Tuesday, October 2, 2012
For the Love of Prufrock: My Debt to Eliot
This poem has long been a favorite of mine - perhaps because like Prufrock I have yearned for a deep and meaningful life, perhaps because certain phrases become imprinted indelibly upon our consciousness: I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, perhaps because, Prufrock himself is so utterly stricken with inertia and self-doubt (a state no doubt with which many writers can relate!) Do I dare disturb the universe? Isn't that a question that we have all, at some point or another, asked ourselves? To gather the courage to put oneself out there, to stand up and move forth ( an 'I am Spartacus!' moment!) to defy convention or fear of societal disapproval, to openly express oneself, to force the moment to its crisis. It seems that Prufrock's excruciating angst is derived not only from his inability to live a life of consequence, but also demonstrates an eloquent testimonial to thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.
Many critics believe that the poem is a criticism of Edwardian society. It is hard to imagine how fractured and dislocated Eliot and his peers must have felt - Europe lost an entire generation of young men to the horrors of trench warfare in World War 1, resulting in a general crisis of masculinity as survivors struggled to find their place in a radically altered society with a new emphasis on excess and forthrightness (one also thinks of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and his similar indictment of societal superficialities at the dawn of the twentieth century). The total number of civilian and military casualties in the Great War was over 37 million. How can the hundred decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse before the taking of a toast and tea not seem unbearably meaningless after such unimaginable trauma? While we have not experienced the near obliteration of a generation, our world seems to be rapidly reinventing itself in a different kind of way: the dizzying transformation of information technology and the emergence of a digital economy.
Eliot's Love Song of J Prufrock was greeted with disdainful disparagement when it was published in 1917: the Times Literary Supplement Review noted: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry." I, and doubtless millions of appreciative readers today, would palpably disagree. This desire for meaningful self-expression is a defining element of what it is to be human, and Eliot is, in my humble opinion, unsurpassed in his depiction of Prufrock's agonizing yearning for a life of significance.
So to leave you with the genius of Eliot's own sublimely immortal words: