Dolphins playing with people on the English coast—and the problem with Whitman’s famous poem on animals

Dean Ericson writes:

Fantastic, amazing photos. Just think, there are intelligent creatures living down in the sea, who are curious about us and like to play with people. They don’t wear clothes, or even have a closet. They don’t talk on the phone or go online. They don’t follow any blogs and never tweet lewd pictures of themselves to silkie seals. They have no credit card debt. They don’t have hands and couldn’t tie a shoe lace even if they had shoes (which they don’t). They don’t sleep in beds and don’t seem to mind being wet all the time. They never sit around a fire reading Proust. And yet they’re living happily down in the seas, doing nothing but marine mammal-type things that we barely know about. Except when they make the news, like this, which is rarely, but always fascinating and delightful when they do.

I think Mr. Ericson’s meditation on dolphins stands up pretty well to Walt Whitman’s famous poem which it echoes, the section on animals in Leaves of Grass. Mr. Ericson makes a similar point to Whitman, but without, as Whitman does, attacking God, religion, the belief in right and wrong, private property, productive activity, and civilization itself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

- end of initial entry -

After seeing the Whitman passage, which I had sent him, but prior to seeing my criticisms of it, Dean Ericson wrote:

But really the man who wrote that is a great, blubbering liberal, don’t you think?—gushing about the supposed virtues of animals over humans, as if humans could or should live like animals. And there are those things about the animal world Mr. Natural would find disgusting, such as their propensity for eating one another (especially if he were on the menu), and not having modern dentistry, and the lack of intelligent discourse, etc. The poet’s use of critters is a flimsy foil for critiquing human foibles, some of which on his list are arguably not foibles at all, such as “not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth”—Whitman was both industrious and respectable, the blubbering fraud. [LA replies: well, he wasn’t very respectable.] But even so, now that I am done bashing the poor fellow, there is that way in which we admire the animals, and see their virtues, and are in some measure instructed.

Buck O. writes:

A video on cat and dolphin.

Richard P. writes:

In Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” he says:

Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much … the wheel, New York, wars and so on … while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man … for precisely the same reason.

That thought has always amused me.

Paul Nachman writes:

Ever read this passage from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House?

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

LA replies:

“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete…” I feel the same. That thought first came to me in the American Museum of Natural History many years ago, as I was looking at a diorama of a seal (no, I think it was a sea otter) floating on its back in the ocean, and eating some food it had placed on its belly. I realized how that seal is living its own, complete and independent life, which has nothing to do with man.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 08, 2011 09:47 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):