In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot positions the question, “so how should I presume?” front and center.
J. Alfred Prufrock was a moody, urban, isolated, yet sensitive thinker. He is stricken with feelings of alienation and an incapability for decisive action that has been said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.” It is in an unpleasant modern world where “Prufrock” begins.
Prufrock, much like da Montefeltro in Dante’s Inferno, is confined to Hell. Prufrock’s hell, however, is on earth, in a lonely, alienating city. The images of the city are sterile. The images are undeniably bleak and empty.
This is, in fact, the situation in many modern American cities. Many are polluted, over-crowded, churning manifestations of a Hobbesian war. Pedestrians are at war with cyclists who are at war with auto traffic. Every step you take is a battle against everyone else — tourists, parents with strollers, the homeless. People aren’t people with lives and aspirations of their own; they’re obstacles.
Most modern American cities host relentless inter-personal competition, sharp class divisions, environmental destruction, commodification of life’s facets, relentless marketing, monuments of corporate dominance, police violence and cold, shallow, self-seeking greed in all human relations.
Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England between 1842 and 1844, at the apex of the Industrial Revolution. Engels argued that the Industrial Revolution made workers worse off. He demonstrated, for example, that in large industrial cities mortality from disease, as well as death-rates for workers were higher than in the countryside. He pointed to the isolation and alienation of industrialized populations by noting that “they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honor another with so much as a glance.”
So, how should we presume?
I suggest that we resolve to do all that is within our power to preserve and protect our towns and villages, in all of their varying types and styles. I think we would be wise to vision ways to incorporate their growth, while not falling victim to the tacit agreement to stay on our own side of the pavement.
— Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice