Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins with these famous lines: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself/ And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
If you’ve taken an American literature course or two, or if you’re a Whitman aficionado, you may already remember that the opening lines to his (arguably) greatest work epitomize a divine interconnectedness of all beings and all things, a theme that runs through his poems. The following lines in the stanza, “I loafe and invite my soul/ I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass/ My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air[…]” further evoke the symbiotic relationship between nature and the humankind that has a universal individualism at its crux–a meaning-making process philosophized by New England Transcendentalists in the 19th century. The transcendentalist school of thought maintains that “a ray of relation passes from every other being” to the human (19), and the human, like “a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world” (Paul 27). Within the cosmic scheme, a tree is no longer a tree; the grass is no longer merely the grass, and a human is not just a human, for every thing and being exists in relationship to one another.
The intertextual connection between Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Turkish journalist and writer Ece Temelkuran‘s latest book Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now (2021) may seem far-fetched to some. I do think, however, that there is a reason why I walked up to my library and picked up the stiffly-aged 1983 edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) and wanted to read “Song of Myself” right after I finished Together.
At a literary and spiritual level, my experience of reading both texts, written and published centuries apart, brings forth a similar emotional response–one that restores my faith in our kind, in the universe, as well as in the reality of joy, delight, play, love, and friendship in this age of turbulence where chaos, darkness, violence, and rage hold center stage. Of course, it helps that Whitman occupied that perfect liminal space between transcendentalism and realism, and that the notion of togetherness Temelkuran’s manifesto highlights is not dissimilar to Whitman’s divine “oneness as democracy’s ontological foundation” (Engels 75).
Like “Song of Myself” that takes the reader on a cosmic yet earthly, personal yet political journey that perpetually extends and shrinks, Together will take you to the old post office on Marticeva Street in Zagreb; to a rough neighborhood in Istanbul at the top of a hill across the Bosphorus; to a Russian bazaar in northern Turkey after the fall of the USSR; back to Istanbul, to a warehouse where Temelkuran meets with the garbage collectors about her upcoming novel; to a lecture she delivers in Dublin; to the ruin bars in Hungary; to Lebanon and Egypt; back again to Temelkuran’s apartment in Zagreb–
–to show you how all beings and things, from the children’s book The Little Black Fish, the caged bear and the pelican trapped in the deserted zoo behind the Hilton Hotel in Erbil to the young sex worker on the rooftop of the same hotel and the heart-shaped stones on the shores of Lesvos join the conversation that “constitutes we-ness” (176).
As Temelkuran takes the reader on a raw journey into the heart of being human in the 21st century, she offers ten specific choices that we can make to survive and move forward in a post-truth world where “hope” has lost its meaning. In the light of the global rise of neo-nationalisms and increasing hostility towards the Earth, animals, the female body and mind, and the disenfranchised, most of us feel emotionally depleted and trapped. “We are living in an age of constant turbulence,” Temelkuran writes, “and fear is no longer a transient moment that we have the luxury of erasing from our memories.” She explains the vicious cycle of fear and anxiety fueled by the realities of the century:
The various global crises are multiplying in so many different ways that our responses to them are becoming contradictory. Earthquake: Get out! Coronavirus: Stay in! Fascism: Get together to stop them! Coronavirus: Stay away from other people! Our new normal feels like being on a plane that touches the ground after a long and turbulent flight only to take off again immediately, to repeat the same terrifying routine of uncertainty.
Understandably, one of the questions we hear most frequently is ‘Will this ever end?’ This, though, is now our reality, and it encompasses both properly epic fears- such as the predictable apocalypse, a Third World War, or another pandemic- but also more ignoble concerns: terrifying tomatoes, genetically modified to such an extent they might soon bite us back, or a wrathful ex-lover creating a fake social media profile to mortify us for the rest of our days.(p. 49)
Within the context of the current world order, to those who don’t conform to supremacist heteronormative patriarchal ideals, the future looks distinctly dismal. In “Choosing strength over power,” Temelkuran reminds us that the female body and mind is currently under attack, and these attacks:
…are sly yet devastating, intermittent but decisive. They come through an insignificant change in legislation or any easy-to-miss increase in a certain kind of man’s confidence on the street. It is eel-like, slipping by us here and there. Its first impact is so slight that we either hesitate or not alarmed enough to respond. And at times these attacks seem absurdly outdated that many of us find them worthy of mockery. We change the subject, until we cannot. For, although our responses might be delayed, it does not alter the fact: a war is underway. Not only the female body and mind, but also what is female in the male, must prepare to engage. This war is not only against women. It is against all that is female.(p. 104)
It goes without saying that most of us are hyper-aware of our increasingly-precarious reality, and as Temelkuran lays out the details of “today’s garbage-like times” (4), all we can do is to nod in despair.
