She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field – seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town.

A bone thin man who has more stubble on his face than meat on his bones sits on an overturned crate and plays a banjo while six children in knee patched jeans and grubby faces chase the fireflies that are beginning to light up the field. A woman with a haggard look and weary eyes tucks the strand of hair that has escaped her bun behind her ear as she holds her baby to her partially exposed breast. She bends over a large cast iron pot and the light from beneath the pot illuminates her face so that she looks like a dying angel. Steam rises up and with it a smell that makes the mouth water and the heart feel at home. Sunday dinners and family, laughter and conversation, and grown up conversation where children can get lost in the safety of each syllable passing through the lips of those great giants.

Her eyes move past the dying angle and settle on a man dressed in a suit, a finely pressed suit of pinstripes. He has a wireless hands free in one ear and his finger is moving furiously across the small screen of his blackberry. He is oblivious to the music and the flaxen-haired woman dancing circles around him in white harem pants and a top so sheer her nipples can be seen. The contrast of the dark flesh against the white fabric is enticing and the only diversion away from them is the way she moves her long graceful fingers. They caress the air as she moves in circles around him. She thrust her hips forward toward him as he wipes the sweat from his creased brow and continues tapping. A baby cries and she sees the flaxen-haired Goddess dance gracefully to a white-flaked wooden crib where in lies a baby clad only in a cloth diaper. The woman gently picks up the baby and once again begins her dance. The once seductive sway of her hips filled with unnoticed intention becomes softer now. No longer caressing the empty air, she touches the soft skin of the baby’s back, tracing circles with the tips of her beautiful fingers. The baby is quiet as she continues the dance around the white crib, flakes falling to the ground.

She takes it all in, the sights and sounds filling this field. All of the different people. The associations tied to the soft skin of a babies back, or the delighted glee of firefly catching in the light of a disappearing sun. Her own memories of giants before they had fallen are stirred of in the cast iron pot of the dying angel along with her own memories of unnoticed intent like that of the swaying hips of the dancer.

And then they begin to leave. One by one, nearly half of the people in the field begin walking to the line of trees bordering the edge of the field. Brother leaving brother, daughter leaving mother, husband leaving wife, families separated from one another. Those that are walking towards the trees do not look back. They walk with purpose, their heads up and their gaze straight. Those that are left behind seem to be unaware of what is happening. The man keeps tapping away on his blackberry while the flaxen-haired woman resumes her dance. The baby cries in its crib. The banjo still plays as the children make rings that glow from the stolen firefly lights. The pot stands unattended.

That is when she sees the dying angel making her way toward the trees. She is sobbing and holds her arms straight by her sides her fists clenched as if she is willing herself to go forward and her clenched fists are the only things keeping her from going back. She is no longer holding a baby and there is such an emptiness now along with the tired, haggard, worn look in her eyes. Tears have made streaks down her dirty cheeks. The brown strand has come loose once more but this time she leaves it be and it sticks to her cheek in one of the tracks of her tears.

She shouts to the woman. She shouts for her to stop.

“Don’t go! You don’t have to go!”

Then she runs. She catches up to the woman before she reaches the opening in the tree line. It is dark. She cries for her to stop, and though the dying angel continues to sob with such exquisite anguish, she does not look back. And then she is gone.

She wants to follow the woman but she is afraid. She looks back over her shoulder at those left behind in the field. They are oblivious. She is filled with an overwhelming urge to stay with these people, to not leave them behind, and at the same time is drawn to the dark opening in the trees, to follow her dying angel into the unknown. As she is frozen with confusion and an awful indecision a man comes to stand beside her. He is nondescript with no distinguishable characteristics other than the sound of his voice. It’s the tide rolling in and being pulled back out, filled not just with his own voice but that of her father’s who has long been gone. It contains that voice and so many other unrecognizable voices all blended together, all speaking in unison.

“What has happened? Why did they leave?”

He looks at her with kindness and explains quite plainly, “We are all dead. The people who have entered the trees have realized that. They are moving on. The people in the field have yet to realize it, so they will continue to relive everything over and over. They will be stuck until they too come to realize it.”

She does not find herself filled with horror or shock or disbelief. She does not find herself filled with anything but the image of the dying angel sobbing with grief, her calloused hands clenched into fists. Then she looks once again over her shoulder and sees the baby that once laid in the tired arms of the dying angel, surrendered in the grass at the feet of the banjo picker.

She finds herself standing in the middle of a field that opens up to a dusk emblazoned sky. It could have been any field in any town. People are milling about, some have camps set up around small fires. Various music from throughout the decades can be heard playing on small transistor radios scattered across the field, seventies disco falling into seventies rock clashing with the doo wop of the fifties and punk of the eighties. It could have been any field in any town

Waiting for Godot burst on the scene, or rather stage, in 1953. Written by Samuel Beckett on the heels of WWII, which finally ended with a literal bang when the atom bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, post-modernism and the theater of the absurd was ushered in with the two act play considered highly existential in theme and concept. Existentialism is “identified with a cultural movement that flourished in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s”  stemming from the philosophy of Jean Sartre and contains all of the characteristics – “dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, nothingness, and so on” – that are contained within Godot (Existentialism). Waiting for Godot follows two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who wait for an unknown entity named Godot. If the –ot is taken away from the name Godot, the remaining word is God. If -ot is looked at separately from God-, it could very well be the beginning of the word other – other from God, or the self as it pertains to the individual.

god

Though considered existentialist in theme, in regards to the self, it is also a play about the existence of God. During a time when the prosperity of modern society of the 1950’s wrestled with the threat of annihilation aroused by communism, Beckett explores the struggle of the individual to define self, or man’s existence, and how to reconcile himself to God. Through the examination of Christian symbolism within the play and through the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard and Fredrick Nietzsche, the struggle of man to reconcile himself to God in an increasingly godless world will be explored.

The setting for Godot can be seen as a representation for the destruction brought about by the atomic bomb and war itself – desolate and empty but for a tree, which is one of the major religious symbols that remains throughout the play.

tree4

The tree acts as the meeting place, the place in which Vladimir (Didi) and Estrogon (GoGo) are to wait for Godot or God. In scripture the tree relates to the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified therefor opening the door for man’s repentance followed by God’s forgiveness – reconciliation.

je

There is also a relation to the tree Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, hung himself from in unrepentant guilt. In order for man to be reconciled to God, one must first acknowledge the gift of Christ on the tree or cross which allows for forgiveness of man’s sins. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness and without forgiveness there is no reconciliation.

ju

Upon finding the possible willow tree, DiDi notes that it is dead in which GoGo replies, “No more weeping.” DiDi says that perhaps it is not the season. This is another very meaningful phrase. The idea that there is a season for everything under heaven in a man’s life is found in the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3: 1-8. Many things that occur in the play are mentioned in these verses.

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“A time to weep, and a time to laugh” is verified by Pozzo: “The tears of the world are in constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another one stops. The same is true of laughter” (Act I).

“A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” is displayed when GoGo refuses to embrace DiDi as he is first taking his boot off and then again when DiDi refuses to embrace GoGo before finally relenting.

“A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” and “a time to mourn, and a time to dance” is illustrated through the character of Lucky who dances on command and is silent until he is demanded to “think.” Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes “to spare future generations the bitterness of learning through their own experience that life is meaningless apart from God” (Proverbs, 1348). It appears throughout the play the characters struggle with the futility of their lives as they are waiting for Godot: “There is nothing to be done.”

lucky

 

The idea of repentance is brought up by DiDi in the beginning of Act I, “Suppose we repented?” GoGo enquires what they should repent of in which DiDi says they would not have to go into detail. This is a crucial part to understanding why DiDi is unable to be reconciled with God or why Godot never shows up. Reconciliation is based on repentance which was bought for man with Christ’s blood at the cross. To skip the details of ones’ sins they are repenting of would defeat the purpose. This empty repentance would just be a delay and according to Kierkegaard leads to delusion and if “it is unable to check itself…it goes on and on: then it is called perdition” (25).

As the play unfolds, the physical pain in the form of the beatings GoGo receives and emotional pain as is seen in DiDi and GoGos willingness on more than one occasion to commit suicide (regardless of the possible erection), along with the bareness, the confusion, the despair, and loneliness are felt in a seemingly never ending circle which could certainly be construed as perdition, damnation, or hell on earth.

In Act I, after GoGo’s foot pain and DiDi’s unknown pain (possibly related to his nether regions) are compared, GoGo asks Didi what he expects when he always waits until the last minute. Kierkegaard refers to this as the eleventh hour and describes it as such, “How still everything is, as if it were the midnight hour; how sober, as if it were the hour of death; how lonely, as if it were among the tombs; how solemn, as if it were within eternity. Oh, heavy hour of labor…when account is rendered, yet there is no accuser there…Oh eleventh hour, how terrible if Thou shouldst remain, how much more terrible than if death should continue through a whole life” (27). The meeting place is certainly still until Pozo and Lucky enter. It is desolate and barren. The aspect of eternity in the eleventh hour is displayed in the conversation between DiDi and GoGo:

Estragon: And if he doesn’t come?

Vladimir: We’ll come back tomorrow.

Estragon: And then the day after tomorrow.

Vladimir: Possibly

Estrogen: And so on.

