T S Eliot and the Absolute

In The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, one theme is the interplay between self and other.  The narrator appears to be overpowered by the social forces with which he interacts.  He is “fixed in a formulated phrase,” “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by others.  His constant refrain–“Do I dare,” “How should I presume?”

But there is more than spinelessness at work here.  The narrator is on the verge of asking, “An overwhelming question.”  Some think that he is going to propose marriage.  But Eliot and the narrator are possessed of greater depth than nervousness about proposing.  The overwhelming question is, in fact, religious.  The fear is of bring up deep matters in a superficial environment.  How should I presume?  The narrator has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.”  The narrator is about to break the complacency of a tea party,

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

I recently wrote about being true to oneself regardless of social pressures to conform.  But I must confess that there are environments in which a person can’t be oneself, especially when one is particularly spiritual.  When one is in a superficial environment, one can’t really talk on a depth level.  It would not be received.  One would be ridiculed, ignored–as in Eliot’s poem–even be met with anger.  Try being a divinity student in a bar.  The social disjunct, the ridicule, the inappropriate context all make it nearly impossible to be spiritual in a secular environment, a secular world.  How should I presume?

Eliot himself was Prufrock.  He kept his Christianity to himself until his reputation was firmly established.  Then he converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity publicly and wrote Four Quartets.  At that point his literary career became a bit suspect.  And much of his later work, like The Cocktail Party, is bland to the point of being insufferable.

But I am a fan of Eliot.  And as a Swedenborgian, I know what it is like to have a deep spirituality that one can’t speak of in most public venues.  I have expanded my social network to include an interfaith organization, an interdenominational Christian organization.  And in these environments I can be openly Swedenborgian and be well-received.  But in the blues club, in 12-step organizations, in casual environments I seem to need to keep it all inside.  It isn’t a matter of fear.  It is more a matter of good taste.  I would not abandon my Swedenborgianism, it’s just something others don’t care to hear about, and I respect the others with whom I socialize.  In Jacob’s dream, the angels ascended and descended the ladder–they didn’t stay always at the top.

Self and Other

T. S. Eliot writes about the power we can give to others.  We can let others tell us who we are.  Eliot’s poetry goes:

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

How do we begin to declare who we are when others decide who we are, treat us according to their understanding of us, and pin us to a wall?  When I was in high school, there were jocks, bikers, and hippies.  I identified with the hippies and looked like one, but my best friend was an all-state wrestler.  We can see ourselves according to the category we fall into.  In high school, pressures are extreme when it comes to emotional survival and identity.  And the answer to self and other can become identification with a peer group.  Then where is the self?

Things continue in this vein when we enter adulthood, though with less extreme pressure.  People can become identified with their role in life.  How others see us can depend on the money we make, the job we do and how important that job is, the things we possess, our social graces, our families.  I remember when I had graduated with a master’s degree and did’t know what my next step in life would be.  I was applying to Ph.D. programs, but didn’t know if I would be accepted.  This period of uncertainty occupied about 6-months.  I didn’t have an identity.  When people asked me what I do for a living, I didn’t have an answer, and people didn’t know what to do with me.  I know of people whose life centres around their family.  Their primary relations are with their spouse and children.  Some of them do not know how to relate to the world outside their families.

The question is one of self and other.  How do we relate to others?  When a person expends much effort creating a public persona–buying the right things, talking in the “in” language–and this includes the social graces, functioning in a profession that grants prestige and dignity, one can actually become very lonely.  One’s soul no longer communicates with others in an honest way.  In religion, this would be called “worldliness.”  There are other issues.  Some indulge in substances.  Consider drinking.  A whole culture surrounds drinking.  There are drinking games.  There are drinking parties–knowing how to party can be important.  There is a whole bar culture that any alcohol commercial sells.  Then there is a luxury car that says exceptional people make the rules–they don’t follow them.  But buying that car is what makes a person exceptional, along with following the surfing culture which is a “cool” thing to do.  These examples show how identity is falsely created by dependance on things external to the self.  Self can be very lonely when one depends on extrinsic things for identity.

Self confidence gives one the freedom to be authentic.  And this means being authentic with everyone–spouse, friends, co-workers.  An old rock group sings, “You know who you are, you don’t give a damn.”  I asked a native elder about moving away from home and loneliness.  His response was similar.  “If you are firmly grounded in who you are, there is no loneliness.”  Being who one truly is, and encountering other in that capacity is the only solution that gives true relationship and community.

Things I Think About, Alone

I eat my Denny’s spaghetti

And try to warm up


I can always go home

To a warm apartment


I think of my new Christmas clothes

My new guitar

New electric piano

New fine art print

Collection of ancient coins

They make me happy


I think of developing countries

Where many do not have such things

In their village

With their families, neighbours, relatives

Community, tribe

I think about these things