“A tedious argument of insidious intent…”
I recently saw this phrase used as a social media tagline — and it wasn’t a T.S. Eliot account. It struck me as a pleasing expression; i didn’t immediately recognize its origins.
I should have. I studied Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in college, though that was admittedly more than a few years ago.
Looking up phrases online, mine and others, is something i make a habit of in order to properly attribute them or to make sure one i’m about to use is original.
Rather than assume its social media user had concocted this one herself, the online search for this snippet rewarded me with a reminder of Eliot’s stunning craft.
Located in its original context, latticed with evocative imagery, the locution is even more striking, of course:
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
I find it surprising and dismaying that this beauty had become buried beyond recall.
It’s got me thinking about the imprinting of our experiences taking place as our lives unfold, how memories get stored away and what prompts their later recollection.
A common observation holds that because of modern computing developments we now farm out our mental storage to the cloud. But this may simply represent an acceleration of a much longer-term trend.
Whether reacting to a digital snapshot onscreen or to a sepia-tinged print in an old photo album, the sensation is still, “Oh yes, *now* i remember that!”
(The flip-side occurrence is when we thought we remembered something that turns out not to be so. “I could’ve sworn…”)
The observation may be more apt with respect to ordinary pieces of information. We less regularly memorize phone numbers, for example, because our gadgets store them and no longer require us to tap out frequently used numbers manually.
Memorization as an everyday skill becomes instead an art that must be deliberately fostered.
The same technology that can diminish memorization, however, made possible the ten-second research that led me back to Eliot this morning.
Without the internet, would i have made my way back to these certain half-deserted streets today?
Not terribly likely — though it’s possible i’d have reunited with them sometime by reaching for a poetry anthology from my bookshelf.
Such reacquaintances — whether mined from my own mind, sought in the pages of treasured books, or happened upon via the web — swirl up further memories and generate gratitude.
As Cicero perceived: “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
To argue with that would be tedious.
P.S. One of my favorite pop songs from the 1990s references Eliot, borrowing language from this poem for the title, and juxtaposing jolly music with melancholy lyrics about illness and aging.
I plan to update this post later with a link to it.
(Bonus points for any of you who identify it before that.)
Update: Here’s that song.