DiDi states, “Hope deferred maketh the something sick, who said that?” (Beckett). The passage refers to Proverbs 13:12, and interestingly enough, the completion of that verse is as follows, “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” The persistence GoGo and particularly DiDi to continue to wait for Godot can reasonably be considered a longing. The fact that the tree is dead represents the fact that DiDi and GoGo’s longing has not been fulfilled.

“We may despair from ever being able to bridge the chasm, or we may develop faith. If we despair, we will try and get rid of the chasm by annulling one side or the other, either self or God” (Leone, 66). This attempt to nullify God comes when DiDi begins a discussion about the two thieves who were crucified along with Christ.

thieves

DiDi tells GoGo that one of the thieves was saved while the other was damned. He is convinced of the four gospels, only one mentions this. While it is true only Luke mentions any detail about the exchange between Christ and the thieves, the other three gospels do mention the thieves, and not one of them say that the thieves abused Christ as DiDi insisted. Also, only two of the authors of the gospels were disciples of Christ. Mark and Luke were companions of the apostle Paul. The attempt to contradict the scripture, which is believed to be the inspired word of God, or to misremember them is a common occurrence in attempting to prove their illegitimacy and thereby God’s illegitimacy.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being reconciled to God is the lack of faith in God’s existence. Fredrick Nietzsche pronounced the death of God in the late 1800’s in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘Whither is God…Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?’ (Soccio, 527). This idea of chaos without the anchor of religion is seen in the stage directions as the characters move in all directions and in the character of Lucky who must stop, go, turn, backward, etc. The news of Godot’s delay (God’s death) has not yet reached DiDi and GoGo however. Conflicted between resisting the urge to leave (kill Godot in a manner) and killing himself, Didi insists on waiting in a perpetual purgatory of sorts. There is still a small hope that Godot will come (God lives) but the seeds of Nietzsche’s brand of philosophy (God is dead) born out of man’s scientific revelations is fighting to take root.

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By the end of the play, no conclusion has arrived. The end is as the beginning. DiDi and GoGo are discussing the tree and whether or not to hang themselves. In Beckett’s day new technologies, home improvements, and luxuries were competing with the trauma from two world wars and the anxiety of communist threats. In the modern world, incredible scientific discoveries such as the ability to grow human life from a petri dish for those who want children but cannot have them is juxtaposed against the ability to destroy human life within the womb of those people who can have children but don’t want them. The same irony and conflict that Beckett faced is the same irony people face today and it is indeed horrifyingly absurd. Though the feeling of meaninglessness and futility remains in the play as it does in life, there is a difference: the tree that was dead at the beginning of the play has five leaves at the end. There is life still in the barren land. This life does not come from science and it does not come from modern man’s newfound liberation from religion, nor does it come from the self.  It comes from faith. Though the reconciliation of man to God does not come to fruition in Waiting for Godot, faith still remains.

 

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Soren. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Watchmaker Publishing. Trans. Douglas V. Steere. 2013.

Leone, George. Kierkegaard’s Existentialism: The Theological Self and the Existential Self. Bloomington: iUniverse LLC. 2014. Print.

Proverbs. Life Application Study Bible NIV. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. Print.

Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1998. Print.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson first published his short novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the year 1885. Technically, Stevenson is considered part of the Victorian Era, the period of time between Romanticism and Modernism when Queen Victoria ruled England, a time in which the idea of propriety, manners, and position were increasingly important. However, “Victorian writing saw the seeds of rebellion against such idealized notions and stereotypical codes of conduct” (Kirschen). The seeds of rebellion, which made fertile the ground for the following modernist movement, came in the form of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If there is any doubt of Stevenson’s modernist inclinations, one only needs to compare Jekyll with the foremost representation of the modernist movement – T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The similarity in description, setting, and character between the two leave no doubt Stevenson was a modernist before his time.

One of the most striking similarities between Jekyll and “Prufrock” is in the description. Industry, which began in earnest in the eighteenth century with inventions such as the steam engine and the Spinning Ginny, continued with a fury, changing the landscape of England. Farming communities gave way to urban communities as people flocked to the city to become laborers. “Mid-Victorian prosperity carried grim phenomena in its wake: there were bleak, sooty landscapes; exploited workers; crass materialism was rampant; and philistinism seemed to be the new buzzword which captured the essence of all this ‘progress’” (Kreis). One visual aide used in both Jekyll and Prufrock, which encapsulates this picture of industry, is the imagery of fog. There are multiple definitions for the word fog. Physically it is condensed water vapor lying low to the ground, an obscuring cloud of atmospheric dust or smoke, or a haze which conceals. There is also a mental reference as well in “a state of mental vagueness or bewilderment” (Meriam). Both Stevenson and Eliot use fog not only to describe the environmental consequences of industry but the mental distress it was beginning to have on man as well.

Stevenson uses fog to create an unsettling scene of darkness and secrecy in the reader’s mind, hinting at what is hidden, which is a reflection of modern man’s feeling of a growing darkness and uncertainty spilling forth. “A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours…for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up…the dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare” (Stevenson). Embattled, broken, dismal, changing, muddy, slatternly, mournful, darkness, and nightmare are the descriptive words Stevenson uses in this one passage to pull the reader into this new world which would be coined modern not long after.

The same nightmarish quality is seen in Prufrock forty years later, after the destruction and horror of World War One which would be the impetus to launch people into a steady state of anxiety and alienation, “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” (“Love Song” III. 15-22). Though the fog acts as a metaphor for the pollution of the modern, industrialized world, Eliot also uses it as a metaphor for the mental state man has found himself in, as if a fog or haze has descended on his reality.

While the use of the same imagery, as is seen in the description of the fog, is an important correlation between Stevenson and Eliot, the setting also ties the two works together. Both Stevenson and Eliot use the urban city of London as their setting. In one regard, the reader is given a surface view pleasing to the mind, “The street was small and what is called quiet, but it drove a thriving trade on the weekdays…the shop fronts stood along that thoroughfare with an air of invitation, like rows of smiling saleswomen…and with its freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note, instantly caught and pleased the eye of the passenger” (Stevenson). This superficial view of life, of a proper society filled with citizens conducting themselves appropriately, achieving success and prospering, was important until it came into serious question during the modern era and discarded altogether in the post-modern era. As a true modernist who is beginning to see the edges of his socially-constructed world fray, Stevenson questions one version of society by illuminating the opposite version of society, “a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street. It was two storeys high; showed no window, nothing but a door on the lower storey and a blind forehead of discoloured wall on the upper; and bore in every feature, the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence. The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages” (Stevenson).

Eliot attempts to reconcile the two realities as well. He speaks of one reality with “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets / after the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor” (“Love Song” XIV. 99-103). This reality can hardly be considered concrete when set against the following, “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 (“Love Song” I. 4-9). It is the battle between these two contradicting realities, one filled with tea and marmalade and talk of Michelangelo while the other is filled with cheap hotels, saw dust floors and insidious intent, which defines them both as modern.

Aside from the descriptive aspect and the similar settings, the most powerful correlation is that of character and theme. One of modernisms major themes is of man feeling alienated, consumed with anxiety that is overwhelming to the point of impotence. Stevenson’s Jekyll and Eliot’s Prufrock both embody those qualities. Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self. In one respect, he is a well-respected, highly-regarded Doctor. He fits the Victorian mold of manners and respectability but below the “fog” there lies another hidden part of him, one that revels in drinking and debauchery and lust – all of the things society frowns on. It is a more primal side of his personality and the two conflict with each other causing Jekyll to be overcome with angst. Prufrock also seems to be a respectable member of society with his morning coat and a rich and modest tie “asserted by a simple pin” with “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (“Love Song” VI. 42-43). But like Jekyll, Prufrock battles an inner desire, “And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully / 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?” (“Love Song” XII. 75-80). Though Jekyll and Prufrock both are battling the duality of their personalities, the difference between the two is that Jekyll attempts to resolve his inner conflict while Prufrock remains impotent.

As Jekyll battles with conflicting aspects of his inner self, “It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements” he seeks out an elixir that will allow him to separate the more noble and socially accepted side of his character from the baser side. This results in him becoming not only alienated from himself but from society as well. Instead of a reconciliation, he has divided himself and as result one part must die so that the other can live.

While Prufrock suffers from the same internal battle, perhaps it is his deep seated insecurity that prevents him in taking action as Jekyll did. Prufrock is so immersed in his vision and revision and his hundred indecisions he remains trapped within his own head (“Love Song” V. 32-33). In the end, his disabling anxiety prevents him from claiming any part of himself thus being a whole version and a part of society as well. As a result he dies over and over again, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed / red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (“Love Song” XX. 129-131).

While T.S. Eliot might be considered one of the most influential modernist poets in history, there was another who came before who explored modern themes. Robert Louis Stevenson broke new ground with The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde exploring such modern themes as man’s duality and inner consciousness and alienation. Both Stevenson and Eliot use similar description, setting, and character to reflect the inner turmoil of the Victorian sensibility and the evolving modern mentality. Though Stevenson does not belong to the modernist period, his story of Jekyll seems to mirror that of Eliot’s Prufrock. There is a battle in both story and poem, both Jekyll and Prufrock, between conflicting sides of their inner selves resulting in death for Jekyll and an infinite alienation for Prufrock.

