From Balloons to Hospitals: Walt Whitman’s Blindness and Insight

Earlier this month, as part of our month-long celebration of William S. Burroughs, we interviewed Farid Ghadami about what it’s like translating Burroughs into Persian. Today, he’s shared with us an essay on Burroughs and Whitman.

1- From the life-car to the war-car

Six years before the onset of the American Civil War, in the poem “Song of Myself,” (1855) “looking composedly down,” from a “pear-shaped balloon,” Walt Whitman praised “the life-car,” when he wrote:

Where the pear-shaped balloon is floating aloft…. floating in it myself and looking composedly down;

Where the life-car is drawn on the slipnoose….[1]

But when a bloody war-car plowed through the whole of America, resulting in the loss of approximately 620,000 lives, he descended from his lofty balloon to the hospital. Although in the second poem of Drum-Taps, published in 1865, Whitman asked “proud libraries” not to close their doors to his poetry, in the twelfth poem of the book, titled “The Dresser,” he implored hospitals to open their doors to him, saying, “open, doors of time! open, hospital doors.”[2]

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman had celebrated “positive science” and fervently extolled the virtues of “exact demonstration,” but in the face of the calamities inflicted by modernity and technology, he turned a blind eye to all the evidence of a less than “positive science.” Throughout his poetry, Whitman hailed the achievements of this positive science in grandiose fashion, yet failed to acknowledge the disasters that modernity could unleash.

Whitman possessed the foresight that eluded his romantic predecessors, recognizing the splendor of modernity. However, he remained completely oblivious to the perils that modernity could engender. While Horkheimer and Adorno, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), pinpointed the issues that Whitman overlooked, they argued that the exaltation of reason by 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, coupled with technological advancements, gave rise to oppressive and inhumane forms of governance. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the Enlightenment’s celebration of reason and instrumental rationality had inadvertently become instrumentalized itself, leading to the domination and manipulation of nature, society, and individuals. In essence, the suppression of nature and its subjugation by humanity eventually led to the suppression of humanity itself and its subjugation by fellow humans. While Whitman’s mention of “positive science” carries a broader and potentially more ambiguous meaning than “positivism,” his optimistic and one-sided stance toward modernism and technological development is exactly what Adorno and Horkheimer criticize.

Horkheimer and Adorno delineate four distinct historical eras characterized by evolving modes of thought. The magical era engages with discrete entities through imitation, while the mythical era involves interaction with elements controlled by gods, whose mechanisms are revealed through myth. The metaphysical era directly contemplates concepts like being, suffering, and love. Lastly, the positivist era interfaces with the world through the abstractions of mathematics and logic. This progression stems from a fear of the unknown and uncontrollable. As a response, human thinking has sought to expand knowledge and enhance its capacity to predict and control reality by adopting more abstract, comprehensive, utilitarian, unifying, and calculative approaches. The culmination of this development is mathematics and logic, which assert the ability to fully comprehend reality or at least aspire to such knowledge.

According to the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment, the concepts of myth and positivism share a common origin rooted in the human desire to explain and exert control over the world. Positivism, similar to myth, perceives reality as governed by fixed mathematical laws, disregarding the significance of abstract concepts. Walt Whitman’s perspective on technology, modernity, and positivism can also be understood through this lens. He, too, held a mythological perception of science, and it is not surprising that he occasionally equated his cherished notion of “democracy” with “modernity.” Diane Kepner’s analysis of Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” highlights the idea of reconciling materialism and idealism.[3] In a Horkheimer-Adornoian interpretation, this reconciliation can be seen as an alignment between positive science and the realms of myth and even magic.

Horkheimer and Adorno write:

Magic like science is concerned with ends […]. The “unshakable confidence in the possibility of controlling the world” which Freud anachronistically attributes to magic applies only to the more realistic form of world domination achieved by the greater astuteness of science.[4]

Whitman’s perspective on technology, modernity, and development can be summarized as an “unshakable confidence in the possibility of controlling the world.” However, the American Civil War, among other factors, demonstrated the repercussions of the very “development” that Whitman glorified in “Song of Myself.” In this poem, he expressed:

I chant a new chant of dilation or pride,

We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,

I show that size is only developement.[5]

It was the clash between different paths of development and the economic interests of the agrarian South and the industrialized North that ultimately precipitated the American Civil War. The Northern states, akin to Goethe’s Faust, who required more land and expelled the elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, to acquire the land they coveted, were poised to obliterate anything they deemed hindering industrialization. Conversely, the South, reliant on slavery to fuel its agricultural growth, harbored minimal political aspirations for industrialization. However, Whitman’s magical perspective on positive science, as well as its entourage such as technology, modernity, and development, rendered him blind to the detrimental effects of positive science. Whitman’s support of Northerners during the American Civil War can be primarily attributed to his advocacy of technology, development, and modernity, rather than to his abolitionist views.

