One Body Containing Many in “Song of Myself” and “Angels in America

In Angels in America by Tony Kushner and Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, there is a similar theme of one person or being embodying many people. Both writings use the symbol of the body to represent the personification of many people in that one body. In Angels in America, the Angel, when speaking to Prior, the Angel is described as having eight vaginas and “a Bouquet of Phallī” (Kushner 165). In Song of Myself, Whitman states, “I contain multitudes” (Whitman 53). Both statements represent one person being many at once.

For Whitman, it is less his own personal body that is many different people but the body of the poem that contains him as many different people. This connects to the actual body of the Angel, having many different sexual organs. In both pieces of writing, one person is representative of many people within their bodies. They also represent many different lived experiences within one person. The Angel’s connection to Prior places him as the person who represents the many people who are struggling with AIDS at the time when the play takes place. Whitman embodies people of all races and genders within his poem, moving around between all of them.

However, as we discussed in class, there is a problem with having one person embodying many people and their experiences but is that true for both of these writings? It is somewhat problematic that Whitman, a white man, talks about being a Black slave and explaining that he understands the slave’s suffering (Whitman 33-34). A white man, who most likely never had to experience the brutality that a slave has had to endure, should not be speaking as though he knows and understands what it is like to be a slave. 

As for Prior and the Angel, containing many people in the body of the Angel and the experiences of many people in Prior may be slightly less problematic than the way Whitman does so in his writing. Prior can embody many people’s experiences because he is really only embodying the experiences of those who have AIDS. He can give a voice and a body to show the suffering that so many people like him have to go through. Whitman takes on the bodies of those he has no connection to, while Prior takes on bodies that he does connect to. This difference makes Prior’s embodiment less problematic than Whitman’s.

One thought on “One Body Containing Many in “Song of Myself” and “Angels in America”

  1. Thanks for the post.
    I appreciate how you focus and do justice to the body as a site of examination here; because, as we’ve read by Sommerville: in history, racialized and gendered bodies were often appropriated and pitched against a white heteronormative standard.
    I agree that Prior’s multiplied embodiment can be representative of AIDS patients and less problematic than that of Whitman. At the same time, Prior’s experience with AIDS perhaps does not represent everyone (I’m thinking of Roy Cohn here or a Black trans sex-worker in New York City at the time mentioned in Stryker’s chapter 4), though he offers an crucial perspective to his community and the US LGBT+ history.

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