[A PDF version of this long essay may be found here.]
[Note: This essay combines rewrites of two others about Eliot (T.S. Eliot and Montaigne and Entre chien et loup) that I published in this space some time ago, and that I have not been entirely happy with. I have condensed some of the arguments, done away with obscure concepts like the “language of dusk”, and end with a different conclusion about what Eliot hoped to achieve in composing Prufrock. I now see the poem as an instance of surrealist art before there was any such art.]
I have been trying to think and feel my way into the story T.S. Eliot tells in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It has been slow going.
A man anxious about his appearance in the eyes of others is having an affair with a conventional woman. They take tea together, have decorous conversations about this and that, and go out for ice cream on sunny days. They sometimes make love in the afternoon, occasionally on the floor.
Imagining it, one might think theirs a gratifying situation. It isn’t. The man feels torn. The woman matters to him and he to her. But he believes that she does not really know him. He is not quite the conventional person she takes him to be. Because he would like to be loved for himself, the disconnect troubles him. As he contemplates revealing to her who he actually is, he soon becomes conscious of the likelihood that she will reject him as that man, and then also of the certainty that unless he takes that risk, he will spend the rest of his life lonely, even with her. He chooses loneliness.
Well, not actually. He is talking to himself about his problem, thinking aloud, pretending not to know that the microphone has been left on. Through Eliot’s pen, his speech becomes a public confession to his mistress – a love song, in effect. In making himself out to be a coward, he is telling her what it is that he is being a coward about. In spelling out what he dare not reveal, he reveals it. His speech is akin to the one delivered to Dante by Guido da Montefeltro, who mistakenly believes that what he confesses to will never get out because Dante is a permanent resident of Hell just like himself. Hence the poem’s epigraph, recalling Guido’s speech in the Inferno.
The man’s private secret seems rather mundane. At dusk, he sometimes betakes himself to the seedy parts of town to visit prostitutes. In some ways, they appeal to him more than upscale women, who irritate him because, among other things, they want to chatter about art when the business at hand is something else. He has no quarrel with art; he just does not care for women ill at ease in their bodies in erotic contexts.
That sounds like a very modest secret that an intelligent man would choose to keep to himself. After all, what difference does revealing it make to a relationship in which he does not feel similarly frustrated. Presumably, the woman with whom he occasionally makes love on the floor is not uncomfortable with her body. She would be less important to him if she were. All the same, she may not want to hear about his forays into the red light district and, assuming they have stopped, there is no obvious need to tell her.
In other words, unless there is more to the man’s secret than that his past includes commerce with prostitutes, his quandary remains incomprehensible. But what more could there be, such that it makes a significant difference to who he is? What is there about him that it makes sense to suppose he believes his mistress needs to know in order for his relationship with her to be more authentic than he perceives it to be?
I initially thought that I had found an answer to that question when I learned that Eliot’s original poem included a section, entitled Prufrock’s Pervigilium, that he excised prior to its publication. Because it is less readily available than the published poem, I reproduce it below.
And when the evening woke and stared into its blindness
I heard the children whimpering in corners
Where women took the air, standing in entries —
Women, spilling out of corsets, stood in entries
Where the draughty gas-jet flickered
And the oil cloth curled up stairs.
And when the evening fought itself awake
And the world was peeling oranges and reading evening papers
And boys were smoking cigarettes, drifted helplessly together
In the fan of light spread out by the drugstore on the corner
Then I have gone at night through narrow streets,
Where evil houses leaning all together
Pointed a ribald finger at me in the darkness
Whispering all together, chuckled at me in the darkness.
And when the midnight turned and writhed in fever
I tossed the blankets back, to watch the darkness
Crawling among the papers on the table
It leapt to the floor and made a sudden hiss
And darted stealthily across the wall
Flattened itself upon the ceiling overhead
Stretched out its tentacles, prepared to leap
And when the dawn at length had realized itself
And turned with a sense of nausea, to see what it had stirred:
The eyes and feet of men –
I fumbled to the window to experience the world
And to hear my Madness singing, sitting on the kerbstone
[A blind old drunken man who sings and mutters,
With broken boot heels stained in many gutters]
And as he sang the world began to fall apart . . .
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas …
– I have seen the darkness creep along the wall
I have heard my Madness chatter before day
I have seen the world roll up into a ball
Then suddenly dissolve and fall away.
(From T.S. Eliot. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-17. Christopher Ricks, editor. London: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 43-4.)
In the original poem, those thirty-five lines occupied the space after line 72 (“Of lonely men in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows?”) and the current line 75 (“And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!”) Eliot excised them on the advice of a friend who was also a poet.
At first reading, Prufrock’s Pervigilium appears not to add much to the poem other than to render more explicit what Prufrock was doing in the seedy parts of town and to emphasize that his experience there put his daytime sensibilities under some stress. That initial impression is false. By its title, though not by its content, the Pervigilium recalls the Pervigilium Veneris, a work by the 4th century Roman poet Tiberianus that was better known in Eliot’s time than it is today, and about which there is no doubt that Eliot knew it. He mentions it in a note to The Wasteland, for instance.
In the Pervigilium Veneris, Tiberianus celebrates the impending rebirth of Nature in springtime. He portrays it as the activity of Venus, goddess of love. Vivid images conjure up Nature about to come into its own as beautiful. The morning dew will refract the light, flowers will bloom, and love in all its forms will animate relations among animals and humans alike. The reign of Diana the Huntress, sterile goddess of chastity and of the kill, will yield to a joyous affirmation of life.
The contrast between that romantic view of Nature and Eliot’s portrayal of it in the original version of Prufrock is startling. In the part of town where Prufrock meets up with it, love wears the face of a raw yearning for sex and carnal commerce. Brothels beckon. Half-naked prostitutes stand in doorways offering their wares. Their needs unmet, unseen children whimper in corners. Prufrock himself is there not as a detached observer of a tawdry scene, but as a participant in it. He is a shopper, a client of those prostitutes, as indifferent to the whimpering children as they are.
Later in the night, his ordinarily civilized mind manifests itself as riotous mentation, inducing fears of madness. The shadows lurking in his room threaten to engulf him. Like love, consciousness too has a night time face encounters with which are disturbing. Day time detachment is not part of it. Nor is day time understanding.
In the morning, nauseated, he looks out the window of his one-night cheap hotel and sees humans going about their customary lives as though the night did not exist. They no longer make sense to him, at least not the sense they once did. He has heard his madness sing and, as a consequence, both his sense of the ordinary world he knew and of himself in it dissolve.
While Prufrock’s Pervigilium sharply disappoints the expectations originating in its implied association with Tiberianus’s poem, that association nonetheless enables the reader to understand Eliot as engaged in his own depiction of Nature — human nature in particular. Prufrock’s experience therefore comes across, not as some feverish nightmare he can shake off in the morning, but as an encounter with natural realities not so easily dismissed.The truth that Prufrock discovers is not that Nature can seem terrible when perceived through fog and night-time darkness, but that it actually is. Fog and darkness are forms of illumination that allow that face of it to emerge. In relation to them, daytime clarity obscures the truth. During the day, terrible Nature hides or dozes. Its civilized face is that of sleep.
Differently put, Prufrock’s experiences introduced him to dimensions of human nature that until then he perceived as aberrational or marginal, but suddenly recognized as being every bit as normal as its more civilized face. They induced in him a traumatic acquaintance with himself as possessed of that same nature. Back in the regular world of tea and ice cream, decorous conversation, and countless other decently obscuring veils, he consequently feels like a fish out of water. Misled by its own efforts to sweep unedifying aspects of human nature under the rug, that world mistakes those veils for the only realities.
So far, so good, I thought. Prufrock’s dark secret is not about his occasional yearning for the welcoming arms of prostitutes. It is about his sense of human nature, including his own, as frightening in its demonic dispositions, on the one hand, and as baffling in its multi-faced manifestations, on the other. As a result of his experiences, he is no longer sure what lies behind all those faces. He no longer knows exactly who or what he is.
The natural next question would have been why Prufrock believes that his mistress might need to know that about him, and, then also, why he fears that the revelation might cause her to withdraw her affections from him. Those questions appeared to have easy, or at least plausible, answers. But then I remembered that Eliot excised Prufrock’s Pervigilium. Why, when it presents itself as such a rich source of clues about what is going on in his poem?
The Pervigilium is philosophy in poetic disguise. The only conceivable purpose of Eliot’s associating it with Tiberianus’ poem is to suggest that he is talking, not just about some experiences Prufrock had in the red light district, but about human nature itself. As Tiberianus talked unmistakably about Nature, so he, Eliot, will talk about human nature, albeit with disturbing differences from the naïve story Tiberianus told. The portrait he paints is of a being inextricably caught up in relativistic nets, a being whose awareness of itself as thus caught up is itself but another instance of the same phenomenon. It matters greatly, in that connection, that Prufrock is not just an observer of a tawdry scene, but a participant. There is no vantage point from which he can credibly invalidate his night time experiences as aberrational. They are aberrational only in the trivial sense that the unedifying dimensions of human nature tend to manifest themselves less commonly, or at least less publicly, than their reassuring opposites. Strictly speaking, there is no defensible reason for privileging his day time experience and perspective at the expense of what takes their place in the night, or vice-versa.Thought through in its implications and translated into plainly philosophical language, Eliot’s picture of the human situation belongs in the neighborhood of Montaigne’s conclusion in his essay written in defense of Raymond Sebon:
“There is no permanent existence either in our being or in that of objects. We ourselves, our faculty of judgment and all mortal things are flowing and rolling ceaselessly; nothing certain can be established about one from the other, since both judged and judging are ever shifting and changing.” (Emphases added)
Eliot liked Montaigne’s essay and thought of its conclusion as momentous when understood existentially. He suggests as much in his own rather astounding 1919 reflections about what made Shakespeare’s Hamlet a dramatic failure.
Still, what was philosophy doing in a love song, when men bloviating about philosophy in erotic contexts is bound to be every bit as irritating as women chattering about Michelangelo? That was a good reason, though possibly not the only one, for excising the Pervigilium.
Because of its distinctly philosophical smell, however, the Pervigilium is useful as evidence of what was in Eliot’s mind when he originally composed Prufrock. It had something to do with philosophy. At the time, he was in his early twenties and a philosophy graduate student at Harvard and at the Sorbonne.
Encouraged by that thought, I tried to pin down more precisely the poem’s possible connection with anything recognizably philosophical. I imagined it as still including Prufrock’s Pervigilium and explored where that would lead. To save time, grant me, just for the sake of argument, that the content of the Pervigilium points to Montaigne.
Montaigne’s agenda in The Defense of Raymond Sebon was to recommend the Catholic faith as the only viable alternative in a world that unaided Reason is incapable of understanding and that constantly insults our sensibility. More by implication than explicitly, he bolsters that recommendation with the twist that it is Reason itself that, in its arrogant banishment of God from it, has turned the world into an incomprehensible and unbearable place to start with. In different words, the world as human disaster is a direct consequence of culpable Pride, also known as Original Sin. Persuaded or moved by Montaigne’s arguments, both stated and implied, a person may well end up horribly conscious of himself as a chronic sinner desperately in need of redemption. That redemption would take the form, on the one hand, of God’s grace silencing his Reason when it raised its arrogant voice and, on the other, of his being aware of the otherwise troubling and/or incomprehensible realities around him as benevolent manifestations of God’s will. In short, the person may end up a Catholic in his convictions, since relying – Protestant-style – on his unaided Reason to decide what counts as genuine religious authority is Original Sin all over again.
That could be an embarrassing secret that a man might think his mistress ought to be aware of, as could one of its implications, that whenever they make love on the floor or elsewhere, he is not entirely comfortable engaging in an activity God’s Church prohibits as sinful unless blessed by the sacrament of marriage. And he would not have to be crazy to suspect that the mistress would not be pleased to learn that what she has meant to him is the repulsive, but nonetheless irresistible, attraction of sin.
Not totally implausible, I thought; more theology than philosophy, but perhaps the line between the two is not all that clear. Unfortunately, however, it is not an entirely smooth trip from the epistemological upshot of Prufrock’s experiences in the Pervigilium to acceptance of Montaigne’s religious recommendations. For one thing, Montaigne could be wrong in his assertion that everything flows to the point of making the world incomprehensible. As Heraclitus already observed, the pattern or principle of all this flowing – what he called the Logos – does not itself flow; it is permanent. And though rather elusive in its nature, it is knowable. The account that Heraclitus gives of the Logos leaves much to be desired by way of plausibility and clarity, but that prevents no one so inclined from trying to do better. And that goes for human nature as well. It, too, flows, but not at random. Understand the principle governing its flowing, Heraclitus suggests, and you understand yourself.
For another thing, Montaigne’s idea that the world is incomprehensible and unbearable only because we have banished God from it is also suspect. Thoughtful people noticed a long time ago that even with God in the world, the suffering of innocent children at the hands of Nature places an enormous strain on faith in God’s credentials as a loving father, at least for anyone who assumes Him to be both omniscient and omnipotent. Grotesque diseases and natural disasters come to mind in this connection. They are enough to make a thoughtful person doubt that any such God exists at all.
While it is, of course, totally arbitrary to suppose Prufrock, a fictional character, to be aware of all that, Eliot, well trained in philosophy, certainly was. Indeed, judging by the epigraph to Burnt Norton in his Four Quartets, he appreciates that Heraclitus had a valid insight. Translated into English, the Heraclitus fragment he cites reads “Although the Logos is common to all, the many live as though each had a private understanding.” By implication, Eliot doesn’t. He is attuned to the Logos.
An intellectually less extravagant take on Prufrock’s quandary has him realizing during his Pervigilium that he has no clear idea of who or what he is, not because, as Montaigne would have it, it is impossible to know this without God’s help, but because whatever the Logos may be, he is still in a deep fog as to its nature. He consequently doesn’t know either what love is about. He can’t say, for example, what exactly he wants with this woman to whom he would like to come out as the strange being he is. Sex is no doubt part of it, but not all of it. Moreover (and as Montaigne suggests), seen with a cold eye, even sex is relatively incomprehensible. Add love to it and it becomes even more so. How get from an elevated emotion like love to a desire for raw commerce with another’s body? It is nonsense that the former is just the civilized face of the latter, or the latter simply the naked face of the former. They are both faces of something else, but try spelling out what exactly that is and you will soon find yourself lapsing into incoherence.
So now, Prufrock imagines himself telling the woman that he is an unknown, possible unknowable, thing even to himself, who happens to have a largely incomprehensible yearning for her. But, incomprehensible or not, he has it. Etc. And imagine his revealing that to her as they are both on the floor while the afternoon, instead of sleeping peacefully, smoothed by long fingers, malingers. What will be her likely response? “Is that how you experienced what we just did? And here I thought that I meant something to you, that you loved me as men love women when the going is good. And now you are telling me that you don’t know what this is all about?!” Of course, one can imagine a different response, such as “I know all that; I am being just like you.” But perhaps because he underestimates her, or women in general, that is not the response Prufrock envisages. Instead, he imagines her disappointed, perhaps horrified, and in any case averse to continuing the relationship. He therefore chooses to tell her nothing, apparently convinced that, though ultimately unsatisfactory, a relationship framed by conventional self-misrepresentations is better than none at all.
For what it is worth, it is possible to imagine a slightly different scenario from the one with which I started this essay. Perhaps Prufrock has been telling the woman that he loves her and she, wanting to hear more, keeps saying “Are you sure you really love me? How can you be sure?” Mistaking her reply for a real question, he envisages the possibility of spilling his guts. He has seen and felt it all, been to hell and back, and only she has the power to move him, albeit incomprehensibly and, to tell the truth, somewhat alarmingly, etc. Again, because he underestimates her, he concludes that telling her all that would be a mistake likely to be greeted by deep disappointment on her part. That was not what she meant when she wanted to know if he really loved her. She wanted conventional love poetry, not stark and unsettling truths about his deepest self – the butt ends of his days and ways.
But while, in either version, that more down to earth interpretation of Prufrock’s problem struck me as more plausible than the religious version of it that I considered earlier, it does not fit with some other lines in the poem. Prufrock has seen the moment of his greatness flicker, he says, but he backed off because he was afraid. He is no prophet. He does not have it in him to say “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,//Come back to tell you all, I shall you all-”.
Greatness? Bringing back the truth from the underworld to announce it to all? That sounds like awfully grandiose talk when understood as being about personal epiphanies had in the red light district. On the one hand, it suggests that the lessons Prufrock learned there are not trivial. On the other, however, it leaves the reader puzzled as to how their importance could rise to a level that justifies this kind of verbal and conceptual extravagance. What could Prufrock possibly have learned that might have caused him to conceive of his knowing it as holding a promise of greatness? How could he have thought of his conveying it as donning the mantle of the prophet? How could what he knows possibly add up to a truth as unique, and as intriguing to every person on earth, as the one Lazarus possessed after his sojourn in the world of the dead?
The fleeting suspicion that we don’t really know who or what we are is one that every reflective person has known. One dismisses it because dwelling on it leads nowhere. Just so, people who are not children or fools are generally aware of erotic love as an immensely more complex phenomenon than its simplistic portrayal in cultural stereotypes may lead one to believe. Knowing all that takes no great mind, just an ordinary perceptive person. Conveying it makes no one a prophet either, except one who deludes himself in thinking that he is telling people truths that most of them don’t already know. Is Prufrock that simple-minded? If not, what is it exactly that he thinks he knows that explains the grand posture in those lines of the poem?
Although it does not help answer the question, I’ll say that those lines sound to me like Eliot talking, putting words into Prufrock’s mouth that, given his portrayal of Prufrock otherwise (especially with the Pervigilium excised), do not belong there. It is Eliot who worries about putting himself out on a limb with truths he thinks he has discovered and knows, but expects will cause him to be rejected or marginalized by a culture averse to hearing them. It is also Eliot who is consequently tempted to remain quiet and play the conventional intellectual. Finally, it is him again who knows that if he does that, he will spend the rest of his life a hollow man. He will always know that when the moment came to be true to himself, he ran for cover in the shelter of convention.
Of course, just like Prufrock ultimately doesn’t, Eliot does not run either. With the microphone left on, he comes out to the literate public as someone who dares be who he is, no matter what the possible cost might turn out to be.
