07. The Lovesong of the Chitinous Bottom-Feeder

“So, class, this is T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock.’ If you know the musical Cats, that was adopted from Eliot’s work — and Prufrock here was Eliot’s break-out hit, as it were. I’d like us to get into the flow of the poetry by reading it aloud. Let’s start with you,” Mr. Dame said pointing at Jenny, “and then each person” he continued with his finger tracing a path around the class “reads two lines, unless you’re one line shy of a stanza break in which case read three.” He paused to stare at the class to ensure they understood the instruction. They skimmed over the papers in front of them, then stared back up at him and generally bobbed their heads comprehendingly.

“Good,” said Mr. Dame. “Once we’ve got a good feel for the work, then we’ll start analyzing Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock to see what we can discover.”

“In Soviet Russia,” Ken piped up with comic severity, “J Alfred Prufrock analyzes you!”

Mr. Dame gave the eager student a thin-lipped smile, trying to avoid saying “don’t even joke about that,” though his eyes may have subconsciously blinked it out in Morse code. “Right,” he managed to say out loud, “shall we begin?”

“Okay,” said Jenny, then stared at the piece of paper in front of her. “Uh, am I supposed to read this…?”

It took Mr. Dame half a moment to realize that she was referring to the introduction. “Oh, the Italian bit? No, we can skip it,” he concluded. Jenny looked relieved.

She boldly punched out her lines, ensuring that none of the authority afforded the author was squandered on demurring into indecision. Diane read next, but with a perplexity of what would happen as the poem progressed. And so the reading went with the drama students doing their best in the form of exuberance and everybody else not bothering to disguise how ill-at-ease they were with Eliot’s self-deprecating speaker. Mr. Dame noticed a particular amount of squirming at the head upon the platter: that was a starkly vivid image that would be easy for the students to understand and recall.

“Alright,” said Mr. Dame at the conclusion of the reading, providing the human voice that would, he realized belatedly, wake the students from the depths of the poetry and drown them with conventional analytics, “the first obvious question is: who is you at the beginning of the piece?”

“It’s not us?” asked Jenny nervously, as if Mr. Dame had started with a trick question in a schizoid pique of sadism.

“Well it might be,” Mr. Dame said, surprised by the reflexively apologetic tone of his voice.

“But it might not be,” added Sandy. “Eliot may be having Prufrock address Virgil, Dante’s guide through the inferno, or addressing Dante as Virgil to guide him through someplace else, or addressing an anonymous confidant, like how a blog-writer might disclose much-too-personal information while expecting to keep their anonymity.”

“Good answer,” said Mr. Dame appreciatively, “but not very solid. Let’s see if we nail it down by adding in some of the rest of the poem: what is going on here?”

“Well there’s this guy,” began Joey immediately with a surprisingly sympathetic inflection in his voice, “and he’s going somewhere he’s really not sure he wants to go. And it’s because of this girl. This girl he thinks has power over him. And the dis-empowerment has him being totally down on himself, which is super-ironic because from what we’re hearing, it’s just him making himself miserable — the girl has nothing to do with it.”

The class stared with surprise at Joey. Even Sofia was distracted from her reading by the lucidity the insight.

“That’s great and all,” said Heidi after a moment of cogitation, “but nobody’s better at ruminating themselves into misery by doing nothing than Hamlet and this guy says he’s not prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. What’s up with that?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Brett, “when you consider the last line. The ‘and we drown’ bit clearly shows that he’s Ophelia.” He turned to Jacob and ratcheted his voice into a falsetto to play Gertrude: “Your sister is drown-ed!”

Jacob put on a stern look of consternation, verging on constipation. “Drow-ned?” he managed to reply.

“Drown-ed!” wailed Brett before the two of them started laughing at their mutual ridiculousness.

“I’d say it’s a subliminal aspect of the greater irony,” said Joey, resolutely ignoring the pair. “He’s so good at feeling bad about himself that he’s claiming he doesn’t even do that right. It’s like that old Radiohead song, ‘Creep,’ where they’re singing about this person that they totally worship, but also feel completely out-of-place around.”

