Interview on Walt Whitman: Shamanism, Spiritual Democracy, and the World Soul
By Steven B. Herrmann, PhD, MFT.
About my Book:
The essence of my book is really the evolution of Whitman’s inner development. If we can understand that, we can understand the evolution of Spiritual democracy for us as a culture, a nation, and World, for international relations, for the globe. (Spiritual democracy is the global realization of the oneness of all religions). By looking at one great individual—Walt Whitman—and understanding how spiritual democracy evolved in him, we can begin to feel it in ourselves. My book allows the reader to feel the inner changes he went through towards an awakening of the experience of the oneness of all.
What inspired you to write your book?
Herrmann: A quest for understanding the origins of Whitman’s poetry. Where did it come from? By 1995 I had read many books about Whitman, yet none captured the essence of his music in a way that truly satisfied me. What I was after was a way to capture the basic rhythm. I start my book with a dream that I use to illustrate Whitman’s concept of spiritual democracy. I had this dream in 1997 that led me down. I was with a woman colleague of mine in the dream who is bi-sexual and symbolized for me a soul-figure of the bi-erotic imagination. We were at a cave in France, Lascaux. We entered and then descended down the shaft to where the cave-paintings were. We looked up and could see them with their beautiful colors and imagery. Then I saw a chamber that looked like it was going down and down. We followed the trail down and entered through a little hole in the ground and descended down deeper into an underground chamber, where there are many rock paintings that anthropologists of the 20th century had not discovered. I was shining my flashlight on the wall, and there I saw a shaman figure there that was painted as a star exploding with light, and he appeared to be a light beam of the cosmos. I wondered, in my dream, how in the world the shamans in those caves could have painted the images down here in such a black, black hole, when all they had was fire. I thought at that moment there must have been a light beam, a shaman- figure with light radiating from his body—like the pulsating, electromagnetic field—illuminating the cave so that the shamans could paint by, and this shaman-figure was lighting up a background, where panoply of images could be seen of animals and other shaman figures. He was the central figure depicted as a pulsating star—like the idea of pulsating microphysical energy. Moreover, after I shined my light on the master shaman’s light, I had this ecstatic feeling, this sense of Awe and Ecstasy when we exited the cave from the opening. When I emerged I had this transformed experience. It was right at the point when I was writing my first manuscript on Whitman. I report the dream as a kind of cultural, or collective dream to illuminate the central idea I discuss in my book, namely spiritual democracy. Many poets have attempted to illuminate where their music comes from. It’s whatever it is that electrifies us. I suppose that’s what the star-shaman figure is: a Light figure, Cosmic Consciousness, what Whitman calls “the origin of all poems.” Other books have been written about Whitman as a shaman, but what makes my book unique is the focus I place on the psychic phenomenon going on in Whitman during the time of his compositions. I take a psychological angle, and I look at his spiritual development from the point of view of his relationships—also those unconscious influences of the Indian Nations. I show how Native American influences were present in his works from the start through visions, dreams, trance, sense impressions, feelings and the downward driving rhythm of the drum. I look at the Native American influences that were present here in the American earth as the origins of democracy. These were actual experiences he had in nature and in relationships with real people.
For example, his first real shamanistic experience that influenced him occurred on Long Island, with the bird that became the central image of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: the mocking bird. Yes, the bird actually chanted to him. The bird had lost its mate and was flitting to and fro from its nest, basically sending out plaintive cries towards life, in search of its lost mate, and Whitman absorbed this. Its call evoked the song of the poet in him. I think in some way, Whitman, by going back to that early memory in his latency—maybe he’s eight, maybe ten, when he has this experience on Long Island—hears the bird summoning him. And he says later that his destiny was evoked at that point. The image aroused in him the archetype of the solitary singer. The solitary singer, singing by himself, singing to you, to me: the bird sings and he responds and answers. That’s the kind of relationship he had with this bird in nature. As a two-spirited figure, Whitman’s calling can be traced to that moment. The bird evoked his character as a two-spirited individual.
What do you mean by two-spirited?
Steven: My point is that few people have viewed Whitman as a shaman. I’m one of them. The call of the bird in nature opened something up that had been stifling in his throat for too long and it was time to let the music flow through: the call of the bird-shaman. Like the Oglala Sioux shaman, Black Elk, Whitman realized that the center of the Universe is really everywhere, it is within each of us, and this is central to his shamanistic vision of spiritual democracy. Black Elk was summoned when he was five by a king bird that spoke to him from a tree. Whitman by a mockingbird on Long Island. They both were shamans and both entered trance at will. It’s the same basic thing. Each had visions and each used the chant as a basic way to unite their nations. Each of us has two spirits. In psychological language we all have an ego and Self, you know. Whitman says that in a notebook in 1847: “I cannot understand the mystery, but I am always conscious of myself as two—as my soul and I; and I reckon it is the same with all men and women.” He’s right. There’s really a two-spiritedness in all of us.
How does your book benefit the world?
Steven: Another thing that is unique about my book is that I bring a Jungian perspective to it. Nobody has written a full-length book on Whitman from a Jungian angle before, a look at his inner evolution, his individuation, his cultural achievement. More than just bringing in a Jungian focus, however, I bring my own particular emphasis, which is to look specifically at the native influences because spiritual democracy is part of the land, part of the American vision, part and parcel of who we really are. (Spiritual democracy is an ideal, not an achievable state as a global realization.) Whitman tapped into it and he tried to universalize it. This is vital today because of the particular focus in the world right now on democracy: the breakdown of organized religion and need for new unifying myths. We need new myths because the ones we have aren’t working, and Whitman saw that a century and a half ago. He saw the church wasn’t working. And sure enough the Puritans wiped out much of the spiritual diversity that Native peoples lived by. Whitman keeps religious equality alive. Our spirits yearn for spiritual democracy and this is what Whitman offers. Spiritual democracy is insisting on being born in the World Soul. The other thing I point out is how Whitman’s vision really focused on the West, and he was looking West from 1860 onward.
Do you plan to write another book?
Steven: Yes. It is called Visions of Spiritual Democracy. I am working on it now.
What is the best / worst part of writing?
Steven: Well the best part of writing is when it all seems to flow out of me like music. That is when I sense the unity of all life, that I am an actor in the cosmic drama; that I am in harmony with Nature. The worst part is the experience of aridity, when the music dries up, the poetry stiffens into prose and I am not in harmony with the whole. To write this book, I sometimes drummed to keep the music alive in me, attuning myself to the cosmic rhythms. Also, I find that dreams are my best source of inspiration. When I loose touch with my dreams, and am distracted by the noise, I find that the animals of my soul cannot sing truly and I loose touch with my Muse. The dream puts me back in harmony with my true Nature.