In fact, when I was reading the aforementioned chapter that tackles the Radical-male’s attack on “anything fluid, whether it is gender or rivers” (107), I was on the subway in Istanbul. That morning, the country had woken up to yet another horrifying news of a woman murdered out on the street– one we would soon collectively forget until the next pieces of news on other women’s death at the hands of men have appeared.
This is how desensitization works, after all. Nothing new.
I couldn’t bring myself to read past the headline that morning; the headline itself was enough to upset and infuriate me, like it was for many others, I’m sure. What I hadn’t realized –until I found myself fumbling for my pepper spray in my purse when I saw the man sitting across me giving me a cold-eyed stare, was how the headline fed into my deep-seated fear of– well, of the Radical-male, a term Temelkuran uses to refer to the global representatives of the nationalist, heteropatriarchal socio-political system. She writes:
All around the world the representatives of the Radical-male have been activated and are more emboldened than ever. The Radical-male encompasses the worst aspects of the human: destructive in its idiocy, calculating in its ignorance, self-righteous in its wanting. The Radical-male includes a wide spectrum arising from the dark matter at the heart of masculinity, and encompassing all that sterilises life, including the obedient in their feminine counterparts. Its ancestors are those who burned women alive whenever the power structure was threatened by chaos and igniting the fire to cleanse the world of complication was deemed necessary.(p. 106)
These were the lines I was reading when I felt threatened and mistrustful on the subway that morning – possibly for no good reason. Was this stranger really giving me an icy stare, or was he merely coming up with an explanation for why he was late to work? Was I affected by the day’s headlines, or was I being smart? A bit upset that I’d left my pepper spray, which let’s face it, only gives me the illusion of security, in my car, I took refuge in the book that I held in my hands–as I usually do. I kept reading and finished the chapter by the time I got to my stop. As I was walking to the coffee shop where my friend was waiting for me, I thought about what had transpired.
The part of the reality at the moment was – I reminded myself, like I’m sure many other women/LGBTQs do daily- we may no longer afford to give the random man the benefit of the doubt. The other part of the reality, however, was that I genuinely believed that I was surrounded by some humans who would be willing to help if I needed it. I was one of those humans so why wouldn’t I see it as part of my reality that there would be others like me who would offer their help? Far from a digression, what I’m trying to say with this anecdote relates to the message Together seeks to deliver: simply put, where there’s darkness, there’s lightness, particularly in small, fleeting moments of everyday life.
Temelkuran suggests that the reality is dark, cruel, and scary, yes, but it is also joyful and magical. “When times are extraordinary or confusing- as they are today-,” she explains, “it may sound naive to say that reality is the true home of the magical” (27). However, we tend to forget that we cannot discuss reality with no reference to magic:
Reality is a vast land, and one that encompasses the realm of the magical. Indeed, magic germinates first and foremost in reality. On any given day we might see a determined poppy breaking through concrete, take our time to watch the unmatched might of a fragile new born baby, or when walking along the street with hunched shoulders suddenly spot a piece of graffiti that answers all of your questions.(p. 26)
The Radical-male and all the evil it represents, for instance, may be spreading across the world, but a beam of light is simultaneously cutting through its darkness. Her discussion on the attack on the female is followed by a passage that reveals the various ways in which light and harmony can be found in the depths of chaos:
As I write these words, Polish women are taking to the streets to protect their right to abortion. A few weeks ago it was the Belarusians who stood up in the squares of Minsk against a male dictator. At the same time, black American women were rising up against white supremacy in a movement that inspired the entire world. In fact, these images have been piling up for a couple of years now: […] Chilean women creating a global anti-rape anthem […]; Lebanese women kicking soldiers on the streets, demanding a just system; Iraqi women trying to make the long-neglected voice of a war-torn country heard.(p. 105)
What I love about this book is this: rather than adding to the anger, frustration, and rage that (rightfully, at times) permeate today’s world, Temelkuran shifts the conversation away from the dark part of reality that has become the default towards the fact that “the joy is as much a part of reality as the fury and the devastation” (35). The uplifting images and stories such as Lebanese protestors singing ‘Baby Shark’ in a crowd to help put a baby stuck in traffic to sleep and Chilean women standing up to police brutality through dance are shared on social media by millions. Social media accounts such as Upworthy and Good News Movement have millions of followers–because we are desperately in need of refreshing our faith in our kind and in its determination to create beauty. Temelkuran argues, “it is our inherent disposition to create beauty that has sustained our kind each time a system ended up in the dustbin of history. And during each collapse, despite those who believed that this was the end of it all, this essence of our kind has been the reason to renew our faith in humanity”(4-5). “We are, by nature,” as she shows throughout Together, “more prone to embrace our shared fears and celebrate our meek selves” (55) than to give up and/or give in.
