process of "reconstitution" through poetry. This is to say, however, that the text is not a human psyche, let alone some primitivist cartoon of a human psyche. And though almost any text might offer an analyst suggestions as to the motives of the person who created it--indeed, texts such as the "Calamus" poems may even provide a great wealth of suggestions--all literary creations are nevertheless the conscious creations of writers who are quite capable of appropriating the psychic models the culture packages and harnessing them to literary conventions which predate the writer's own development.

    The approach I take, then, acknowledges that while the poetry in question does indeed emerge out of psychological conflict which, to some extent, it reflects, nevertheless, it neither contains, nor is reducible to, that conflict. Rather, the poems will be seen as consciously created textual environments in which the poet has created abstracted, i.e. fictionalized, versions of the self. Once liberated within the textual environment, the fictive self becomes subject to the manipulations and experimentation of the poet, who can employ all the literary devices the culture makes available to him. Once the conflict is "resolved," through the erection of "artificial" countercathecting linguistic structures (which represent verbally the imagined play of psychic motivations), the result is a newly created fictional self, available to the poet--or reader--to assimilate through the process of identification.

    The above association of textual mechanics with psychic process requires that a distinction must also be made between ego psychology and the interpretive paradigm of Lacanian psychoanalysis. And perhaps one of the most artful uses of the Lacanian paradigm comes from the critic Michael Moon in his discussion of the "Calamus" poetry. Basing his interpretation on Freud's assertion that male paranoia is an unconscious defense against homosexuality originating in the Oedipal situation, Moon's thesis is that in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman deliberately represents--or strategically cultivates for remedial purposes--this paranoia, which Moon reads as a cultural, not just an individual psychic, response. By dramatically representing the culturally inscripted paranoia of gender boundaries "becoming too painfully constrictive" on the one hand, "or a fear of the loss of boundaries altogether," (p. 156) the poet's purpose is understood to be an

invitation to readers to recognize the pain of the oppressive cultural constraints under which they are laboring and the exhilarating--but also perilous--pleasure of attempting to redraw these boundaries along other lines. The desire to lose and the fear of losing the boundary lines in force around self-definition and sexual definition are both strongly impelled by the third edition, in which Whitman aspires to extend the scope of his revisions of culture to include his readers' notions of their relation to such basal elements of mid-nineteenth-century American culture as nature and religion. (156).

    The argument Moon produces to support this thesis is admirably elegant. For instance, with a sharp eye, he ferrets out the play involved in Whitman's use of the words "difference" and "indifference," building a connection between the psychic states the "Calamus" poems would seem to represent, and the Saussureian structure that is assumed to organize the cultural unconscious that Whitman is supposedly attempting to reconfigure. But as I will show momentarily, the artistry Moon praises is really his own. Still, Moon's analysis does illustrate that there is at least a superficial affinity between this approach and the interpretative use of ego psychology in that both foreground the function of texts--and textual manipulation--in the reformulation of identity.

    A superficial affinity, however, should not be allowed to mask fundamental differences in the way each theory understands the relations which obtain between text and psyche. The reason Moon can so easily glide between intrapsychic phenomena and cultural dynamics is, of course, because for Lacan, as is well known, the individual organism is at the outset little more than an empty subjectivity whose identity is but the "mirror" image of the culture--an inscription of cultural meanings produced in a linguistic economy that obeys the same principles which also govern the oedipal determination of psychic meaning. Meanwhile, it is claimed, the real subjectivity behind the identifying "I" is forever cut off from objective apprehension (or completion in an authentic object of desire) by the endless succession of fictions the ego identifies with. Language, in this view, is not a tool the "real self" uses to organize the experience which constitutes it; rather, it is the medium in which the ego erects a false self, repressing authentic desire. In this sense, the Lacanian paradigm traffics in the romantic delusion of an authentic, original being, removed from the world of lived experience. Ironically, instead of participating in the poststructural challenge to Western notions of subjectivity, as its adherents so often claim, Lacanian theory actually deifies subjectivity, first by effectively elevating it to the status of something above material process, and second by mystifying it--that is, rendering all analytical access to it impossible by discrediting the only possible route up: the always already Babel that is language. Going far beyond the reasonable proposition that experience is mediated by language (Whorf-Sapir), this school of thought would seem to require us to believe that whatever presents itself as "genuine" human experience must necessarily be false.