Whitman’s blindness and insight can be viewed as two interrelated aspects of his poetic vision. In a sense, his blindness emerges as a byproduct of his profound insight. As the first American poet to tackle themes of technology, progress, and modernity in an epic manner, Whitman’s unique perspective sets him apart in the annals of American literature. However, it is precisely this grandiose outlook that renders him blind to certain nuances.

Whitman’s insight into the transformative forces of his era allowed him to capture the essence of a rapidly changing society, celebrating its achievements and potential. His keen perception enabled him to embrace the spirit of his time, infusing his verses with a sense of awe and wonder. Yet, this panoramic viewpoint also limited his ability to recognize certain complexities and contradictions present within the fabric of society.

2- Inside the Hospital: The Birth of the Clinic

In his groundbreaking work The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963), Foucault explores the historical evolution of medicine and how the clinic transformed the human body into an object of scientific scrutiny and control. Foucault’s later insights help us see precisely how Whitman failed to recognize the potential risks inherent in medical advancements, the power dynamics within clinical structures, and the tendency to reduce the human body to a mere scientific entity.

Foucault’s analysis uncovers that prior to the emergence of the clinic, medical knowledge relied heavily on subjective interpretations. The introduction of clinical observation enabled physicians to perceive the body as an object of study through diagnostic techniques. This shift facilitated a detachment from subjective experiences, focusing solely on the physical aspects of the body. It also made the accumulation of standardized medical knowledge based on quantifiable observations possible. Nevertheless, the objectification of the body within the clinical context gave rise to power dynamics, as physicians assumed authority over their patients. The clinical gaze became a tool for social control, evaluating bodies against predetermined norms of health and normality.

While Whitman’s writings, such as Drum-taps and Memoranda During the War, extol the virtues of the hospital environment, his mythical-magical approach to science prevented him from addressing the potential risks and power dynamics associated with medical progress. Whitman’s focus remained on the admirable aspects of hospitals, overlooking the intricate intersections of power, scientific objectification, and societal control that Foucault would later explore in his work.

In a letter to a friend in 1863, Whitman wrote, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield.”[6] However, Whitman does not delve further into this subject, exercising caution in not conveying what he should not. This statement sheds light on the dehumanizing effects of the clinical environment and the reduction of individuals to mere objects of scientific study, a concept later explored by Foucault.  The medical disasters that took place in the field hospitals were so numerous that it is impossible to imagine that they were left out of Whitman’s eyes. The sheer number of wounded during the war transformed hospitals into laboratories where medical science was advancing. Stanley B. Burns writes: “At the time of the Civil War, as a result of lax laws, obtaining a medical degree was very easy; one only had to apprentice with a local physician and take a few courses at a proprietary medical college. Most physicians had little surgical experience. Many had never performed a major operation or even participated in a dissection. […] The large numbers of injured created an un-paralleled opportunity to hone one’s skills and become an expert. At the beginning of the conflict, the opportunity unfortunately enticed novice practitioners eager for the chance to operate. It was a calamity that gave amputation a bad reputation as inexperienced volunteers destroyed limbs and lives.”[7]

In the opening pages of Memoranda During the War, Whitman wrote, “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not.”[8] By referring to “interiors,” Whitman likely meant the military hospitals, implying that there were aspects of his hospital experiences he preferred future generations not to know. This suggests that Whitman, based on his own encounters in hospitals, had an understanding of significant changes occurring in medical science, but somehow restrained himself from exploring them further in his poetry or prose.

It seems that Whitman may have had several reasons for idealizing the face of hospitals. Firstly, they were northern military hospitals based in Washington, which also treated secessionist soldiers. Whitman may have imagined that presenting the ugly and inhumane aspects of those hospitals could be detrimental to the northerners. Secondly, modern medical science, despite progressing through the victims it claimed, was a branch of the same positive science that Whitman admired.

