Freud, Prufrock, and Bon Iver


Text on Freud / The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock / Holocene
The id, ego, and superego, theorized by the late neurologist Sigmund Freud, are components of the human psyche. These three concepts determine how humans make judgments and decisions based on the goal of reducing stimuli and for the purpose of self-preservation. Freud asserts that expressing love, both inwardly and to others, plays a role in this overarching goal. The balance between these two forms of love is regulated by the superego. T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a modernist poem about a man who toils over whether or not to ask his partner an “overwhelming question”. The mood of the poem is defeatist in nature, evident in the man’s extremely self-conscious and degrading comments. “Holocene”, written by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, is a retrospective song about the singer’s pain over a breakup and how it has led to his own transformation. The instrumentations help to convey this narrative. Because of their retrograding superegos, J. Alfred Prufrock and Justin Vernon cannot express love for their respective partners and as a result experience pain and suffering.
The superego is necessary because one must outwardly express love in order to maintain self-preservation. While Freud defines love as a sexual drive, it is more suitable in context to define love as attention given to a particular subject, not necessarily in an amorous way. Freud states that “since self-[love] is necessary to psychic health, some degree of narcissism is considered normal” (57). Freud defined narcissism as self-love on a sliding scale, not as a dichotomy. So, whether a person is a self-deprecating narcissist or conceited narcissist, both have an unequal proportion of self-love to outward-love. Freud regards such people as “sufferers” since they are overstimulated, thus failing to maintain self-preservation. Thus, one must find a balance between these two forms of love. Freud claimed that everyone is born with a “megalomaniac primary narcissism”(63), or the belief that the world revolves around oneself. Over time, and as a result of parental criticism and societal standards, every child realizes that “he can no longer idealize himself; that there is an ego-ideal” (63). Because it was formed to prevent loving exclusively oneself, the superego is what drives a person to express love towards others and is thus necessary for self-preservation. When someone who has aged past adolescence displays overly-narcissistic qualities, it must be that their superego is in regression.
J. Alfred Prufrock, a self-deprecating narcissist, lives in an ongoing state of stress because he is unable to profess his love to his partner. In the opening lines, Prufrock pictures a hypothetical situation where he and his partner are walking together in the evening. Prufrock’s “overwhelming question”(10) is if she loves him. However, Prufrock is filled with such self-critical narcissism, trusting himself to mess up, that he fears his body language will reveal his apprehension, prompting her to ask, “what is it?” (11). To this, Prufrock could simply respond with a white lie. However, he is obsessed with doubting himself that even such an open-ended question scares him. Prufrock continues throughout the poem agonizing over his question and basking in his own pity: “Should I/…Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?/…Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)/…And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/ And in short, I was afraid” (79-86). Prufrock’s questioning his strength is indicative of the doubt he has of himself; therefore, he asks a higher power for an answer. His reference to “[seeing his] head (grown slightly bald)” is both a self-criticism and an indicator of how he has continually failed to voice his love over the years. His vision of the snickering eternal Footman, as if Death is mocking him, implies that by the end of his lifetime, he will have never expressed love to his partner. “In short, I was afraid” affirms that Prufrock is unable to communicate his love because he devotes his attention towards his inadequacies and not his partner.
Justin Vernon, a once conceited narcissist, lives with grief because he failed to profess his love to his girlfriend. Justin sings in falsetto throughout the entire piece. Falsetto is easier to hear because of the higher pitch; this conveys a fragility and sincerity in Vernon’s lyrics. The repetitive guitar melody, played with the four lowest strings tuned an octave higher, matches Justin’s falsetto, giving the lyrics a lingering effect during measures of vocal absence. Tuning up the bottom-four strings also indicates that Justin has shed the conceitedly narcissistic qualities of himself that destroyed their bond. The rest of the instrumentation includes billowing saxophone and horn parts, a soft snare rhythm, a loosely flowing bassline, and timid keyboard sounds that all create a mournful and introspective ambiance. The song opens with: “Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me/ You’re laying waste to Halloween/ You fucked it friend” (1-3). Justin foremost puts attention on his “baby”, something he failed to give her in their relationship. “A part of me, apart from me” conveys how much she meant to him. The similar construction of the two phrases builds on this relationship, expressing that they were compatible and shared many likenesses. Now that they are split, he has “laid waste”, or tried to drink away his pain. However, the line immediately following- “You fucked it friend”- conveys Justin’s deep regret for his choices, sardonically calling himself “friend”. With the line “At once I knew, I was not magnificent” (5), Justin accepts that he was too self-absorbed in the relationship, did not reciprocate the love she gave him, and as a result caused their breakup. In the chorus, Justin sings “Jagged vacance, thick with ice/ and I could see for miles, miles, miles”. Justin realizes the magnitude of how cold, abrasive, and absent he was. Justin repeats these lyrics three times, emphasizing the message and its importance. The song’s last unique line, “now I know it in my memory”, serves as a resolution point for Justin. He acknowledges his wrongdoings, and, in moving forward, needs to give love if he is to be in another relationship. This line can also be heard as “I don’t know where I’ll ever be”, which refers to the opening line of the song; nonetheless, Justin will forever be missing a part of himself.
Due to their retrograding superegos, J. Alfred Prufrock and Justin Vernon failed to express love for their respective partners and as a result, experience grief and suffering. The superego is necessary to self-preservation because it ensures a person is living up to the “ego-ideal”, or a balanced ratio of outward and inward love. While everyone grows out of the selfishly narcissistic, “King Baby”, psyche, a mature person who exhibits these traits has a superego in retrogression. Prufrock is an example of one such person. His self-deprecating form of narcissism inhibits him from revealing his love for his partner. This failure fuels a loop of grief and criticism, particularly relating to his “balding head”. Justin Vernon is another example of someone who had a regressing superego. In “Holocene”, Vernon reflects on how being conceitedly narcissistic ruined his relationship. Because he was too focused on himself and his “magnificence,” Justin spared no love for his partner, causing her to leave. Prufrock and Vernon’s narratives both serve as reminders to see past self-consciousness and conceit and appreciate the people in our lives who give us love for being who we are.