    Michael Moon is correct, however, to join other critics in examining the intensity of emotional representations in the "Calamus" poems. These poems do indeed pivot on a wide range of emotional states: exhilaration, anxiety, love, loneliness, euphoric anticipation, despondency, and, certainly, fear; but paranoia, understood as a delusional fear, unreasonable and unfounded, is not among the emotions "Calamus" dramatizes. Any fear may, of course, actually be delusional and therefore serve as an indication of paranoia; but without any evidence from the text to suggest that the fear is not based on reasonable judgment (and there is absolutely none), a convincing diagnosis that a given fear is unfounded requires an extratextual, biographical judgment that the poet was documenting very real anxiety which is nonetheless unjustified by the circumstances of the poet's life--precisely the kind of biographical judgment Moon refuses to make. It is especially clear that in this instance, the misrecognition of paranoia is wholly a function of theory-choice, and completely irrelevant to the textual material at hand.

Whitman's Melancholia:
Personal Crisis and Poetic Disruption

    A more appropriate heuristic tool with which to launch a productive investigation of the "Calamus" poems is, I suggest, Freud's own "Mourning and Melancholia." For indeed, melancholia, not paranoia, is the striking emotional quality we find in such poems as "Calamus. 9" (number VIII of the original twelve "Calamus-Leaves").

Hours continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted,

Hours of the dusk, when I withdraw to a lonesome and unfrequented spot, seating myself, leaning my face in my hands;

Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries;

Hours discouraged, distracted--for the one I cannot content myself without, soon I saw him content himself without me;

Hours when I am forgotten, (O weeks and months are passing, but I believe I am never to forget!)

Sullen and suffering hours! (I am ashamed--but it is useless--I am what I am;)

Hours of my torment--I wonder if other men ever have the like, out of the like feelings?

Is there even one other like me--distracted--his friend, his lover, lost to him?

Is he too as I am now? Does he still rise in the morning, dejected, thinking who is lost to him? and at night, awaking, think who is lost?

Does he too harbor his friendship silent and endless? harbor his anguish and passion?

Does some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a Stephen John Mack, bring the fit back upon him, taciturn and deprest?

Does he see himself reflected in me? In these hours, does he see the face of his hours reflected? (pp. 379-380)

    Freud defines melancholia by distinguishing it from the more routine patterns of mourning following the loss of a love-object. Though both mental states will to some extent involve "painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and an] inhibition of all activity," melancholia is marked additionally by "a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment" (1917, p. 153) And in fact, a lowered self-regard is an unmistakable feature of "Calamus. 9.," for though the poet here mourns the estrangement of his lover's affections, "the one I cannot content myself without, soon I saw him content himself without me," his self-described dejection is accompanied by a kind of resigned acknowledgment of his own worthlessness. For instance, he does not qualify his lament of the "Hours when I am forgotten" with a protest against the injustice of being consigned to oblivion, (which we might otherwise expect from the brash poet so accustomed to asserting his own ego), only the meek, parenthetic claim that "I believe I am never to forget." But even more explicitly, a lowered self regard registers in the curious confession, wrought from the poet's "Sullen and suffering hours!" that "(I am ashamed--but it is useless--I am what I am;)" Clearly, we see here the degree to which the corrosive force of his own malignant torment has become directed entirely inward; and while many critics have assumed that the poet's "shame" derives from his sense of guilt over the commission of homosexual acts, such a moralistic reading of the line renders it completely irrelevant to the poem's central concern with the problems of loss and loneliness. This, rather, is the poet of "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life," coming face to face with the scattered debris of a shattered self: "I too am but a trail of drift and debris." Thus the humiliating confession, "I am ashamed--but it is useless--I am what I am" merely underscores his certainty that what he is is nothing; or at least nothing of any worth. Loss of a love-object, for this poet at this time, is complete loss of self.

    Freud postulates that a melancholic reaction to the loss of a love-object--which results in a corresponding loss of self--actually suggests a previous rupture in the particular relationship in question. He hypothesizes that when some "real slight or disappointment" shatters the "attachment of the libido to a particular person," or object-relationship, without actually bringing an end to the relationship, allowing the libido to displace itself onto another object, the free libido instead withdraws into the ego itself. Once there, however, the withdrawn libido serves

to establish an identification with the abandoned object. Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification. (1917, p. 159)

Consequently, when the love-object is actually lost, the loss is felt to be a loss of self--is, in fact, a loss of the self which had identified with the abandoned object.

    And so the problem of melancholia which "Calamus. 9." articulates is also, then, a problem of identification, as the query the poet initiates on line 7--and continues to the poem's end--makes clear. Thus, when he "wonder[s] if other men ever have the like, out of the like feelings? / Is there even one other like me--distracted--his friend, his lover, lost to him?," he is attempting to resolve the melancholia which occasioned the poem in the first place by searching for the perfect, i.e. identical, reader/lover whose experiences so match those the poem articulates that the poet is permitted to wonder in the final line if the reader might "see himself reflected in me? In these hours, does he see the face of his hours reflected?" This is a complex and clever--yet perfectly readable--psychological maneuver. Here the poet has not attempted to find a substitute love-object with which to identify (a move which Freud and common sense reminds us would be extremely painful), but has merely transferred to the speaking persona of the poem an emotional state identical to his own, and then designated that persona an object of identification for some fictional reader. This is to say that the poem establishes a kind of three-point circuit of identifications in which the real-life poet and a hypothetical reader jointly identify with the melancholy persona of the poem. Thus, the poem's speaker (a fictional construct not to be confused with the "real" Whitman) functions to enable an imaginary reader to supplant the (presumably "real") former lover as an object of identification.

    "Calamus. 9." represents a highly significant development in the poet's ego reformation process. This is so, I argue, not because we find here any evidence that the poet is recovering from his melancholic state; rather, its value lies in the fact that by creating a poetic persona which is available to both fictive reader and real poet as an object of identification, the poem models the structure that the poetic ego will utilize in its reformation of identity. But before we examine this process in greater detail, it is useful, I believe, to take a step back and try to reconstruct how, hypothetically, the poet's crisis of identification might have developed. Such a reconstruction is in fact possible when we recognize that, when arranged by their thematic or emotional content, the twelve original "Calamus-Leaves" poems establish a kind of developmental pattern.

    To begin with, there are just a few poems in "Calamus-Leaves" which, compared to the others in the group, are so free of obvious emotional conflict that they may serve as the collection's touchstone of unambivalent tenderness and passion. "Calamus. 14." (number "I" of "Calamus-Leaves," eventually "Not Heat Flames up and Consumes"), for example, is the innocently romantic assertion that the forces of nature can not compare with the intensity of his own affection. "Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give up?" he asks on line 7, "O I the same;"

O nor down-balls, nor perfumes, nor the high rain-emitting clouds, are borne through the open air,

Any more than my Soul is borne through the open air,

Wafted in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you. (p. 384)

    The tenderness which the poet here represents as a quality of his own experience, is the same emotional abstraction he projects onto strangers in "Calamus. 32." ("Calamus-Leaves" number VI, eventually "What Think You I Take My Pen in Hand?"):

What think you I take my pen in hand to record?

The battle-ship, perfect-model'd, majestic, that I saw pass the offing to-day under full sail?

The splendors of the past day? Or the splendor of the night that envelops me?

Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread around me?--No;

But I record of two simple men I saw to-day, on the pier, in the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear friends;

The one to remain hung on the other's neck, and passionately kissed him,

While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain in his arms. (p. 399-400)

    But though they offer similar celebrations of male love, the two poems differ in several respects. For example, the parting motif of "Calamus. 32." prefigures the separation narratives of many of the other "Calamus" poems (and perhaps recasts the permanence of alienation as merely a benign and temporary parting). But the most compelling aspect distinguishing the latter from the former poem--indeed, from nearly every other poem Whitman wrote--is the preoccupation with the discovery of new material. The inflated drama behind the question "What think you I take my pen in hand to record?" only reveals that Whitman has projected onto an imagined reader his own sense of surprise that essentially private sexual emotion could justifiably supplant the "vaunted glory" and cosmic "splendors" which characterized, say, "Song of Myself," as the legitimate focus of poetic attention.

    That Whitman would be surprised to discover a shift of his own poetic attention should only serve to remind the reader of the extent to which he had always identified himself with the personified content of his poetry (as the title alone of "Song of Myself" makes patently clear). Thus, a shift in poetic content signals a much deeper shift in the poet's self identification--a shift, that is, towards a new identification necessitating the abandonment of a prior identification (not simply, at this point, an integration of identifications). Two other poems underscore the depth of this transformation. "Calamus. 11." ("Calamus-Leaves" number III, later "When I Heard at the Close of the Day"), for example, features the poet torn between the affections of his imagined audience and those of his lover, with the lover clearly winning out. He opens the poem lamenting that

When I heard at the close of the day how my Stephen John Mack had been received with plaudits in the capital, still it was not a happy night for me that followed; . . .

