Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place


Whitman’s Failures of Genuine Human Contact:  A Gestalt Psychological Approach
Marianne Noble American University


            Among the many gifts Walt Whitman offers us is a consistent and lucid theory of psychological health: he believes that by accepting certain of his premises, each of his readers can maximize happiness, fulfillment, and meaning within their lives.  To that end, he identifies typical causes of unhappiness and suggests what they can do to alleviate those.  In this paper, I want to show that Whitman’s psychological program bears a striking resemblance to that promoted in gestalt psychology.  Popular in the 1970s, it made its presence most known in popular culture through a famous “prayer” composed by the founder of the school, Frizt Perls.  Here are its first four lines:

I do my thing, and you do your thing

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I.

This “prayer” (which is the title Perls gave to this saying) strongly echoes Whitman, who places a supreme value on people doing “their own thing.”  He too encourages us to live according to our own inner promptings rather than some externally defined “expectations,” and he insists that each of us is who we are and that we do not need to be someone else in order to be OK.  In the forty years since Perls wrote this prayer, gestalt psychology has continued to develop in ways that are increasingly sophisticated and provide useful techniques for personal growth and healing.

Analyzing Whitman in relation to gestalt psychology is part of a larger project exploring a phenomenon I call “genuine human contact.”  Genuine human contact is a term for what I see as a fundamental yearning to make meaningful contact with other people, or to feel that one has made oneself genuinely present to that other.  My initial interest in genuine human contact was personal; it is a term I coined to describe a particularly profound or authentic connection that I wanted to experience with other people, a reaction against people being simply nice, when I was looking for an honest presentation of their being.  As I considered my quest for such contact, I realized that nineteenth-century literature is filled with representations of the same quest.  While much of that literature places a high value on sympathy for affording genuine human contact, sympathy does not always succeed in that goal.  Indeed, nineteenth-century authors frequently suggest that it actually prevents genuine human contact or enables people to think they have all the genuine connection there is to be had when they long for much more.  As I have more seriously studied this phenomenon, gestalt psychology has frequently come up because its central interest lies in theorizing contact—why contact is a deep human need, why people sometimes fail to achieve it, and what constitutes the feeling of genuineness.  Gestalt psychologists have developed a rich vocabulary for describing contact experiences.  In this paper, I discuss Whitman’s quest for genuine human contact in the terms established by gestalt psychology.  I will begin with an overview of the basic principles of gestalt therapy, and I will then go on to consider where Whitman intersects with them.  I will conclude by examining Whitman’s own failures to achieve genuine human contact.



             Gestalt psychology grew out of early twentieth-century German existentialism.  It begins by defining the self as an entity that exists at what it calls “the contact boundary” between one’s inner psychic activities and any given current situation. The self, then, is by definition fluid, since it is always changing in response to the environment, or “field,” as they call it.  There is nothing static about the self; it is constantly coming into being through interactions between the current field and my responses to it, or what Emerson might call the Not-Me and the Me.  For gestalt therapists, a healthy person maintains regular, dynamic contact with what—in any given moment—is present both in herself and in her environment.  Gestalt psychology is very much a present-centered approach to human existence.  It is also anti-metaphysical, sharing with poststructuralism a belief that most things are understood through difference.  Gestalt emphasizes the role of each person in defining reality.  They use the terms “figure and ground,” describing life as a process of making meaning of reality by defining “figures” through isolating them from the “field.”  The figure is a positive image that emerges from the ground—that part of the field that has been negated.  For example, as I drive to work in the morning, my field is composed of the sunrise, the road, the weather, my memories of the fight I had with my husband last night, my hunger, my religious beliefs, my desire to be a better teacher and so forth.  If, as I am driving, I choose to draw my attention to the idiot driver who just cut me off, I am choosing not to pay attention to the glorious sunrise occurring around me.  The sunrise, then, is part of the “ground” in this case, while the bad driver is the “figure.”  As this example indicates, I construct my own definition of reality, in part responding to the full range of my own experiences, in part to realities outside myself, and in part to norms and ideals I’ve been trained to apply.  Gestalt therapists associate healthy, happy existence with full contact with your field.  If you can give full attention freely, your experience will shift and flow, enabling you to make figures that will most help you meet your needs and goals.  For example, if my goal is to discuss current events during class but I forget to pay attention to NPR because of the idiot driver, then I am not constructing productive figures.

Gestalt psychology further maintains that in the fully functioning person, awareness flows between contact and withdrawal.  At certain times you will be in a contact mode; at others you’ll be more inner and withdrawn.  They chart the contact cycle on a series of sine curves.  At the bottom of the first curve, one is in a state of withdrawal.  One then apprehends a sensation which sparks one’s awareness, leading to rising excitement or destabilization of the original stasis; at the peak of the curve is a maximal mobilization of one’s energy.  One takes action, makes contact with the world outside the self, and then subsides back into withdrawal, until the next stimulus destabilizes the calm and it begins again.  Cycles of contact and withdrawal are normal and desirable.