Are all AP classes this far ahead of their teachers or am I just wildly unlucky? Mr. Dame thought. He surveyed the faces of the students, relieved to see enough confusion to indicate that Joey’s retro-music tastes were in the rare minority. “Just to clarify,” he said, “how many of you are readily familiar with the song Joey’s talking about?” Joey, Sandy, Sofia and Ken dutifully raised their hands. Oh good he thought to himself as his borrowed lesson plan revealed that it was merely chipped, not shattered, at the hands of his students. “Because the comparison between ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Creep’ is pretty common, so I brought in ‘Creep’ for, uh, comparison.” Mr. Dame feigned a show of fumbling around with the portable speakers while he recovered his addled thoughts. “This isn’t the original,” he explained for the benefit of the kids who knew the original, “it’s a cover with a female vocalist; she goes for a more mournful tone rather than whiny. Anyway, you’ll… hear it,” he concluded with a tap of the “Play” button.

“Hey,” said Jacob to Brett, “do you have the time to listen to me whine?”

“About nothing and everything all at once?” asked Brett, narrowing the scope of concern not a bit.

“I am one of those melodramatic fools,” confessed Jacob.

“Neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it!” diagnosed Brett.

The class listened with dutiful attentiveness to the song, some with confused curiosity and others with visible appreciation. Some of the girls looks particularly enthralled by the thoughts of angelic boys they couldn’t look in the eye yet would never admit to pining for, as intended — Mr. Dame had wanted the woman’s voice to show how equal-opportunity unattainable desires can be. He was particularly gratified when “I want you to notice when I’m not around” struck quite a few nerves. Heidi, however, seemed to identify with the refrain of “What the hell am I doing here?”

“Sorry, I think I missed something because,” Heidi began explaining, then paused to rearrange her thoughts before finishing “because it seems exactly opposite of Eliot’s poem here.” She stared at Mr. Dame, awaiting a coherent explanation of what he had been thinking. Mr. Dame only offered a dramatic shrug. Sensing this was a prompt to elucidate her position, she continued: “Well in the song, the speaker is a total stalker. And while she doubts herself, she is there and wants him to notice whenever she isn’t. But in the poem, he doesn’t want to be there — wherever he’s going — to such an extent that he almost seems repulsed by this, uh, her without actually getting to her. He’s ends not with her, but imagining himself out on a beach or something.”

“That’s true,” agreed Sofia, “In the poem the speaker fears impalement, decapitation, male pattern baldness, and so determines that he’d rather be lonely on the beach. In the song, the beloved is ‘just like an angel’ with skin that makes the singer cry. In the poem, the woman has brown hair on her arms and difficulty communicating.”

“What do you mean by ‘difficulty communicating’?” asked Mr. Dame.

Sofia tossed up a dramatic hand. “That is not what I meant, that is not it at all,” she quoted with the practiced petulance of all teenage girls. She dropped the act and her hand to clarify, “That’s actually a nasty trick to blame the listener for the speaker’s choice of words. But anyway, I suspect what you’re trying to read as pathos in both Prufrock and ‘Creep’ might actually be bathos in Eliot’s writing; a subtle but distinct difference that makes the two pieces difficult to reconcile.”

Mr. Dame had been hoping that the class would talk about their feelings and things like that and maybe go home and write some awkwardly angst-laden poetry of their own. He hadn’t expected to have to carve into the poem as if it were a patient etherized upon a table. Mr. Dame bit the matter off with a smile.

Joey, however, promptly picked it back up for him. “But it’s not that she actually thinks that, it’s that he thinks she’ll think that. The real difference is that ‘Creep’ is honest in the disparity between the beloved and the lover, while this poem is so wrapped down in its misery that the speaker can’t even be dangerously in love with an astounding girl… who is spiteful and passive aggressive and…” — the bathos, a concept he had not heard named before, tripped his thoughts and sent his conclusion stumbling into — “has brown arm hair.”

“Wait a second,” said Ken, “that would make this the exact opposite of The Great Gatsby! While Gatsby believed everything good in the pursuit but indicated that he’d give up doing anything once he got the girl, Prufrock here believes nothing good and is trying to avoid the pursuit, but claims he’ll do stuff — like eating peaches and wandering on the beach — when he’s safely away from the object of his affections.”

Mr. Dame searched for a thought to rejoin this cogent analysis to a larger point, but was too slow; Jacob cut him off with “Weren’t women also getting new rights like voting around the time this was written?” Several of the girls glared at him for his indelicate phrasing. “Because it seems to me,” he continued unabated, “that part of his difficulty may be an emasculation. He’s lost track of what it’s like to wear the pants in the relationship, if you will. And that’s why he cedes power of himself to her, regardless of who she is: he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s, like, predicting himself dead in the relationship, regardless of whether he’s Lazarus or John the Baptist.”

