Inside stories

When I was in high school, T S Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock was expected reading not only for its importance to literary history but because, as my teacher said, "It presents the opposite of what we would wish for our own lives."

Prufrock doesn't dare to act. He is torn between his desire to change and his fear of change, between recognising how unhappy he is and avoiding the perils of ennui by burying himself in the triviality of polite society. He has abdicated his will. Through him, Eliot has much to say about the hollowness of society and the decay of Western civilisation.

Now, when I ask my college students if they have read this poetic manifesto of existentialism, at most half a dozen raise their hands. When I ask why the others haven't, their answer is, "It wasn't assigned."

Why wasn't it assigned by their previous teachers? The common explanation is that students can't relate to it. This useful excuse is applied to a lot of literature, but it is one I dismissed long ago.

It seems more likely to me that students can relate to Eliot's poem; that is, if one takes the time to read and discuss it carefully then the truths it conveys hit close to home. This neglect ought to make us sad and angry. As one of my students put it, "I never felt I was being cheated of something when I was in high school, so why do I feel that way now?"

"Cheated" is an accurate word here. Many students come to us woefully underprepared in the great works of literature, philosophy, history and the fine arts. This is not entirely their fault. They have been raised in a digital, visual culture that discourages interiority and encourages superficial, lightning-fast snippets of abbreviated communication in which words are replaced by icons or photos.

Many of my students grew up with parents who didn't talk to them, didn't take them to museums and libraries, didn't encourage them to read, didn't listen to their questions. The reason? Everybody is in a hurry.

Jacob Needleman, in his book Time and the Soul, calls this everyday phenomenon "the poverty of our affluence". He adds: "It is the famine of a culture that has chosen.the external world over the internal world" because the people who feed that culture are too busy or perhaps too afraid to think for themselves.

But what might happen if people stopped immersing themselves in distractions, even for a single day, or if storms regularly knocked out travel and power? No television, computers, sporting events, shopping, schools, libraries or theatres. What would we turn to then? We might just find that we were alone with ourselves.

Alone with ourselves: no sooner have I written those words than I think of weekends when I was a child - carefree, unstructured, with all but essential services closed. The absence of distractions gave us time at home with our family, our friends or ourselves. We could focus on relationships, on looking inward, on recharging our emotional and intellectual batteries. And perhaps reading a little.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you