Paralysis in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Prufrock's paralysis follows naturally from this subjectivizing of everything. If each consciousness is an opaque sphere, then Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others. "No experience," says Bradley in a phrase Eliot quotes, "can lie open to inspection from outside" (KE, 203). Prufrock's vision is incommunicable, and whatever he says to the lady will be answered by, "That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all" (CP, 6). The lady is also imprisoned in her own sphere
, and the two spheres
can never, like soap bubbles, become one. Each is impenetrable to the other.
If other consciousnesses exist only as opaque objects for Prufrock, he has an equally unhappy relation to time and space. One of the puzzles of the poem is the question as to whether Prufrock ever leaves his room. It appears that he does not, so infirm is his will, so ready "for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast
and tea" (CP, 4). In another sense Prufrock would be unable to go anywhere, however hard he tried. If all space has been assimilated into his mind, then spatial movement would really be movement in the same place, like a man running in a dream. There is no way to distinguish between actual movement and imaginary movement. However far Prufrock goes, he remains imprisoned in his own subjective space, and all his experience is imaginary. It seems to be some perception of this which keeps him in his room, content to imagine himself going through the streets, ascending the lady's stair, and telling her "all," like Lazarus back from the dead. There is no resurrection from the death which has undone him, and this is one meaning of the epigraph from Dante.
Time disappears in the same way. Space must be exterior to the self if movement through it is to be more than the following of a tedious argument in the mind. In the same way only an objective time can be other than the self, so that the flow of time can mean change for that self. But time, like space, has only a subjective existence for Prufrock. As a result, past, present, and future are equally immediate, and Prufrock is paralyzed. Like one of Bradley's finite centers, he "is not in time," and "contains [his] own past and future" (KE, 205). Memories, ironic echoes of earlier poetry, present sensations, anticipations of what he might do in the future ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" [CP, 71)--these are equally present. There is a systematic confusion of tenses and times in the poem, so that it is difficult to tell if certain images exist in past, present, future. Prufrock begins by talking of his visit to the lady as something yet to be done, and later talks of his failure to make the visit as something long past ("And would it have been worth it, after all,/Would it have been worth while" (CP, 61). Like the women talking of Michelangelo, he exists in an eternal present, a frozen time in which everything that might possibly happen to him is as if it had already happened: "For I have known them all already, known them all" (CP, 4). In this time of endless repetition Prufrock cannot disturb the universe even if he should presume to try to do so. Everything that might happen is foreknown, and in a world where only one mind exists the foreknown has in effect already happened and no action is possible. Prufrock's infirmity of will is not so much a moral deficiency as a consequence of his subjectivism.
Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1965.