3- The tangible absence of Doctor Benway

While Whitman highlighted the individuality of injured or wounded soldiers in some of his Drum-Taps poems (1865) and his notes in Memoranda During the War, he deliberately refrained from disclosing certain crucial details that should have been conveyed to future generations. For instance, he did not mention how field hospitals during the Civil War transformed into laboratories for the development of modern medicine or the instances where doctors, empowered by the hospital institution, would sometimes perform surgeries while under the influence, leading to fatal outcomes for their patients.[9]

Whitman, who in “Song of Myself” celebrated progress and modernity, with a mythical passion, now in a similar vein extolled the virtues of the hospital, which, as Foucault explains in The Birth of the Clinic, had become a place where the “individual’s body” was reduced to an “object of scientific medical examination and analysis.”[10]

The things Whitman witnessed in the military hospitals of Washington, which he chose not to report, surfaced almost a century later in William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch (1959), personified by the character of Doctor Benway. In this novel, which also had a significant influence on Michel Foucault and his understanding of the control society, Doctor Benway serves as a critique of medicine, technology, and the notion of “positive science” that Whitman had previously praised. Doctor Benway embodies the negative aspects and consequences of these systems. Doctor Benway emerges as a ruthless and morally bankrupt character in Naked Lunch, embodying the dehumanizing impact of medical technology and the relentless pursuit of scientific progress without ethical boundaries. He serves as a symbol of the medical establishment’s abuses and its detachment from human compassion.

In a notable passage from the novel, Doctor Benway is in a conversation with Dr. Schafer – named after a real scientist who was experimenting with “biocontrol” in the late 1950s:

SCHAFER: “I tell you I can’t escape a feeling… well, of evil about this.”

BENWAY: “Balderdash, my boy… We’re scientists. …Pure scientists. Disinterested research and damned be him who cries ‘Hold, too much!’ Such people are no better than party poops.”

SCHAFER: “Yes, yes, of course… and yet… I can’t get that stench out of my lungs….”

BENWAY (irritably): “None of us can…. Never smelled anything remotely like it…. Where was I? Oh yes, what would be result of administering curare plus iron lung during acute mania? Possibly the subject, unable to discharge his tensions in motor activity, would succumb on the spot like a jungle rat. Interesting cause of death, what?”[11]

Throughout the novel, Doctor Benway conducts grotesque and experimental medical procedures, often disregarding the well-being of his patients. His actions serve to highlight the dangers of unbridled technological advancements and the arrogance of those who wield such power. Burroughs employs Doctor Benway as a means of critiquing the dehumanization and objectification of individuals under the guise of medical progress.

Moreover, Burroughs employs satire and dark humor to underscore the absurdity and futility of “positive science.” Doctor Benway’s experiments and procedures frequently result in grotesque outcomes and unintended consequences, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of scientific pursuits. By doing so, Burroughs challenges the notion that science and technology are inherently beneficial or morally superior, suggesting that they can be misused and lead to harmful outcomes.

[Doctor Benway] sits on the suction cup like a cane seat, observing his assistant as they make the incision… “You young squirts couldn’t lance a pimple without an electric vibrating scalpel with automatic drain and suture… Soon we’ll be operating by remote control on patients we never see… We’ll be nothing but button pushers. All the skill is going out of surgery… All the know-how and make-do… Did I ever tell you about the time I performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can? And once I was caught short without an instrument and removed a uterine tumor with my teeth. That was in the Upper Effendi, and besides…[12]

Through the character of Doctor Benway, Burroughs raises thought-provoking questions about the ethical implications of unchecked scientific progress and the potential dehumanization that can arise from the relentless pursuit of knowledge without ethical boundaries.

In a section from Whitman’s Memoranda during the war, we encounter the following passage:

Yesterday was perhaps worse than usual. Amputations are going on—the attendants are dressing wounds. As you pass by, you must be on your guard where you look. I saw the other day a gentleman, a visitor apparently from curiosity, in one of the Wards, stop and turn a moment to look at an awful wound they were probing. He turn’d pale, and in a moment more he had fainted away and fallen on the floor.[13]

While Whitman’s writings do acknowledge instances of unnecessary amputations and other tragedies within the hospital setting, they also reveal a cautious approach in preserving the mythical image of science. Despite encountering numerous doctors during the American Civil War, Whitman refrains from openly criticizing these individuals and the field of science they represent. It is evident that Whitman’s war-related poetry and prose avoid highlighting the ruthlessness and flaws of doctors. Speculation arises as to why Whitman chose this omission.

One possible reason is Whitman’s desire to uphold the revered image of positive science. By abstaining from direct critique, he may have sought to maintain the perception of doctors and surgeons as embodying the principles of a noble and progressive discipline. Another perspective could be that Whitman felt a pressing need to uplift his nation and heal it through his poetry. Critiquing the medical profession, even in the face of its shortcomings, may have hindered his aim to inspire and unite readers.

This deliberate treatment of the subject matter suggests Whitman’s conscious decision to present a positive perception of science, encompassing the doctors and surgeons within its realm. While undoubtedly witnessing the grim realities and limitations of the medical profession during wartime, Whitman’s writings do not overtly expose or critique these aspects.