All the same, that still leaves the original question unanswered. What is it that Eliot takes himself to know, such that its revelation carries such risks, and the urgency of revealing it presents itself to him as so compelling. Is it that Montaigne was right? Unlikely! Apart from the fact that Montaigne was not right and Eliot knew it, there is no potential of greatness in agreeing with Montaigne, nor prophecy in repeating what Montaigne expounded with legendary clarity more than three hundred years earlier. Could it be then that Heraclitus was right? In the absence of plausible alternatives, I was thinking it could, provided that Eliot’s sense of Heraclitus’ key insight was new, more radical and more revolutionary than any previous understanding of it. I therefore tried to imagine how Eliot may have understood Heraclitus as having had so momentous an insight as to justify talk of greatness and prophecy.
II. A Fanciful Foray into the Mind of Heraclitus
Writing roughly twenty-five centuries ago in Greek Ionia, now western Turkey, Heraclitus stressed the ubiquity of relativity. What things present themselves as being always depends on the beholder’s orientation in relation to them. The way up is the way down. Seeing it as one or the other depends on the direction of one’s travel. In itself, it is neither up nor down. It is both or neither. To anyone insisting that it is all the same a road, Heraclitus would reply that a road – a means of easy travel to destinations– from one point of view may present itself as an obstacle from another. To small critters trying to cross it, running the risk of being stepped on, or crushed by wagon wheels, a road is a death trap.
The human point of view is just one among others. Donkeys, mice, bats, or fish have theirs, different from one another’s as well as from ours. As a touchstone of reality, there is no defensible reason for privileging ours at the expense of its countless alternatives.
Heraclitus supplements this pessimistic assessment of the possibility of objective knowledge with Ionian cosmological speculations peculiar to his time. Earth turns to water, water to air, air to fire, etc. Even in the physical world, opposites turn into their opposites, hence come close to coinciding with their opposites. Physical reality itself is neither earth, nor water, nor air, nor fire, but all those things and none. The world is not fire in the sense that Thales (another thinker at the time) thought it was water. It is like a fire in that it constantly changes. As we might put the point today, reality is all process. It is not a thing and does not consist of things. Because they are part of it, that is true of humans as well: they are processes, not things. Everything flows, including the beholders of the flow.
For the sixth century B.C., this was a bold theory, particularly in a culture that instinctively conceived of knowledge as being of relatively abiding objects with stable identities. To know meant to recognize – being able correctly to identify those identities, which presupposed that there were identities to thus recognize in the first place.”When you think about it carefully, there are no such things,” Heraclitus asserted. “Everything constantly changes, either in itself, or in relation to awareness and perception, or both. Therefore, what you think of as knowledge, whether of the world or of yourself, is not there to be had either.”
Greek intellectual culture was slow to pick up on the alternative to the traditional conception of knowledge that Heraclitus proposed. The processes reality consists of, he suggested, and the apparently ubiquitous relativity and change in which they issue, are not random. Were they that, then there would be no knowledge at all. In fact, however, there are principles governing those processes, which principles are of necessity immune to change and therefore make change itself relatively intelligible. Heraclitus referred to those principles as the Logos. The Logos is elusive, but not unknowable. In fact, it represents the only possibility of knowledge there is. Knowledge is not of things. It is of the patterns of change as reflecting, or animated by, the operation of the Logos. It is, therefore, ultimately, of the Logos.
Might one not argue, in the style of Heraclitus, that one man’s Logos is another man’s nonsense, and that therefore there is no such thing? No, because even that perception of the Logos as nonsense is the Logos at work.
In any case, neither Plato nor Aristotle took Heraclitus’ suggestion seriously. They largely contented themselves with arguing that his claims about the ubiquity of change overstated the case or with trying to show that his doctrine was incoherent or inconsistent.
The main reason Heraclitus’ insights received an unfriendly reception was not that his critics were obtuse. It was that he himself invited misunderstanding by talking about reality and the Logos in ways that were for the most part incomprehensible. His sense of reality and of the possibility of knowledge was so far removed from that then current in his culture that concepts required for intelligible thought and talk about it had yet to be crafted. That huge intellectual engineering job lay beyond his means. And unlike Parmenides, who also sounded incomprehensible, Heraclitus did not benefit from the efforts of followers to get that reengineering job underway and to complete it. Parmenides had Plato and Aristotle. Heraclitus had no one, or no one of comparable intellectual stature.
I make it sound as though, around 500 B.C., it should have dawned on Heraclitus that his philosophical intuitions were so far off the cultural reservation that nothing less would cause them to be understood and accepted than rebuilding the reservation itself – as though, in other words, he was a creative twentieth century thinker or scientist familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn & Co. That’s silly. But silly or not, the fact remains that in trying to explain himself, Heraclitus had recourse to language and concepts unsuited to the effective capturing of his insights. If you can forgive the comparison, he was like a man trying to speak French with a vocabulary limited to English words, not getting far, and not fully understanding the problem either.
At the same time, however, Heraclitus was not quite as obtuse about the impediments he faced as I am making him out to have been. People do not understand the Logos, he said, neither before they have heard about it, nor even after someone tries to explain it to them. That observation on his part invites two questions. One is how it came about that he understands the Logos. The other is why, if talk about the Logos cannot induce understanding, he keeps talking about it.
Heraclitus’ answer to the second question is that he is not really talking. He is just pointing or offering a sign. Or, he says, like the intoxicated Sybil at Delphi, he just raves, which, he hopes, will not prevent perceptive people from discerning profound truths in that raving. Isn’t that what happens at Delphi? The incoherent sounds issuing from the Sybil’s mouth are not talk. That has not prevented the priests of Apollo from discerning truths in those sounds the validity of which has been repeatedly borne out over the course of centuries.
His answer to the first question is that he explored himself.
Putting those two answers together, the upshot is that while self-exploration may issue is a grasp of the Logos, that grasp is no ordinary understanding in the sense of being amenable to expression in the form of coherent speech. Well then what is it? In what sense can it plausibly present itself as understanding at all?
A century or so later, Plato will try to indict Heraclitus on just that point. In the dialogue Theaetetus, he has Socrates arguing that Heraclitus’ doctrine is inconsistent, therefore wrong, and therefore does not constitute genuine understanding. To which I suspect Heraclitus would reply that Plato is missing the point. He, Heraclitus, knows that his theorizing sounds incoherent, inconsistent, etc., but he is not proposing a standard theory at all. He is just pointing at a reality in which all theorizing – right, partially right, or wrong – has its foundation and explanation.