In this context, we don’t need hope, for it is passive. What we need instead is faith within a non-theological, cosmic, transcendent context- faith in ourself and in each other. The kind of faith for which she advocates does not lead us to a man-made church, but to a divine space that cultivates determination, beauty, and belief in ourself and in others.
In fact, Temelkuran takes the proverbial menu for “Restaurant Hope with Back to Our Senses Stew and a bowl of Democracy served in a rich sauce of Sensible, Grown-up Politicians” off of our hands and tells us: “I believe in you. And you can believe in me. You must” (9). Believing is critical, since it’s what urges us to make and keep promises and to create beauty both of which are essential ingredients that can help us connect and stay together. As “Choosing strength over power,” the chapter on the female and the Radical-male demonstrates, the images of dark and light, of chaos and harmony are colliding at the moment, which makes 21st century look like “a war zone on the eve of the final, decisive battle.” In this fight, she writes, “nothing female, not one single body, can afford to stand alone” (105). She continues:
We must acknowledge the single-mindedness of the Radical-male who flattens everything beautiful in an attempt to accomplish one agenda: to rule. It is crucial that those who oppose these forces, and those who are directly targeted by them, discover, or invent, a core idea that connects all of the fights we find ourselves in […] Like the body that is about to act, we have to fortify the connections, to assemble all of our scattered actions, to prepare for a single, sudden movement. It is one, single war, so it needs a single, unifying core to connect all of those who fight in it.(p. 108).
Instead of placing sentiments such as anger, rage, power and pride we all know too well at the heart of her manifesto, she celebrates faith, fear, strength, dignity, and love, encouraging us to do the same if we are seeking a new way of moving forward different from the one that we have been conditioned to follow. As the “I” in Together becomes a universal “we” in a Whitmanian sense, we as readers surprisingly find ourself in the middle of a celebration of life, friendship, and us— the magic that is reality.
In the closing chapter, Temelkuran tells us why she decided to write a manifesto like Together and how she was burdened with doubt throughout the process.
It’s not easy to inspire to people towards such a faith if your eyes are trained to see injustice, vulgarity and indignity when looking at the world. Add to the fact that I have had a good part of my life stolen by fascism. The disgusting damage it wrought on my close circle gifted me with serious doubts about human nature. So why am I burdening myself with this matter of faith?
After giving a lot of thought to this very personal yet political question that had busied people like me for centuries, I finally came up with a simple answer, one no less personal or political than the question itself: I want to be free, therefore I want to forgive my kind–myself not excluded.
However, like many others who are no less inquisitive than me, I need solid reasons to forgive. As opposed to religious belief, believing in humankind is not a self-evident loop that begins and ends in itself. It has to be more than a divine tautology. It should be something more than because it is. And I have to be more than this. I personally-and politically- chose to write this book to be free and to be more.(p. 196)
The book is a means to an end, she seems to suggest– a way to heal herself, and by extension, us if we need the help.
A recent review of “Song of Myself” published on The Atlantic argued that the poem could be viewed as a vision quest; Whitman represents the wise and experienced democratic individual who can guide others towards a “thriving and a joyous life.” I’d say, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to read Together as a vision quest in this context. As Temelkuran writes:
This book is my solid reason to forgive my own kind; a testimony to remind myself in times of doubt that I have to sustain my passion for infatuation with my own kind for my own sake. This is an attempt to protect my own joy of life. I was after all, and I am. And it takes writing a book titled Together to say, I will be.
It is a dangerous sentence, but it is the most freeing.
So hereby, I chose to say:
I believe in you. You were. You are. And we will, together be.”(p. 197)
Tending to the fragile question of the 21st century “Where do we go from here?” couldn’t have been done any better (and any more beautifully, I must add). Ece Temelkuran leaves “the conventional metrics,” so to speak, the discourse on survival that often carries dystopian undertones for a liberating free-flowing verse that moves seamlessly through various historical moments, creating her own rhythms that respond to the moment.
Inevitably, section 21 of “Song of Myself” comes to mind here, and I will wrap up with its opening lines:
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
Together is, indeed, a crucial text that is brutally, lovingly, and magically real. It is the ultimate celebration of our kind and what we can achieve to not only survive but to survive beautifully.