This section contains 8,029 words
(approx. 27 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Robert McNamara
SOURCE: "'Prufrock' and the Problem of Literary Narcissism," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 356-77.
In the following essay, McNamara analyzes "Prufrock" in terms of realism and subjectivity.
The central failure of modernist literature, according to Georg Lukács's vehement critique in "The Ideology of Modernism," is that it denies the historically situated character of human thought and action and in so doing denies the power of human actions to effect social change. Modernist literature, says Lukács, is rooted in a bourgeois ideology, at the center of which a self-made and self-contained individual confronts history, but history given a static, and as such fundamentally ahistorical, form. Like the bourgeois ideology in which it is rooted, modernist literature denies that history is a changing ensemble of human activities, and therefore subject to change by human action. Modernism rejects the tradition of realist literature in which the human individual is conceived of as an essentially social and historical being, both formed by and forming his or her environment. In modernism, that "concrete typicality" of the realist view is replaced by an "abstract particularity" that is grounded in a view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, capable at best only of superficial contacts with others. Human action, particularly action aimed at effecting social change, is thereby rendered impotent.
Lukács asserts that Hegel's distinction between concrete and abstract potentiality is crucial to an adequate conception of the relation between human subjectivity and the objective world. Where concrete potentiality is concerned with the dialectical relationship between individual subjectivity and objective reality, abstract potentiality is wholly subjective, and much richer than actual life. Abstract potentiality is at once infinite and highly individual, and as such cannot determine actual development. In Lukács's view, modernism voids the distinction between concrete and abstract potentialities. It violates the crucial Hegelian distinction "by exalting man's subjectivity," and thereby, against its own intentions, impoverishing it. Modernism's view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, and of self-development as a fundamentally inward, subjective matter, violates the principle that it is in the interaction of character and environment, by decision and action, that concrete potentiality is singled out from the "bad infinity" of abstract potentiality. Modern subjectivism confuses abstract potentiality with the actual complexity of life, and as a consequence, personality, which can only be strong in relation to a strong reality, begins to disintegrate, to fragment. Subjectivity, says Lukács, succumbs to fascination and melancholy.
Along with this disintegration of personality, says Lukács, comes the modernist obsession with psychopathology. We may see the obsession either as an escape from the reality of life under capitalism or as a critique of daily life under capitalism, but neither escape nor critique, says Lukács, leads anywhere: because the psychological view grants primacy to origins and sources and posits no real goals, no ideals to be realized, it condemns action to impotence.
Much of the force of Lukács's critique, I find, derives from his use of Hegel's distinction between concrete and abstract potentialities to describe and critique the ethos of modernist literature. Lukács's description seems, on the level of character, both accurate and insightful, and it pointedly raises what I believe are crucial questions about the relation of notions and representations of self to the possibilities of social change.
But there are two claims in Lukács's argument that I think it important to resist. The first is that the realist mode provides the framework necessary for establishing characters as developing in dialectical relationships with their social environments and capable of effecting social change. The second is that modernist literature is unself-consciously the literature of abstract potentiality, of exalted subjectivity. The first I want to address only briefly, and primarily as an aid to formulating the second, which will be the main focus of this paper.
Leo Bersani has offered what seems to me a strong, and for my purposes, useful, case against realism. Bersani sees realism as a fundamentally conservative mode, one whose ideological interests are those of the bourgeois status quo. According to Bersani, the central assumption of the realist ideology is that the self is an intelligible structure. This is evident in the ways in which the movement toward significant form in realist literature serves the cause of coherently structured character: incidents reveal personality, beginnings and endings are purposeful, and desire, which for Bersani is by nature unbounded, is circumscribed by being forced to take form either as a ruling passion or as an abstract faculty. These strategies, as Bersani notes, serve social ends: the hero in realist works is defeated not only by his society but also by the psychology of realist form-the psychology of the "coherently structured and significantly expressive self". We see this as well in the two primary forms that heroism takes in realist literature: first, there is the hero who embodies disruptive desire, rejects social definitions of the appropriate limits of the self, and is consequently submitted to "ceremonies of expulsion" by which the anarchic impulses are socially contained; and second, there is the hero who smothers desire, either in unambiguous warning or as a strategy of retreat from the social order.
Desire cannot, Bersani argues, be fully and finally contained by the ordering strategies of descriptive narrative, and eventually fragments it into juxtaposed images. Under the pressure of desire, realist form shatters. But where Lukács sees a loss, a weakened sense of reality, a weakened personality and hence a diminished capacity for effective action, Bersani sees a potential for liberating desire from its traditional channels and hence an opening up of possibilities for social change.
