Container and Content in Prufrock and The Futurist Manifesto

In “Towards a Poetics of the Archive” (1999), Voss and Werner introduce readers to the issues of archival time and space—both physical and theoretical—that will be a throughline in the collection of essays they are introducing. There were two points raised in this introduction that have bearing on T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Futurist Manifesto” of  Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the guiding document of the artists within Futurism/Futurismo. The first point is that they make clear that a “poetics of the archive…is a poetics of recollection, of re-membering, in which all proofs are provisional and subject to revision” (ii). By this, Voss and Werner make a clear connection of archival practices to cultural memory and that reading a poetics within the archive is reading these materials through a framework of looking back into a centuries-long cultural memory made material via the archive. The second part of this formulation is that “all proofs are provisional and subject to revision,” which they later connect to the work of George Bornstein who they argue “maintains that the literary work exists not in any one manifestation but in an archive that brings all the versions with claims upon our attention put together” (iii). By this, the editors—and Bornstein—promote the idea that the nature of the archive emphasizes the multiplicity of a literary work as it exists across archives—whether that be in different editions or in different publication venues (as is the case with “Prufrock”). The emphasis on “revision” and the ever-changing nature of a literary work overtime also emphasizes the archives role in not only storing cultural memory, but also revising it when new materials find their way into our archives. These observations from “Toward a Poetics of the Archive” lead me to consider two ways in which the archive is manifest in both Eliot’s poem and Marinetti’s manifesto: through a lens of both container and content.

In terms of container, we could think about these two publications through the lens of where they exist in the archive and in how many iterations. “Prufrock,” for example, was first published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1915, and later republished in book form in 1917 in Prufrock and Other Observations, with subsequent republications in different anthologies, websites, and other media over the next century. While there is a strong likelihood of actual content revisions between the poems in the 1915 and 1917 versions (even if it as seemingly trivial as a punctuation or spacing change), I think the more important emphasis here is that what Bornstein calls the “bibliographic codes” of these two containers mean that the poem exists in completely different contexts which impacts our interaction with the poem in both sites (iii). Reading “Prufrock” alongside the other poems and essays in Poetry would likely render a much different understanding of the poem than reading “Prufrock” alongside other Eliot poems in his 1917 collection. I think there is plenty more to say about the magazine itself as an archive within an archive, but I’ll leave that for discussion in our class on modernist magazines. Marinetti’s manifesto, which was also published in several different periodical venues—and in several different languages—raises similar questions about the magazine as an archive and how a text re-creates itself with every new publication and translation.

In terms of content, “Prufrock” certainly celebrates a cultural memory whereas Marinetti attempts to deflate it in the manifesto. In “Prufrock,” Eliot alludes to major cultural figures of antiquity and the early modern period—namely Michelangelo, Lazarus, and Prince Hamlet—to connect his poem to the artistic and cultural references from the archives of literature, art, and religion that he’s drawing from. This becomes an act of re-collection and re-membering for Eliot (to use Voss and Werner’s phrases) that creates an archive within the poem itself, using these cultural signifiers to imbue the poem not only with the names of these individuals from history, but more importantly, with an archive of their work, themes, and histories. There is another interesting connection between Voss and Werner’s introduction and “Prufrock,” which is Eliot’s line that there will be time “for a hundred visions and revisions.” Like Voss and Werner, Eliot seems to understand the iterative nature of the literary work as it exists over time, and the repeated references to time throughout the poem only further fortify the connection that Eliot makes between cultural memory and the literary work. Poems continuously exist in a process of re-creation built on what came before it; Eliot isn’t solely concerned with “newness” (“visions”), but with re-creation (“revisions”) as well.

Marinetti takes a different approach to cultural memory, arguing that it stifles the ability of creating an art that looks toward the future by being restricted and stagnated by the past. He links museums (institutions of cultural memory) with cemeteries, asking his reader “Do you want to rot?” (3). For Marinetti, museums and glorification of the past is a celebration of decay rather than growth, and his indictment of our holding onto the past (including its aesthetic modes) intimates that this has inhibited art from any future progress. In contrast, the Futurists declare “What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible?”, the “impossible” being the rapidly growing technologies of modernity that are juxtaposed against the mythological and natural throughout the manifesto (3). Interestingly, Marinetti also recognizes that while the Futurists wish to break from the past, they also know that this position comes with objections from the belief that the present is a culmination of all that came before it: “Your objections? All right! I know them! Of course! We know just what our beautiful false intelligence affirms: `We are only the sum and the prolongation of our ancestors,' it says. Perhaps! All right! What does it matter? But we will not listen! Take care not to repeat those infamous words! Instead, lift up your head!” (4). This is where the manifesto takes on its most radical vigor, as Marinetti and the Futurists accept the past but make clear their plans to ignore it. Marinetti’s manifesto demonstrates a keen awareness of cultural memory, but it does so with the intention of promoting an art that embraces the speed of modernity rather than the slow, nostalgic remembrance of what has already occurred.