A new Prohibition?
Are we living in a new prohibition era? A generation of straight-laced environmental puritans have been teaching us and our children to be ashamed of science and technology. The internal combustion engine, instead of an empowering transport technology connecting the world, is a guilty emitter of a demonized CO2. We are forbidden to take pride in rockets to space, which instead of being a fulfilment of an age old dream to soar and fly to other worlds, are connected to nuclear warheads and threaten our survival. We flip-flop absurdly between favoring petrol then diesel then petrol again for vehicle fuel as the pantheon of hero pollutants sashay and process in and out of fashion. Even light bulbs have become ensnared in a morass of guilt-laden virtue signaling.
The self-appointed guardians of our environmental rectitude bring back memories of the prohibition puritans of a century ago. Following in their footsteps, today’s eco-puritanical army pervading the political, academic and media establishments lash themselves into unceasing moral outrage in order to drive forward an anti-energy, anti-technology, anti-capitalist agenda.
Prohibition’s history shows that, no matter how persuasive the moral case behind comprehensive censure, if in practice it proves unrealistically disruptive of economy and society, it will soon be discarded. The carbon prohibition is likely to go the same way as the alcohol one.
Antidote to dystopian shame about science: “Passage to India” by Walt Whitman
There was a time when one could be exhilarated by scientific progress, without feeling shame. To illustrate this, we will look at a remarkable poem, “Passage to India”, written in the 19th century by the American poet Walt Whitman.
Paradoxically, society in the nineteenth century (the 1800’s) in America and Europe, while more repressive morally and religiously than today, was much more liberated and innocently enthusiastic in its attitude to the march of technology and scientific progress. They had not yet learned to be ashamed of science, while religious thought still played a more prominent role in literature and culture than in our century. Walt Whitman would combine both in a striking way in his poem “Passage to India”.
Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in Huntington, Long Island, to parents with Quaker leanings. When Walt left home he first attempted being a teacher, before founding his own newspaper, the Long Islander, in which enterprise Whitman served as publisher, editor, pressman, and distributor and even provided home delivery. But after a few years of journalism he fell foul of the profession due to political naivety, supporting causes that were at odds with the politics of the media outlets that employed him. For this reason he moved increasingly into writing fiction, even penning works on fitness and healthy living, before eventually taking up poetry. He wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” (he liked exclamation marks as we will see later) as an ode to the just-assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865. These verses were brought to public fame a century later by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poets Society”.
So much for biography – you can find all this and more on Wikipedia. Our purpose here is to look at the poem “Passage to India”, written in 1870 by Walt Whitman which was part of what is regarded as his master work, the poetry collection called “Leaves of Grass” which starting with 12 poems in 1855 but grew eventually to 400. “Passage to India” inspired a novel of the same name by E. M. Forster in 1924, out of which a film was made in 1984.
In “Passage to India” Whitman freely mixed thoughts of wonder at a newly connected world and technology bringing nations closer, with ecstatic spiritual meditations. While innocence and wonder are given free reign in a child-like manner, Whitman’s insights remain highly relevant to our society today. The spirit of the poem also shows us a way out of our dystopic anti-science anti-industry culture created over the last half century, by finding again the joy of discovery and hope that can rightly be part of scientific advance.
Here are the opening lines of the poem in which Whitman expresses enthrallment with three recent engineering achievements: the laying of an undersea cable across the Atlantic (1866), the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), and the first fully trans-American railway connected by the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Utah (1869). These were immediate in Whitman’s mind as he wrote this poem in 1870:
“Singing my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires”
Whitman foresees the way that technology will bring the world together, enabling global travel and communications, and he is positive about the implications of this.
“Passage to India!
Lo, soul! seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
(A worship new, I sing;
You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours!
You engineers! you architects, machinists, your!
You, not for trade or transportation only,
But in God’s name, and for thy sake, O soul.)”
The last two lines here are important, “You, not for trade or transportation only, but in God’s name, and for thy sake, O soul.” Whitman rejects a purely utilitarian acceptance of technology for assisting trade and transportation. He sees an exultant spiritual dimension to connectedness. “The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work”. Hmm – one wonders what he was foreseeing with those lines?
Science and Technology are only half of the story of “Passage to India” – the other half is faith, religion, myth and legend. Somehow Whitman does not see science and religion as polar opposites that are necessarily at war with each other. Nor are they players of a zero sum game in which one can have only one or the other. He extatically celebrates both together:
“Not you alone, proud truths of the world!
Nor you alone, ye facts of modern science!
But myths and fables of eld—Asia’s, Africa’s fables!
The far-darting beams of the spirit!—the unloos’d dreams!
The deep diving bibles and legends;
The daring plots of the poets—the elder religions;
—O you temples fairer than lilies, pour’d over by the rising sun!
