Sounding the Barbaric Yawp
Walt Whitman wrote the words, and Robin Williams spoke them. The image is so familiar, standing on his desk and bellowing Walt’s words I sound my barbaric yawp, over the rooftops of the world. We all loved Dead Poets Society, and learned also the meaning of Carpe Diem: seize the day. C’mon, Robin said, let’s hear you yawp. The first yawps were feeble; he had to prod them. We don’t naturally lean to yawping--or at least we didn’t then. These days though the yawps come easy, and from all the wrong sources. And they’re more barbaric. Everybody wants to seize the day, and some even have guns to accompany the yawping, just in case…
Did I say we’ve forgotten who Walt Whitman was, have forgotten poetry? Funny how the recent death of Williams has made me a liar. All of a sudden we remember: oh yes, that’s what the movie was all about. Curious also--though maybe not so funny--that I should remember Walt Whitman in yet another context: Cosmic Consciousness. Yeah, that’s right, here I go again.
It was a big cult book back in the seventies, here in Santa Cruz. Everybody was reading it, sandwiched between sessions of Tai Chi and Tarot readings. Cosmic Consciousness, by one Richard Maurice Bucke, told of a new race of men (and, potentially, even someday women), rising allegedly in our midst who had their heads in the stars, lived on a different plane. It was all a matter of evolution; it was happening whether we liked it or not. All around, people were getting Illuminated! The human race is in the process of developing a new kind of consciousness, which will eventually lift us above and beyond all the fears and ignorances, the brutalities and bestialities that beset us today. ‘How wonderful if we could recover this sense of Hope and Wonder, for the doubtful days that lie ahead,’ writes George Moreby Acklom, in a 1946 introduction to a then current printing. He thought his days were doubtful? He should be around now. The book itself was copyrighted 1901. Before you scoff, let me point out that Professor William James himself, the famous American psychologist, read it soon after it appeared, and wrote to the author, “My total reaction to your book, my dear sir, is that it is an addition to psychology of first rate importance, and that you are a benefactor of us all.”
Dr. Bucke (yes, he was a physician), after describing his new Cosmic Consciousness, lists some 14 clear-cut instances of historical personalities who had in his opinion attained to it. The thing is, it zaps you, most often fairly early in life, and never lets go, though it might ebb and flow, wax and wane a bit. And who do you think got on his list? Who would get on yours? Yeah that’s right, Buddha makes it to the top, followed by Jesus, and then Paul the Apostle. I mean who’s gonna leave these guys out? But then there’s Dante, Francis Bacon (yes, he did write Shakespeare’s stuff), Jacob Boehme (what? you haven’t discovered him?), Balzac (this should surprise the River City Women’s Club), to name just a few. Number 13, though, taking his place in this illustrious company, is…. Guess who? Yep, you guessed it: Walt Whitman.
Dr. Maurice Bucke, in the providence of God, had come to be Walt Whitman’s personal physician--and he was mightily impressed, needless to say. We’re talking 1880, when Whitman was sixty-one years old. The eulogy goes on for some twenty pages, and is marvelous to contemplate. “His face is the noblest I have ever seen. No description can give any idea of the extraordinary physical attractiveness of the man. As for myself, it seems to me now that I have always known and loved him. I have never known him to sneer at any person or thing, or to manifest in any way or degree either alarm or apprehension… His dress was always plain… He had a way of singing, generally in an undertone, wherever he was or whatever he was doing, when alone. .. He was especially fond of children, and all children loved him… He did not talk much… He would speak very little all day. Walt Whitman is the best, most perfect example the world has so far had of the Cosmic Sense.”
What would Dr. Bucke think of Robin Williams, if he had lived to encounter him? We’ll never know. But his character in Dead Poets Society seems a shoo-in for the list, right next to Whitman and Jesus. This kind of yawping is ‘liberal,’ as in the ‘liberal arts’ that Professor Keating was trying to keep alive, the yawping that always gets drowned out by the yapping of those others, those who are only too ready to use force to silence it. Loss of tenure and dismissal, or even crucifixion, if it comes to that.
How about our President, Barack Obama? Would he make the list? The jury is still out on that one… But it's eerie: substitute his name for Walt's in the second paragraph behind this one, and then read it again. See what I mean?
They didn't know who Jesus was either, until it was too late.