Thursday, 11 October 2012

Yet another post on J Alfred Prufrock

 ...since it is October, and Autumn's here.

Consider the words:

 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

What do these words, presented in this sequence mean to you? Over the past few months I have seen these words appear and then re-appear in various contexts but almost never in the context that T. S. Eliot was alluding to in his poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. In the majority of cases these words were used to denote a feeling of contentment, even camaraderie– moments spent with friends and coffee; an image of happiness that our generation has inherited from what many consider the epitome of friendship, the TV series ‘Friends’. I’d like to reserve my opinions on the dysfunctional people who were ‘Friends', or the absurdity that was their friendship, and keep them to myself. Though the line being discussed in its original context, now that I think of it, could be argued is quite an apt description of the facile nature of human relationships that the TV series depicted.

But it is Eliot and his words that I often come across and thus often think about.

A lot about the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is and can and must be debated and disputed and discussed, but this is one of the lines in the poem that, in my opinion, there can be no ambiguity about. Especially, given the context in which it is uttered.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

And if I were to quote the entire poem then only one wordy question would remain: Has ever such a direct and unambiguous reference been made to the sense of ennui that results from the disillusionment that is modern society? To the abysmal emptiness that underlies most social interaction. I have known them all– the listless conversations, the bland coffee, the dull gestures, the fake smiles– the mere consideration fills one up with a sense of, well, ennui.

But in the past few months whenever I have read these lines they were being used to connote something quite the exact opposite of ennui. I am quite positive if I’d have put the question to them not one would have said that the line had been used to indicate that they were bored. Or prove how banal their daily existence was. Or how dreary social conventions are.

Isn’t it incredible how when a set of words is removed from their intended context then they can come to mean almost anything? They can justify any belief, falsify any fact, and muddle even the simplest, clearest of all logical premises.

I know, you’ll argue, using Eliot out of context isn’t such a big deal. We liked the line, remembered it from college days. And heck! We like to toss it around when we want to feel all literary and cool and young– Oh the irony!*

*If at one level (considering that time and space and narrative isn't always linear in Eliot's poems) J. Alfred Prufork isn’t a middle-aged man confronting his mortality– the poem even begins with a quote from Dante’s 'Inferno'– then I am afraid I too may have misconstrued Eliot.

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