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B.H. Obama and T.S. Eliot

May 7, 2012, 10:06 AM

Vanity Fair has published some revealing letters from the young student Barack Obama to his girlfriend Alex McNear.  Some conservatives have been mocking the heck out of them as evidence that our president is hardwired to be a pretentious snob who’s always saying a lot less than he thinks he is.

Postmodern conservatives, such as the erudite and profound Carl Scott, are fair-minded enough to actually be impressed.  Obama’s observations on T.S. Eliot are, in fact, pretentious and awkwardly phrased.  But they were written to impress a girl!  And the letters actually show our president knows some deep stuff about a hugely important (and now unjustly neglected by our literary critics) poet.  More than that, it seems he thought pretty seriously about the relationship between poetic insight, the contemporary West, and his own life.  Here’s the key paragraph:

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? 

  1. Sure it’s pretentious and probably somewhat misleading to admit to having not checked out all those famous footnotes.  But Obama knows enough to know he doesn’t know that much about what Eliot thinks for sure if he doesn’t check them.
  2. Not only has our president read “The Wasteland,” which was a pretty standard introductory assignment when our literature programs were better than they are now, he’s read an essay by Eliot that shows that literary excellence of any kind is necessarily situated in a tradition.  And I will hazard the guess that that’s why our president understands why Eliot refused to choose between “ecstatic chaos” and “lifeless mechanistic order”—both of which, of course, dispense with the ennobling and realistic discipline of tradition. It’s the tradition—and the poet in response to the tradition—that maintains the tension between the two extreme ways of dissolving the forms and formalities that constitute human life.
  3. Eliot’s poetic effort to maintain a dichotomy or “irreconcilable ambivalence” Obama called “reactionary,” because that kind of insight reveals so clearly the limits of any kind of modern political reform or technological advance.  Eliot looked backward in some ways to pre-modern realism, and the hopes of the socialists were not hopes he could believe in.  We postmodern conservatives might even agree that Eliot slighted what’s good—or better—about modern life and thought in some ways.
  4. But Obama knew enough to distinguish Eliot from his fellow poets by his not sharing for a moment the hopes of the Fascists either.
  5. Eliot wrote, Obama reports, about “moribund Europe”—that is, Europe after “the death of God.”  Our president didn’t seem to object to the thought that Europe is moribund.  We wish he would reflect more on it now.
  6. Obama shares, “at times,” the fatalism of the Western tradition, the fatalism he finds in Eliot.  Life and death feed off each other.  We are born to die.  Our fertility—every dimension of our eros—depends on our mortality.  The poet is attracted by but refuses to succumb to the various efforts—imaginative or political—to escape who we are.  In this respect, we could wish that our poetic president would be more critical of the transhumanist impulses of our techno-optimism, and maybe even more critical of the “birth dearth” that plagues the sophisticated West.
  7. Fatalism, our president seemed to think at other times, is reactionary because it gets in the way of our hopeful or progressive political efforts to transform our condition.  Our president is more socialist than Eliot, but his fatalism—what he learned about the Western tradition from poetry—chastens his political hopes at least to some extent.  We would wish our poetic tradition would chasten those hopes more.  The tension between fatalism and the belief in indefinite perfectibility is one that should characterize our best political reflections, and we postmodern conservatives are more with—although far from completely with—Eliot here.
  8. Our president wrote he respects conservatives such as Eliot more than “bourgeois liberalism.” He seems to mean that bourgeois liberals don’t address our deepest longings, and they’re blind to how flat-souled or one-dimensional bourgeois aspirations often are.  This is not a political statement so much as an acknowledgment that poets and the study of the best poetry of our tradition are more indispensable than ever in bourgeois times.
  9. Our president learned a lot that's REAL about himself and our world from the study of Eliot.  Traditionalist conservatives who talk up the liberal arts should be proud (well, proud enough) to use him as an example of the VALUE of a liberal education these days. They can add, of course, he might have studied harder and learned more.

B.H. Obama and T.S. Eliot

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