Using Bersani's critique of realism to reformulate my second question with specific reference to "Prufrock," we may ask: is the disjunctiveness of the poem primarily mimetic of the fragmentation of Prufrock's personality, or is it a critique of totalizing forms of desire? Certainly criticism has seen in "Prufrock" a weakened, severely fragmented personality, one paralyzed by possibility, with virtually no capacity for effective action, more often than it has seen a heroic liberation of desire. But there is another side of "Prufrock," as I will attempt to show, that offers a critique of the fantasies of coherent selfhood and the representational forms that support it, and that shows Prufrock's paralysis as the result, in large part, of his desire for a totalizing image of himself. Eliot is aware of the problem Lukács identifies, but unlike Lukács, Eliot recognizes that the ideology of the unified, coherent self is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The issues of selfhood involved in "Prufrock" gain clarity when we see the poem in literary context. I shall begin by briefly examining a number of examples of the dominant lyrical mode at the turn of the century, in order to characterize the fundamentally narcissistic ethos to which Eliot is responding in "Prufrock."
The dominant poetic mode at the turn of the century was a poetic of mood. It was grounded in the nineteenth-century culture of feeling and claimed as of primary value the recovery of moments of intense feeling as they provided for the momentary recovery of a unified self. The Aesthetes, continuing the anti-Victorian revolt of Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites, produced a poetry that moved toward Symbolism, but without the Symbolist emphasis on rendering a transcendental reality. Taking the conclusion to Pater's The Renaissance as providing their rationale, these poets produced a body of work characterized by sentimental emotion and poetic artifice. The poets of the Decadence, at the other pole of the poetic of mood, replaced the Aesthetes' sentimental emotion with eroticism and a libertine nostalgia. But for all these poets, poetry was a badge of sensitivity, and as such a sign of the poet's superiority, his greater capacity for life.
The poetic of mood has been succinctly characterized by Cairns Craig as the late nineteenth-century heir to the English associationist tradition, which he traces from Hume through Archibald Allison, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Pater. The poems in this mode are, characteristically, poems of reverie, particularly a reverie in which the poet's recovery of memory serves as a recovery of self-depths. They display the poet's acute sensitivity, and the poetic implies a hierarchy of people ranked according to their receptivity, their sensibility. Emotion supplies the poem's unity, and the poet's associations supply its diversity. The poetic values permanent over accidental associations, but, Craig argues, can provide no way of knowing one from the other. The associationist aesthetic is, he claims, essentially solipsistic, with no way of testing or grounding its claims, no way of insuring that the poet's associations are more than individual quirks.
Even the Symbolist influence on this poetic is filtered through the English associationist tradition. Symons, generally acknowledged as a primary force in bringing Symbolism into English literary culture, does so, according to Craig, by domesticating it with associationist principles that find their place in Hallam's defense of Tennyson. Nor does Anglo-American modernism, in Craig's view, break these associationist chains.
The poetic is as well closely tied to a number of features of the general culture. As late Victorian culture forbade the public expression of feeling, the poetic, like the culture of feeling in which it was grounded, served a compensatory function, elevating the forbidden to a position of value. (We may see here a logic that would seem to require a Decadence: as the value of expressed feeling depended, in this compensatory scheme, on its illicitness, poets would be driven further and further from social norms to find their materials.) Further, the poetic was tied to particular notions of personality and selfhood that were dominant in the late nineteenth century. Personality, in this view, was largely seen as the capacity to recover one's emotions, and as such was controlled retrospectively, following emotional expression, by self-consciousness, a view which encourages the longing, nostalgia, and regret that were prominent emotions in the poetry of mood. The self, imprisoned by its appearances in the world, can only be recovered in its wholeness, and then only momentarily, by the recovery of feeling. Such recovery involves an acute sensitivity to the details of appearances for their deeper, more intense, psychological meanings—as in, at one extreme, commodity fetishism. But in a world without a generally accepted code for reading such appearances, readings always give way to remystification.
It is out of this poetic of mood, but also against it, and most powerfully against its ethos, I want to argue, that Eliot builds the modernist poetic of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land. Laforgue, the poet most commonly identified as the poetic father of "Prufrock," was of value to Eliot, as Kenner has observed, primarily because he had "discovered the potentialities of self-parody not in poetry at large but in the poetry of a circumscribed era, in a lyric mode closely allied with that of Dowson and Symons, one along among the possible derivations from Baudelaire." That lyric mode is very much in evidence in "Prufrock": the poem "most clings to the memory whenever it exploits … the authorized sonorities of the best English verse" of the period; "the effects themselves, the diction, the sonorous texture and the interbreeding of nuances, came in 1908 or 1909 from sources so diffuse as to be virtually anonymous, the regnant sensibility of those years."
