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One of modernisms most distinctive traits was the belief that everything is subject to scrutiny and question, be it the notion of God, the standing of the government, literary practice, and even philosophy; such scrutiny was in the name of forwarding progress. The period as a whole encompasses various themes and applications, making the identifying traits characteristic of the movement particularly loose, but in the world of modernist literature, the individual and introspection are often key points in a narrative, as Georg Simmel observes, "The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life" ("The Metropolis and Mental Life"), which also highlights the conflict of the modernist and modernist literature: advancing progress for the sake of progress, while retaining the self in the process. Along the lines of introspection, with the advent of the psychoanalytical practices of Freud, psychology and psychoanalysis were also common tenets of modernism, and with the psychological perspectives came a sense of self-awareness in some of the literature. Another trait many works shared was a feeling of abstraction and a sense of disjointed time and narrative, such as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, where psychological introspection is also a prominent feature, so much so that the plot is merely secondary. Other common marks of Modernist literature was manifestoes and a general sense of pessimism, as saturates works like that of T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, the latter also demonstrating in his works the sentiments of expatriatism, a strong presence in post-WWI literature.
I find the isolated defeat of lines 124 and 125 haunting, even now when I've lost track of the number of times I've read through the poem: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me." In one line, the narrative sums up artfully the hopeless sentiment of the modernist.
As a whole, the voice of pessimism, loneliness, and alienation that is characteristic in the undercurrents of modernist poetry and prose laces each stanza of "Prufrock." From the strain of "restless nights" and "tedious arguments" to the stagnation of the "pools that stand in drains, and the filth in the streets with its yellow fog and smoke twisting serpentine throughout the city, a cynical outlook saturates the narrative perspective, and as the stanzas progress, this exterior filth, stress, and stasis lead way to introspective struggles with futility: during the flight from the cynical assessment of the world around him, the narrator mentions women "talking of Michelangelo." While this small stanza, repeated a second time only a little way farther down, is often interpreted as the narrator finding himself insignificant in the face of such a noteworthy historical figure, I speculate that, in addition to popular interpretation, the conversing women also represent mundane, pseudo-intellectual conversation that is well detached from matters of import in the modern setting, lending to the string of futile thoughts and struggles observed by Prufrock.
Prufrock, as a character and a narrator, embodies the modern man, a man at odds with the progress surrounding him and his own disillusionment, as Kathleen McCoy and Judith Harlan have noted, "For many readers in the 1920s, Prufrock seemed to epitomize the frustration and impotence of the modern individual" (McCoy and Harlan, 265-66). Every path Prufrock takes in his daily life reflects a mundane existence (a life measured in coffee spoons), and Prufrock despairs in lapses of existential impotence (every decision reconsidered and reversed before he even makes it to tea).
Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Unbeliever" features visual elements that indicate something beyond the physical detail relayed by the poem's speaker, something more just beneath the surface. This particular style of vision appears in other poems by Bishop and tends be regarded, much like any element in literature, as a metaphor, whether the vision is explicit physical sight or an understood perspective of the poem's speaker.
vision acting as a conduit for an inner reflection or change.
The form of seeing in "In the Waiting Room" appears as a simple observation, but beneath the attentive description rests what Bonnie Costello calls Bishop's "mutability," that is, a capacity for change (353). Scholars typically interpret the visual detail in "In the Waiting Room" as a representation of an awakening of sorts. Whether viewed as a feminine awakening, human awakening (that is, a realisation of one's being part of human society), or even an early sexual awakening, the specifics of the awakening are unimportant for the purpose of this study because the narrator comes out of the waiting room changed, regardless, thanks to sight.
Likewise, "To Be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash" details in its four lines an incarnation of vision akin to the otherworldly and thoughtful vision within "The Unbeliever." "Mirror's" image says, "I live only here, between your eyes and you/ But I live in your world. What do I do?" This image of a mirror's reflection, a classic icon of self-inspection and insight, contemplating its existence is a more explicitly philosophical scenario than other works of Bishop's. The poem "shifts" as Thomas Gardner observes, much in the way that Costello notes that Bishop's poetry fluctuates through the use of vision (43, 352). This mirror reflection fluctuates in the sense that as a reflection, a literary representation of the inner self, its pondering is in reverse of the expected self-inspection by the one casting the reflection.
Bishop's vision, however, is not a symbolic demonstration in the common literary sense; her vision does not always impart enlightenment or knowledge, so, following this line of reason, a lack of physical sight in Bishop's poetry may not inevitably represent ignorance. Drawing on this flexible theme of vision in Bishop's various works, I posit that the closed eyes of the sleeper in "The Unbeliever" do not indicate ignorance on a worldly or intellectual level; they instead are a realisation of Bishop's well-used tactic of "drawing us into the interior," or rather, are a deep introspection, a self-reflective process that may lead to an uncovering of one's perspective of the waking world (Costello, 359).
blindness and vision carry heavy connotations even as simple words; among the understood meanings for vision as a word is the implication that it is an act of seeing and perception. Additionally a vision is something of a trance or a dream, often premonitory in nature; but the most important connotation for this particular argument is vision's other association as innovation, imagination, and even apt foresight; in other words, vision also evokes associations with cognitive processing, so the ability to physically see the surrounding world parallels the ability to process and acknowledge events in the world. Beyond the physical aspect of vision is the intellectual interpretation wherein vision is a positive trait and a sign of higher thinking.