“I don’t think that’s what his difficulty is at all,” Sandy summarily rejected. “He may claim he’s stuck on that point,” she nuanced with a brief but meaning-laden glance to Jacob, “but if this is great literature as we are to believe, then it should have qualities more timeless than that. I suspect the timeless source of trouble is that he’s been engendered with the male penchant for tangible things that he understands, but is inept at using. She, meanwhile, has feminine social subtleties that he can’t understand and certainly not grasp because he’s stuck in a mindset of masculine hard power. He sees tangible things like his thinning hair or her arm hair, but he’s unable to comprehend the intangible qualities that make relationships desirable.”

Mr. Dame twisted his mind in this new direction, but Sandy had already turned towards Jenny and Diane and continued. “I mean, when was the last time a guy asked you to picnic on the beach? It’s a totally sweetheart thing to do, right? But this guy’s convinced that since he’s not exceptionally better everybody else, he must be a wholly loathsome individual, a chitinous bottom-feeder bound for rejection. And because of that, he’s probably right.”

“Nah, he was right before that — the whole sweetheart romance gets boring pretty quickly,” replied Diane. Jenny looked at her with shocked countenance. “Oh yeah,” Diane mentioned to her friend, “I broke up with Sam.”

“Why did you do that? Sam is such a sweetheart!” exclaimed Jenny, full of shock and concern, both for damage done to the sweetheart, but also that she might discover at an unfortunate juncture that she didn’t actually want a sweetheart trying to woo her after all.

Diane tried to hedge the condescension out of her voice as she repeated: “It gets boring pretty quickly.” Looking around at the disparaging expressions on her classmates’ faces she added, “I think I should avoid nice guys for a while. They can be cute and relaxing, but when you’re ready to move on, you get this treatment” — she swept her hand through the tide of scorn washing up on the faces of her peers — “which says ‘oh, he is such a nice guy, you must be a total bitch for breaking his heart.’ But if I’d broken up with a total asshole, you’d all be ‘oh, we’re happy to have you back, and so glad you came to your senses about him.’ It just isn’t worth it, dating a nice guy.”

In unison, Brett, Jacob, and Ken turned to a fresh sheet of paper and made sizable notes to themselves to work on being assholes. Sofia rolled her eyes and resumed reading Singled Out.

“You seem like a nice guy, Mr. Dame,” Joey piped up, “Is that why you can’t get a date?”

Mr. Dame stared at the boy, wondering what mixture of curiosity and cruelty had composed that question. “I, uh, ye- no,” he responded incoherently. The class stared at him, with piqued interest about the butt-ends of his days and ways while he took a second to regain his composure. “First dates are easy, it’s the second dates that are hard,” he managed to lie with a smile before changing the subject back to: “Anyway, the choice of words Prufrock makes seem pretty strong for somebody who can’t comprehend intangible qualities.”

“He doesn’t have to fully understand the intangibles if he can just feel them,” Sandy replied, “but he regards his feeling about the intangibles as threatening, and thus describes them very tangible terms, frequently focused on conflict, mutilation, and destruction, as might be expected of his boy-brain.”

Mr. Dame considered this, and found it charming in its simplicity. “Yeah, I can see that,” he agreed.

“But I don’t think it’s really right,” protested Heidi quietly. She was not Princess Sofia, nor was meant to be — and Sofia was apparently paying no attention and wouldn’t back her up here.

Mr. Dame was careful to not glared at her as if she had dared disturb the universe. “Do go on,” he prompted.

“It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong per se,” she backtracked, “it’s just that it’s really not complete at all. Like the trailer for a film where the trailer seems to include everything that would go into the full film, so either there’s going to be some interesting twists or it’s going to be a long and dull movie.” She turned to Ken for support on the cinema. He gave a full and sincere nod: trailers should be clean and concise while staying at least one plot twist short of the script. “I mean, look at all the descriptors he gives of the city around him as he moves through it. We pretty much skipped them and have concluded that it is his distressed state of mind and only his distressed state of mind that is causing him to think this way — which seems to me to be the exact opposite of how we were supposed” — accentuated accusingly — “to read Hamlet.”

“But he’s not Prince Hamlet,” said Jacob.

“Nor was meant to be,” piped up Brett.

