By Sam Magavern


The Montréal Review, July 2023


Walt Whitman in a publicity photograph, holding a cardboard butterfly. Wikimedia Commons.



OF the terrible question of appearances,

Of the doubts, the uncertainties after all,

That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations

after all,

That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful

fable only,

May-be the things I perceive – the animals, plants,

men, hills, shining and flowing waters,

The skies of day and night – colors, densities, forms

– May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only

apparitions, and the real something has yet to be


(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-

found me and mock me!

How often I think neither I know, nor any man

knows, aught of them;)

May-be they only seem to me what they are, (as

doubtless they indeed but seem,) as from my

present point of view   – And might prove, (as of

course they would,) naught of what they appear,

or naught any how, from entirely changed points

of view;

To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously

answered 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 wis-

dom – 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.


Walt Whitman


There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened, as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”


“Of the terrible question of appearances” is one of the most powerful poems in Walt Whitman’s Calamus sequence: the 45 poems about friendship, camaraderie, and love among men that he wrote in the late 1850s. In this poem Whitman confronts the terror of skepticism in at least five of its modes. One mode is relativism: the fear that what appears true or real depends on our present point of view and might seem completely different from another point of view. A related mode is philosophical skepticism, what Herman Melville calls “Descartian vortices” and Stanley Cavell summarizes as “the loss of the world through an impossible effort to certify its existence by means of the senses, especially through looking.” A third mode we might call “mystical skepticism:” the sense that this world is merely an apparition, while the real is something yet to be known. A fourth mode is a type of religious despair: the fear that the doctrine of the soul’s immortality will prove a sham, and death will bring pure annihilation. And a final mode is nihilism, the sense that nothing is true or real; everything – in this life and any possible afterlife – means “naught any how.”

The five types of skepticism often overlap with each other. For example, Whitman’s belief in the soul’s immortality was part of what anchored daily reality for him.  He told his friend Horace Traubel, “I am not prepared to admit fraud in the scheme of the universe – yet without immortality all would be sham and sport of the most tragic nature.” An atheist might say that the lack of an afterlife makes life all the more meaningful, but, for a deist like Whitman, life without some form or personal immortality would be fraudulent.

Photograph: Ryan Arthurs, Damaged Hands (Brent)

Whitman’s great contemporaries, such as Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson, felt a similar sense of horror before what Dickinson called the “blank” and Melville depicted as the “whiteness of the whale.” One source of their skeptical anguish was a loss of religious certitude; none of them could take full comfort in churches, even though they shared a strong sense of the sacred. In Pierre, Melville writes: “far as any geologist has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface . . . By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid – and no body is there! – appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man!” For Christian believers, the discovery that Jesus’ tomb is empty is proof of his resurrection and the promise that we will follow him. For Melville, the empty tomb is a vacancy: no body is there; skepticism robs us of faith in immortality and, perhaps even more threateningly, faith in our own bodies and experiences.

Photograph: Ryan Arthurs, Caribou Skull

Emerson and Thoreau, too, were haunted by skepticism about earthly life. Emerson opens “Experience” with a five-word question: “Where do we find ourselves?” We seem to have lost our place in nature. He is not concerned with our fall into sin or mortality but with our fall into self-consciousness. With corrosive wit he writes:

It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.  Ever afterward we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately . . . Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us.  Nature, art, persons, letters, religions, objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of its ideas . . . every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast.

For Emerson, experience is the great prize and the ultimate impossibility. “Souls never touch their objects,” and an “innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.” Shockingly, even the most dire calamity, the death of his beloved son Waldo, cannot touch him or carry him “one step into real nature.” This dejection may leave us with nothing to look forward to but death: the one reality that will not dodge us. And yet, Emerson tells us, God is the “native of these bleak rocks.” By acknowledging the reality of skepticism, the impossibility of unmediated truth, we free ourselves. If we can “hold fast to this poverty, however scandalous,” we may then mount the “more vigorous self-recoveries.”