Unhappily though, people often get blocked at some stage in the contact cycle, and gestalt psychology analyzes and corrects such blocks.  A frequent problem is one of awareness; people cannot see the fuller picture outside themselves.  For example, in my driving scenario, if I were more aware, I might realize that I was in the other driver’s blind spot, or that he was weeping; that awareness would draw energy away from the figure that I had been busily constructing.  Perhaps I had been listening to Doctor Laura describing the decline of civility in modern life, and I was bristling with indignation over the collapse of civilization caused by gays, leftists, feminists, and—presumably—drivers like that guy.  If I were more fully attuned to the field, I would be less likely to let the ground be constituted by her rigid notions of value and would define a ground more authentic to myself.  Gestalt is particularly interested in what causes blockages in awareness; particularly guilty are too rigidly held values, over-intellectualizing, and rigid categories (such as Dr. Laura’s).  Rather than accepting external rules and intellectual, objective and rational approaches, we should trust our own intuitive knowledge.  Another common problem is that we disown certain parts of our experience, failing to acknowledge their veracity.  To respond to these problems of awareness and feeling, gestalt therapists develop techniques that help us see the entire field through our own eyes, rather than a partial field through eyes governed by rules foreign to our nature.



            There are a number of key intersections between this theory and those implicit and explicit in Whitman’s writings.  Most importantly, Whitman, like the gestalt therapists, represents the self as an entity in constant flux, changing in response to a field:  “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (188).  For Whitman, the self cannot be separated from the environment and people around it.  They are mutually intertwined.  As a result, the self is constantly being transformed through contact with the thing currently before it.  Whitman is at one moment a fireman, at another at the Alamo, at another stucco’d o’er with gneiss, and so forth.  Identity is fluid, constantly changing through contact, as he indicates when he asks, “Is this then a touch?  quivering me to a new identity” (215).  Contact with something outside the self changes the self.  Life for Whitman is consequently passionate, emotional, active, and always bringing something new, always adapting the self to new circumstances.

            Secondly, Whitman resembles gestalt theorists in that he represents normality as a state of passive withdrawal and contact as an ecstatic, short-term experience of heightened engagement:

            The atmosphere [. . .] is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

            I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

            I am made for it to be in contact with me. (189)

In order to make contact, one must take off one’s clothing, shed the self-protective boundaries we typically inhabit.  We take off our disguises, become maximally authentic, then.  Normal existence is a somewhat protective, withdrawn masquerade.  Contact is deeply honest, but it is also “mad”—unstable because one is so vulnerable to disrupted order when open to the entire field.  There is nothing pathological for either Whitman or gestalt psychologists about our need to protect our ego boundaries, but both agree that we are enriched through regular episodes of heightened contact.

The passage that follows the one just quoted illuminates that Whitman sees contact as a dynamic interchange between a person and his field:

The smoke of my own breath,

Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms [. . .]

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun. (189)

In this passage, contact entails taking parts of otherness inside oneself and letting parts of oneself go into that otherness.   The opening image of “the smoke of my own breath” evokes the merging of himself with the atmosphere, or “the field,” as gestalt psychologists might say.  The image visualizes a piece of himself (his breath) objectified outside of his body.  It is an emblem of the fluidity that governs the rest of the stanza.  The lines that follow sensually make the merge between self and alterity a felt reality to the reader: “Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine.”  The first words—“Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers”—are mysterious.  For echoes, one needs a speaker.  But what has been spoken, causing echoes?  What has moved water or air, causing ripples?  Who has whispered, and to whom?  All three words imply—but fail to provide—a referent.  They work through metonymy; they are aftermath words—all indicating a prior cause that is absent here.  The speaker might have done those things, but it might also have been an absent other.  The effect of this absent referent is to negate the distinction between the speaker and the other; they are one.  Actions happen, but the differences between perceivers and agents is unmarked.  We often think of the body, and more precisely the skin, as the boundary marker between the Me and the Not-Me, but here the body itself is an agent of the merge, not a delineator of distinction. 

            As Whitman continues the catalogue, he ascribes to contact the healthful benefits that gestalt psychology associates with it:

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs.

He exhales some of his self out into the environment, and then takes in some of the other.  And the effect upon himself of opening himself up to this exchange is a positive transformation.  His blood is oxygenated.  In the last line of the passage, a series of appositives reinforces the ideal experience of contact in making exchanges between self and other. 

