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.