And indeed nothing satisfies him until, several lines later, he can rest secure:

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast--And that night I was happy. (p. 381-382)

    The implicit question the poet seems compelled to raise is which object is sufficiently satisfying to discharge the tension he experiences as unhappiness? And his answer--the poem--is testimony (not totally incredible) that the object-cathexis which had held him to his old persona has weakened, allowing the free libido to be displaced onto the new object, his lover. So that in "Calamus. 10." ("Calamus-Leaves" number VII, later "Recorders Ages Hence"), he is driven to rewrite his public image in conformity with his new identification by explicitly admonishing "You bards of ages hence! when you refer to me, mind not so much my poems, / Nor speak of me that I prophesied of The States, and led them the way of their glories;"

But come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior--I will tell you what to say of me;

Publish my Stephen John Mack and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover  . . . (p. 380)

This, again, is not simply a career change. It is a dramatic rupture in the poet's sense of a cohesive identity--all too blithely captured in "Calamus. 40." ("Calamus-Leaves" number X, later "That Shadow My Likeness."):

That shadow, my likeness, that goes to and fro, seeking a livelihood, chattering, chaffering,

How often I find myself standing and looking at it where it flits;

How often I question and doubt whether that is really me;

But in these, and among my lovers, and caroling my songs,

O I never doubt whether that is really me.  (p. 404)

    Whatever critical suspicions are aroused by Whitman's dubious protest that he "never doubts" the identity of the "real[ly] me," they are best channeled, I would argue, into an appreciation of just how wrenching this kind of psychic disintegration can actually be. This is the poet, the reader will recall, who wailed on Paumanuk's shore "that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am" (p. 320). In this light, it is possible to understand the anxiety that must have compelled him in "Calamus. 8." ("Calamus-Leaves" number V), to renounce all the public and political sources of meaning that had previously organized his life:

Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me--O if I could but obtain knowledge!

Then my lands engrossed me--Lands of the prairies, Ohio's land, the southern savannas, engrossed me--For them I would live--I would be their orator;

Then I met the examples of old and new heroes--I heard of warriors, sailors, and all dauntless persons--And it seemed to me that I too had it in me to be as dauntless as any--and would be so;

And then, to enclose all, it came to me to strike up the songs of the New World--And then I believed my life must be spent in singing;

But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of the south savannas, Ohio's land,

Take notice, you Kanuck woods--and you Lake Huron--and all that with you roll toward Niagara--and you Niagara also,

And you, Californian mountains--That you each and all find somebody else to be your singer of songs,

For I can be your singer of songs no longer--One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love,

With the rest I dispense--I sever from what I thought would suffice me, for it does not--it is now empty and tasteless to me,

I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more,

I am indifferent to my own songs--I will go with him I love,

It is to be enough for us that we are together--We never separate again. (p. 378-379)

    It is not, then, necessary to assume--as an overly strict reading of Freud might tempt us to do--that the melancholia we find in "Calamus" originates in some previous disenchantment in Whitman's love-relationship which predates the poet's actual separation from his lover. Based solely on the evidence of the poetry itself, we can easily hypothesize that Whitman's melancholic loss of self was in fact a kind of freak accident of the poet's occupation. In short, 1) given that fact that he had always identified himself with the specifically public, political, and cosmic content and theoretical purpose of his poetry, a psychological crisis was inevitable when, 2) an intense emotional relationship made it urgent that he utilize poetic language for the very contradictory purpose of shaping private emotion, because 3) the emotional demand that he "surrender" poetic language to such a contradictory purpose, enclosing private desire within an exclusively public medium, seemed to require the abandonment of his previous understanding of poetic meaning--and his identification with it. Thus, the loss of the real-life lover who had served to anchor the complex of emotions informing the new poetic object he had come to identify with, left an empty self searching anxiously for a new identification around which a new self might be built. It is this traumatic process that he memorializes--while denying, of course, the inescapable trauma of it--in "Calamus. 27" (later "O Living Always, Always Dying").

O love!

O living always, always dying!

O the burials of me, past and present!

O me, while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever!

O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not--I am content;)

O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at, where I cast them!

To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind! (p. 396)

Whitman's Poetry and the Ego Reformation Process

    The new love object Whitman found to replace his lost lover was in fact a fictional construct of the general reader. In the analysis of "Calamus. 9." which began my larger discussion of the poet's struggle for an autonomous ego, I asserted that by creating a poetic persona which is available to both fictional reader and real poet as an object of identification, the poem structures the process that the poetic ego will utilize in its reformation of identity. We see this process begin in "Calamus. 16." where the poet, apparently quite disconcerted, directly addresses the reader:

Who is now reading this?

May-be one is now reading this who knows some wrong-doing of my past life,

Or may-be a stranger is reading this who has secretly loved me,

Or may-be one who meets all my grand assumptions and egotisims with derision,

Or may-be one who is puzzled at me.

As if I were not puzzled at myself!

Or as if I never deride myself! (O conscience struck! O self-convicted!)

Or as if I do not secretly love strangers! (O tenderly, a long time, and never avow it;)

Or as if I did not see, perfectly well, interior in myself, the stuff of wrong-doing,

Or as if it could cease transpiring from me until it must cease. (p. 386)

    The poetic persona we see here, with his confession of guilt, doubt and self-revulsion contrasts sharply with the grandiose "Kosmic" Whitman of earlier verse. Likewise, the imagined reader seems far less the idealized citizen of the poet's idealized America than an uncomfortable representation of the often hostile real public Whitman was more likely to encounter. Moreover, the poem does not conclude in triumph but in a double defeat; for as the poet admits that he is helpless to control the drive forces which determine his behavior--we observe that he is also helpless to reformulate the culturally determined moral content of those drives.

    In "Calamus. 12." (later "Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?"), however, the poet begins to imagine a new relationship with the reader. Or to be more accurate, he reconstructs the reader as a projection of his own desire and thereby facilitates the process of identification:

Are you the new person drawn toward me, and asking something significant from me?

To begin with, take warning--I am probably far different from what you suppose;

Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?

Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloyed satisfaction?

Do you suppose I am trusty and faithful?

Do you see no further than this facade--this smooth and tolerant manner of me?

Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?

Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may all be maya, illusion?

O let some past deceived one hiss in your ears, how many have prest on the same as you are pressing now,

How many have fondly supposed what you are supposing now--only to be disappointed. (p. 382)

    The imagined hostility of a real reader has now given way to the innocent but presumably eager solicitations of an imaginative one, just as the skittish, self-deriding poet has been supplanted by a slightly inflated but judicious and authoritative idealized one. The "new person" the poet confronts, of course, is really the reflected wish of the poet to see the "newness" of his own new persona validated by the desire of an imagined reader or lover. To accomplish this the poet has constructed a fictional lover out of the material of his own desire. In so doing, not only has he created a new poetic persona, he has also, in effect, created for himself a substitute object, a reader or lover uniquely suitable for him to identify with.

    We are now in a position to understand the role the poet's fictional identification plays in the larger process of ego formation. The reader will recall David Rapaport's explanation that the ego owes its "relative autonomy" to the "derivative motivations" which it structures to guarantee against "drive slavery" on the one hand, and "stimulus slavery" on the other, continuously playing one force off the other. What Rapaport calls Activity refers to the relative capacity of the ego to exhibit that autonomy through the control of drive demand. The initial "passivity" of the "Calamus-Leaves" poems--what Rapaport describes as, in part, "the helpless-passive experience of tension,"--we find in the consuming dejection of "Hours continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted" in "Calamus. 9." Passivity is also unmistakable in the poet's complete subjugation to drive tension, marked by his lament in the same poem "it is useless--I am what I am"; or the poet's "wrong-doing" in "Calamus. 16." which despite his "self-convict[ion]" will still not "cease transpiring from me until it must cease." These two poems, like others discussed, represent a poet excessively vulnerable to external stimuli, helpless to manage the drives which determine his life.

