Каминяр Дмитрий Генаддьевич: другие произведения.

"The Other" In Walt Whitman"s "vigil Strange I Kept..." And Other Literature

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   Dmitri Kaminiar
   Prof. Naomi Morgenstern


   When one is reading Jacques Derrida's work The Gift of Death, the reader is often hard-pressed to follow the main message of the book, as well as sort out, where ethics enter into the narrative, especially in the early chapters. That said, Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death possibly holds a key to understanding the role of "the other" in the fiction branch of literature, as well as looking at the matter of ethics, how they tie in to the role of "the other" in literature and literature itself. This essay, consequently, will look at the process that recreates that "other", bringing him forth.
   Walt Whitman's poem "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" may be hard to understand regarding its narration: what is happening there, aside from the literal action. What is Walt Whitman's poem about, on the basic level? "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night; / [...] And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited", or, in a more prosaic term, this is a poem of a funeral. This poem, however, is structured quite bizarrely, and when one tries to look past the surface, he or she becomes rather lost - and then there comes The Gift of Death, and the situation clears up.
   The paragraph in The Gift of Death that is probably the key to understanding "Vigil Strange..." is the following:
   This canonical passage is one of the most often cited, or at least evoked, in the history of philosophy. It is rarely subjected to a close reading. One might be surprised to learn that Heidegger doesn't quote it, in any case not once in Being and Time, not even in the passages devoted to care to the being-toward-death. For it is indeed a matter of care, a "keeping-vigil-for," a solicitude for death that constitutes the relation to self of that which, in existence, relates to oneself. For one never reinforces enough the fact that it is not the psyche that is there in the first place and that comes thereafter to care about its death, to keep watch over it, to be very vigil of its death. No, the soul only distinguishes itself, separates itself, and assembles within itself in the experience of this melete tou thanatou. It is nothing other than this care about dying as a relation to self and an assembling of self. It only returns to itself, in both senses of assembling itself and waking itself, becoming conscious [s'eviller], in the sense of consciousness of self in general, through this care for death.
   (Derrida, 16)
   In light of the above quotation, the poem of "Vigil Strange..." becomes more comprehensible - it is a poem narrated by a person with a divided consciousness, as he (or she, but most likely the speaker in this poem is a male) is, perhaps, in the process of transforming himself into a new being (though just into what sort of being is not discussed here). This is a description of a process, of metamorphosis of the original narrator into a different person, namely "the other" as mentioned in previous paragraphs, and it is possibly the key to Walt Whitman's poem as a whole.
   From the first lines of poem, the narrator emphasises his relationship with him companion:
   [...] When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
   One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
   One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
   Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
   (Whitman, http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/vigil_strange_i_kept.html)
   The connection between the narrator and his son is touching, but there is more than just father and son relationship described in those lines (and the rest of the poem), but also association - the narrator's interlocutor is constantly described as his - "my son and my comrade" and so on. The narrator's silent interlocutor, then, is a part of the narrator himself, more literally than it is expressed in the poem.
   Yet that same silent interlocutor is also "the other"! Well, "an other", perhaps, but he is not the narrator himself, but his interlocutor, his son. Thus, the narrator is his own "other"! Just as Jacques Derrida is describing in The Gift of Death, the narrator of "Vigil Strange..." is relating to himself, yet not to himself, hence "the other's" role in the poem...
   What is "the other's" role, incidentally? As Derek Attridge explains in his essay "Innovation, Literature, Ethics..." "the other" (or "the otherness" in this case) is
   [...] an argument, a particular sequence of words, or an imagined series of events, [it] is not just a matter of perceptible difference. It implies a wholly new existent that cannot be apprehended by old modes of understanding and could not have been predicted by means of them
   (Attridge, 22)
   Is, however, the son of the narrator in "Vigil Strange..." a new existent? Perhaps, for the narrator the events that took before the poem (the battle mentioned in it) have certainly changed his existence into something new, as the poem's own lines explain:
   And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
   Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
   Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
   Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
   I rose from the chill ground
   (Whitman, http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/vigil_strange_i_kept.html)
   The finishing lines of the poem are important, for several reasons. They emphasize that the deceased boy, the narrator's son, had also been his "other" - his other self, for at this moment in the poem, the two characters appear to be too interchangeable to be two individual people. As the poem draws to a close, its perspective is constantly shifting - between the narrator and his boy, between his two points of view, his two selves. Jacques Derrida's passage from The Gift of Death, which was quoted earlier, points out that a soul had to distinguish itself, separate itself and re-assemble "within [...] this experience of melete tou thanatou" (Derrida, pg 16), i.e. "practicing death". That, however, is what the narrator of "Vigil Strange..." does do, after a fashion.
   Firstly, he distinguishes himself, both literally, "Then onward I sped in the battle [...]/Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way," (Whitman, pg 2276) in battle, and then from his interlocutor, "my son and my comrade", as opposed to the narrator himself. This, latter, distinguishing leads naturally to separation, literally:
   I faithfully loved you and care for you living, [...]
   [...] indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
   My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
   And there and then and by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited
   (Whitman, http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/vigil_strange_i_kept.html)
   The assemblage or rather the re-assemblage of the narrator's soul comes last:
   Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battle-field dim,
   I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
   And buried him where he fell.
   (Whitman, http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/vigil_strange_i_kept.html)