 

Works Cited

Eliot. T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Kreis, Steven. “Lecture 25: The Age of Ideologies (3): The World of Auguste Comte.” The History Guide.  2012 Web. 31 July 2016.

Stevenson, Robert. Stevenson, Robert Louis. Project Gutenberg EBook #E-43: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 26 Nov 2012. David Widger. Web. 30 Jun 2016.

Kirschen, Robert. “The Victorian Period.” UNLV. 28 October 2011. Web. 31 July 2016.

 

I have a small twitch inside of my brain,

A terribly tricky and ticklish tick.

A thing in itself that is quite insane;

A thing in itself that is truly sick.

 

It crawls and it slithers, it finds its way;

It screeches aloud and calls me by name.

A sound like madness, like death, like decay,

It fills me with comfort covered in shame.

 

Yet in the darkness within my own mind,

There grows a light with a gentle fierce air.

It covers the twitch with a love refined,

So the twitch and the tick sleep unaware.

 

There is a hope within discourse divine,

That sorrow’s terror can be redefined.

I am not you.

I can live

in this black shoe

laced so tight

my toes are blue.

I am not you.

You dug up the earth

before the grass grew

before the worms

were even through.

But I suppose

you always knew

when they finally

came for you

you’d choke yourself

on that achoo.

But I am not you.

When the word modern is uttered, the initials T.S. come to mind. When the word poetry is mentioned, the name Eliot follows. T.S. Eliot, in a word, exemplifies what modern poetry is all about.

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A Young Eliot.

Eliot began one of his greatest poems at the dawn of the twentieth century amidst the increasing industrialization, never-before-seen technological inventions like subways and telephones, and urbanization which resulted in overcrowded conditions in cities. Western civilization was changing at a rapid rate which resulted in an upheaval of the social collective consciousness. Eliot portrays this sense of psychological and, to an extent, physical alienation as a result of industrialization, technology, and urbanization in his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

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Fleet Street 1900s.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Poetry magazine in 1915 at the persistent entreaty of Ezra Pound who became Eliot’s mentor (Byam, 365). World War One had begun the previous year, and due to the technological advances, the devastation and death wrought by mankind against mankind was unlike anything ever seen before. Machine guns and deadly gases killed more and more effectively, and trench warfare turned the beautiful, natural landscape into a scene of dread and mud. The War was a turning point for mankind. The knowledge that man was capable of inflicting death and destruction on one another and the Earth scarred people with a certain insecurity. In a way, no one was safe any longer.

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Though the War is not referenced in “Love Song” as it is in “The Wasteland,” the alienation and insecurity is still very much present. Eliot introduces the poem with an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno. This excerpt is of the character, Guido da Monteleltro, who relays his disgrace to Dante because he believes Dante is trapped in hell and will not be able to tell anyone on Earth. As Barbara Manca points out, “It enlightens the perspective with which the poem has to be read: a love song that Prufrock tells with no intention of directing it towards the loved one, or towards anyone at all” (258).

After the introduction, the poem begins with one of the grimmest images and suggests to the reader that this is not going to be a Keats’ love poem by any stretch of the imagination. “Let us go then, you and I / when evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table” (“Love Song” I. 1-3).  An etherized patient is one who has been numbed and can no longer feel pain. This can be related to Prufrock’s own numbness or to the world’s in general. With the rapid cultural changes (think changing morals like “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels” and  greater excesses all leading up to the Great Depression), urbanization, technological advances like automobiles, subways, telephones, along with the global war, and it is easy to fathom the kind of subconscious shock and numbness that would ensue.

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Prufrock continues, “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets…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” (“Love Song” I. 4, 8-12). And what is the question? Prufrock does not say but given his references to the women coming and going and talking about high-falootin and pretentious things such as Michelangelo, one could surmise the question may pertain to the purpose of life. Does Prufrock’s existence, or anyone’s for that matter, mean anything? Is there meaning to such  inconsequential things like Michelangelo, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea…the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets…the novels…the teacups…the skirts that trail” (“Love Song” XIIII-XV. 88, 101-102)? Will it even matter at all if Prufrock would “disturb the universe” and step out of his own head and into life?

Even if the answer is yes it does matter- Prufrock’s descending the stair matters – Prufrock unfortunately suffers an insecurity that makes him impotent. “Time for you and time for me / and time yet for a hundred indecisions / and for a hundred visions and revisions” (“Love Song” V. 32-33). Prufrock is indecisive and the indecision leads him to play out life in visions, in his imagination, where he can revise and alter, and never actually have to live. And yet he can’t help but wonder, “‘Do I dare?’ And ‘Do I dare?’” (“Love Song” VIII. 38).

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Time for you and time for me and time yet for a hundred indecisions and for a hundred visions and revisions.

Though information, at the turn of the century, was able to be relayed much quicker via telegraph, and people were no longer separated by miles and miles of country, in many ways people were more isolated. People were living in apartment rooms, separated from one another by walls. Prufrock mentions these “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” (“Love Song” XI. 72). Because growing industry required labor, cities became increasingly populated. Prufrock describes the effects of industry which paints a polluted and yet highly sensual image, “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” (“Love Song” III. 15-17). This is not only a description of industrialized-smog but also of Prufrock’s own sexual desires. Caught between the Victorian Era with its refined morals and sensibilities and the Jazz Age with its loose morals and sexual liberation, it is no wonder that Prufrock has sexual insecurities.

With Prufrock’s insecurities comes a kind of defeat. He says, “For I have known them all already, known them all / have known the evenings, mornings, and afternoons / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (“Love Song” IX. 49-51). One day that is like the next and the next after that. Prufrock’s life seems to be a tedious strand of redundant moments and this fills him with an anxiety, “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase / and when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin / when I am pinned and wriggling on a wall / then how should I begin” (“Love Song” X. 56-59). Even if he descends the stair, he is already formulated, wrapped up nice and tidy in other people’s perceptions. He’s been labeled with his receding hair line, his thinning arms and legs, and his “collar mounting firmly to the chin” (“Love Song” VIII. 41-42, 45).

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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 –

The idea that Prufrock is stuck living the same day in and out under the questionable perceptions of who he is causes an internal crisis. Prufrock seems to desperately want to express himself in a way other than the one he and society has demanded but he is not even sure what he wants to express, “That is not it at all / That is not what I meant at all” (“Love Song” XV. 109-110). It is as if Prufrock is suffering an identity crisis brought on by the convergence of two different eras.

In true Modernist form, there is no conclusion to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The poem ends with Prufrock reflecting on growing older, “I grow old…I grow old / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (“Love Song” XVI. 120-121). He imagines walking on the beach hearing the beautiful mermaids singing to one another but he decides, “I do not think they will sing to me” (“The Love Song” XVIII. 125).

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I have seen them riding seaward on the waves combing the white hair of the waves blown back when the wind blows the water white and black.

The last stanza in the poem is haunting and confirms that the whole experience of the poem has indeed been in the mind of Prufrock. As Prufrock wanders down the streets within his mind, he is insecure, anxious, indecisive, wriggling, and growing old…but he is ok. It is only when Prufrock is pulled back out of his mind and into the real world of true alienation resulting from all of the changes that are taking place at the turn of the century that he truly suffers, “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (The Love Song” XX. 129-131).

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Works Cited

Eliot. T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Manca, Barbara. T. S. Eliot: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: A Close Analysis of Prufrock’s Dramatic Monologue and its Interpretations (Kindle Locations 258-260). Barbara Manca. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    In the late fifties a new form of poetry was taking shape. These poems were of a personal nature and the more personal, the better. This poetry of unrestrained, autobiographical poetry was coined “confessional” by M.L. Rosenthal in 1959 (Bawer, 7). Sylvia Plath is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated confessional poets of the twentieth century. Read More

“In the Waiting Room” is a poem written by a girl reflecting on a past experience of waiting in the reception room of a dentist’s office, looking at a 1918 issue of National Geographic (noted for its articles on anthropology, nature, and culture) while her aunt is keeping a dentist appointment.

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.

It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

From the opening stanza, Elizabeth paints a very ordinary picture and describes specifically where the poem is taking place – in the waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts. Nothing so unusual about that. She then shifts the mood by describing it as winter, which is the season most associated with death or a state of sleeping. Darkness comes early and can also symbolize death or the subconscious.

We know the poem is about a young girl because she describes the other people waiting in the room as “grown-up people,” specifically notes that she can read, and later mentions that she will be seven in three days (three days can also represent resurrection). While the poem begins in an outward setting, it soon turns inward to Elizabeth’s own psyche.

My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

As she is studying and not merely gazing at the pictures in the magazine, she describes a volcano, “black, and full of ashes.” This imagery resembles death and cremation but is  followed by a spilling over of “rivulets of fire” possibly symbolizing an awakening and overflowing of Elizabeth’s own emotions and thoughts.

Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.

The description of the picture of two famous explorers in proper civilized attire juxtaposed against a picture of a dead man slung on a pole causes a sense of confusion. How can one exist at the same time as the other? The strange pictures of pointy-headed babies, women with wired necks and “horrifying breasts” alarms Elizabeth. We can see her attempt to make sense of what she is seeing by comparing the wired neck to a light bulb which is something familiar. The double use of the word round illustrates just how intense the image is but could also symbolize the concept of eternity which is the equivalent of insanity.

