First Eliot Lecture

With T.S.Eliot we reach the generation after the Naturalists -- to literary historians, the Modernist generation; to most others (following Hemingway's use of the phrase at the beginning of The Sun Also Rises) the "Lost Generation." We'll spend the next several weeks on American Modernism, and the shadow cast by the achievement and stature of writers like Eliot and Faulkner is so long that it still lies over a lot of American lit (we call ourselves, for example, Post-Modernist).

One of the enabling fictions of the Modernist generation was the sense that they had to begin almost from scratch to confront the "new" realities of modernity and to invent an art that would both render and provide some kind of refuge from the 20th century. We started with the way in "A Retrospect" Ezra Pound looks all the way back from 1917 to 1913, and (on p. 1164 of our anthology) dismisses "the 19th century" as pretty useless to the modern artist trying to "make it new" in the 20th century (cf. p. 1170). That idea of themselves as "lost," cut off from the past, served the Modernists well, but it doesn't describe the story we've been following all semester. In today's class I looked at TSE's "J. Alfred Prufrock" as both a representative citizen of modernity and recognizably descended from the works we've already studied.

The obvious precursor is Henry James, and his tales of the unlived life. Prufrock suffers from many of the same complaints as Winterbourne & Marcher, especially the disease of consciousness. That suggests the aesthetic of the poem: Eliot's version of the stream-of-consciousness technique we'll look at again in Faulkner, the way the poem reproduces Prufrock's (compulsive, repetitive, neurotic, anxious) thoughts as his mind tries to imagine a way to escape itself. (Stream of consciousness is a definitive "modern" technique, and experimenting with new aesthetic techniques is one of the identifying signs of Modernism, but it is related to the ironic third person narrative form that James used. By "studying" Daisy Miller through Winterbourne's consciousness, James is already suggesting how meaning, & even reality, are relative, and located within individuals. The difference is that while James' technique uses a consciousness as a point-of-view, the poem's technique is to define itself as a consciousness -- "as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen" (p. 1179).

The idea of escaping the self led to the poem's occasion: the party or "room" in which "the women come and go," and the way that just as Winterbourne could have connected with love and life through Daisy, or Marcher with May, so Prufrock tries to imagine a way to begin a new life by meeting one of those women who attract and repel him imaginatively. As in James' tales, here the central failure of life is identified as sexual or emotional.

So like James' tales, this, I argued, is a poem about what doesn't happen. We looked at the pattern of anti-climax, anti-heroism, etc. And I talked about how even the various verb tenses indicate Prufrock's inability to connect -- life is in the present tense (the women come and go), but all this thoughts are in the future (there will be time), the past (I have known them all already) or the negative subjunctive (would it have been worthwhile). He cannot even fantasize an escape from his condition.

To end I talked about why Prufrock says he is "not Prince Hamlet," even though he & Hamlet suffer from similiar complaints ("action sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," &c.). Hamlet's fate is tragic, but in keeping with the pattern of anti-climax & modern loss, Prufrock's fate is bleak, but closer to absurd than tragic -- though he is only "almost ridiculous" too. As estranged, self-conscious, able to desire but unable to imagine satisfying his desires, beset by too much consciousness ("I have known them all already"), even (as the epigraph from Dante's Inferno suggests) condemned to the hell of consciousness, J. Alfred Prufrock, absurd name & all, is an exemplary modern anti-hero.

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