O you fables, spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known,
mounting to heaven!
You lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as roses, burnish’d with gold!
Towers of fables immortal, fashion’d from mortal dreams!
You too I welcome, and fully, the same as the rest;
You too with joy I sing.”
Those without religious faith should not be embarrassed at the exuberant God-thoughts expressed in this poem by Whitman, but just take it in the context of his ecstatic stream of consciousness as influenced by his culture and upbringing. Indeed, such is Whitman’s complete openness that in a couple of lines he even feints at doubt in God’s existence:
“(O pensive soul of me! O thirst unsatisfied! waitest not there?
Waitest not haply for us, somewhere there, the Comrade perfect?)”
Whitman has clearly travelled himself as a passenger on the new coast-to-coast railway, and he reflects on his journey by celebrating the spectacular countryside of north America. He sees this railway as a road between Europe and Asia:
“I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier;
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle,
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world;
I cross the Laramie plains—I note the rocks in grotesque shapes—the buttes;
I see the plentiful larkspur and wild onions—the barren, colorless,
I see in glimpses afar, or towering immediately above me, the great mountains—
I see the Wind River and the Wahsatch mountains;
I see the Monument mountain and the Eagle’s Nest—I pass the Promontory—
I ascend the Nevadas;
I scan the noble Elk mountain, and wind around its base;
I see the Humboldt range—I thread the valley and cross the river,
I see the clear waters of Lake Tahoe—I see forests of majestic pines,
Or, crossing the great desert, the alkaline plains, I behold enchanting mirages
of waters and meadows;
Marking through these, and after all, in duplicate slender lines,
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel,
Tying the Eastern to the Western sea,
The road between Europe and Asia.”
Whitman revels in the thought of a world being re-created with the aid of science and technology. However he celebrates the rich diversity of culture and history of all the world’s peoples, seeing no doubt this diversity as something to be enhanced, not homogenised and lost, by the advance of technology. Today’s use of the internet, smart phones and information technology to the strengthening and celebrating of all the world’s languages, cultures, literatures and histories today testify that Whitman was right to be idealistic about technology; not to fear it narrow-mindedly like the writer of some 20th century SciFi dystopic pot-boiler.
“Lo, soul, the retrospect, brought forward;
The old, most populous, wealthiest of Earth’s lands,
The streams of the Indus and the Ganges, and their many affluents;
(I, my shores of America walking to-day, behold, resuming all,)
The tale of Alexander, on his warlike marches, suddenly dying,
On one side China, and on the other side Persia and Arabia,
To the south the great seas, and the Bay of Bengal;
The flowing literatures, tremendous epics, religions, castes,
Old occult Brahma, interminably far back—the tender and junior Buddha,
Central and southern empires, and all their belongings, possessors,
The wars of Tamerlane, the reign of Aurungzebe,
The traders, rulers, explorers, Moslems, Venetians, Byzantium, the Arabs, Portuguese,
The first travelers, famous yet, Marco Polo, Batouta the Moor,
Doubts to be solv’d, the map incognita, blanks to be fill’d,
The foot of man unstay’d, the hands never at rest,
Thyself, O soul, that will not brook a challenge.”
To me Passage to India speaks of an innocently wild enthusiasm for the progress of technical achievement as experienced in the mid to late 19th century. Religion and mysticism are mixed with science and technology in a riotously joyful stream of consciousness. I find it greatly refreshing to be able to take a break from being apologetic about technology and remember the wonder of the industrial revolution, how much it would advance the wellbeing of humanity as a whole, but which our current political culture is attempting to undo with its idiotic demonisation of the element carbon.
Whitman is challenging us not to fear to advance of technology, not to huddle in the fortress of the known but to welcome and joyfully seize the new possibilities of futures as they appear on the horizon. This challenge of Whitman can rightly be applied to the scientific process of discovery.
“Passage to more than India!
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?
O Soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like these?
Disportest thou on waters such as these?
Soundest below the Sanscrit and the Vedas?
Then have thy bent unleash’d.
Passage to you, your shores, ye aged fierce enigmas!
Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems!
You, strew’d with the wrecks of skeletons, that, living, never reach’d you.”
But is the true scientist afraid of the adventure of discovery?
Afraid of nuclear? Afraid of fossil fuel energy? Afraid of genetically modified food crops? Afraid of artificial intelligence? Afraid of the fictions of the politicised dystopian scifi writers?
No we are not. Our song is that of Whitman:
“O we can wait no longer!
We too take ship, O soul!
Joyous, we too launch out on trackless seas!
Fearless, for unknown shores, on waves of extasy to sail,
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free—singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration. “
“Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!
Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?
Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!”
The whole text of “Passage to India” by Walt Whitman can be found at this and other websites: