I really like the poetry of Eliot that I have had the time and pleasure of reading. This work was once an essay I wrote in college; I have revised it for my blog. I have included some of my own experience to the issue as a bit of exposition; to share with my readers a bit about myself without spinning a long boring narrative. I hope it serves the intended purpose in a thought provoking way.
A recurring topic in the poetry of T.S. Eliot’s work is one I am well acquainted with. It has been a theme that has manifested throughout my life in cycles. It has occurred in the form of both: an objective social alienation akin to the Marx theory of estrangement, and the subjective psychological states of in-communicability and social deprivation/withdrawal. It hits close to home; I was raised in a sort of pseudo-fundamentalist Mormon household near Salt Lake City, I am not a Mormon anymore. The fact that I am not living in Utah might give light to part of my familiarity with alienation. To put it quickly yet rather poorly, I was exiled from my home for my refusal to go on an L.D.S. mission; in some ways it is an exile of my own choosing, and in other ways it is not. I include this not to complain or pander for pity, but because I think it is a little poignant, and I think it is an excellent segue to mention why I find such a powerful connection to the topic of alienation. So without further digression I will move into the intended substance.
To start I may as well define the parameters I am using when I define the term Alienation. I use alienation in two senses: 1) Objective – meaning the physical or social relationships that take the form of oppression or deprivation of a person from the ways of life that normally bring contentment/happiness to human beings (This begs the question ‘what normally brings a human to contentment/happiness?’ This issue is intentionally ill defined since I don’t have time or space to give an account of such a weighty issue; I ask that the reader accept this point as tertiary and pretend it makes perfect sense). 2) Subjective – meaning the mental state that is formed in reaction to scenarios of Objective Alienation. Without digging too deep into Neurobiology and issues such as dendritic pruning, synaptic network re-enforcement, or cognitive behavioral habits; I leave it to be said that once a human being starts a mental habit it can be extremely difficult to break it or to even have the desire to do so.
A great example of the absence of the desire to break psychological habits of subjective alienation occurs in T.S. Eliot’s “The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The most powerful lines in the entire poem for me occur when the narrator relates being told “That is not what I meant at all”. The narrator is clearly in the twilight hours of his life. He seems to be a man of weary experience, someone who has long dealt with people and understands their ways. I take this line to resonate with that feeling one gets when a person says something that reveals far more than they expected it to, and are confronted with the comprehension of their real intention. The author and the woman both know that “That is ‘it’ exactly, and the narrator was supposed to be too old and senile to see through the obfuscation.” The real point of alienation here is when the narrator comes to realize that he may not have been too old and senile to realize the truth, but he is too old and sequestered to do anything about it; as he makes clear in the following lines: “No I am not prince Hamlet nor was I meant to be.” He has no divine charge to intercede, and he recognizes that any intercession toward the point would only be a travesty in the end. Anyone who has been in a relationship long enough to get into a meaningless and endless argument knows this feeling well; it always reminds me of when I used to be married and trying to break through the stonewall my ex-wife would put up. Barriers, rejection, and denial of obvious truths. It can be heart-wrenching. Take a moment and note here that the lack of the desire to break the cycle of subjective alienation directly stems from the realization of being trapped in a double-bind coercive scenario. He knows he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t; so his will to argue and grind out the obvious truth being dismissed completely collapses. He knows he is stuck, there is no way to win, there is no way out, he is simply defeated and so is the truth. God how I have been there, and all you can do once there is to slowly ‘measure your life in coffee spoons’.
Eliot’s “The Wasteland” also has a line that rings within me far louder than anything else: “in the mountains you feel free”. This is the desire to just get away from everything and everyone, to make the psychological alienation into one that is not driven by the uncontrollable social environment, but one that is self-afflicted. In reality it does make sense, the very possession of the desire to flee from society gives a person a sense of control. Coming from northern Utah, the landscape is impressive to say the least. I used to love to escape from society into the canyons and visit the forests and waterfalls. It was the place that fostered my deep love for nature, and at it’s core was the reason I started painting years ago living here in South Texas with no mountains to break the horizon. Mountains are the thing I miss most about Utah, I paint them often because there is no way to capture their pituresque grandeour. I could speak of my love for them in great detail, but I’ll leave that for another post.
Moving on In “The Wasteland” we can see that in part the source of this drive is the approaching end of life, and the realization that the universe will not recognize the passing of any one person, nor will it recognize even the passing of the entirety of humanity. I believe this is why he says that “April is the cruelest Month”. Life will go on its way completely unconcerned for the winter when it is over. It is the same reason I’ve always been more fond of sunsets than of sunrises. As I work on my own sense of optimism I hope that I can begin to balance my love for both.