It is a fair guess that Plato would retort that this distinction between talking and pointing amounts to mere quibbling. Whatever Heraclitus wants to call it – talking or pointing – what he says ought to make sense, which it doesn’t. The Sybil may rave, but the priests of Apollo don’t. Her being taken seriously depends entirely on the validity of the coherent prophecies or insights that they translate her ravings into. A reality in relation to which that translation is impossible in the sense that it cannot be talked about without the speaker contradicting himself loses any claim to being a knowable reality at all. It is not possible to know what makes no logical sense.
As Plato sees it, the ball is in Heraclitus’ court, in the form of the burden to show that sense making is not inevitably logical or dependent on coherent speech. And he, Plato, does not believe that Heraclitus has done anything that comes even close to discharging that burden.
When it comes to accounting for sense making, Plato has his own agenda. It includes presenting philosophy as superior to poetry, which enjoyed a higher cultural status at the time. Unlike poetry, which could be ambiguous, obscure, or unmindful of logical consistency, philosophy was none of those things. Competent philosophical thinking eschewed ambiguity and obscurity. It strove for clarity and genuine knowledge. Logical consistency was a necessary condition of each. In thought or speech, its absence was the mark of defective sense-making. In brief, Plato conceives of genuine sense-making as essentially logo-centric: it involves words or concepts and unfailing respect for sound logical relations.
That is not entirely fair to Plato, given his occasional remarks to the effect that no words can adequately capture what a wise man knows, as well as his own recourse to metaphor and analogy in trying to convey key points of his own theories. But it is fair enough for my current purpose, which is to suggest that Plato’s agenda precluded his reading Heraclitus sympathetically. Had he been disposed to do so, it would have occurred to him soon enough that there are forms of understanding that have nothing to do with speech and that are not amenable to translation into speech without alteration, diminution, or loss of cognitive content.
That music, for example, is not coherent speech prevents no one from understanding it, or from resonating to it when it is good. Music consists of sound patterns the quality of which induces an emotional response — feeling, if you prefer – and in musical contexts feeling is understanding. Moreover, feeling is rarely, if ever, completely amenable to expression in the form of coherent speech or to translation into such speech. It is often subtle, faint or inexplicably overwhelming, hard to pin down — elusive, in short, but not on that account meaningless or cognitively empty.
What goes for music goes for poetry, which is a kind of music. Poetry is not disquisitional prose in fancy disguise. In taking the music out of it, its translation into such prose alters, diminishes, or destroys its cognitive content. The latter critically depends on the emotions the music of poetry induces.
A collection of random sounds is not music. The essence of music lies in the relations between those sounds, including the sound of silence. There is a logic to music, if you will, except that the relations that make up that logic differ from those customarily associated with logical speech or propositions. Sounds, instrument voices, textures, and their progressions harmonize or they don’t. And when they don’t, the conflict calls for a resolution, a larger harmony in which all dissonances find their home. In logical speech, dissonance is inconsistency, or, at best, obscurity. Its presence diminishes or destroys the quality of the speech. In music, dissonance, at least when resolved, is essential to the creation of sound patterns that engage the ear and the heart of the listener. It operates as an element that enhances the quality of the resulting structure. Our response to music, inevitably emotional, is a response to that quality.
Our response to speech is also emotional, also a response to the quality of a structure, except that the range of relations that make up that quality is typically narrower than in music properly so-called. In poetic speech, it is somewhat wider than in plainly declarative speech. All the same, consistency, as the hallmark of good declarative speech, is a structural quality, the limiting case of a harmonic relation to which our response cannot be anything but emotional.
Which, temporarily, brings me back to Heraclitus, who didn’t say any of that. He would have been ahead, it seems to me, if, instead of invoking the ravings of the Sybil, he had encouraged his audience to read his pronouncements as poetry. He would have done better still, had he added that the Logos is like music and understanding it akin to understanding music. Attunement to the Logos takes the form of feeling, albeit feeling cognitively transparent as to its causes.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that any of this was in Heraclitus’ mind. Had it been, then he would have spoken more clearly and comprehensibly than he did. I am suggesting, however, that this account of Heraclitus’ thinking is one that one may reasonably end up with if, taking a leaf from Eliot’s book (talking about Shakespeare), one dares imagine that one understands Heraclitus better than he understood himself.
Let all reality be process. Let humans themselves be processes possessed of the ability to be aware of processes, patterns or structures of event sequences, including, at least to a certain extent, the processes that they themselves are. That awareness, fleeting, flowing, or intense, and, in any case, ongoing, is a process too. In order for intelligibility of any kind to emerge from this, two things have to be true. On the one hand, the patterns of change cannot be random. On the other, human awareness must include a receptivity to whatever it is that endows those patterns with a degree of order that transcends mere temporal sequence. At the very least, the patterns of change must lend themselves to cognitive integration by that receptivity, where it can remain an open question which comes first, the world’s orderliness or the human disposition to seek it.
Another way of saying that is that in order for reality, conceived as process, to be intelligible at all, the patterns of change must exhibit a structural quality, on the one hand, and humans must resonate to the presence of that quality. That quality itself is a function of the relations, beyond mere temporal sequence, among the elements (or events) that make up those patterns. If, for the sake of argument, harmony is one of those relations, then the world’s intelligibility depends on the human ability to resonate to the structural quality that is harmony.
Next step: resonating to structural qualities is essentially emotional. It presupposes a natural predilection for order, where what counts as order is whatever causes human awareness to light up or to ring out. That lighting up or ringing out is feeling. Emotion is like a seventh sense, much maligned as cognitive endowment, but all the same both the foundation of all cognitive achievement and a critical element in it.
To repeat and sum up: Let everything flow. The world will make no sense whatsoever unless the flow has a structural quality. Heraclitus’ Logos is what endows the flow with that quality or coincides with it. Awareness of it is primarily emotional, an inchoate resonating to the ostensible presence of an order in the flow that keeps it from being random and that allows it to address humans in a voice they understand.
That said, being aware of the Logos differs from understanding it. Arguably, we are all aware of it, but we do not necessarily understand what it is that we are aware of, or why it affects us as it does. Our instinctive emotional response to the Logos is not cognitively transparent as to its causes, where its causes include, on the one hand, the relative orderliness of dynamic reality and, on the other, our own love of order.
