It’s nearly midnight on a syrupy Saturday evening, and in classic form, I wait until the very last moments before sleep to pick my way through The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for English class. After having perused it multiple times, I realize now that it’s a great work that provides a lengthy rumination of life and love from the perspective of an emotional mess of a man, managing to consolidate his rambling stream of consciousness and constant doubts into an amalgamation of human inadequacy that ends, strangely, at the bottom of the ocean, but the person reading it then, under the weak glow of a tableside lamp, is wholly and willfully ignorant of this, choosing instead to perform first a cursory scan of the pages.
The first line that catches my eye is a strange one: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws,” it reads, and suddenly, the intangible crystallizes in my mind, a picture of a twitching, neurotic creature, blessed and cursed by Mother Nature with a weapon that keeps everything at a cautious distance. For some inexplicable reason, a wave of loneliness rises in my chest, and when it finally crests it hits me like a sucker punch to the gut.
The wall clock’s tone is lethargic, each quiet tock a worn-down nub of monosyllabic asthenia, but that of the poem’s is now far less detached, far closer to home – even with my drooping eyelids and a neck solidifying into what feels like a cement slab, I fervently channel every ounce of my remaining energy into strip-mining stanzas for meaning, scrawling down brief, confused notes, and feeling more despondent by the word (all of which end up only half-done, as it turns out, as time’s passage finally lulls me to sleep, the ticking in the background deceptively subtle like the fine print of a contract.) I drift off to a bleak mental tapestry of an isolated Prufrock picking at scraps under the sea, miles away from anything and anyone, sustaining himself on waste and refuse and decomposing fragments of the world above.
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.
I posit that there’s a Prufrock in all of us. What I think of now as I go through the repetitive motions of the day, bell to bell, class to class, is getting to the next, but something about it feels so deeply impersonal, so utterly routine, that I find myself wondering if I’m allowed to condense my life in such a way. Nietzsche’s and his theory of eternal recurrence express this in a way that is monumentally profound: if you were to imagine that every action you take in life will be taken again, innumerable times, in the very same succession and sequence, would you be satisfied? It’s a question that encourages living life vicariously and to the fullest, but it’s also a question that most of us are afraid to answer.
Prufrock, for one, is petrified: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he admits; “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” he laments; “And in short, I was afraid.” In a way, his newfound urgency as he watches his construction of frozen time crumble apart, as he sees himself age and grow old, is something that I, and other fellow students, know well. For seniors, the prospect of leaving familiar things behind is simultaneously intoxicating and paralyzing. For juniors, the looming threat of college admissions is imminent. For sophomores, it’s the anxiety of fitting in, of being alternatively buoyed and buffeted by the ebb and flow of the school’s lifeblood. For freshmen, the navigation a new and unfamiliar place is the highest measure of social affirmation, but pressure from above makes it strenuously difficult.
They say that time in the greatest currency, and indeed it is time that we all want more of. I’ve seen that desire latch onto honors students like a malicious jellyfish, who all wear the symptoms of sleep deprivation like badges of honor. “I stayed up studying for math,” says someone, slumped on her desk with purple shadows bruised beneath her eyes, and another shoots her an understanding, conspiratorial glance, tossing back, “I think I average three hours per night, tops.”
Since when did we learn to equate suffering with success? Why is it when I watch a friend pass out after pulling an all-nighter to finish an essay that I think of dainty lotus feet, the result of Chinese foot-binding, a reciprocal exchange of pain and beauty and beauty and pain? I read the despairing tweets of a classmate about the uncertain future from behind the blue light of a computer screen, and their exhaustion bleeds into box after box of succinct text succinct phrase until saturated with sadness.
However, I think we should remember Prufrock’s struggle as something that’s larger than all of us as well. Remember that while life is a game of inches, the inches you give and the inches you take are of your volition. If life is constantly in motion, then sailing on or dropping anchor is a choice, and this ownership of self is a powerful one.
Let the concept of Prufrock, stuck in a soliloquy mourning the brokenness of an unfair world, be an incentive to take risks. For him, there is only one exit out – a door into reality. He knows that it’s there, hanging over the expanse of turbulent waters; all he has to do is dare to act. Learn from him, and Nietzsche, and the onward march of progress:
If suffering is school, then it, too, shall pass.