“Right, but that opens up the liar’s paradox,” Heidi admonished without turning her unblinkingly interrogative gaze away from Mr. Dame for even a second. “Because if we can’t trust him because he’s not Prince Hamlet, so we can disregard his evaluation of his environs, then how can we blithely accept his claim that he’s not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be? If we’re supposed to afford him a degree of trust because he’s the narrative authority even though he disclaims it, then…” Her mind stumbled and backtracked for a moment. Mr. Dame was relieved when her eyes rolled up to the ceiling tiles as if her thoughts would arrange better across their flat surface. “Okay, so,” she recovered, “we’re supposed to trust this guy Alfred because he’s got narrative authority. And he’s telling us things which we’re accepting. But then he disclaims his position saying that he’s not the prince and is actually kind of obtuse, so we disregard the literal things and switch to trying to feel him out. But part of what he told us was disclaiming his narrative authority and we’re taking that — and, uh, arm hair — as the sum and total of concrete facts that he’s all about. It’s the exact same behavior as believing that Hamlet is sane because he says so regardless of his actions, just in reverse. It was dodgy then and it’s dodgy now and I think we deserve more.”

Mr. Dame nodded slightly to signal that he understood the complaint before responding, “This is poetry, not prose. You’re supposed to feel it and grasp the feelings of it, not suss it apart word for word.”

“With any due respect, sir,” she replied hotly, “that’s bullshit. They are both word-based communicative literary forms. The words in them matter. That is what we’re studying. And while it’s great that you” — she glanced around to Joey and Sandy before swinging back on the attack again — “can feel something from the poem and cleanly analyze it and pin it to bits that are particularly poignant for you, you’re not going to convince me that we’re learning the literature as written until we’ve accounted for it as written.” She slapped her pen down on her desk and sat back in annoyance.

Sofia looked up, mildly concerned by the escalation in the room. “Any thoughts,” she injected mildly into the intellectual impasse that had jammed up the atmosphere of the classroom, “on what Lazarus was supposed to ‘tell you all’ about?”

The students looked dumbly around at each other. Finally Diane asked the necessary question: “Um, who is Lazarus?”

“In the New Testament,” offered Jacob, “Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. He died of a disease, but Jesus resurrected him a few days later.” He paused to consider whether or not he knew anything else about Lazarus. “I don’t remember him telling anybody about anything, unless it was the importance of life insurance.”

A slightly more relaxed silence returned to the classroom as Sofia’s question went unanswered. Finally, Brett tossed off another tangent: “So if this guy is worried about growing old as comes up repeatedly in the poem, how does he seem equally certain that there will be time for all manner of other things, like toast and tea?”

“Well,” Heidi speculated by way of showing approval and adding cognitive momentum, “old people do consume toast and tea. I suppose there’s almost always time for toast and tea in that way. But I don’t know of old people who murder and create, so I’m not sure that there’s necessarily time for that in the same way.”

Christie smirked audibly. “He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!” she declared loudly, channeling the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.

Ken snapped his fingers as his synapses fired: “The queen’s reaction to… to… to the Mad Hatter’s singing recital! Yes!”

“They would certainly be consuming toast and tea at the Hatter’s tea party,” added Christie helpfully.

“With the very best butter,” mused Ken. He paused as his brain chased this new idea between his ears for a moment. “So what does it mean if J Alfred Prufrock is the Mad Hatter?” he inquired seriously.

“What day of the month is it? Do I dare disturb the universe?” said Brett, testing out the combination of the characters’ difficulty with comprehending scale.

“Do I dare to eat a peach? Why is a raven like a writing desk?” replied Jacob, mashing together their unanswered questions. With a coordination eerily reminiscent of the Tweedles, the boys nodded at Ken, then Christie, then Mr. Dame: they were now convinced that the Mad Hatter had clearly influenced the inception of J Alfred Prufrock.

“I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance,” Sofia quoted softly while turning a page.

Christie hadn’t meant for her crazy idea to go this far, but realized that it wasn’t done yet. On a whim, she mashed up “Indeed there will be time. But if you knew Time as well as I do, you wouldn’t talk of wasting it. It’s Him… But alas, we quarreled last March and ever since, he won’t do a thing I ask. It’s always six o’clock now.” In unison, the class turned their gaze from Christie to the clock on the wall.

“Look,” said Mr. Dame, wondering if the bad poetry could be any more difficult than the discussion, “that’s cute and all, but Prufrock is foiled by a totally passive woman, while the Hatter is foiled by a totally aggressive woman — the two aren’t really comparable.”