Blindness, therefore, is naturally quite opposite vision; while blindness and vision as words fall into the same category-- physical perception and cognition--, we primarily associate blindness with a deficiency of whatever vision entails; in a literary context, this inability to see the world can go a step further and entail an inability to understand or refusal to acknowledge the political, cultural, and/or personal events around this person.
Popular scholarly discussion in general also accepts the notion of literal blindness as a depiction of stunted philosophical growth.
the disappointingly basic and near-unanimous interpretation is that the poem reflects Bishop's own struggles with her religious upbringing and sexuality and that the unbeliever's closed eyes represent a disregard for the religious voices surrounding him.
The origin of this argument for "The Unbeliever" having religious rooting stems from the poem's epigraph, "He sleeps on the top of a mast," which draws from John Bunyan's religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. These readings emphasise the apparent faulty assessment of the cloud that believes it is "founded on marble pillars" and the gull that claims superiority over all the sky as the voices of the religiously deluded. Here the unbeliever's blindness is interpreted as a means of tuning out these erroneous voices and he is an "unbeliever" of their ways. In a way, this reading reverses what the Guide in The Pilgrim's Progress says to Christiana of a group of sleep-talkers, "they say any thing [sic]; but their words are not governed either by faith or reason" in that they are the speakers of faith, but the sleeper disregards their faith (393).
By taking into consideration both third-eye mediation and the likeliness that this setting for "The Unbeliever" is not even a physical location, the once seemingly oblivious travel and the sleeper's unopened eyes develop an introspective angle. The sleeper has already taken the necessary first steps to delve into a third-eye meditation by sleeping, which serves as a trance-like state, and as this dream-world forms, so does the sleeper's search within begin.
Both blindness and vision share connections with the tenuous concept of dreams. Vision's link to dreams rests within one of its own definitions wherein a vision is something of a dream itself; blindness, or rather closed eyes, bears a physical link with dreams; conventionally the eyes must close to fall into the unconscious state leading to dreams.
literature offers its own variety of interpretations, typically that dreams are a reflection of self, that they reveal our own fears and desires, or that they are intuitive in nature. Since the advent of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory, dreams are less used for precognitive purposes and more often utilised as vessels of symbolism and personal insight (Cooke 439 and Van Riper 56). Furthermore, the closing of eyes leading to a sleep or trance-like state that invokes dreams and the nature of dreaming as a state of mind marked by abstraction or release from reality, bears similarity to the trance-like process of meditation and the desired visions received from a proper connection with the "inner teacher" behind the third eye.
the concept of a dream as an "abstraction or release from reality" comes to fruition as well as echoes Mary J. Elkin's observation that "the strange seems to exist within the apparently harmless domestic" in Bishop's poetry; in this situation, the domestic is the corporeal form of the sleeper and the strange is this world within his reverie (44).
It is also in this moment when the cloud first speaks, that the sleeper even moves, and this movement is the stirring of the sleeper's third eye, moving from passive to proactive by simply acknowledging the voice of another; the real breakthrough comes when the sleeper glances at his reflection in the water, though. This development is multi-faceted as each element feeds off the other: the first component in this breakthrough is the logic reasoning that the sleeper's eyes must have opened in order to look at his reflection, marking this as the only pointing the poem where the sleeper is not sightless; this moment then leads to the question "what does it means to open one's eyes while in a dream?"; and the third answers that question in the line that attests that the sleeper is "secure in his introspection." I see the opening of his eyes within this dream world to look at his reflection as a brief opening of his third eye, the sleeper's first contact with his "teacher inside," his first probe inward, his first deep look at himself. While the sleeper dozes at the start, though he is passive, the fact that this dream world exists means something; the sleeper can access this inner world on a shallow level without effort. It is in the act of opening the eyes while inside that the true self-searching begins.
Rather than the traditional use of vision as a metaphor for knowledge or illumination, "The Unbeliever" utilises sightlessness in the form of closed eyes and sleep-- elements associated with literal darkness-- to reach enlightenment, or in the very least reach for it. In essence, this angle changes the initial perception of the poem; by taking a meditative introspective approach, "The Unbeliever" becomes an analogue for self-scrutiny and a tentative seeking of knowledge rather than a surrealistic fantasy. While it draws its source from The Pilgrim's Progress, this reading inverts the passages about mast-sleeping from Bunyan that the poem uses. Most notably, when Christian lectures Simple, Sloth, and Presumption to wake up and take action and urges them to "be willing also," his willingness has deep roots in faith. This unbeliever who sleeps atop a mast while Christian discourages it is likely, as critics speculate, unwilling to follow this faith so readily; perhaps this is his entire reason for falling into this introspection