In the room the women come and goTalking of Michelangelo.—T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
I had not thought death had undone so many.—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Modernism proposed an ideal even more demanding perhaps than Jesus' imperatives in the Sermon on the Mount. In his "antitheses" Jesus goes beyond the commandments of Moses: "You have heard that it was said, Thou shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that he who casts his eyes on a woman so as to lust after her has already committed adultery in his heart. If thy right eye is the occasion of thy falling into sin, pluck it out and cast it away from thee" (Matthew 5:28). We are not to be as the Scribes and Pharisees, obeying the law only in our actions. We are to internalize the law as part of our being. We are not to be whitewashed tombs, white without and full of bones and decay within. We are to be pure all the way through. This condition can be called holiness. In his Jesus of Nazareth (2007) Pope Benedict xvi argues that Jesus himself so perfectly embodied this ideal that in fact he was the law.
With the fading of Christianity in the nineteenth century, another ideal emerged, often defined negatively as the unlived life, its negative definition leaving open the definition of the fully lived life. Consider Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (1925):
We are the hollow menWe are the stuffed menLeaning together Headpiece filled with straw. . . . [End Page 395]
The epigraph to "The Hollow Men," "Mistah Kurtz—he dead," derives from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With those words an African native tells the narrator, Marlow, of the death of Kurtz. From the perspective of "The Hollow Men" Conrad's Mr. Kurtz, a "lost and violent soul" if there ever was one, is not a "hollow man." In extreme experience at the Congo's Inner Station he has gone beyond civilized restraints and experienced life as an absolute. For that reason Kurtz is a modernist hero.
The subject of The Waste Land, a central document of modernism, is the difficulty, indeed the pain, of rebirth in the desert of our modern spirit.
April is the cruelest month, breedingLilacs out of the dead land, mixingMemory and desire, stirringDull roots with spring rain.
When J. Alfred Prufrock thinks of going to the room where women come and go talking of Michelangelo, he envisions a woman who will be there and thinks of what he might tell her:
Would it have been worth while,To have bitten off the matter with a smile . . .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."
What Lazarus could have told her, of course, is what it is like to be dead, a subject Prufrock has already written about in his head but cannot speak about:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streetsAnd watched the smoke that rises from the pipesOf lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .
The answer of course is no. Prufrock knows that these lines are his inner landscape, that the woman would not want to hear about it, [End Page 396] nor would anyone else, he assumes. He will not write The Waste Land. But that poem will be born and will become a modernist classic.
Heart of Darkness (1899), Joyce's "The Dead" (1914), and The Waste Land (1922) are all modernist classics. But it is also fair to say that Wuthering Heights (1847) is at least proto-modernist in its pushing back against Christianity, its rejection of the shallow civilization of its time, and, more emphatically, its rejection of the banality of the unlived life. I want to stress that it takes nothing away from our sense of the greatness of the novel to suggest that one of the best lines...