But Kenner's careful attention to such effects does not show the critique "Prufrock" offers of the ethos of this "regnant sensibility." In order to make this critique clear and to show that what Eliot has to offer in "Prufrock" is more than, and other than, a continuation of the associationist line, I want to look at a number of poems in the dominant mode in an attempt to characterize both the powers and limits of its ethos.
First Symons's "Pastel":
The light of our cigarettes
Went and came in the gloom:
It was dark in the little room.
Dark, and then, in the dark,
Sudden, a flash, a glow,
And a hand and a ring I know.
And then, through the dark, a flush
Ruddy and vague, the grace
(A rose!) of her lyric face.
The poem, in reverie, recalls a moment of epiphany: out of the gloom and darkness, light and grace. The poem exemplifies the poetry of mood as Craig describes it: an attempt to recover, through memory, in reverie, an association of some significance. The speaker's claim seems to be that the intensity of the experience, or the intensity of the recollection, is what gives the moment value: this is what happened, this gradual unfolding out of the gloom and darkness of a vision I spontaneously saw as "a rose." This is possible, in part, as a result of the speaker's acute sensitivity, revealed in his attention to and response to fairly common objects.
But these implicit claims are foiled by the poem's very deliberate rhetoric. The studied melodramatics of "Dark, and then, in the dark, / Sudden, a flash, a glow," the deliberate introduction of religious overtones through "grace" and "A rose!" to an experience that seems otherwise not to warrant them, and the heavy reliance on adjectives for both mood and value make it clear that we are in the presence not of spontaneous reverie but of careful artifice that would like to deny itself as such. And must, if we are not to see the speaker's sensitivity as a bit of self-satisfying self-staging.
Further, we may note that the speaker's epiphany depends on a vagueness filled in by desire—an "hallucinated satisfaction in the absence of the source of satisfaction," an "appetite of the imagination" that is inseparable from fantasizing. "Pastel," although its claim seems to be of an intensity that was produced by an encounter between the speaker and his world, has nothing to offer but the intensity of desire, manifest in its rhetorical artifice and, most clearly, in its heavy reliance on adjectives (especially the "lyric" of the final line). The world of the poem is a blur, a vagueness. What desire produces is a sense of mystery but without any real content; we have a mood, but no sense of particular feelings in response to an object. This is because what the speaker desires, finally, is not so much the face as it is the moment of emergence itself, presented here as a total state.
The power of this desire and its tendency to blur the lines between psyche and world are even more apparent in another Symons poem, "White Heliotrope":
The feverish room and that white bed,
The tumbled skirts upon a chair,
The novel flung half-open, where
Hat, hair-pins, puffs, and paints, are spread;
The mirror that has sucked your face
Into its secret deep of deeps,
And there mysteriously keeps
Forgotten memories of grace;
And you, half dressed and half awake,
Your slant eyes strangely watching me,
And I, who watch you drowsily,
With eyes that, having slept not, ache;
This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?)
Will rise, a ghost of memory, if
Ever again my handkerchief
Is scented with White Heliotrope.
Here the air of illicitness about the relationship is stronger than it was in "Pastel," and the dark and gloom of that poem has given way to jittery disorder, a kind of neurasthenic scene, which the poem attempts to draw into a unified and unifying state. Again, power and value are connected with spontaneity: here, the scent "White Heliotrope" has, or so the speaker desires, the power to raise "this"—the scene of the first three stanzas. The poem achieves a satisfying closure if we accept this desire as fact, which the poem encourages us to do: the emotional response to the memory as prospective—dread and hope—are relegated to a parenthesis, and "this" scene has, after all, already been raised before us. (Here again the claims of spontaneity are undermined by their own rhetoric, the rhetoric that has, through its deployment of the resources of tone and diction, invested them with importance.)
The second and third stanzas shed interesting light on the totalizing desire expressed in the fourth: the mirror, the woman, and the speaker inhabit a world in which relations are reduced to the production and consumption of images, a process at most half-conscious ("you, half dressed and half awake"; "I, who watch you drowsily"). Watching here is a kind of visual vampirism: the mirror has "sucked" the woman's "face / Into its secret deep of deeps," the repository of "memories of grace," and the woman watches the speaker "strangely," while his eyes, sleepless, "ache." What each wants from the other is life for himself or herself, and the structure of the stanza, gaze balanced against gaze, and the relation of the second and third stanzas, gazes balanced against the image-consuming mirror, suggest that life, or selfhood, is a matter of one's appearances, and the register of appearances is the gaze of the other. For the speaker, the recovery of something like a unified selfhood—such "grace" as is available—will be possible only retrospectively, and through the resources of memory. And memory, in this associationist poem, will require jogging, an externally supplied mnemonic to get it moving: selfhood will be recoverable at the scent of White Heliotrope.