Ken waved a dismissive hand: “Hatters gonna hat.” The class groaned and giggled while Mr. Dame suppressed a sigh by pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Anyway, if this guy has so little self-esteem that he considers eating a peach to be risky, then how does he think he can change the universe?” Heidi asked, returning control of the discussion to Mr. Dame.

Mr. Dame thought the part of the question was peachy-keen; it was something covered in all the lesson plans. Doing his best to strike a dramatic pose, he answered: “When was the last time you tried to just ‘eat a peach’? With its juice spreading across your lips, running down your hands?” He wrung his hands against the air like Macbeth, covered in peach-blood. “The bits of pulpy flesh,” he continued gnawing through the syllables, wiping his lips with his fingertips, “sticking between your teeth as you rend them away from the pit? Have you experienced that recently?”

Heidi was unimpressed. “I usually just cut the peach with a knife,” she replied flatly, “– and here’s no great matter, I then eat the peach with yogurt and granola.”

The discordant split between Prufrock’s evaluation of not being great and his fear of stone-fruits almost registered on Mr. Dame, but Jacob interrupted the train of thought. “So Prufrock’s real problem is that he doesn’t use utensils like other people? He’d be content and self-confident if we just gave him a knife?”

“We had to take the knife away from him because he’d gone mad,” Christie replied. “A danger to himself and others, as it were — just listen to him fantasizing about his head being on a platter.” There were bemused nods of agreement. Mr. Dame promised himself a good weep when he got home.

“Have we considered the possibility that maybe he does have a mental illness or Asperger’s or something?” suggested Jenny.

Joey looked mortified. “This is great literature!” he insisted. “Prufrock represents the common everyman, not some debilitated fringe.”

“I don’t know,” replied Sofia without looking up, “A diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome is becoming increasingly common these days.” Joey glared at her.

“Yes,” agreed Diane to Sofia before turning back to Jenny, “but he starts the poem treating the reader as a close confidant. An Aspy totally wouldn’t do that.”

“Oh yeah,” accepted Jenny. “Then what about the girl? Maybe she’s inaccessible because she’s got Asperger Syndrome?”

“Asperger Syndrome is predominantly found in males,” said Sofia casually as she turned a page in her private reading material du jour.

“Besides,” added Brett, “his big issues seem to be questions of scale: disturbing the universe versus peach-eating, for example, or measuring out a life with coffee spoons. Though I suppose the coffee spoons seems kind of calculating and un-emotional. OCD, maybe?”

“Look, junior psychiatry club,” Mr. Dame interrupted, “you’re not supposed to diagnose a patient that isn’t present, interacting and seeking a diagnosis. It’s unethical for reasons I… don’t immediately know.”

“If Eliot has really wanted to represent a risky fruit, he could’ve gone for a mango,” Jenny suggested, steering away from mental health issues. “When I was in Fiji last year, they had mangoes so ripe and juicy they’d just slither right down your throat — if you could even get them on a fork.” Mr. Dame gave her a grateful nod, but she didn’t notice, preferring to talk about: “Oh, and there was this crab! You know how Prufrock says he should be a crab? Well there was this crab, but it had gotten lost and wandered into the airport. It was really kind of adorable — a stewardess rolled her luggage right past it and scared the poor thing. It put up its little claws defensively and scuttled for shelter.” She waved her hands in a way that might have been crab-like, or maybe just Flamenco-like. “But the point,” she said, settling down a bit, “is that crabs don’t handle human civilization well.”

“Except that he’s not a crab — he merely says he’d rather be a crab,” observed Jacob. “And if he’s intimidated by a peach because he doesn’t know how to use silverware like a civilized person, but realizes that he doesn’t have strong instincts like animals — crabs — do, is that why he’s feeling so adrift? I mean, we’ve got really no way to know his socioeconomic position: he doesn’t mention his employer, his job title, his educational background, or his parents, ancestry, or lineage. It’s almost as if he thinks his life is nothing but a heap of unwarranted privilege that he neither wants to improve upon — because they’re unwarranted and exploiting them is unjust — nor put to any kind of test — because it’s privilege and he doesn’t want to risk losing it.”

Heidi considered this. “So he’s over-privileged and under-distinguished, and his self awareness on this point is incapacitating him? Fine, I guess I can work with that,” she concluded.

Mr. Dame inhaled sharply as his hope was refreshed. “And that is the sort of thing that should be on your mind when you’re writing all about the ‘Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock.’ Good luck with it.”