I Am At an Academic Conference
Came into Kentucky from the air Thursday morning after a night of snatching sleep on planes, listening to Kaija Saariaho's beautiful grinding cello music, looking at myself in the dark window. The little melodramas we constantly stage. Reading Virgil. From the air flatness and haze, land cut into odd shapes along a grid, hills covered with the brown fuzz of leafless trees. The railroad depot swelling from a single track into a dozen parallel lines, like muscle fibers, then contracting again. Taxi to the university. Panels. A good one on cognitive poetics; then the sleepnessness caught up with me and I wandered into a T.S. Eliot panel. Six or seven people in the room. A bent man in his sixties walks up to the podium and announces that his interest is in onomastics, the study of naming. He passes out some heavily marked-up photocopies of a dot-matrix printout listing his name and address and the thirty or forty articles on names that he has published over the years.
“Today I want to discuss the name of J. Alfred Prufrock. Hugh Kenner reminds us that this Teutonic surname appeared on a storefront in St. Louis around the turn of the century. Note the conjunction of German prufen, or English “proof,” with Rock, which means a coat, or else the solid rock on which Prufrock wishes to found proof of his existence, as Peter is the rock, or petrus, on which the Church was founded. Now it has been suggested to me that Prufrock might suggest a prude in a frock. But this seems highly unlikely for several reasons. Note that “Prufrock” is missing two letters from this combination, to wit, the “d” and the “e.” Furthermore, a frock would connote effeminacyyet we see clearly that Prufrock is obviously not sexually abnormal. Consider Alfred Prufrock calling himself an “attendant lord,” which may recall Alfred, Lord Tennyson. There has been an attempt to claim that Tennyson was deviant. But this has not been proved, and at any rate it would not mean that Prufrock was deviant. Now we might think of Eliot’s dedicating the volume to Jean Vardenal, who was killed at the Dardanelles. This might remind us of the potential “death by water” in Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, when Leander swims the Hellespont and is detained by an amorous sea god. But this homosexual encounter does not prove that Marlowe was homosexual. I am aware that some have attempted to claim that Marlowe was deviant. In fact, I must admit that I used to be a member of the Christopher Marlowe Society until it was taken over by papers with titles like “Queering Christopher Marlowe.” You know, I’ve noticed that people who claim that Eliot was sexually abnormal tend to be sexually abnormal themselves. So you might say that they aren’t looking at the factsthey’re just, you know, trying to build up their own thing. There has been an attempt to claim that Vardenal was Eliot’s male lover, initiating a pattern of furtive homosexual activity on Eliot’s part. But there is no evidence for such sexual abnormality, and at any rate, even if Vardenal was that way, it wouldn’t mean that Prufrock was that way, and even if Prufrock was that way, it wouldn’t mean that Eliot was that way. I once had a fraternity brother who assured me that Eliot was that way, and then he turned out to be that way himself. In conclusion, Prufrock is a Teutonic name.”
I was half asleep and unsure how much of this I was actually hearing; I had the sense that the man was repeatedly slugging himself in the jaw, out of convinction that both he and the audience needed it, until he finally fell down and we all applauded. The last speaker was a genial older guy who told some anecdotes about members of the Keats and Eliot families who are buried in the same cemetery as Colonel Sanders. He passed around photos.
Jeez, how the Hell did you stay awake through all this? Tell that guy "Rock" is also "skirt" in German. Hmmm, I guess that would REALLY pertain to cross-dressing.