For Emerson and Thoreau, the failure of experience stems from self-consciousness but also convention: the demands that other people make on our souls, robbing us of our unmediated access to reality. In Walden,Thoreau writes that men lead lives of quiet desperation because they have lost their boyish absorption in nature and become “the tools of their tools;” because when they finally “get their houses” it turns out that their houses have “got them;” because committing yourself to a farm is not so different from committing yourself to a county jail; and because we have been taken in by shams that are esteemed as “soundest truths” – instead of dwelling in reality, which is actually “fabulous.” We live a mean life, Thoreau tells us, “because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things.” That is a failure of perception, originality, and vigor; it is death-in-life.

Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman share the intuition that American capitalism is partially responsible for this death-in-life. Whitman’s intermittent sense of reality as a sham, a suck, and a sell is linked to a sense of American life as a crass, materialistic project, in which the capitalists are extracting not just money but also meaning from daily life, leaving a hollow shell behind. The ship of state has been commandeered by a succession of Ahabs: predatory captains of industry who use men like tools in their ruthless attempt to render nature’s great mysteries into saleable commodities. In these desperate straits, camaraderie is more than individual love; it is brotherhood, resistance, and one-third of the holy trinity of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

Camaraderie is a more difficult proposition for Emerson and Thoreau, who zealously guard their solitude. For them, it is impossible to fully know and commune with other people; and, moreover, other people’s sham realities threaten our attempts at self-recovery. In his more genial moments, Emerson urges us to treat other people well – “treat them as if they were real; perhaps they are.” But, in the end, to use Conrad’s very Emersonian phrase, “we live, as we dream – alone.” As Emerson advises, “A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him, and if he give so much as a leg or a finger, they will drown him.”

Photograph: Ryan Arthurs, Esker Climbing

Whitman, for all his oceanic egoism, is less skeptical about friendship and love, less terrified about being drowned by drowning men. In “Song of Myself,” he writes:

I seize the descending man . . . I raise him with resistless will.

O despairer, here is my neck,

By God! You shall not go down! Hang your whole weight upon me.

And later in the poem he offers this beautiful encouragement:

Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod to

me and shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.


“We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others,” writes Emerson. When it comes to other people, Whitman is more willing to suspend disbelief.

Even so, in Whitman’s great poem, “Of the terrible question of appearances,” skepticism threatens him deeply. This single sentence, extended over 16 lines, many of them spilling over, presents a poet writhing (and writing) with his doubts. Reliance and hope, he fears, may be just “speculations” – a canny choice of words, suggesting risky business deals, specious theorizing, and the weakness of eyesight as a mode of perception (the Latin root spect means to see). The things he perceives may be just “apparitions,” meaning appearances, but also ghosts – hauntings of lost substance.

Whitman uses four parentheticals to double down on his meanings and his process, even at the expense of logic. First, in referring to his apparitions, he says, “May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,).” How can something be simultaneously “maybe” and “doubtless?” Whitman is of two minds; he contradicts himself; and this doubleness, or duplicity, is itself part of the problem. Self-consciousness, as Emerson suggests, robs reality of its given-ness and separates us from nature. In the poem’s second parenthetical, appearances become serpentine and malicious: they “dart out of themselves, as if to confound and mock me!” This is the flip side of Whitman’s grand – or grandiose – self-assertion. When things are good, the fact that he is a cosmos – that everything in the universe signifies for him – is thrilling; but when things are bad, grandiosity becomes paranoia, and material realities seem personally hostile to the poet.

Whitman has no self-reliant answer to the terrible question of appearances. Rene Descartes is wrong; you cannot think your way out of radical skepticism; neither the existence of God nor the fundamental self-perception “I think” is an adequate foundation. Emerson is wrong: the bleak rocks offer no anchoring spot – no purchase. The answer comes not from within, but from without; Whitman’s doubts are “curiously answered” by his lovers and dear friends. More particularly, they are answered when “he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long while holding my hand.”

Why is the answer “curious?” For one thing, it is curious, or odd, because even after his friends “answer,” Whitman does not know the answer; he still “cannot answer the question of appearances, or that of identity beyond the grave.” It is also “curious” because it leaves the question, the curiosity, intact; it transmutes terrible doubts into benevolent curiosities, or wonders. Rather than supplying Whitman with a visual or verbal answer, love charges him with untold and untellable wisdom, rendering him silent, indifferent, and completely satisfied. Love “charges” him with electricity; and it “charges” him with a prophetic duty to transmit that power through his poems: to sing the body electric.