Emotions too are events in the flow. They too remain unintelligible to the extent that we remain oblivious to their causes, which is to say, to the relations between them and other events or states of affairs, as well as to the quality of those relations. Now where the emotion is that induced by awareness of the Logos, one can – as I have just done – tell a long story about its causes. People may find that story believable or questionable. In any event, understanding the Logos differs from believing that or any other story about it. Hearing such a story, the mind lights up, or it doesn’t. If it does, it will be because it suddenly senses an order where before it saw none. And chances are that what causes that to happen is not so much the content of the story as its music. It is hearing the Logos sing about itself and intuitively recognizing its voice that induces the understanding in question. That is not the same thing as believing a story that may be true or false.
Understanding the Logos means experiencing a cognitively transparent emotion induced by awareness of the structural quality of the relation between our instinctive response to the Logos and our intuitive sense of its causes. While having that experience presupposes reflection, that reflection itself will induce the experience only if it recognizes itself as the voice of the Logos in the person who engages in it. And that self-recognition in turn is essentially emotional. It is a feeling the aptness of which is self-intimating in relation to human sensibility. Speaking hyperbolically, one might say that understanding the Logos is having a recurrent emotion about an emotion and knowing it instantly as an unmistakably apt response to what is so.
Having put myself through that, I thought I was ahead, getting closer to what Eliot believed he knew that the whole world needed to know, but which it was risky for him to convey. It was not so much that Heraclitus thought this, but that he was right. The first is a thesis about a figure in the history of philosophy, unlikely to arouse much excitement. The second is a startling assertion about human beings. If you are an ambitious intellectual, apprising a deeply logo-centric culture of the fact that its entire cognitive enterprise is at heart emotional will get you excluded from the ranks of serious thinkers, marginalized, possibly dismissed as a crank. Your former friends and colleagues will wonder what happened to your once fine intelligence. “All understanding really worth having is poetic, musical rather than rational! Rationality itself is but receptivity to music! Feeling!” Say what? “Humans are essentially musical instruments played by reality, except that they themselves have ears and hearts, and even put in time as performers!” Come again? “Hey, this is music too. Can’t you hear it? It doesn’t harmonize with what you believe, does it? Isn’t that why you dislike hearing it? Divest yourself of your naïve beliefs, and the problem will go away!” Give us a break!!
So Eliot says nothing, pretending to be afraid of rejection. He just talks about his fear, musically.
Unfortunately, the interpretation didn’t really seem to work, or at least not well. Apart from the fact that it leaves Prufrock out in the cold, which could perhaps be fixed, Prufrock, the poem, apprises the culture of nothing, except that Eliot and Prufrock are afraid. But the poem leaves ultimately unsaid what exactly they are afraid of, and more importantly, why. And to top it off, they are not really afraid, not enough to keep quiet. After all, each speaks out. The poem is like musical speech devoid of semantic content, or, rather, like a surrealist painting, superbly executed and meaning nothing whatsoever.
IV. Final Pass: Surrealism Before its Time
I was close to giving up trying to understand Eliot’s poem. It makes no difference what one may surmise a poet thinks he understands if none of that understanding appears to animate his poetry. In the case of Prufrock, I could discern no Heraclitean thought in the poem, nor, for that matter, any culture critique anchored in Heraclitean convictions. There was only this, that a person who writes serious poetry at all must believe that with respect to at least some things, poetry is superior to prose as a means for conveying understanding. Poetry engages the emotions as plain prose does not. That edge is useful where the truths needing to be conveyed are essentially emotional. But what, in this instance, were those truths? What, based on my creative foray into Heraclitus, had I expected to be present in Eliot’s poem, even if only by its conspicuous absence?
Without thinking about it clearly, I had expected an at least implied indictment of our culture, not just as excessively logo-centric, but as consequently disdainful of emotion. That disdain, of which contempt for poetry is just one face, has vast consequences in our individual and collective lives. Issuing in emotional illiteracy, it is the cause, for example, of the widespread feeling of alienation that became the hallmark of the twentieth century and that, to this day, shows no signs of letting up.
Incurable logo-centrist that I myself am, I had expected a logo-centric assault on logo-centricity. That’s what I would do, failing to grasp that such assaults, attempted often enough, are rarely productive of change, and never for long. It gradually dawned on me that Eliot understood that the cultural complex that combines logo-centricity and disdain for emotion is immensely resilient and virtually invulnerable to intellectual assault.
With the exception of Heraclitus and the dramatic poets, Greek intellectual culture justified logo-centricity as being the only mental attitude that could issue in bona fide knowledge. It made a good case. In practice, the recommended attitude became the foundation of science, of which the Greeks themselves produced successful and impressive beginnings. But those very successes spelled the doom of any attempt to come to cognitive grips with phenomena that do not easily lend themselves, if at all, to capture in logical nets. Human emotion is one of them. The overall effect was its marginalization – collective cultural obtuseness in contending with the reality that we are beings who feel, emotional illiteracy, if you will.
Both Sophocles and especially Euripides come to mind as thinkers who realized at the time that the new exclusive emphasis on rationality was a recipe for endemic, often catastrophic, foolishness in areas of human life where emotion plays a large role. And although there are few where it doesn’t, they were ignored – prized as playwrights, but dismissed as serious thinkers. And for good reasons: science and mathematics were in the wings, along with philosophy, which was then hard to distinguish from science.
To this day, the tenacity of the hold of logo-centric biases on our culture is the result of the enormous cognitive successes in which the cultivation of those biases has issued, to say nothing of the entirely reasonable – one might say desperate – hope that the same will be true in the future. Compared to the benefits and promises of science, the human cost, if noticed at all, appears almost trivial. Even when it is noticed, the causes of our chronic malaise are chronically misidentified: capitalism, alienation from God, a pernicious degeneration of moral values, endemic failures of character recommending themselves in the name of freedom, the information age, plain human perversity, etc. It takes a man like the late Vaclav Havel to have the rare courage to remind us of the truth by arguing that modern totalitarianism is eminently rational, and that, therefore, there is something deeply wrong with hyper-rationality. But although grounded in nostalgia for an illusory archaic consciousness, in which sensibility and thought were not yet estranged from one another, Havel’s, too, is a logocentric assault on logo-centricity. He put his finger on the real cause of mass alienation, but he succumbed to the illusion that identifying it sufficed to bring about change.
