“What an awful thing war is! Mother, it seems not men
but a lot of devils and butchers butchering each other.”
On Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War
This book tells the story of Walt’s insertion, his practice of the 4th Tiep Hien precept, not to look away from suffering. Actually, here’s the original precept: “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”
Morris begins with Walt in NYC, where he lost his job as editor of Brooklyn Eagle, had a mixed reception of his last book, endured family shit, dealt with his publishers going bankrupt, and faced the end of unhappy love affair. Oy vey iz Walt! But it was the reality of suffering that got him out of his rut of “bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising.”  Onto Washington!
There, Walt did not avoid contact with the suffering; he roamed the hospitals that held the wounded and maimed from the Civil War. In this sense, then, he had to complement the Via Positiva he had walked—the buoyant, cheerful, exuberant self that gave birth to the first edition of Leaves of Grass—with the Via Negativa, the path into that dark night of the nation’s soul, manifested in the misery, ache, and loss of war.
And I say this to students about accompaniment: Tt’s not all about you giving, it’s both/and—you give, and you receive. So, Whitman said, “People used to say to me, Walt you are doing miracles for those fellows in the hospitals. I wasn’t. I was doing miracles for myself.”  Yeah, how compelling can cruising be when you’ve seen suffering like that: “Nothing in his far from sheltered life had prepared him for the sights, sounds, and the smells of the army hospitals—they were literally a world unto themselves.”  Read the rest of this entry »