Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
-T. S. Eliot


T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Choosing to only write about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock felt a little bit like choosing which pet to take with me out of a burning building. I feel like a traitor for not talking about The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday, or The Four Quartets (The latter makes me feel particularly guilty, since it is arguably my favorite poem of all time and the namesake for this blog). I will spend the next several hundred words explaining to myself why my decision is okay, mainly by attempting to make everything I've been thinking about this poem sound as cool as possible.

So. Prufrock is like, really cool.

Okay okay okay, I know I don't have to work that hard to make this poem worth talking about. So where do I begin?

Prufrock references two of Western literature's most famous texts in a way that feels neither showy nor unexplained. Yet as someone who has read both Divine Comedy and Hamlet more than once, it took me a little while before the implications of these references took hold. I think that means Eliot did it right.

A quotation from Book XXVII in Dante's Inferno prefaces the poem itself, so thinking about Dante was pretty unavoidable. While this particular Inferno passage dealt with the secrets the dead reveal when they believe no one will be able to return to the world above with information, the connection to Dante as a character that is established has interesting implications. Comparing himself in some way to Dante was not uncommon for Eliot; he dedicated The Wasteland to Ezra Pound by quoting one of Dante's descriptions of Virgil. But this allusion seems a little more involved than that.

Like Dante, Prufrock and his unknown guest are on a journey toward a woman. They both identify themselves as being middle-aged. But the similarities seem to stop there. Dante loves Beatrice. Prufrock does not love the woman or women he is meeting-- though he may long for their acceptance, he actually seems to think their life of parlor-chat and tea is exclusive and petty. Dante feels completely understood by Beatrice, and is led through dangerous situations with her guidance. Prufrock feels completely misunderstood by society women, to the point that he questions whether it is worth it to even attempt to express himself to them. Loving Beatrice saves Dante and allows him to behold Paradise; Prufrock compares the women and their mesmerizing "chamber" to mermaids who lure you underwater to your death.

Though Hamlet is often on my mind, I would not have thought to connect his interesting relationship with women to this discussion unless Eliot had nudged me in that direction. Prufrock seems to bring up the Prince of Denmark only to illustrate that rather than seeing himself as a main character in the scope of things, he perceives himself as more like Polonius; long-winded, easily used, and far less important than Hamlet himself. But a little reflection on Hamlet's own character made me realize that Prufrock is much more like Hamlet than he claims. Hamlet, like Prufrock, has a difficult time trusting women. While Hamlet struggles with hating Gertrude and Ophelia for what he sees as sexual transgressions, Prufrock harbors bitterness toward women because they can so easily and so quickly tear him down. Both men seem paralyzed with indecision, and both are aware of it and unhappy. They are also both acting. Prufrock keeps coming back to little tricks he uses to appear more respectable and hide the signs of his age. Hamlet puts on a front of insanity in order to plot his revenge against Claudius. Both men seem to believe that the facade is necessary; they seem unable to function honestly in society without their outer front.

What am I supposed to think of Prufrock? Why am I given two very different, very famous men to compare him to? I'm inclined to associate him more with Hamlet, but Prufrock rejects that label for a more minor one. Above all else, this poem makes me wonder how hard we should have to work to be understood. It seems like the world of upper-class salons and parlor discussions of fine art do not facilitate real communication or charitable behavior, and Prufrock is exasperated by it. He longs for acceptance to the point that he would rather be a crab at the bottom of the ocean than a human, connecting his desire to move amongst the women in the parlor with the freedom of a crab in the caves of mermaids-- although he may be no more than a beast, at least he won't drown.


G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

 I have had children and myths on the brain lately. It's mostly because I've been reading a lot of Plato, and Plato was concerned with the huge effect stories have on how children grow up. So when I got to the part in Orthodoxy where G. K. Chesterton writes about how children perceive magic, I was all ears.

Chesterton begins by proving that many adults wrongly attribute magical phenomena to nonexistent laws. Strangely enough, my public school 10th grade trigonometry class covered this. In a particularly philosophical moment, our teacher told us that probability mandates that there is only a 50/50 chance that the sun will rise the next day after it has set in the evening. Although it has risen for millions of mornings in a row, each sunrise occurs independently of those that come before it-- every morning, it is just as likely that the sun will not appear as it is that it will. So while adults believe that the sun must rise, it is in fact magical when it happens each day because according to probability it was just as likely not to happen at all. 