Eliot knew better. Unlike Havel, he lived in a society very much like ours, in which one can say just about anything without fear of repression, but in which the ultimate price of that boundless tolerance is a state of affairs in which nothing anyone says makes any difference. Assert uncomfortable truths reasonably, and you end up dismissed or co-opted. Assert them unreasonably, and you are liable to find yourself written off as deranged. Cultural inertia in relation to its most fundamental commitments always triumphs in the end.
Your chances as a reformer are further diminished when the truths you offer are complex or the changes you wish to recommend, subtle. If you are Eliot, you don’t want to argue that our culture would be better off without science. For one thing, you don’t believe that. For another, even if you did, your argument would never even get out of the starting gate. The idea is anathema. But you do want to argue that an excessive privileging of rationality at the expense of sensibility leaves us empty-handed and confused when it comes to understanding the beings we are. The practical implications include efforts to render our culture more hospitable to emotion, first, by enhancing emotional literacy across the board, second, by reversing the marginalization of intellectual enterprises, like poetry and art, that foster such literacy, and, third, by encouraging those enterprises to take ownership of that project instead of focusing on trivialities or pandering to fashion. That is a complex and subtle agenda. Add to it promoting the notion that philosophy, science, and even mathematics are actually special kinds of poetry, and it becomes more subtle still. It starts to look like what you are proposing is a full-blown cultural revolution, and you a crackpot for proposing it.
That is a lot for a man in his early twenties to understand, let alone to adopt as the basis for a practical agenda. But I strongly suspect that Eliot did understand it and that the agenda I attribute to him was indeed his, or comes close to it. Without it, Prufrock makes no sense to me.
What does a thoughtful person do when he wants to put across a set of ideas that he has good reasons to believe his audience will not welcome and is therefore likely to shrug off? He tricks that audience into coming up with those ideas themselves, as though on their own. But where the ideas are as complex as they are in this case, bringing off that feat is quite a challenge. Arriving at them takes a long time and a lot of persistence. You need to keep your audience’s attention for all that time, as well as motivate the persistence needed to get where you want them to go. How do that?
If you are Eliot, addressing an educated audience generally confident about their abilities to make sense of poetry, probably even given to enjoying the exercise of those abilities, you present them with a poem they can’t understand. You include hints about its possible meaning, each of which leads to a dead end. You run the risk that some in your audience will give up, but you tell yourself that anyone who succumbs to that temptation is not worth talking to. In addition, you count on people’s pride to prevent them giving up. Tempted to do so, they face the choice between thinking that they don’t understand the poem because it is over their heads, and likely to remain so, or thinking that they don’t understand it because it is a defective or incompetent composition. Most proud intellectuals will choose the second alternative, except that in this case it is very hard to put one’s finger on any defect in the poem. Eliot’s verse flows superbly, appears animated by profound thought at very turn, and causes the reader resonate to its music. The only thing that remains obscure is its point. Which throws the frustrated reader back onto the first alternative, which is to think that he or she lacks the right stuff to understand that point. They are simply not smart or not educated enough for that understanding to lie within their reach. Pride tends to veto that inference. Hence, back to the grindstone they turn.
I am oversimplifying. In 1915, when Eliot published Prufrock, he was not yet Eliot, the famous poet. He was an unknown writer. Prior to Prufrock, he had published nothing noteworthy. In other words, before the reading public will let itself be drawn into wrestling with an unknown poet’s poetic koan that it takes this much work to solve, there has to be something about it that forcefully engages their attention, the more so when a significant percentage of that public consists of literary snobs. There are always a million reasons for dismissing a new work of poetry by an unknown author, especially when it appears incomprehensible. Simply not liking it after a first reading is just one of them, though probably the most common.
A decade or so later, surrealist painters will make sure that their work cannot be dismissed as incompetent on the basis that it appears inept as representational painting. They, especially Dali, were highly skilled at conventional representation and they brought that skill to bear in their paintings. It enabled them to move into the light the startling conflict between possession of that skill and the production of paintings that represented nothing. Virtually every detail makes perfect visual sense, but the configuration of all those details — the overall painting – makes none at all. The result naturally prompts the viewer to ask himself what those people are doing, other than just trying to shock. The answer is that they are attempting to call into question the aptness of conventional visual sense-making and, more importantly, the appropriateness of the mental habits and attitudes that privilege that sort of sense-making. After all, their paintings are visually appealing, startling, engaging. They make visual sense, just not conventional visual sense. The pleasure one takes in them is psychologically, though not rationally, compelling. It is the quality of that pleasure and its emotional comprehensibility that drive the viewer’s efforts to sort out intellectually what those paintings are about and, ideally at least, to end up where the surrealists want to take him or her – more in touch with the reality of feeling, unprocessed and unconstrained by logo-centric filters and oppressive cultural conventions.
Eliot’s Prufrock is a puzzle of the same sort. But in order to work as such a puzzle, the poem had to engage the reader’s attention before s/he understood it, and do so forcefully enough to set in motion the immense efforts required to understand it.
Now it takes more than technically competent, polished verse to have that effect. There was no shortage of such verse in Eliot’s time (or after), none of it coming even close to having the impact Prufrock did. None of it swept the culture off its feet to anywhere near the same extent. How did Eliot bring that off?
He wrote a poem that upon first reading touches deep personal chords in people. At first, it seems to be about a man who loves a woman, but is afraid to tell her that because it may turn out that she does not love him in return. He thinks that she encouraged him, but fears that she may choose to deny that, either because he merely imagined it, or because women can be capricious or cruel. So he decides not to tell her, apparently motivated, at least in part, by a desire not to disappoint or embarrass her – by love, if you will, even though his decision means that he will remain lonely for the remainder of his days. The other part is that he prefers remaining in her good (albeit tepid) graces to being rejected and having her disappear from his life altogether. Who doesn’t understand that love is heartbreak? We have all been there.
Prufrock is also a man afraid of growing old, indeed on his way to that sad fate. He is losing his hair; his arms are growing thin; he worries about his digestion. One understands, even if one hasn’t been there, and certainly if one is. It makes Prufrock’s yearning for love that much more poignant.