I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t.  What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I find it interesting the contradiction Elizabeth shows when she writes she was “too shy to stop” reading the magazine implying her own timidity and then follows that with her declaration that her aunt is a foolish, timid woman when she hears her aunt cry out in pain. Elizabeth then has a moment of realizing it is also herself who cries out in pain (on the inside) and she and her aunt are one.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

She follows this train of thought by asking what makes her different from these grown-ups in the waiting room, the pointy-headed babies, the wired-necked women with long hanging breasts, and the dead man slung on the pole.

This is what one would refer to as an existentialist flippin crisis. Kind of heavy for a six-year-old. Her identity becomes untethered at this point as she is free floating or free-falling in the idea of humanity.

Before Elizabeth anchors herself back to the reality of the bright, hot, waiting room on a cold February day in the year 1918, she questions why she should be any of them, what makes her one of them, what makes her different, how has she come to even be there and what did any of it even mean?

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

Then just like that she is “back in it.” She restates the town and state where she is, the weather and date, and the fact that the War is still on. She comes out of herself and into “reality” although her perception of reality must certainly have shifted.

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I really enjoyed this poem immensely and the idea that it was from a child’s perspective made it even more affecting. The idea of the innocence of childhood being lost in the immensity of humanity and all that entails (think of the devastation of the war and the dead man slung on the pole) is even more profound because Elizabeth is a child.

 

 

 

The most intriguing and dangerous characteristic of postmodernism explored, specifically and to an uncanny degree in Watt, is the idea that truth is not objective as previously believed, but subjective. This idea of subjectivity in regards to truth, which plays out through the character of Watt, is not an original premise. Friedrich Nietzsche expounded the idea thirty years earlier in his book, Beyond Good and Evil. Watt mirrors the philosophy of Nietzsche, one in which man has indeed killed God and in the process truth. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the prophetic tone of it, “But just under the surface…lay a fatal, festering cultural sickness: modernity” (Soccio 570).  Watt is a perfect example of Nietzsche’s prognosis of the modern sickness – death of meaning by postmodernism.

“WHAT really is this ‘Will to Truth’ in us…Granted that we want the truth: WHY NOT RATHER untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth presented itself before us—or was it we who presented ourselves before the problem? Which of us is the Oedipus here? Which the Sphinx…And could it be believed that it at last seems to us as if the problem had never been propounded before, as if we were the first to discern it, get a sight of it, and RISK RAISING it? For there is risk in raising it, perhaps there is no greater risk” (Nietzsche 3). As Nietzsche argues, there is a definite risk in destroying the concept of God and with it the concept of an objective truth. In a present day cultural sense, this loss of meaning due to subjectivity can be seen in the concept of marriage. No longer is marriage between a man and woman, but now it is between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Now marriage is no longer considered a life-long commitment to one person until “death do them part” but a life-long commitment until one person or the other is no longer committed for life and decides to remake the life-long commitment with a different person. This loss of meaning can also be found now in the subjective meaning of sex and gender. One does not need the DNA any longer to decide sex or gender. Science and one’s own will are the determining factor now.

The loss of meaning in such traditional institutions as marriage and natural, biological occurrences as sex can be related to the scene in Watt where he begins lamenting over a pot which is no longer a pot. “Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot…For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all” (Beckett 81). When one reflects on what it means to be a man or a woman, one must certainly realize it has lost its exclusive meaning with hormone therapy and transgender operations. As it is with the idea of marriage. The more one reflects on marriage and its subjective meaning the more one realizes that it is not really marriage at all. “It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptional adequacy, all the purposes, and preformed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot” (Beckett 81).

Nietzsche writes about those not renouncing objectivity, that they will “in the end always prefers a handful of “certainty” to a whole cartload of beautiful possibilities; there may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something” (7). But it can be equally argued that when multiple meanings are given to one thing then it, in effect, loses all meaning. Therefore that cartload of beautiful possibilities is meaningless as is that “uncertain something.” Perhaps what lies beneath the argument of objectivity versus subjectivity is not truth but meaning. As Watt concludes, “And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished. For then he would not have said, This is a pot, and yet not a pot, no, but then he would have said, This is something of which I do not know the name” (81).

In conclusion, perhaps one should ask, just what is the risk Nietzsche was referring to in rejecting objective truth and embracing subjectivity. What is the risk of trading in the handful of certainty for the cart full of beautiful possibilities? What is the risk sacrificing the true pot for one that resembles it but lacks meaning? If the story of Watt is taken into consideration, the story of his confusion, his pain, and his institutionalization, then the risk Nietzsche is referring to is insanity – a collective and individual insanity. Is it worth the risk?

 

Sources

Beckett, Samuel. Watt. NY: Grove Press. 1953. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. NY: Random House. 1966. Print.

Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing. 1998. Print.

Samuel Beckett’s novel, Watt, is a perfect example of postmodernist literature. From the unreliable narrator (an inmate at an insane asylum certainly qualifies) to the temporal shifts (the beginning of the story does not actually appear in chapter one), Beckett takes the reader on a strange often times incomprehensible postmodern journey. The post-modern characteristic that really makes an impact is Beckett’s use of magical realism – a method which fuses incredible, whimsical, or impossible scenarios into a narrative so that the abnormal seems normal. The scene in which this technique is illustrated beautifully is in part three in which the narrator, Sam, is wandering alone in his garden in the insane asylum until he is compelled towards the fence.

Sam and Watt once walked together in a mutual garden but eventually Watt is transferred and so walks in a different garden. Sam begins to make an account of meeting Watt after being separated, “Then one fine day, of unparalleled brightness and turbulence, I found my steps impelled, as though by some external agency, towards the fence.” From the beginning of his account, the reader is given a picture of incomparable and unusual brightness. Then, he is compelled by some unknown force to walk to the fence which he would “never have gone near…under any circumstances.” The garden and the strolling in the garden are both very real and reasonable things. However, intermixed with the unusual brightness and the great commotion or agitation, or perhaps irregular atmospheric motion, depending on which definition of turbulence is applied, as well as the unknown force compelling Sam’s trajectory and there is most definitely a sense of something magical afoot.

Sam inspects the wall and comes to the conclusion there is an adjoining garden and within the adjoining garden is Watt walking backwards toward Sam, “His progress was slow and devious, on account no doubt of his having no eyes in the back of his head, and painful too.”  Sam describes Watt as bumping into the trees, getting caught in brambles, briars, nettles, and thistles. It appears to be a struggle, and a painful one, for Watt to walk the distance of the garden because for an inexplicable reason he chooses to walk backwards. Can Watt be under some invisible compulsion as it seems Sam is?

When Watt finally reaches the fence, the fence where Sam is observing, Watt turns around to most likely walk backwards back the way he came. Sam is able to see his face and the image that is described inspires a mixture of feelings, “His face was bloody, his hands also, and the rest of his front, and thorns were in his scalp.” Sam remarks on the resemblance of Watt to a Bosh painting of Christ. At the moment the image of Christ comes to Sam, he seems to have an existentialist moment where he feels he is standing before a mirror in which his garden, the birds, his very self is being reflected so much so that he feels his face to make certain that he is not in fact the one with blood and thorns. It is a moment when Sam is unable to tell his reality from Watt’s, where the two magically, if only for a moment, become one.

In Watt fashion, he asks Sam (starting from the end of the sentence to the beginning) for a hanky to wipe away the blood which strikes at the compassionate chord in Sam. He astonishingly enough manages to find a large, irregular hole in his fence in which he can crawl to the opening between the two gardens. He is surprised to find the exact same hole in the fence to Watt’s garden and speculates wildly about raging bulls filled with carnal desires or relentless rain that might have made such a hole.

Watt is no longer visible but when Sam cries out to him he emerges from behind a tree with his pants on backwards. He proceeds to walk backwards to Sam until Sam can pull him through the hole so that they are both standing together in the area between the two gardens. Sam pulls out a cloth, ointment, a hand comb, and a cloth brush from his pocket. It is certainly absurd he would have these items going for a leisurely walk but there is also a sort of magic to it. Sam anoints Watt’s face and hands (like the face and hands of a crucified Christ) as if he were a prophet, set apart to do a task for God.

Then ensues a dance, or what might be considered a dance. With their hands on each other’s shoulders they move back and forth as if man were dancing with Christ and as Sam describes, “Then turning, as one man, we paced back the way we had come, I looking whither we were going, and he looking whence we were coming.” Though it is clear, on the surface, that one sanitarium inmate found another and perhaps they are both insane pacing back and forth in an embrace, the image the reader takes away is a magical moment in between two gardens (perhaps one is Eden and the other earth) where man and God are reconciled.

Though Beckett used many components of postmodernism such as absurdity, irony, and black humor, it is his use of magical realism in the garden scene between Sam and Watt that is the most beautiful and touching throughout the entire novel. It is also through this component of magical realism that Beckett is able to rejoice in the constantly shifting and fragmented world with its subjectivity. As Sam says it best, “To be together again, after so long, who love the sunny wind, the windy sun, in the sun, in the wind, that is perhaps something, perhaps something.”