This perspective allows those things which are often mistaken as"normal" to be properly understood as magical. Repetition in nature is no longer God creating things according to an arbitrary system: Chesterton points out that perhaps each daisy in a field looks the same not because it must, but because God delights in making each one to look the same. He has not yet gotten bored with the daisy's design, which apparently adults are prone to. The obvious example here is that young children will ask to hear the same story, watch the same movie, or play the same game over and over again until they are stopped by an adult who has grown irritated. This does not indicate a lack of imagination in children-- rather, it shows that normal happenings still retain their rightful magical quality for young ones, while adults can only see magic in things that feel extraordinary.

Chesterton, the master of metaphor, says it thus: "A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door." The consistency of average door-openings is what helps us understand that magical deviation from the norm is indeed magic. But a young child is mesmerized by normalcy itself and recognizes its rightful magical quality. This is why fairy tales are an excellent medium of storytelling for children. They are just as eager to hear a story about a perfectly normal boy doing perfectly normal things as they are to hear a story about the unusual, because both are magical.

What do I conclude from all of this? First, that Chesterton's Orthodoxy sets out to prove a great many things, but clearly this section on magic and children captivated me most. Second, that though it may require little effort to tell a story that a child would be eager to hear, it takes much thought and effort to craft one that is worth their attention. I have recently felt much more respect for children's authors who achieve this, since I think it requires an appreciation for the magical repetition of life and of what is best for children to hear-- a balance that only becomes more difficult to navigate as I grow older.


Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

The cover of this book is blowing my mind right now. Here is the far-away version:

The image is a small section of Caravaggio's The Sacrifice of Isaac, which was painted some time around 1600. But here's the thing that kills me about this:

Isaac is looking straight into the eyes of the viewer. While sitting in my apartment taking a break from reading, I glanced down into my lap to find Isaac pleading with me. In his face you see the confusion, the horror, and the fear of this young son: a son who, in many ways, is living my worst nightmare. A mere rejection by those who love me is pain enough, but Isaac faced execution at the hand of his father with no notice or explanation. All of that is made known in the Biblical account of this story, and is most likely depicted faithfully in the Caravaggio. But the fact that this image in particular appears on the cover of Fear and Trembling brings a whole heap of problems to mind.

So here I am, reading this book about the man of faith. Kierkegaard tells me that Abraham lives the kind of faith that us regular folks can only hope to possess, and goes on demonstrate through the universal and resignation exactly what that faith requires. It's hard for me at first, but I begin to understand his reasoning and his project. I start to see how what he says could be true. But then I take this tea break, and when I come back to my book I am confronted anew with Isaac. All I see of Abraham are hands that resolutely grasp the knife and neck. Rather than staring into the eyes of the man of faith, who I have been so concerned with, I come face to face with his victim.

In this moment, the whole problem of this book comes crashing down on me. How can I reconcile the picture that Kierkegaard paints of Abraham's love for God and Isaac with the clear picture Caravaggio has given me?  In what Isaac thought were his final moments, he saw no love in Abraham's actions. While Abraham's case may be extreme, I can't help but wonder how it is that God could ask us to live with this sort of faith if the love we have for others could, as it did for Isaac, look like abandonment and rejection.

The obvious example that comes to mind is murder. According to what Kierkegaard identifies as the universal, God has set up ethics that indicate the system in which humans rightfully operate. As such, there are some actions that clearly go against the universal, and it is wrong for humans to commit such deeds. One such deed is murder. It goes against the universal to deliberately take the life of another human being. But Kierkegaard claims that when Abraham obeyed God and set out to sacrifice Isaac, he was able to act outside the universal because he was following God. This is faith: to do all that God asks of you without questioning it, and to absolutely believe that everything asked of you will result in immediate happiness so that you never have to hope that God will not truly demand all of you. Clear as mud? Right.

