T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Illustrated (Part I)

Ooooh, my very first blog post. How exciting.

When I was in college, a painting instructor told me that I ought to steer away from creating illustrations, that art should do more than merely depict an idea. Before any of you get the wrong notion, I should say that he was no snob, but in fact a really nice person who was a proponent of fine art, who believed in art’s ability to make people think and to create conversations, who wanted his students to know about Heidegger’s views on visual art, and so on. (From what I remember about Heidegger, he was a true snob who considered music to be the highest form of art, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Throughout my artistic career, I have wondered: am I creating art, or am I just making illustrations? The dilemma worsened after I graduated from college – no painting or drawing instructor with whom to discuss my work, no intellectual with whom to wring my hands. Moreover, since I was interested in social justice and women’s rights, I feared that my approach to these themes was too didactic, that my work tended to be too descriptive of rights violations. In other words, some of it looked like illustration.

Then, about 17 years after my little chats with my college instructor about avoiding the pitfalls of illustration, I re-read a favourite poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It is packed with imagery. The poem’s visual quality had captivated me almost from the moment I first read it, and now I was tempted to use the words to create images of my own. Before I share these with you, let’s first take a look at the poem:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

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?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
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 towards 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.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

What a trap Eliot laid for me. At the age of 23, he had written a poem about a middle-aged man paralyzed by indecision and feelings of inadequacy, a man who is frustrated by his lack of romantic success. I think all men and women, especially those of us who are more mature, have felt this way at one time or the other. I produced illustration after illustration on the basis of Eliot’s fantastic metaphors. I was equally inspired by his flights of imagination (mermaids combing the ocean spray, like hair) and his workaday references to Michelangelo, cups, marmalade, tea.

I am including a couple of these illustrations in this initial blog post (more to follow in future posts, of course). I made them at least one-and-a-half years ago, torn between wanting to create art and wanting to pay homage to Eliot, even if it was through illustration. I don’t feel disappointed with these illustrations because they are rich with ideas that I can re-fashion to make work that is, for a change, introspective. They are studies, stepping stones to the future creation of great art that will cause viewers to stop, look long and hard, scratch their heads. The kind of art that generates conversations.

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(Water-colours and ink, 2014) Images © Faiza Mahmud

This first post is dedicated to the memory of my father, who would have turned 77 today. Happy Birthday, Daddy.

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