I wrote I, Sitting while preparing to leave Alice Springs, my home for the last three years. I wanted to write about what I’ve seen here. Walt Whitman’s poem, I Sit and Look Out (1848), was on my mind. In it the poet bears witness to “all the sorrows of the world”, “oppression and shame”, “meanness and agony”, and then, at the poem’s end, falls silent. I’ve included a copy at the end of this essay.
I Sit and Look Out is a mournful poem, and to be sure, there is plenty besides sorrow in Alice Springs. But what I love about the poem is the way it expresses John O’Donohue’s (1998) idea that “poets are people who become utterly dedicated to the threshold where silence and language meet”, that “the language of poetry issues from and returns to silence” (p. 80).
O’Donohue encourages budding poets to treat silence as material. So in writing this poem, I wanted to sit in silence, and look out like a poet. But my early attempts were frustrated by two pitfalls.
First, I became obsessed with understanding the past. I wanted desperately to know how we got to this point. For this point to make sense. We being humankind. More than that, I wanted to know how it came to be that I, a Jewish man whose great-grandparents fled from Eastern Europe to South Africa at the beginning of the last century, whose parents flew across the Atlantic to Western Australia 25 years ago, am trying to write a Romantic poem about what I see in the central desert of this continent, 250 years after the British arrived and claimed it for their empire, from people who are still here.
I began with the history of pre-war literary movements in Jewish culture, specifically the Haskalah, then turned to transatlantic perspectives on the Enlightenment. Then oscillated back and forth between the prehistory of homo sapien migration from eastern Africa, and the archeology of Aboriginal Australia. Eventually I went further back, and started reading about the geological history of Gondwana, from its origins at the south pole 145 million years ago. A list of books and articles I read during my amateur historianship is included at the end of this essay.
What I learned from all that is that the past is continuously becoming determined, by an increasingly complex process that always occurs in the present. Which makes history very interesting, but altogether incomplete as a means of orienting in silence. History provides context, but given that poetry issues from a silent now, its authorship requires more than context-setting. Put another way, history does not tell me where I am, it only makes sense of where I’ve been.
The second pitfall I encountered when writing this poem was more sinister. Because Whitman’s poet describes what he sees, the poem risks assuming an omnipotent gaze. It risks becoming voyeuristic, and speaking in a way that presumes to discover truth in its singular perspective. In philosophy, this error is related to the error of transcendence (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994). Which occurs when the thinker separates the movement of thought from the plane of immanence, and looks upon experience as if it were immanent to a subject, themselves. The trouble is that the contents of experience is inseparable from the experience of its contents. Or, put another way, there is no experience of swimming without getting wet. There is no ‘I’ who sees what happens to ‘me’. ‘I’ and ‘me’ are experiences that occur in the same plane as everything else, which is always in motion (Bergson, 1946). Which is why, for example, its possible to have egoless experiences, and for my self-concept to change over time.
Voyeurism of this kind is not merely a philosophical error though. It is also an ethical one. Because it proffers hegemonic brands of Western intellectualism (Braidotti, 2019). The ethical issue is that transcendence destroys places and times by separating them from chthonic process of continual becoming (Haraway, 2018), and erases traces of minority ways of being and seeing. Like removing a crocodile from a river – there is no longer a crocodile, nor a river, nor everything between.
For the sake of avoiding embarrassment, I will not provide examples of my attempts at transcendence. But I should acknowledge that my obsessive determination to claim knowledge of the present by mastering the past, which was my first pitfall, could also be interpreted as an extension of the same misguided effort. Also that it would be interesting to mediate posthuman ethical critiques of transcendence, and Bergson’s duration, with Korzybski’s view that human beings are a ‘time-binding species’, which I touched on in my last essay.
In the end, I found my way through, and wrote the poem one morning, by taking a walk in nature. Which is probably what Whitman did whenever he needed to humble himself too.
- Bergson, H. (2007). Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. First published 1946. Dover Publications
- Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Polity Press.
- Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is Philosophy? (H. Thomlinson & G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
- Haraway, D. (2018). ‘Capitalocene and Cthulucene’, In Posthuman Glossary (R. Braidotti & M. Hlavajova, Eds.). Bloomsbury.
- O’Donohue, J. (1997). Anam Cara. HarperCollins.
- Australian Museum. (2018). Evolving Landscape. Accessed February 2022. https://australian.museum/learn/australia-over-time/evolving-landscape/
- Hershkovitz, I., Weber, G. W., Quam, R., Duval, M., Grün, R., Kinsley, L., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Valladas, H., Mercier, N., Arsuaga, J. L., Martinón-Torres, M., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., Fornai, C., Martín-Francés, L., Sarig, R., May, H., Krenn, V. A., Slon, V., … Weinstein-Evron, M. (2018). The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, 359(6374), 456–459. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8369
- Litvak, O. (2012). Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism. Rutgers University Press.
- Manning, S., & Cogliano, F. D. (Eds.) (2008). The Atlantic Enlightenment. Routledge.
- Various blog posts by Josephine Mills for the University College London from 2019. Accessed February 2022. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/category/c-e/josephine-mills/
- Murray, T. (Ed.) (1998). Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia: A reader. Allen & Unwin.
Poem by Walt Whitman (1848)
I Sit and Look Out
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.