Whitman, Schopenhauer, and Old Man Pictures

Walt WhitmanRachel Maddow did a short segment tonight on remembering 9/11. She quoted Walt Whitman. That’s all fine. I like Whitman, but I do have this general idea that people who quote Whitman don’t like poetry. But whatever. It was fine. What struck me was that almost all the pictures that they used for the segment were Whitman as an old man and the only exception was Whitman as a middle-aged man. I wish people wouldn’t do that. He was an attractive young man—half “hunka hunka burning love” and half dandy. You can see that in the sketch at the left.

That made me think of Arthur Schopenhauer, who is also always shown as an old man. Of course, he didn’t do most of his work as an old man. The World as Will and Representation was published when he was only 30 years old. Of course, photography only came about towards the end of his life. But even still, people mostly use the picture where he looks angry. In most of the pictures, he is smiling the way I always imagine the man would. People find him depressing, but I don’t. I think he just understood better than most what a cruel joke consciousness is. But people prefer to present him as an angry old man. I think this is because they resent having to have read him in college.

There are paintings of Schopenhauer as a younger man. I suspect people avoid them because: (1) they would rather have a photograph; and (2) he isn’t an attractive man and old photos do kind of flatter him. But in looking for images of him, I found this that I thought was quite amusing:

Schopenhauer Suicide Hotline

With Walt Whitman, I think there is a different thing going on. Whitman’s work is very sensual and I’m sure at the time scandalous. As a result, it is comforting to think of him as old and thus not sexually threatening. But that’s not who Whitman was. He was always threatening: sexually, emotionally, intellectually. He was a revolutionary to the core. And we should remember him that way!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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