On Conversation Hearts

SONY DSCValentine’s Day is a day it’s okay to hate. For some, it’s the day dedicated to force-fitting the expression of genuine feelings into social expectations, without appearing saccharine or heartless, weird or trite, forced or routine. For some who will spend the day in solitude, it’s that special occasion when you find exceedingly trivial others’ frustrated attempts to find a satisfactory gift and dinner reservation, in comparison either with your own loneliness, or with the crude social assumption that, since you are alone, you must be lonely. It’s the day for publicizing love, for turning your heart inside out, for romantic one-upmanship. Like it or not, that intrusive co-worker will probably ask you about your Valentine’s Day on February 15. This year, thank goodness, the day of reckoning falls on a Saturday.

No one in my acquaintance has ever complained to me about Grandparents’ Day or Black History Month, but then again, Grandparents’ Day and Black History Month don’t demand as much of us. They don’t assault our senses in grocery stores, movie theaters, and shopping malls. Perhaps it’s because I’m neither a grandparent nor of African descent, but I’ve never been disappointed after those commemorative occasions. To object to either would be to court contempt unnecessarily, but everyone is permitted to hate Valentine’s Day, an awkward pink-and-red experience in which every couple is expected to participate, but which every individual—coupled or not— is permitted to deplore. Continue reading

Obama, Syria, and The Prufrock Syndrome

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This essay was named as one of “the most fascinating articles of the week” by The Washington Examiner.

Last Saturday Syria claimed victory against the US after President Barack Obama declared to the world that although he had made a decision to commit to military action, he would be consulting Congress before doing so, and then only after everyone had come back from vacation in September. Everyone has come back a little earlier, but it is too late to erase President Obama’s conception of time: real life can wait until scheduled vacations are over.  Like a perpetual undergraduate, the President behaves as if things can only start after summer vacation. It seems he thinks that there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces he will meet, and a lot of his energy is going into saving face after some ill-conceived statements on the crossing of a “red line” of chemical weapons usage that the Syrian President didn’t take seriously anyway.

Every year of my teaching career I have taught T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem he started in 1910 and published in 1915 in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Eliot’s poem creates a nightmare portrait of Prufrock, a card-carrying narcissist who cannot make hard decisions in the modern world.  Prufrock is nothing special:  he blames others for his deficiencies, he cannot step up to the plate, he wades in waves of regret.  He can invoke Dante in Italian, but this only serves to situate himself in his own psychological hell, and establishes Prufrock’s connection with those consigned to the Eighth Circle:  the circle of The Fraudulent.  This poem, which was the beginning of a brilliant career, is a depiction of what it might be like to be in the head of an articulate loser, someone who can create a lyric line of lament, but who cannot really be a grown up in any category of life.  Prufrock’s performance is T. S. Eliot’s caveat to the world of what things might be like if the modern mentality of adults is to practice avoidant behavior, constantly retreat, and become more obsessed with what is in our own heads than what is going on around us.  “Prufrock” is Eliot’s code word for personal failure.  His character lacks what the Victorians might have referred to as “character,” and instead he is a mere personality who is frustrated, impotent, and more concerned with thinning hair and What to Wear than anything of real substance. There is a reason why no one names their kid “Prufrock,” no matter how well-known the poem.

While I used to teach this poem for its technique and its importance as a major example of a cultural shift toward modernism, now I wonder if I should not give Eliot a lot more credit for being downright visionary.

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