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Obama explained! We close-read his literary love letter so you don't have to.

Vanity Fair just published an excerpt from David Marniss' forthcoming bio, Barack Obama: The Story. It covers Obama's self-described dark years in the Village in the early 80s and unveils his mystery girlfriend from Dreams from My Father as a well-heeled Aussie named Geneveive Cook, who remembers "how on Sundays Obama would lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong." Yowza!

But Marniss' biggest coup are the love letters our young President wrote to Alex McNear, the editor of the Occidental College literary magazine, with whom Obama conducted a long-distance romance. An excerpt:

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

What on earth is Obama talking about? 

T.S. Eliot first published "The Waste Land" in 1922, at the zenith of the modernist movement. At the time, poets aimed to write the most formally innovative, challenging poems they could in order to counter the fascist propaganda spreading in post-WWI Europe. By the time Eliot wrote "The Waste Land," he had lived in England for several years and had witnessed, firsthand, the devestation wrought by the Great War. The poem is very much about spiritual, cultural, and existential chaos in the wake of so much death and destruction. 

Obama writes: "Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats." Whether this typo is VF's or Obama's is anyone's guess, but Obama is referring Thomas Müntze, a German Reformation-era theologian who turned against Luther and was revered by Frederich Engels for his leadership in the 1524 Peasants' War. Yeats is, of course, William Butler Yeats, the Irish modernist poet and Nobel laureate with mystical leanings. What Obama is saying here is that Eliot wrote "The Waste Land" in the tradition of Christian thinkers interrogating contemporary mores in order to get at a more authentic religious truth.  "However," Obama writes, "he [Eliot] retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time." Indeed, "The Waste Land" is set in the depressing milleu of 1920s Europe. 

Obama continues: "Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this." Here, he refers to the second section of poem, "A Game of Chess," which according to Spark Notes (hey, I'm not above it) "takes its title from two plays by the early 17th-century playwright Thomas Middleton, in one of which the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction." The "asexual purity" of which Obama speaks references the first part of the section in which an unnamed, upper-class woman awaits her lover and plans to play a game of chess ("lifeless mechanistic order"). "Brutal sexual reality" points to the second part of the section, in which a common, toothless woman is told by her drunken companion that she better get some new teeth before her husband starts sleeping around on her. Eliot's "stoical face" refers to the dispassionate way he renders each woman's predicament while recognizing the tragedy of their circumstances. 

But the women's struggles aren't just about sex and class. Here, sexuality also represents passion as it's understood in the Romantic tradition. The granddaddy of conservatism, Edmund Burke, prescribed that members of the upper classes must keep their feelings in check so that they could watch over those of the lower orders. These notions had a tremendous impact on poets like Wordsworth and Keats, whose works attempt to reconcile feeling with their social station. 

Obama encourages his girlfriend to read Eliot's 1919 essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," a work of literary theory through which Eliot helped define the tenets of modernism. In it, Eliot claims that literature must be in conversation with works of literature both ancient and contemporary. It is this regard for his literary forebearers that Obama admires and points to in his comment about "a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism." In the early 80s, the humanities were in the thrall of French deconstructionists like Derrida. In fact, according to Marniss, even Obama's girlfriend was a fan. I'd venture that Obama's line about "bourgeois liberalism" was a tiny dig at his girlfriend, caught up in throwing over literary tradition in favor of voguish French theory. 

"Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.)," Obama writes. That's right, kids: that dichotomy is Burkean, but Eliot's fatalism -- his anarchic belief that shit sometimes happens for a reason, other times not -- exempts him from being an unreconstructed Burkean, which would be ignorant, considering Burke died more than a centruy before Eliot began his luminous career. Eliot, it seems is more thoughtful than that, especially when you consider his contemporaries. Yeats and Pound, you see, went fascist because they couldn't reconcile their belief in the aristocracy with the desperate circumstances befalling Europe.

Obama writes, "this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?" What our young President means here is that, hey, while it's tempting to paint a conservative douche / famous anti-Semite like Eliot as a villian, history is a whole lot more complicated than that. Every thoughtful person wonders why the world is a terrible place, and they all try to deal with it as best they can. So Eliot dealt with it by hating Jews and locking his wife in a mental institution -- it was the times. 

Which is NOT to say that Obama endorses that worldview. But mark my words: some conservative blogger with a liberal arts degree is going to call Obama an anti-semite. 

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