4- Some supplements for Whitman, prescribed by Jacques Derrida

Whitman’s perspective on science and medicine in his poetry tended to overlook the perils and power dynamics associated with scientific progress. While he acknowledged the admirable aspects of hospitals and the heroic efforts of medical professionals, his mythical and magical approach prevented him from delving into the ethical implications and negative consequences of unchecked scientific advancement. The absence of critical scrutiny in his writings indicates a desire to preserve the mythical image of positivist science, yet it also leaves gaps in our understanding of the complexities and potential harms of modernity and technology.

This research drew a contrast between Whitman and Burroughs, highlighting the deliberate absence of a critical portrayal of medical knowledge in Whitman’s war-related works. It is within this context that the character of Dr. Benway in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch emerged as a supplement to Whitman’s war notes and poems, shedding light on what Whitman intentionally avoided transmitting to future generations.

The character of Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch can be viewed as a supplement, drawing upon Jacques Derrida’s philosophical framework. In Derrida’s view, a supplement is something that is added to or complements something else, but it is not simply an addition or enhancement. Instead, the supplement reveals a fundamental lack or insufficiency in the original thing it supplements. It both completes and undermines the original.[14]

By invoking the concept of supplement in a Derridaian manner, Dr. Benway functions as a literary device that brings forth what Whitman deliberately omitted or neglected to include. Specifically, Dr. Benway sheds light on the dark aspects of medical advances in US military hospitals, where human bodies were turned into objects of scientific progress and, at times, even became playthings for drunken doctors and surgeons.

In addition to Dr. Benway of Naked Lunch, other works such as Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic can also be seen as supplements to Whitman’s writings. They disrupt and challenge the stability of Whitman’s narrative, introducing contradictions, complexities, and ambiguities that expose the limitations of his perspective and expand the possibilities for interpretation. These supplementary works offer critical insights into the intricate relationships between power, knowledge, and medical practices, providing a more nuanced understanding of the implications of scientific progress.


BURROUGHS, William S. Naked Lunch: the Restored Text. (1959) Edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. New York: Grove, 2003.

BURNS, Stanley B. “Surgery in the Civil War.” Burns Archive. Available online at

DERRIDA, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1974). Translated by Gayatri Chakrav Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

HORKHEIMER, Max and. Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments (1944). Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr Translated by Edmund Jephcott. California: Stanford University Press, 2002.

KEPNER, Diane. “From Spears to Leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself.’” (1979). American Literature. Vol. 51, No. 2, Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 179-204.

SMART, Barry. Michel Foucault (1985), London / New York: Routledge, 2002.

WHITMAN, Walt. Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, NY, 1855. Digital file:

WHITMAN, Walt. Memoranda During the War. (1875-1876) Available online at

WHITMAN, Walt. Memoranda during the War (1875-1876). Oxford: Oxford University Press; Annotated edition, 2004.

WHITMAN, Walt. Selected Letters of Walt Whitman, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.

WORTHINGTON ADAMS, George. Doctors in Blue, New York: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1952.


[1]. Walt WHITMAN, Leaves of Grass, Brooklyn, NY, 1855. Digital file:

[2]. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

[3]. Diane KEPNER. “From Spears to Leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself.’” (1979). American Literature. Vol. 51, No. 2, Durham: Duke University Press.pp. 179-204.

[4]. Max HORKHEIMER and. Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments (1944). Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr Translated by Edmund Jephcott. California: Stanford University Press, 2002, P. 7

[5]. Walt WHITMAN, Leaves of Grass

[6]. Walt WHITMAN. Selected Letters of Walt Whitman, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990. P. 74.

[7]. Stanley B. BURNS. “Surgery in the Civil War.” Burns Archive. Available online at <>

[8]. Walt WHITMAN. Memoranda during the War. (1875-1876) Available online at <>

[9]. George WORTHINGTON ADAMS. Doctors in Blue. New York: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1952. Pp. 54-55.

[10]. Barry SMART, Michel Foucault (1985), London / New York, Routledge, 2002. P. 29

[11]. William S. BURROUGHS. Naked Lunch: the Restored Text. (1959) Edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. New York: Grove, 2003. P. 54.

[12]. William S. BURROUGHS. Naked Lunch: the Restored Text. P. 51.

[13]. Walt WHITMAN. Memoranda during the War (1875-1876). Oxford: Oxford University Press; Annotated edition, 2004. P. 31

[14]. For further reading, refer to: Jacques DERRIDA. Of Grammatology (1974). Translated by Gayatri Chakrav Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.