Well, now that that's settled, here's the problem I was faced with. If faith like Abraham's requires God telling you to go against the universal and therefore act outside of ethics, how can we tell when someone is doing wrong and when someone is following God? To Isaac, it must have just looked like his father had gone off the deep end. And that makes me think of those in recent years who have killed and claimed that God directed them. To us, as it did to Isaac, that makes no sense. It looks unethical. It seems to go against everything we believe about God-- why would He ask anyone to disregard His own commandment regarding murder? But Kierkegaard says that the man of faith does not stop to ask why when God commands him to step outside the universal. Rather than wonder what Isaac will think, or doubt that God would ask him to kill the child that was promised to be the first of a constellation of descendants, Abraham believes that God has Isaac's and his own immediate happiness in mind. And Abraham will kill Isaac unless God stops him.

God stops him. But the assumption I leap to is that sometimes, God doesn't stop the man of faith. That means that for all I know, those who murder or do other things I perceive as ethically wrong are just better believers than I am. When there is no other explanation than divine revelation, how according to Kierkegaard can man determine what is just? It seems like a justice system that allowed for men of faith acting outside the universal would be a justice system pandering to the criminal. Can Christians participate in justice and uphold the law if no Christian can say for certain whether a man has acted rightly by his neighbor?

Justice as a claim made by the individual seems fraught with problems; but if we were all men of faith, we would know that such a world would function just as it should because it was ordained by God. Maybe Kierkegaard would say that the reason I can't agree with him is because I am not yet a man of faith. Either way, I can't stop looking at the cover of my book.

It's bizarre that Penguin chose this small part of a painting as the cover of this text. If the focus of the cover had been the depiction of Abraham, I feel like this post would have gone in a very different direction. But Isaac's eyes are distracting and have caused me to ask the questions he must have been asking. The pairing of this early 17th century painting with a mid- 19th century text has caused this 21-st century thinker to scratch her head.


Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents

Though I had not read Civilization and Its Discontents before this week, I was vaguely familiar with it because this text has been referenced incessantly throughout my undergraduate career. It comes up during discussions of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare's Hamlet, literary critical theory classes, and discussions of philosophy. I even taught a class session last spring on Freudian influence in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Did I speak authoritatively on Freud's arguments? Yes. Had I actually read more than a paragraph that was actually written by Freud? No. 

That's what education can do to you if you're not careful: suddenly you're being lectured by a student who met with a teacher who had a class in grad school taught by a professor who read a book written by someone who read Freud. This is not the main reason, but this is a huge reason I value the classical education I have received. My teachers don't simply ask me to dip my toes in the water; they take me to the place where the rock has split open and ask me to stand beneath the falls. 
All that to say, I was very glad to be finally turning the pages that the man himself wrote rather than just throwing around words like "Id" and "Superego" like I knew exactly what I was talking about. 

Here's what I ended up thinking about most: how does what Freud calls happiness line up with how other philosophers define it?

The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, which I studied last spring. There we are told that a man's unalienable rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," thus making happiness something to be freely sought on an individual basis so long as it does not interfere with another man's rights. But Freud makes it plain that he has little respect or patience for America (in Section 5 he states that "the present cultural state of America would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.").  That makes me think that Freud is not thinking of American ideology when he discusses happiness.

Interestingly enough, I have been reading Plato's Phaedrus for a different class this semester. In that text, Socrates explains to Phaedrus the myth of the soul, and that each soul is made up of a charioteer who is driving one good white horse and one ill-behaved black horse. Starting to sound familiar? As I read Freud this week, Plato's ordering of the soul kept reminding me of what Freud has to say about the relationship between the Id, Ego, and Superego.

The distinctions that I draw between these two three-part souls is this: while both souls have happiness as their goal, Freud's soul can only find happiness that is available through physical pleasure in the temporal world. While Plato acknowledges that there is happiness to be had on earth, the Platonic soul is seeking a happiness that will largely come in the afterlife, where each soul struggles to become more like a god. For Freud, the body is the receptacle through which we are able to experience pleasure and thus have happiness; for Plato, the body is an obstacle which interferes with the soul's pursuit of higher happiness by demanding lesser physical pleasures.

Another important distinction seems to be that while Freud recognizes the interaction between the Id, Ego and Superego as a constant war between the conscious, the subconscious, and shame, Plato claims that the soul must exist in perfect harmony among all three parts in order to be truly happy. This requires that the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive impulses of the soul must all be kept in a delicately perfect balance, which enhances the happiness a soul is able to experience. Freud, then, believes that the soul (or internal human process) is one that is defined by war, while Plato sees the ideal soul existing in peace.