But White Heliotrope is, we see as well, a scent whose powers as a mnemonic reduce the world to a figure of fantasy. Finally, we feel, the details of this scene don't matter. We sense, but vaguely, the presence of contradictory feelings playing over the objects, but the feelings remain unexamined beneath the pressure of totalizing desire. The result is a mood that gains its power from the unanalyzed complex of rhetorically evoked feelings, and the recovery of self that White Heliotrope will enable will be a mood-dominated recovery of the self as its prior appearances, such appearances, such "grace" as the mirror holds.
Symons seems, at times, aware of the pitfalls of constructing a unified and coherent self, and in "Prologue" offers a critique of one such self:
My life is like a music-hall,
Where, in the impotence of rage,
Chained by enchantment to my stall,
I see myself upon the stage
Dance to amuse a music-hall.
'Tis I that smoke this cigarette,
Lounge here, and laugh for vacancy,
And watch the dancers turn; and yet
It is my very self I see
Across the cloudy cigarette.
My very self that turns and trips,
Painted, pathetically gay,
An empty song upon the lips
In make-believe of holiday:
I, I, this thing that turns and trips!
The light flares in the music-hall,
The light, the sound, that weary us;
Hour follows hour, I count them all,
Lagging, and loud, and riotous:
My life is like a music-hall.
A life played for the approval of others, says Symons's speaker, is empty, and loud, and dull. His critique at first sight seems to extend to the narcissistic "I" in general, the part projected as a unified and coherent self: "I, I, this thing that turns and trips!"
But the limits of the critique soon become clear. How is the speaker different from the "I" that "turns and trips"? If the "I" is, in its other-directed vain gaiety, an empty mask, is not the voice just one more self-satisfying staging of the self, albeit played to a classier audience? The speaking voice, full of an empty, decadent sense of its social inauthenticities, participates in the same narcissistic dynamic: the part projected as the whole, the self staged as unified and coherent. Vain weariness and self-contempt answer vain gaiety. Voice claims for itself an authenticity its performance belies. The speaker, motivated, we may feel, by a desire for an act that would allow for an expression of the self without residue, can offer no alternative to the life he critiques. He is, for all the vehemence of his attack, impotent.
The desire for an act that fully expresses the self, running as an unspoken desire through "Prologue," is an expression of what Harold Rosenberg has called "the Hamlet problem": the problem of living in a world in which actions no longer represent a person without remainder. The search for such an act can claim to be self-grounded only by denying its own rhetoricity: to admit rhetoricity is to admit that the self depends on a prior authorizing ground. The self seems inescapably, and uncomfortably, a social construction and the occasion of self-alienation. The attempt to deny their own rhetoricity leads these poems, in their quest for a totalizing act or state, to blur the lines between psyche and world, and at the same time to make claims that depend on these same lines being clearly drawn.
What I offer is far from a survey of the dominant mode of the late nineteenth century. But the analyses are, I hope, adequate to reveal general tendencies, which we can readily recognize as well in Wilde's "Impression du Matin," or Dowson's "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae," or even some of Yeats's early poems. And adequate to showing the use Eliot makes of the dominant mode in "Prufrock."
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky.
If we can, after years of hearing "Prufrock"'s first three lines as an indivisible gem, a touchstone of modernist poetry, pause long enough after the second line to hear the invitation to a journey, with its sense of expansive possibilities, we may recognize a strain of romantic pastoralism that would be right at home, say, in Wordsworth's "Stepping Westward": given such an invitation, "who would stop, or fear to advance, / Though home or shelter he had none, / With such a sky to lead him on?". Admitting the third line, at this point, we may hear just how forcefully the tone set by this gentle invitation, and the suggestion "of something without place or bound," is disrupted by it: "Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table." Possibility at once expands and contracts: the patient may dream anything, do nothing. And who, we must ask in another vein, has seen such a sky? Can we take this as a descriptive metaphor, or must we see it, as it seems to be, as a symptom of Prufrock's psyche? The juxtaposition of violently disjunctive images opens as a problem the tendency we have seen in the poetry of mood toward blurring the line between world and psyche. But Prufrock's unwavering voice seems unaware of the problem the juxtapositions have opened up. Prufrock does not, however, resume his pastoral tone; rather, he extends his invitation for a journey into a "quiet fin-de-siècle inferno" whose objective status is in doubt:
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
Prufrock's invitation is a composition of contraries: an image of both paralysis and violence disrupts a pastoral invitation; streets appear "tedious," but their motives are "insidious"; beneath an "etherised" sky, a nervous, aimless, undefined, and illicit energy runs on. Yet the contraries seem less intentional figures than inadvertent self-disclosures. Prufrock, in Kenner's phrase, is "a name plus a Voice", and the voice does not register the contraries as such. What we sense here is the play or tension that will produce the central drama of the poem: the tension of Prufrockian Voice, deploying the commanding rhetoric of the dominant mode, played against the authorial acts that reveal the contradictions the Voice would conceal.