   Note that in the end it was not "my son", but "my soldier" - the approach is much less impersonal now. The narrator's soul (so to speak) has been re-assembled, his detachment from his son - no longer his interlocutor - his other is complete.
   Yet what does this poem tell about the literary treatment of "the other", in this case the narrator's son? In this particular case, there is nothing but love between him and his father, all but at the end, when their bond is cut for good, and the poem's narrator leaves to live a new life (to some extent or other). Yet in "Vigil Strange..." there are echoes of other, older literary works, including one of the oldest - the Old Testament of the Bible.
   In Genesis 22, Abraham is put to the test, to kill his son Isaac in the name of his God. In "Vigil Strange..." the son is already dead, and this is an important difference. The way that Abraham treats Isaac, however, is not unlike the way the father treats his son in the poem. In fact, the two pairs may be considered something of distorted reflections to each other, an almost perfect "before and after" set.
   In "Vigil Strange..." the father speaks a lot, but the son cannot talk back, and does not hear him either. In Genesis, Isaac can both speak and hear, but Abraham barely speaks (a very different situation from the Classical tragedies, as noted by Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death), he is quite laconic even though he loves Isaac no less than father of "Vigil Strange..." loved his son. As with thoughts, so with actions: Abraham is actively participating in the impending doom of his son, the narrator of "Vigil Strange..." did not participate in it at all (at least that is the impression from reading the novel)... yet both of them would have probably saved their boys if they could (Abraham did not exactly volunteer to sacrifice Isaac even if he did not refuse to either) and both of the fathers loved their sons. Therefore, why did Abraham set out to kill Isaac even if he would rather not?
   Because, just as in case of "Vigil Strange..." Isaac is Abraham's other, and just as in case of the poem, Abraham the father follows the path as the other father does, albeit under different circumstances and with different outcomes.
   First, Abraham is distinguished - God speaks to him directly, and does not speak to Isaac or Sarah (unlike in the past, when He did speak to Sarah). This distinguishes him also in the differentiating sense of the world - he has been chosen by God, even if for a rather unpleasant task, while the others have not.
   Just as in case of "Vigil Strange..." from this distinguishing comes separation. Abraham separates himself from Isaac, at least emotionally, for otherwise he would not be able to do the deed, since by the ethical norms of the majority, it is unethical.
   Once again - Abraham was distinguished by the divine will. This distinguishing has separated Abraham from the rest of the humanity, and that includes the humanity's ethics. It is ethically wrong (to put it lightly) to kill anybody, let alone one's son, but Abraham is unable to do anything about it - by the divine will he is now separated from the rest of the humanity, he has become "the other"!
   There are similarities between "Vigil Strange..." and Genesis 22, but there are differences as well, or rather, Genesis 22 develops beyond the parameters of the poem. In "Vigil Strange..." the narrator is only implied to have been transformed (spiritually speaking) by the poem's end; in Genesis 22, Abraham definitely had:
   15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring[f] all nations on earth will be blessed, [g] because you have obeyed me."
   < http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=genesis%2021-24&version=NIV>
   After a soul is distinguished and separated, comes the assemblage, the re-assemblage, not just of the soul, but of the person: at first Abraham was "the other", for distinguished by the divine will he became separate from the rest of the human society, including its laws; but now he (and Isaac) are coming back and becoming a part of the human society once again. (The same thing happens to the narrator in "Vigil Strange..." most likely, implied by the shift in the narration.)
   There is, though one more aspect that both Abraham in Genesis 22 and the narrator in "Vigil Strange..." have in common, an aspect that is directly related to the process described by Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death: their mutual dislike of their tasks. Oh, they are going to do it, they know that they are going to do it, but they are not particularly enthused about doing it. In Abraham's case, as soon as the angel of God tells him to stop and desist, he promptly does. In case of the narrator of "Vigil Strange..." the task is less unpleasant - he only has to bury his son, not to kill and sacrifice him - and so the narrator does it, but the poem's lines clearly indicate his despair at doing it... and that is the main difference between the poem and Genesis 22.
   Both works of literature followed the same "guidelines", as described in The Gift of Death, and both went along similar paths, but the destinations were different. In Genesis 22, the story ended in life - Abraham passed his test, Isaac survived it wholly unscathed, and their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. In "Vigil Strange..." the story ended in a burial of the narrator's son - certainly, the narrator himself will go on living, but his son is gone, and he will live on.
   And what about "the other"? What about the rest of the human society and its ethics? The situations here are different too: Abraham's actions ensured that his descendants, the Hebrew nation, will become distinguished by God en masse, just as he was - thus he is no longer unique, he has rejoined the rest of the human society, at least in part. Nothing like this happens to the narrator of "Vigil Strange..." for the poem ends with him having buried his son and leaving - he is still unique, (albeit to a lesser extent than Abraham had been) he is still "the other", for in first distinguishing and separating himself from "the other", he had assembled him into himself and became "the other" himself.
   Jacques Derrida's book The Gift of Death is focused primarily on the incident described in Genesis 22, on the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. However, this essay has shown that Walt Whitman's poem "Vigil Strange I Kept..." can not only be understood following the same guidelines as Genesis 22, but it followed a very similar process as Genesis 22 as well. These are stories of sons dying (or almost dying) with their fathers unable to save them. These are also stories of "the other", how the protagonists of these two literary works have distinguished and separated themselves from their respective others, and then became those others, separating themselves from the rest of the human society and human ethics (primarily Abraham, the situation of the narrator in "Vigil Strange..." is less defined). That, then, is the process of becoming "the other" in literature, and that is how it relates to the ethics, as shown, hopefully, by this essay.
   Works cited:
   Attridge, Derek: "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other." PMLA 114 (1999): 22
   Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008
   Whitman, Walt. "Vigil Strange I Kept One Night." 1819-1892. Poetry Archive. 8 April 2011. < http://www.poetry-archive.com/w/vigil_strange_i_kept.html>.
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