Monday, August 11, 2014

The Superficiality of Life (feat. T.S. Eliot)

Let me make this clear: I love poetry. It's elegant, it's beautiful, and it has a wonderful way of resonating within me, whether it be Stephen Crane's intellectual paradoxes, or Robert Browning's blithe celebrations of life and nature. I collect volumes of poetry. I have been published in several anthologies. But despite all of this, my favorite poem is an odd one, an eclectic riddle of modernism, a musing upon the shallowness and emptiness of life. I am talking, of course, of T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

"Let us go then, you and I,
As the evening spreads across the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table..."

I am not going to analyse and explain this poem line by line. There are a great many number of websites that do so already. I am only going to point out three quotes from the poem. But of course, you should read it first! A link to the whole poem is here.

 Rather, I am going to explain Eliot's poem and connect it to my life, because the modern teenager's life is very, very similar to this poem. At least mine is. And I'm sure many others, as well.

In this masterwork, Eliot's first step through the door of literary celebration (and criticism), a middle-aged, crisis laden fellow named Prufrock worries about a whole host of things. Should he go out? What if people notice he is bald and thin? Does he dare eat a peach? (Yes, a peach.)

Teenagers (and, I could argue, today's appearance-based society) are just like Prufrock. Does this shirt make me look fat? What would the guys at work think of this tie? Should I pig out and forget my Paleo Diet? (No offense to anyone doing the Paleo Diet.) But we spend a great deal of our lives wondering about how others perceive us, and the possible aftereffects and repercussions. This isn't necessary a bad thing, but it is a waste. We only live once, you know. Our life is limited on this earth, and worrying about that new dress isn't helping matters. I'm not saying to entirely live carefree, rather that needless, "shallow" worrying is pointless.

Let's move on:

"In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo."

I bring up this line, the "chorus", of sorts, of the poem, because of its implied superficiality. Women just happening to walk around and talk about a 16th-century sculptor? Something doesn't ring right...

I'm the first to admit it, but I can be an intellectual dilettante. I can talk to you about David Foster Wallace and his contributions to postmodernism, but I have never read a single word of Infinite Jest. (Don't worry. What I discuss on this blog I have entirely researched, read, and studied meticulously. There is a time and place for dilettantism.)

I hang out with the "smart" crowd at school, of sorts. I'm 9th in my class. My best friend is first in our year. My other close friends and acquaintances make up the most of the top 50. Little wonder, then, that we all try to outshine ourselves in class, or in conversation, to be perceived and hailed as the greatest intellectual. (I currently "battle" with my best friend in this regard.) But this is exactly what I am talking about. We can jaw and talk about long-dead people or how to solve that tough calculus problem, but in the end, does it really matter? Or is it all just superficial talk? (Don't get me wrong, I love learning new things and talking about them. But there becomes a point where it all is just for show. Is that right?)

Moving on to the last one:

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Measuring out his life with coffee spoons...this is perhaps one of the most intriguing lines in all of poetry. I love this line: the pure sweetness of it, like candy: it's catchy, it's whimsical. This is what I love most in poetry: the whimsy inside wonder.

Back to the poem: one interpretation of that line says that since coffee was the social drink du jour (as it is today: Starbucks, anyone?), Prufrock bolstered the claims to his superficiality by measuring his life by the number of social gatherings he had been to: in short, the number of times he had been served coffee, or spun sugar in it with a coffee spoon.

Doesn't that sound like today? Facebook, and other social media sites, have done this. We, as a society, have largely measured ourselves by the number of friends we have, or the number of likes a post we made has. We compare ourselves to others, who may have grossly increased their friend count, and set a standard by it. But friends should not be reduced to a number: it's quality, not quantity. How many of the 600 Facebook Friends or Twitter followers would jump into a burning building for you? How many of the 50 "likes" on that post this morning would "like" you if you were to do something not necessarily condoned by society?

Eliot, in all these examples, has shown, and poked fun at, the superficiality in his society (1915 England). But 99 years later from the original publication, the same worries still apply. Interesting, isn't it?

As I have shown above, Eliot's poem lends itself to many different interpretations and explanations. Mine is just one offering, one plausible explanation that may not even have crossed the poet's mind as he wrote it. But I hope you understood the point I was trying to make:

Poetry is beautifully intricate and complex. Read it with enthusiasm, and you may well marvel in wonder at the power of words.



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