Prufrock's refusal to stop to discuss the "overwhelming question" and his insistence on first-hand examination of the empirical data that lead toward it may be taken as a refusal of what Charles Altieri has characterized as Victorian discursiveness, the poetic deployment of reflective consciousness which too often became for the Victorians less a means to self-transcendence than "an endless hall of mirrors", a self-paralyzing of the mind focused on its own activities and processes, and cut off from action. But Prufrock's refusal may be no more than an expression of his awareness that he cannot give any meaning, even to the extent of deriving an overwhelming question, to his impressions. The impressions and images Prufrock presents, as Altieri has observed, "are not simply objects but rhetorical figures insisting on their own utter facticity while performing and deforming the traditional symbolic gestures of relating the world to the demands of the psyche." We cannot, as we have noted, tell with any certainty where the world begins and Prufrock's psyche ends. Once again, it is in the tension between these two readings that the novel life of this poem resides: the mood that the Voice evokes, asking, I think, our identification with its seemingly bold and adventuresome empiricism, is punctured by the authorial acts that partly deconstruct it, revealing, or suggesting, a fear and fragmentation at work behind the bravado. Here authoriality opens up, as problems, features of the lyric poetry of mood, and the poem gains its distinctive energies from this tension.
The poem, as we have seen, frustrates any expectations we may have had for clear distinctions between inner and outer worlds, and for a coherent speaking identity. In its foregrounding of authorial acts, it also distinguishes itself sharply from the traditional dramatic monologue. We may note another mark of this distinction in the authorial disruption of the linearity of Prufrock's discourse:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
We seem far from the slightly sordid lower-class haunts of the first stanza, but where is this room, who are these women? And what are Prufrock's feelings? Desire? Fear? Both? It's hard to say.
If we can't know the answers to these questions, what we can know, as Kenner has observed, is that "The closed and open o's, the assonances of room, women, and come, the pointed caesura before the polysyllabic burst of 'Michelangelo,' weave a context of grandeur within which our feeling about these trivial women determines itself." The tone surrounds these aimless, ethereal women, speaking of an intensely physical artist, with an aura of seemingly undeserved grandeur. We are in the realm of effects we observed in "Pastel," but with a difference: "Prufrock"'s foregrounding of the authorial act plays against the mood of grandeur the voice creates, drawing attention to the constructed nature of the voice and allowing us to glimpse behind the grandeur the inappropriate objects to which the mood has been attached.
Prufrock, unlike the speaker of "Pastel," is not to be taken as the source or voice of affectively grounded truth: he is, rather, a constructed voice, one capable of powerful evocations of mood, and as well the objects of an analysis that begins to sort out the particular objects and feelings that are blurred into these moments of totalizing mood:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
The catlike fog seems the perfect figure for the totalizing desire at work here and in the poetry of mood, surrounding and suffusing all the disparate details with its vague inclusiveness. Rhetoric here is at work in the service of fantasy, as it has been in the previous stanzas. Once again, however, authorial action both analyzes and deconstructs its totalizing thrust: the tone of gentle, domestic reverie jars with the often crude physicality of the cat, who appears covered in soot, lingering over waste-water. And at the center we notice a curious emptiness: what's in this house? The Victorian domestic ideal evoked by the Prufrockian voice is ruptured by authorial action, from without by the physicality the ideal denies or excludes, and from within by its own emptiness.
What we have been given, thus far in the poem, are three stanzas, each deploying different resources of the dominant mode in order to construct a voice, or voices plus a name, speaking first of its setting off on a quest, second of the object of its quest, and third of the goal or end of the quest. In each stanza, we have seen the same play of identification and authorial act, of mood and discriminated feelings, opening up for dramatic possibilities and for critique the unexplored problems of the dominant mode.
Having presented Prufrock defining his quest in the first three stanzas, the poem now gives us Prufrock, as though in response, backing off from it:
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Backing into discursivity, the Prufrockian voice backs further into the realm of abstract potentiality. Here, where everything is possible, everything is leveled: this is the realm of a "modern doubt" in which all hierarchies have collapsed. The parataxis suggests that murder and creation are on a level with preparing a social mask, that such moral and practical advice as Hesiod offers a rural peasantry in Works and Days is on a level with a concern with dinner-party conversation. Authorial acts make clear the poem's judgment of the smallness of Prufrock's concerns: the references to Hesiod and Ecclesiastes expose as trivial the life Prufrock engages.