This charge takes place when “the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not” surrounds and pervades Whitman and his lover. This line makes a subtle hinge point in the poem. In one sense, he is re-describing the anguish of skepticism: the feeling that words have lost their meaning and reason cannot grasp its objects. But now the subtle air is descending not on one solitary person but on two people holding hands. The charge in the air is reversed by the magnetism of the lovers. The subtle air swiftly changes from a menace to a source of untold wisdom, and silence no longer means that speech has failed; now it means that speech is happily superfluous.

Photograph: Ryan Arthurs, The Luxury of Sleep (Brian)

Whitman leaves ambiguous the nature of his satisfaction. Perhaps his lover has “completely satisfied him” erotically, and the holding of hands is a symbol for erotic love or a description of the lovers directly after consummation. But perhaps simply holding hands is complete satisfaction. Either way, as a symbol or substitute for sex, holding hands is a placid, equable, gentle, and mutual activity, quite different from an attempt to probe or pierce through illusions to reach reality. Holding hands, the lovers feel each other’s reality; they feel that, in John Ashbery’s phrase, “your realness is real to me.”

Whitman is not always so calmly receptive. In his notebooks, he writes: “One grand faculty we want, ­– and that is the power to pierce fine clothing and thick coated shams, and settle for sure what the reality of the thing clothed and disguised is, and what it weighs stark naked; the power of slipping like an eel through all blandishments and graspings.” In this mood, Whitman resembles Captain Ahab, who asserts:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. . . .  Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! More intolerable than fiends’ glaring is a doltish stare! 

Melville suggests that the urge to pierce through appearances leads to monomania and megalomania. Ahab’s mania arises from and deepens his isolation from his fellow humans, who become mere tools in his quest to master reality. The gaze of his shipmates becomes intolerable, worse than demonic, and Ahab is turned against the world. By contrast, when Ishmael befriends Queequeg, he says, “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.” Like Whitman, Ishmael experiences this fellow-feeling with both individuals and groups. When the crewmembers of the Pequod are rendering the whale together, they experience joyful homoerotic camaraderie:

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! All the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come, let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

When, in the course of this rendering, Ishmael and Queequeg are tied together with a rope, Ishmael sees that co-dependence is the human condition:

So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down to his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother . . .


. . .  I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound . . . still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals.

In “Of the terrible question of appearances,” Whitman gives voice to his Ahab-like terror at the whiteness of the whale – the great blank of skepticism – before resolving it in silent, Queequeg-like wisdom. This wisdom leaves doubt intact while irradiating it with love and acceptance, so that doubt itself become sacred, rather than an emptying out of the sacred. As Melville writes:

For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapour. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Photograph: Ryan Arthurs, Lunch Break (Brian and Charlie)

For Whitman, too, skepticism is always possible; doubt is always in the wings; and his responses oscillate with his moods, his nights and days. In “Song of Myself,” he expresses a macho disdain for the “terrible question of appearances,” saying:

I do not snivel that snivel the world over,

That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,

That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end

but threadbare crape and tears.

But in “There Was a Child Went Forth,” he is more accepting:

Affection that will not be gainsayed . . . . The sense of what is

real . . . . the thought if after all it should prove unreal,

The doubts of daytime and the doubts of night-time . . . . the

curious whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so . . . . Or is it all flashes

and specks?

Men and women crowding fast in the streets . . . . if they are not

flashes and specks what are they?


Skeptical doubts, rather than being eliminated, become “part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes and will always go forth every day,/And these become of him or her that peruses them now.” In poems such as “There Was a Child” and “Of the terrible question of appearances,” Whitman transmits his doubts to his readers, but along with them his electrifying love, which enables him, in W.H. Auden’s phrase, to “find the mortal world enough.”


Sam Magavern is senior policy fellow at the Partnership for the Public Good and founder of the Calamus Project. His publications include a non-fiction book, Primo Levi’s Universe, and a book of poetry, Noah’s Ark.


Ryan Arthurs is a visual artist living in Buffalo, New York. His work has been exhibited widely, including “The National: Best Contemporary Photography” at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. The photographs shown here are from his Height of the Land series – taken in 2012 when he and five companions journeyed over 800 kilometers through the Canadian tundra on the George River.




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