And then there is a world-weariness in his tone, a disappointment with life that everyone is familiar with. He has measured out his life in coffee spoons. He has seen it all. He has known countless women who left him cold, despite their visits to his room. Their heads were elsewhere. All of which, again, puts his current predicament into clear perspective. The woman he envisages declaring his love to does not leave him cold. She is his only chance at a life, or what is left of it, not measured out in coffee spoons, but lived to the full.
And then finally, there is a hint that he has a secret, sad and modest actually. He has sought comfort and companionship at the waterfront, apparently in the red light district. It is what lonely men do, either in fact or in imagination. And who does not understand that, at least the imagination part, which need not take one to the waterfront? Any place will do.
That first impression of Prufrock is of a man alienated from life, unfortunate in love, a sad, unhappy man who is growing old, and who hopes for one last chance at a good life before he dies. Unfortunately, he sees that hope evaporating in his realistic reflections about it. To one degree or another, the beholder of it recognizes himself or herself in Eliot’s portrait of him. We feel for him and understand because, in one way or another, we have all been there, or know that it is only by the grace of God if we are not, or no longer.
But read the poem a second time because you enjoyed it so much the first time, and it starts to become clear that more goes on in it than that first impression suggests. Prufrock is composing a speech he imagines addressing to this woman he loves. Reading it carefully, you learn, for example, that his relationship with her has advanced far beyond the level of tentative courtship. He is sleeping with her in the afternoons, on the floor no less. At least, that is what those lines about the afternoon sleeping peacefully, smoothed by long fingers, “Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me” appear to intimate. And if that is so, then he is not lonely in the sense imagined.
At the same time, you notice that his forays down narrow streets are mentioned more than once. That creates the impression that whatever happened to him at the end of those narrow streets was not trivial, at least not as trivial as having his loneliness temporarily alleviated. And with that, you are back at the beginning of the poem where those same forays led him to “an overwhelming question”. What question?
Prufrock’s quandary with respect to the woman he loves is suddenly no longer easily comprehensible. If he is having an affair with her already, the danger of her rejecting him is not acute, unless the affair is an unhappy one. But there is no indication in the poem that she is unhappy with it. He is, because, apparently, there is something she does not know about him and he wants to be loved for who he is. Well, what could it be that she doesn’t know? It seems to be whatever he learned about himself in his forays into the red light district. But what could that be? Nothing obvious comes to mind. Intrigued with those questions, you’re on your way.
Eliot does not make it easy for you. The poem’s epigraph in Italian is not identified as coming out of Dante. Yet Eliot had to know that even in 1915, his very literate Anglo-American audience included few people familiar with Dante in the origoinal Italian. For an ordinary reader, figuring out the provenance and the meaning of the epigraph required research, possibly half a day in a library, and then only to end up reminded that in thinking aloud, with the microphone on, Prufrock is actually addressing that speech to his mistress, not just in his imagination, but in fact, through Eliot’s pen and publication. Eliot taunts the reader with an extravagance that borders on the perverse.
And then there’s the hint – more than a hint, actually, that whatever Prufrock learned in the red light district was a profound and immensely important truth, knowing which held a promise of greatness, but announcing it to the world was tantamount to prophecy and dangerous. The more closely one reads the poem, the more hope of making sense of it recedes.
Seen from that perspective, Eliot’s decision to excise the Pervigilium had to be a difficult one. It sheds desperately sought light on what moves Prufrock, or at least Eliot. It seems that more had to underlie that decision than that philosophy does not belong in a love song. But again, what could that be if not the intention to drive the reader crazy by frustrating his or her desire to understand?
I think that Eliot would say that his decision to excise the Pervigilium was intended as constructive. He did not want the reader to end up understanding the wrong thing, or the right thing in the wrong way. To have a theory is not to understand Heraclitus. Understanding his Logos is a feeling. Without that feeling, any theory about it is useless. It may actually get in the way of understanding. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what Heraclitus thought or that he thought it. It only matters what is so. So why not bypass all that theorizing and just induce the feeling? Sounds plausible enough, provided that you can bring it off without pointing to Heraclitus.
Eliot tries. He publishes a poem to which its readers resonate profoundly that makes no sense. It portrays an attempt to answer an overwhelming question, but leaves obscure both what the question is and what its answers might be. It is a thrust into nowhere, deeply convincing as such a thrust, yet ultimately incomprehensible. Its power to convince is emotional, driven by poetic music broadly conceived as consisting not only of felicitous sound, but also of verbal meanings, as well as of images, artfully combined. But the ultimate upshot of all that music is nothing – nothing intellectually comprehensible, at any rate. It is just a feeling – the feeling that though everything makes sense, nothing does. In other words, the sense it all makes lies in the music, coincides with the music, and adds up to understanding only to the extent that the emotions that music induces are transparent as to their causes. Which, as I argued earlier, is another way of saying that understanding consists of a self-intimating emotional response to emotions. That he thinks that, is Eliot’s secret. He is a poet and proud of it, not because poetry is pretty, but because it has the power to apprise us of truths about ourselves that neither science nor philosophy come even close to having.
As for Prufrock’s secret, it comes down to the miraculous fact that he loves his woman more than anything in the world, madly, hopelessly, irrespective of what may come his way – loss of face, age, the apparent meaningless of the world, or even its end. Love is the meaning of the world! For him, she is that meaning, There is no need to understand any more than that. That is his love song to her. If she doesn’t understand it, that changes nothing. He will love her all the same. But if she does understand, so much the better.
Speaking hyperbolically, one might say that it is also Eliot’s love song, addressed not to some woman, but to the world and his fellow humans. The world, otherwise a hellish place, is redeemed by its music in all its forms, by the emotions that music induces in us, at least when we understand them. But even that understanding is an emotion, though perhaps the only one that never disappoints.
But I know that in saying that, I am inviting people to remind me of the many passages in Eliot’s prose where he expresses a dim view of emotion, both in life and in poetry. So, let me say instead that a man who creates surrealist art like Prufrock has to have a big heart. Why else would he dare take the risk and how else would he have had the strength to take it?
Finally, it is not clear in any case that his taking the risk paid off. It might have, had he left the Pervigilium in. He excised it because he underestimated his audience, and ended up probably overestimating them.
© Serge Kappler 2014