What authorial action plays against here is a vaguely Polonian public rhetoric, managed in a voice that is calm, measured, avuncular in tone, that offers its assurance and advice with the certainty that they are wise. And what authorial action reveals here, through juxtapositions, is the powerfully motivated nature of this would-be objective pose: the pose provides a defense against the kinds of clear, discriminating responses to, and valuations of, particular objects and actions, responses that would move from the vague moods of a world of abstract potentiality into a world of commitment to concrete particulars and to action.
The Polonian features of this pose are picked up more directly later in the poem in what is perhaps the poem's finest parody of late Victorian discursiveness and self-analysis:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
The stanza, as John Jackson has observed, is distinctive in the assuredness of its tone, and the seemingly lucid external perspective on himself that Prufrock here achieves. Such, we might say, is the lure of reflective consciousness. But authorial action undermines this lucidity from the start: Prufrock begins this self-explanation by denying precisely what we have come to suspect about him, namely that he suffers from the Hamlet problem. There is, of course, some truth in his denial, even if it is only the truth of his defensiveness: unlike Hamlet, he will protect his own paralysis, maintain his incapacity to act. Reflective consciousness, as the authoriality of the poem reminds us, is less the servant of Truth than of self-interest.
Assuredness of tone here is finally no more persuasive than lucidity. Fully identified with the Polonian public stance, the Prufrockian voice is made to choose for itself virtues befitting a late Victorian civilized bourgeois: it is "Deferential … Politic, cautious, and meticulous." The logic of this identification leads the voice first to an unintended description of its own rhetoric: it, too, is "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse," blind to the dimensions of its predicament—and finally to its logical conclusion—that it is "At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—/ Almost, at times, the Fool." And never more so than at this moment, in which Prufrock is trapped in the rhetorical machinery of the self-enclosed public voice of late Victorian discursivity. The logic of identification is here carried to its comic limits, and such foolishness as it produces is the inevitable result of trying to create an assured, totalized, and coherent self in an available public voice.
We should note here too, regarding this passage that would pass as self-analysis, that such analysis as is successfully carried out in this poem is the result of authorial action. The voice of self-analysis, as we have seen it at work in the poem, produces only one more identification with an established, conventional, and hence falsifying pose, and repeatedly proves, despite its implicit claims to disinterest, to be fully self-interested. Authorial action takes place in a space not falsified by rhetorical masks and the demands of personality, and as such can make and sustain greater claims than can be sustained by such a voice.
In the Prufrockian voice, rhetorical powers are repeatedly deployed to invest the trivial with grandeur and to mask Prufrock's affective life. When the women return in lines 35-36 speaking of Michelangelo, and we see them set against Prufrock's concern, in the previous stanza, with social success, the women seem more threatening that they did in their first appearance. Juxtaposition reveals, or suggests, what Prufrock's tone does not: how Prufrock feels. The juxtaposition also allows us to see that these women are an objectification of Prufrock's desire for the satisfaction of his own unrecognized feeling of lack. These ideal or idealized women, we may come to sense, have the power to fill that lack, to affirm Prufrock's being, but they also, as such, have the power to deny him:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Repeatedly the Prufrockian voice rhetorically invests parts with an emotional charge more appropriate to wholes. To "dare" is to risk all because rejection would leave Prufrock hopelessly empty and would shatter his self-contained world of limitless possibility. Daring might force Prufrock to confront an actual woman, not a figure of his own fantasy, invested with a grandeur and mystery no real woman could support. The passage quoted above plays with this dynamic of parts and wholes, constructed as it is out of vocal attitudinizings that attempt to master the flickers of doubt the passage registers, attempts that are repeatedly undermined by the triviality of the objects on which desire is made to fall. Further, the passage neatly dramatizes within Prufrock's voice a tension that we have seen to exist between voice and authoriality: Prufrock fears being defined and falsified by the voices of others. In the language of a later passage, he fears "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." He fears, that is, what authoriality enables Eliot to avoid: self-enclosure in the rhetoric of the dominant mode.
Having seen the analytic force of the poem's juxtapositional aesthetic at work within and between stanzas, we may now note its force in structuring larger units of the poem. We may see it in the juxtaposition of the stanzas governed by "I have known them all" against stanzas governed by the repeated "There will be time." One effect of this juxtaposition is to make clear that, despite their obvious differences in meaning, the two claims share a motivation: to block the route to action and to forestall Prufrock from having a life in the present. This effect is compounded later in the poem when, after Prufrock fails to imagine himself acting, a block of stanzas governed by the question, "would it have been worth it, after all?" completes this larger structure and reveals the poem to be structured around an absent center: the act of lovemaking Prufrock seeks, an act that would make the poem a love song.