    The creation of a substitute object in the form of an imaginative reader or lover who exists within the confines of the poem is important to understand psychologically because it models the ego structure which enabled the poetic persona to reassert control over drive forces the poetry represents as debilitating. The poet reveals his development of an active posture in the poetry in two ways, his ability to reroute drive tension when the object is absent, and his ability to forestall passive discharge even when his fictional object is present. That is, activity is manifested first, in his ability to escape the paralysis of anxiety which marked many of the poems quoted above once drive cathexis could be discharged through its representation as poetic objects which might be freely accepted by imagined readers; in this sense, he effectively achieves a kind of imaginary consummation. This is, in fact, the fundamental organizing strategy of "Calamus" as represented in "Calamus. 1." and "Calamus. 2." ("In Paths Untrodden," and "Scented Herbage of My Breast," respectively), but perhaps most lovingly captured in the poet's tender assertion in "Calamus. 13." that until accepted by the reader, his love poems are but "Roots and leaves themselves alone"

Buds to be unfolded on the old terms;

If you bring the warmth of the sun to them, they will open, and bring form, color, perfume, to you,

If you become the aliment and the wet, they will become flowers, fruits, tall branches and trees. (p. 383)

    The second manifestation of activity, the poet's representation of an ability to forestall passive discharge in the presence of the fictionalized drive object, is in fact the very counter-cathectic pressure which permits the poet to adopt the coy, aloof stance toward his reader or lover in "Calamus. 12." This representation of the poet's ability to resist submission to the lover (which is to say, regulate the conditions of the relationship) also informs "Calamus. 3." ("Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand."), a poem which elaborates the poet/reader transaction in "Calamus. 12." In the poem's second and third stanza, for example, he cautiously asks:

Who is he that would become my follower?

Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections? Are you he?

The way is suspicious--the result slow, uncertain, may-be destructive;

You would have to give up all else--I alone would expect to be your sole God, sole and exclusive, standard,

Your novitiate would even be long and exhausting,

The whole past theory of your life, and all conformity to the lives around you, would have to be abandoned;

Therefore release me now, before troubling yourself any further--Let go your hand from my shoulders,

Put me down, and depart on your way. (p. 368)

    It is difficult to imagine this poem appearing anywhere in Whitman's earlier work. In such poems as "Song of Myself" or "Song of the Open Road," the way was not "suspicious" or "slow" or "uncertain" but blithely indifferent, free flowing and secure. Destruction was not viewed as a danger to be avoided but an inevitable and welcome transformation. And readers were not commanded to put him down "and depart on your way," but lovingly and innocently absorbed. What "Calamus. 3." represents, of course, is a change in poetic style; and because for Whitman, style and vision were inextricable, a change in philosophy as well. Whatever the literary and political implications of this change may be, its human, psychological significance is impressive. For the art in Calamus is not in the way the absolute forces that govern the human being mystify themselves, but rather in the way an artist, using the tools of his craft, may govern them and thus live a more whole and free life.


    Critics who have employed psychoanalytic theory in the interpretation of literature, whether they use the older "basic drive" model or the more recent Lacanian precepts, have often succumbed to various forms of reductionism. That is, literary texts are typically reduced to either a mystification of Id forces (in the case of the former), or a preexisting cultural text (as in the latter). But with its focus on the ways the individual reconciles his existential impulses with his environmental conditions, ego psychology--especially as systematized by David Rapaport--offers the critic a more appropriate set of tools for understanding the way literary texts may function in the development of "whole" individuals. Whitman's homoerotic verse, "Calamus," provide an excellent opportunity to illustrate the interpretive potential of ego psychology. Emotionally volatile because of a turbulent love relationship, Whitman chose to mediate his feelings in poetry. But, because he had already firmly identified himself with the very public persona and mission of his earlier verse, his decision to use poetry for such a private purpose seemed to require that he alienate himself from his earlier fictive construct of self. Thus, when the relationship finally ended, Whitman's loss was doubled: first, he lost his earlier persona; second, his lover. And the consequence of double loss, as Freud points out in "Mourning and Melancholia," is an exaggerated despair. Ego reconstruction entailed the creation of a "textualized" ego amenable to modification. In effect, the poet creates for himself a new love-object with which to identify in the form of a fictive reader--a lover he can tailor to his own needs. In so doing, the poet enables himself to escape what Rapaport calls "drive slavery" on the one hand, and "stimulus slavery" on the other. Thus the text becomes not a mystification of buried forces but the actual vehicle by which the poet establishes a measure of control over his own life.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Stephen John Mack "Ego Psychology and the Interpretation of Walt Whitman's Struggle". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: March 31, 1999, Published: May 13, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Stephen John Mack