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

The sentence structure suggests that “the full noon trill,” which I take to be the buzzing of insects in the full noon of hot summer days, is both the song of himself as he meets the sun and an expression of the wonderful feeling of health he has.  One cannot distinguish between the trill and his healthy self.  His feeling of health is attributable to this contact-saturated exchange.         Whitman also describes patterns of contact and withdrawal in ways that closely resemble the contact cycle of life, as gestalt psychologists describe it.  Active contact such as I described here occurs throughout the poem, but it is not the normal resting state.  While Whitman idealizes fluidity and insistently rejects all constructs that would confine him within a fixed notion of self, the conscious experience of merge is temporary.  A pattern of stasis, followed by desire, followed by a massive excitement, culminating in a climax, followed by a tapering off of energy and a return to resolution surges across the fifty-two sections of the poem, and it is crucial to Whitman’s meanings in multiple ways.  This surging pattern suggests the sexual cycle, which is the “urge and urge and urge always the procreant urge of the world.”  The sexual also has crucial political relevance.  It has the reassuring effect of locating the current 1855 crisis of America within a larger pattern of turbulent agitation that will always be followed by a calming off and a restoration of order.  This kind of violent contortion/resolution in the nation is as normal Whitman says.  Disorder is the inevitable concomitant of change, but it generates new things and is therefore good.

We have seen that Whitman exhibits the concern with contact, and the contact cycle of life that characterizes gestalt psychology.  A third key way Whitman anticipates gestalt theory is in his focus upon the present moment.  He always emphasizes the role that we make in deciding the meaning of this now-experience, and he encourages us to shed preconceived notions:

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. (189-90)

Gestalt theory would express that as,

You shall be fully aware of everything that constitutes your field, and you shall make figures that make intuitive sense to you.  If you see X you will not call it Y because others do.

Whitman mentions a number of factors that gestalt therapists say prevent our awareness of the present moment.  Among them, rigidly held values; over intellectualizing; rigid categories; intellectual, objective and rational approaches that do not honor our own intuitive knowledge.  Whitman in particular says that we actually disown our experience, favoring instead constructions of reality that we have been taught to favor, when he asks, “Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes?” (191)  He is saying, I will not doubt what my eyes see; I will accept their input.   



            Thus far, we have seen that Whitman sings ecstatic paeans to contact with nature.  However, he idealizes human contact as well.  He urges,

Come closer to me,

Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,

Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.


This is unfinished business with me . . . how is it with you? 

I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.


I pass so poorly with paper and types . . . . I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls. (“Song for Occupations,” 1855, 89)

Whitman conceives of ideal human contact, like other forms of contact, as a series of exchanges between self and others.  It is alternately aggressive and yielding; our lovers take our best and then give their best.  Parts of us are incorporated in them, and parts of them are incorporated in us.  The singular identity of both participants dissolves.

            This aggressiveness intrinsic to contact is an important component of gestalt theory.  Gestalt theory views the conflictual aspects of human contact as healthy and desirable.  It describes contact as an intrinsically aggressive engagement with the field out of which meaningful exchange and transformation results.  Fritz Perls compares contact to “chewing”:  we incorporate externality and tear it up inside ourselves, making meaning for ourselves.  When conceived in terms of human contact, this “chewing” metaphor captures the struggle of communication, the aggression of asserting one’s own independent perspective on reality.  Genuine human contact is not simply proximity or assent; we want to feel that others have struggled to get our meaning right, that they did not know who we were until we took the effort to make it clear to them, and that they have listened and possibly been changed by the new information.  Contact is not static; it is necessarily transformative and dynamic.

However, though Whitman yearns for such experiences, his poetry describes that yearning more than it describes actual experiences of the contact he craves.  Where does he describe achieving such an exchange with another?  A number of critics, including Moon, Cavitch, and Thomas, draw our attention to the emblematic failure of human contact in the opening three lines of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

            Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me! (307)

While Walt can make face-to-face contact with the tide, the clouds, and the sun, the men and women near him are “curious” to him.  Indeed, he feels very intimate with the reader separated from him by ages and ages or a reader looking at his printed text but not with those next to him.  The failure is particularly vivid in contrast to the “naked on the bank” scene earlier discussed, which featured pronounced exchanges on both sides of the contact.  But in exchanges with people, Whitman consistently describes only his own side.  He sees but is not seen, or acted upon but not changed.  At no point can I recall his suggesting that someone else changed his point of view.  Indeed, I recall no passages in Leaves of Grass describing interpersonal conflict or significant conceptual exchange at all.  While he frequently describes actual episodes of give and take with nature, where does he suggest similar exchanges with human beings?

