I have avoided The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock like the plague. There was always something about the poem that made me feel completely and utterly hopeless, which I believe is by design. But it goes further than that; there lurked something personal. I felt so deeply similar to Prufrock that I feared I would share his fate, wandering wraith like on the beach listening for mermaids. I was a loser. A disconnected, weirdly emotional loser that always stood out and never felt connected to anyone or anything.
We are going through many transitions at the school where I teach, and one of the most frustrating things for me is the switch to a new textbook. Textbooks bring with them heavy -handed, pedagogical umph. The choices as to what poems are included can force a literature class down a narrow choice of predetermined paths and I usually balk at them. Within this textbook, I made the decision to focus on Prufrock as a sort of challenge to myself. One of the only joys I find in aging is the constant reassessment of texts as I visit them in new stages of life. Different things stand out to me and I find the more complicated works unveiling themselves to me more readily as the years pile on.
Prufrock aged in some very peculiar ways that have much more to do with our current sociological climate. I felt my jaw hit the floor as I watched Prufrock bumble his way through the lives of women, coming up short and drifting away in a haze of lonely self obsession. And it hit me like an Emu rampaging down a dirt road while I jog and listen to Bon Jovi on those weird new Air Pod things.
J. Alfred Prufrock is an incel.
In a lot of ways I always knew this, but now I have a word for his predicament that brings his harsh and bitter reality in crystal clear focus. Prufrock wants nothing more than to have a connection with another. To reach out with his complex (if silly) soul and to have someone appreciate his inner self. But every attempt to connect goes hopelessly awry. Each mis-step crushes his fragile self-esteem even more to the point that his neuroticism has taken possession of him. He is a creature DEFINED by idiosyncrasies and built entirely upon the pain of his failures.
Compare this to the modern incel. A creature of the web, an incel is a man (and in some cases a woman) who is unable to function in the world of sexuality. They struggle to find partners for a variety of reasons. Some claim to not have the looks required of men for sexual competition. Others blame their height, anxiety, or weight for their problems in the romantic field. Incels have formed online communities devoted to the discussion of sexuality, and while many seek to rectify their difficulties, other have sunk into a similar despair to Prufrock, feeling lost and fragmented like the famous ragged claws crawling across the bottom of the sea.
But where Prufrock focuses his attention inward, blaming himself as much as the sickening modern world that has cut him off, incels often turn their rage to women themselves in a vile misogyny, Labeling attractive women as “Stacy’s” and “Roasties” in an attempt to dehumanize them. “Stacies” chase attractive men referred to as “Chads,” and other complex coded language fills these forums to describe what they perceive to be unfair aspects of their world. In essence, these self identified “incels” shape the world to fit a warped and painful vision built of their own suffering. It dominates their view of themselves and becomes a cult like dysfunction.
It’s possible Prufrock himself may be on the verge of his own violent rampage, or at least an increasingly bitter attitude to the women who refuse to acknowledge him. The image of Elliot Rodger filming his manifesto stands in a stark contrast to the shy and otherwise harmless image of Prufrock bemoaning his isolation. The forces are very much the same. Men often struggle to live in a world that takes issue with seemingly arbitrary facets of their character. Women surely struggle with this as well, but for the moment my interest rests with the men, who have taken obsession with sexual fulfillment to toxic highs. This may have always been with us, but the losers of our society have never found it so easy to form a community, to navel gaze and obsess with the myriad ways society has harmed them.
What is to be done with these men? What is to be done with Prufrock strolling the beaches and maybe taking solace with sexworkers in the seedy parts of town? What is to be done with them men crumbling under the primary desire of their being driving them to acts of violence even as their bitter tears flow?
The only authority I have to speak on this issue is the very little known fact that I myself was once an incel. I was very much of the Prufrock nature, immersed in depression and self loathing. I begged my dad for advice in my teenage years. The rules of the game, even the most basic parts of social interaction with others my age were just completely lost to me. I did not understand how to operate in the world. Looking back, I no longer blame my peers for rejecting me in a variety of situations. In short, I was a really weird kid. I was immature and just lost in the realm of how to act in groups. I would describe myself as a mix of being a doofus and just being lost in my own interests to the point that my relationships with others (especially girls) was strained.
My dad had no advice. All he could say was “I never had a problem. People just liked me. You mother just liked me and that was it.” It isn’t dad’s fault. He never struggled with this the way I did. How could he know some magical path to just “be normal” without also sacrificing who I was? How does one keep the dreamy, somewhat annoying charm of a Prufrock without being disingenuous? There was literally no answers. I had to just keep putting one foot in front the other, bungling relationship after relationship and looking like an idiot. I did not really begin to date until I was 22. Even then I sometimes ask my wife why the hell she overlooked some of my more bizarre behaviors. I still have an incredibly Prufrock like sensibility at times and I am not sure I ever truly understood my problems until I was treated for depression and ADHD. I am not exactly an attractive person. I can only credit my persistence (and careful attention to not being a creep) for ever winning the affection of another.
I lurk on incel boards and have such mixed emotions about these men. Sure there is a sense of morbid curiosity and freak show like effect, but ultimately I FEEL for these men. I want to help them get past their psychotic love for their own suffering that I once shared. I want to reduce their pain and help them find some measure of normalcy for themselves, but for the love of Christ I just don’t know how it could be done.
We need to find a way to teach boys and young men how to maintain their psychological well being. We need social exercises so that men can discuss their difficulties without collapsing into a conspiratorial blame game. Incels need to confront their own delusions about what the world owes them, to build a respect for women not as women but as fellow humans that are often as confused and trapped as they are. There is never any guarantee that a man will find some dream girl living in their spaced out fantasies. But there is the potential to find something completely unexpected. That hope never dies, but the darker aspects of inceldom kill it slowly with misogyny, bitterness, and even violence.
At the end of the day, Prufrock listens out upon the waves though no one sings. The human voices drown our hopes, but as long as we live we can continue to look out upon a grey horizon and keep walking toward some future. At some point, it’s better to turn away from the ghostly voices of the sea and look inward. There you may find some song with which to build a life filled with a strange, and worthwhile joy.
Illustrations by Julian Peters, found on Google Search
For more musings on the complexities of mental health, check out the author’s Non-fiction writing.
His time in a psychiatric center
And meditations on religiosity.