Monday, November 12, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part I of III

In the midst of the English literary tradition comes a prophetic figure, T.S. Eliot, warning against the destruction of language and community. T.S. Eliot pushes language to new horizons in his attempt to critique and expand the cultural consciousness and conscience of his generation. This awareness comes through his exploration of man’s folly and failure in bringing about a better world through feeble attempts at education and so called “objective” accounts of the world through reductive science. Rather than informing and deepening man’s understanding of himself and the cosmos, these attempts wedded to intellectual pride create a wasteland that engulfs society and undermines the mystical bonds of community. Through his poetic and mystical writings, Eliot can be understood as attempting a literary and cultural renewal by warning against the dangers of his society and its direction towards destruction and human isolation.

At the heart of any community lies a framework in which people share common experiences such as historical events, desires, insights, and goals. All these things are mediated among individuals within the community through language. As experience and thoughts are translated into symbols and communicated through verbal, oral, and physical gestures, language develops into the heart of a community. Because of the intimate connection between language and community, the destruction of one may lead to the destruction of the other. Likewise the renewal of one may lead to the renewal of the other.

T.S. Eliot realized that the present situation of a society in ruins must be understood and assessed for what it is in order to understand the fullness of the calamity that the community faces. However, because this process involves coming to terms with the problem and naming man’s folly, the difficulty of the prophet’s task increases when the means to express this calamity, namely language, has been intimately affected by the very destructiveness that T.S. Eliot hopes to identify. This may account for Eliot’s reliance on poetic verse and powerful images as primary tools of relating his insights in the context of symbolic narratives. When the very language system to be used to express meaning is fragmented, then expression within this system must be done with fragmented language. Thus, even Eliot’s style of poetry resonates with the fragmentation and alienation he identifies within his society.

Eliot’s dramatic monologue, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, gives an illuminating account of an isolated mind separated from the community. Alfred Prufrock tries to apply his rational knowledge of scientific relationships to the area of human relationships. At some sort of evening party he spends his time calculating possible interactions with women. He begins with his own inadequacies, such as thinning hair and undesirable physical traits, and concludes the inevitable failure of any possible interaction with the opposite sex. The logical end of his reasoning is to resist entering into a dialogue at all.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
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 the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume? [5]

Prufrock’s consciousness of being judged prevents him from action. He falls into the problem that he cannot calculate how to begin. There can be no calculation of a beginning, therefore he stagnates into non-action. His ‘scientific’ need for certainty undermines his human need for community. Thus he pins himself to a wall and fulfills his own fears. Prufrock becomes trapped in the hell of the isolated mind with no hope of escape.

Education embodied in reason alone has rebelled against its master. Prufrock embodies the impotence of the educated by living in his head rather than in everyday human interaction. His intellectual musings become a hindrance to community rather than an aide. His mind has predetermined his end to be lonely. Limiting the scientific inquiry to the positivistic sciences has in turn divorced the academic mind from the community and human relations. Prufrock becomes unable to interact in community and has exiled himself.

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