Prufrock, we come to feel, is trapped in and by the rhetorical stances in which he is constructed, partial stances invested with the desire for wholeness. As Kenner has observed with regard to "Prufrock"'s debt to the soliloquies of Elizabethan drama, the moods of the soliloquies "are affectingly self-contained, the speaker imprisoned by his own eloquence, committed to a partial view of life, beyond the reach of correction or communication, out of which arises the tragic partiality of his actions." Authoriality in "Prufrock" multiplies such partial views: Prufrock bravely off on his quest, Prufrock in wonder at the grandeur of the women "talking of Michelangelo," Prufrock claiming that all is possible, claiming that he has known all possibilities and that none are worth pursuing, and wondering whether or not his contemplated action would have been worth the risk it involved. Juxtaposing these disparate stances, authoriality renders Prufrock not as a unified and coherent self, but rather as a figure paralyzed by his narcissistic investments in each of these partial positions.
Prufrock suffers from what Eliot describes in an early essay as the Victorian "pathology of rhetoric." "Prufrock" treats the disease in the only way Eliot acknowledged it could be treated: "the only cure for Romanticism is to analyse it." Rhetoric is pathological, in Eliot's view, when it becomes a vehicle for evading feeling, for creating self-satisfying illusions, and for producing a sense of wonder or mystery that is not supported by the facts. To cure the disease, Eliot calls in that essay for a literary "intelligence, of which an important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation." In "Prufrock," such discernment and analysis is not possible in any of the public, discursive voices given to Prufrock: here, what would pass as objective analysis is bent to serve self-interest. The emotional discernment achieved in the poem is the work of authorial actions that enable us, if not to see clearly and unambiguously the particular feelings that Prufrock's mood-producing rhetoric denies or obscures, at least—and this is certainly a major contribution of the poem—to gain insight into the problems of narcissism, rhetoric, and self-representation.
Action, in this poem, is the province of authoriality; Prufrock cannot act, in part because in his grandiosity he cannot accept that a requisite of action is that he locate himself in a middle: "And how should I begin?" he asks, wanting an entirely self-determined and fully self-expressive act. Prufrock does try, however, to imagine himself taking action:
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peace-fully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
To imagine action, even the act of lovemaking, Prufrock must first imagine the afternoon or evening tamed or asleep: he must see his action as self-generated, and not as a response to a prior condition. He must then imagine himself as possessing the masculine strength, force, and crisis-orientation necessary to answer the highly civilized, and feminine, "tea and cakes and ices." Rhyme undermines Prufrock's melodramatic staging of the scene, a staging that, due to his inability to claim the strength he believes he needs, leads Prufrock to imagine himself not as agent but as patient, as the victim of women and servants: he has been treated by women as John the Baptist was by Salome, he has been victimized by a Fate that has refused him, despite his suffering and fasting, the role of prophet (a role that would allow him, as John Jackson has astutely observed, to name "l'être aimé comme parole fondatrice", and he has fallen from his (fantasized) greatness to the low point of being laughed at by his inferiors.
But to say, simply, that Fate has refused Prufrock the role of prophet is to miss the distinctive thrust of the poem. Prufrock, a construct of available rhetorical stances, cannot be a prophet because prophecy is not one of these stances, is not possible in the poetic of mood. When later in the poem Prufrock melodramatically imagines his own emotional assertion as prophecy, as a witness to eternal truth, by imaging his heretofore buried affect as "'Lazarus, come from the dead'", he fears being told that he has misread the scene, misunderstood what "one" has told him. The poetic of mood, and the Victorian cult of feeling, which was closely tied to the tendency in nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism to shift the ground of faith from doctrine to affect, cannot provide the certainty Prufrock desires. Desire may produce vague religious feelings, the sense of mystery without the facts that Eliot describes as the "pathology of rhetoric," but it cannot produce either the clear discrimination of objects and feelings that would enable action or the public framework that would authorize prophetic utterance. One is consigned, in the associationist poetic of mood, to patient status.
Prufrock fears not only misreading but both being misread and being fully read. He fears that having "bitten off the matter with a smile," having "squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question," he will be confronted by "one, settling a pillow by her head," saying to him "'That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all'." He fears that what he says will be taken as a full expression of who he is: "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" But this is not to say that Prufrock desires to be fully seen: the following line, "But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen," suggests that Prufrock feels more expressed than self-expressing and is anxious about the prospect of inadvertently revealing himself, or rather, of being revealed by a "magic lantern" or an unconscious capable of expressing him beyond the control of his conscious mind. Wanting nothing less than the ability to fully articulate and control an image of himself, Prufrock is afraid of both himself and others.