Gestalt psychologists would argue that the poet has gotten stuck at somewhere along the sine curve of the contact cycle.  We can gain some insight into the blockage of full contact in the poem “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,” which foregrounds the deep need for genuine human contact but also its failure.  The poem begins with an anxious consideration of skepticism:  the fear that we do not in fact make contact with reality but possibly only some projection of our own imaginations. “May-be the things I perceive [ . . . are] only apparitions,” and “the real something” has yet to be known” (274).  However, the poem concludes:

[These doubts] are curiously answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends,

When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,

When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,

Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,

I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,

But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,

He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

This silent communion “can not answer the question of appearances” with which the poem began.  It does not awaken a conviction of the authenticity of otherness as contact with nature had when it penetrated him with its undisputable physicality.  It may alleviate Whitman’s anxiety for the moment, but it does not refute his skepticism, and he does not achieve the human contact he idealized in “Song for Occupations” (“yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess”).  Indeed, there is no exchange with the beloved at all; there is no effort whatsoever to cross the divide of consciousness or of bodies.  The two men are physically close but he does not suggest an emotional engagement.  He says he is “satisfied,” but that is because he not longer cares, not because he has attained genuine human contact. 

Why, at key moments like this, does Whitman cease demanding his deepest desire?  I propose that Whitman is actually defending the other by restraining the aggression that he thinks genuine human contact requires (“Push close [. . .]Yield closer.”)  For him, such aggression is unacceptable.  His philosophy demands radical acquiescence to an infinite diversity.  As Betsy Erkkila proposes, his poetry attempts to absorb all conflict within a larger cycle; he rises above conflict to identify with the structure that contains it (as the poet, or America, or the American political system, or the cosmos).  He must thereby leave unchallenged positions he might be expected to challenge, such as slavery, homophobia, and fundamentalist Christianity.  To engage seriously—in a genuinely contactful way—with people promoting such positions was to risk threatening them with his own aggression, and his project necessitated that he bracket his own specific point of view.  If he did not, he would confront the devastating possibility that “what I assume they do not assume,” and as a result his poetic project would be null and void.  Whitman cannot be both the American bard and an American individual. To instantiate the entity in which all can “do their own thing” without destroying the structure, he cannot do his own thing, and therefore he must relinquish the full extent of genuine human contact that he himself deeply craved. 

Gestalt theory has a theory about such impasses, calling them “retroflection.” According to gestalt theorist Gordon Wheeler, one can make it all the way through the contact cycle yet still have difficulties right at the end.  Retroflection occurs when one refuses to engage in the aggressive consequences of contact:

an aggressive stage in the contact process itself must necessarily ensue. . . . [S]omething that is old must be destroyed, manipulated, approached, dissolved, or otherwise modified, in the course of encountering the ‘novel,’ so that something new—a new synthesis, can arise. If the aggression at this point is inhibited . . . it must then turn against the only safe object in the field—i.e. the self.  This retroflection is the turning inward of energy, aggression which should be directed outward, for the full satisfaction of the need. (Wheeler 80-81)

When an individual finds the aggressive aspects of contact unacceptable, retroflection channels that aggression against his or her self.

I am intrigued by the possibility that Whitman cannot allow himself to express against the world an aggressive energy he feels and so turns it against himself.  We might see such a turn in Whitman’s fantasies of death; certainly self-dissolution is a fantasy of maximum contact with alterity that protects the other from one’s own aggression.  However, gestalt theorists also see retroflection as a foundation for masturbation, which is at least as important a form of fantasized contact for Whitman.  Indeed, it might be his preferred resolution for the conflict between his stance of universal benevolence and his intrinsic but repudiated hunger for aggressive contact.  According to Wheeler, Paul Goodman (another founder of gestalt psychology) “gives as a prime example of retroflection the act of masturbation, which he likens to rape, assigning the satisfaction to the aggressive/sadistic hand, and seemingly denying the element of erotic pleasure altogether . . .” (81).  Whitman shares a similar view of masturbation, fearing its assault on his tranquility and his identity but nonetheless submitting to it.  He may well have done so for the reasons that gestalt psychology would propose:  such behavior is a form of contact that can do no harm.  To be the American bard required such a sacrifice.

Of course, the representation of psychological phenomena does not necessarily correlate with one’s actual experiences.  Whitman may have in fact amply experienced the kinds of contact that he craved without recording it in his poetry.  But his poetry, at least, registers a conflict between his individual desire and his poetic project. It is resolved through comfortable silences and wordless exchanges, but these can never fully shake his doubts the way a good turn in the sea or tumble in the hay will do.  Admittedly, there is also the nearly full satisfaction of fantasized ideal contact with us, the readers.  Indeed, that contact is so well imagined that it is almost enough for him, and for us, too.



Wheeler, Gordon.  Gestalt Reconsidered:  A New Approach to Contact and Resistance.  Cleveland, OH:  Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, 1991.

Whitman, Walt.  Complete Poetry and Collected Prose.  New York: The Library of America, 1982.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place