But the "magic lantern" that reveals Prufrock's nerve patterns is not an unconscious but the authoriality of "Prufrock." What authoriality reveals through Prufrock is the danger of the collapsing of psyche and world that is characteristic of the poetic of mood: the desire informing or producing this collapse, the desire for a totalizing state or act in which or of which one is fully in control, denies the agency of others and forecloses the possibility of action, since no act can be fully expressive of the self. The desire for authenticity and control produces self-enclosure.
Here, I think, we find the peculiar pathos of "Prufrock," in the dramatization of the desire for such self-sufficient modes and the limitations of such modes as are available. Prufrock's desire exceeds what authoriality reveals to be the limited rhetorical solutions to his problem:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
Prufrock will remain a spectator as well as a spectacle. He may hear the mermaids singing, but they will not sing to him; he may see them riding on the waves, and even linger with sea-girls in the "chambers of the sea," but only "Till human voices wake us, and we drown." The human voice exerts claims of limited relations, of limited powers: to enter into discourse with those voices would, for Prufrock, require that he give up his melodramatic claims to specialness, the grandiosity of his self-staging, his repeated evasions of feeling in self-serving and self-enclosed rhetoric. Further, it would require that he confront a lover who is neither sea-girl, mermaid, nor ethereal aesthete, "Talking of Michelangelo": that his lover be not the Woman of abstract potentiality but a concrete woman, with whom he can interact without fear of disturbing the universe.
For Prufrock, this would be a drowning, in a world of middles, of contingencies—and others—beyond his control.
The absent center of "Prufrock" is an act of lovemaking. Prufrock, as we have seen, cannot imagine himself making love to a woman, nor can he make the poem the vehicle of lovemaking that would make it truly a love song. Prufrock is, as many critics have observed, a narcissist, and the symptoms are everywhere in the poem: Prufrock's sense of specialness, his grandiose sense of election, coupled with a powerful and debilitating sense of worthlessness (which stands behind the Hamlet-like excesses of his responses and his inability to act); his fear of rejection as a possible cause of fragmentation, of loss of control; his hypercathexis of images, his sense of visibility as corrosive, and his fear of being defined by, of capitation by, the image of the other—those "eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase."
These symptoms appear in, and as signs of, Prufrock's romantic posturing, closely tied to the poetics of mood, with its characteristic desire for a totalizing state in which a unified and coherent selfhood can be recovered, by means of association and memory, from its dispersal in its appearances, and its equally characteristic blurring of the edges of psyche and world. Prufrock is the vehicle of Eliot's critique of the mode. Eliot relocates the nineties vagueness we saw typified in "Pastel," placing it not in the scene, where it can support vaguely mystical feelings, but in the rhetoric of the Prufrockian voice. Prufrock is, as Kenner has observed, "strangely boundless", and he is so, we are made aware, because authorial acts in the poem construct him so as to foreground his collapsing of world and self in ways that generate powerful moods but not discriminated objects and feelings.
"Prufrock" is, clearly, a departure from the associationist line. If we return to Craig's schema, discussed earlier, we can see the ways in which "Prufrock" represents both a critique and a significant departure. In "Prufrock," unity is provided not by emotion but rather by the analysis of a condition—or, we might say, by the condition analyzed. Depth, or what depth we find, is not a matter of singular and profound experience, but is, rather, triangulated by the structure of the poem from its series of lyric poses, each a self-enclosed moment. And variety in "Prufrock" is not simply a matter of the speaker's associations, but is as well a symptomatology, a presentation of the various forms that repressed desire takes. Variety, too, is a function of analysis: the foregrounding of authoriality makes clear that what Eliot's poetic values is analysis. Sensitivity, the highest value in the poetic of mood, becomes in "Prufrock" the rough equivalent to sentimentality, and what sentimentality indicates is a lack of self-awareness.
Eliot's critique is a powerful one, and its mode offers considerable resources for analysis. But it has, we should note, serious limitations. The use of a persona limits the range of problems that can be addressed. The poem can, and does, deal powerfully with the difficulties of how we stand in relation to particular states of self. But the world of the poem is limited to that of a single consciousness, and a very narrow consciousness, and cannot take up the significance of what that consciousness excludes.
Perhaps a more serious limitation is that the analytical mode of the poem seems incapable of addressing the problem of actionable values. It can analyze romanticism, narcissism, and bourgeois evasiveness, and can do so because authoriality accepts its position in a middle—the middle of literary conventions and modes—as a condition of action, but what can it offer as an alternative? Only more analysis. As such, it seems, it becomes one more form of paralysis, repeating the problem of the Victorian discursivity it sought to replace. It may be only one more version—perhaps the most modern—of modern doubt.
This section contains 8,029 words
(approx. 27 pages at 300 words per page)