Friday, January 8, 2016

Barack Obama as a Literary Critic

As a 22-year-old college senior, Obama wrote a letter to his then girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, who had been assigned a paper on T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.
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?
This comes via Edward Mendelson, who says that it "exemplified literary criticism at its best." Mendelson also thinks that Obama's sympathy for the reactionary Eliot tells us something a bit disturbing about his politics:
Obama sees that Eliot’s conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder. Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed. Behind this insight into Eliot’s conservatism is Obama’s sense that the goal of partisan politics is not the success of one or another party or program, but the means by which private morality can be put into action in the public sphere. So the liberal Obama can respect the conservative Eliot, because both seek what are ultimately moral, not political, ends.
I am another left-wing another admirer of Eliot, so I found this very interesting. Like, it seems, Obama, I also find that my hopes for a better world are tempered by a biological pessimism about the human organism. Really it is amazing that smart baboons like us can create complex societies that function at all, and equally amazing that we are able to sustain such spiritual optimism in the face of the apparently indifferent universe.

Mendelson finds it disheartening that his once political hero has this deep streak of pessimism:
I doubt that “a fatalism I share with the western tradition” is desirable in a practical politician.
I completely disagree. I can point to several famously practical politicians who shared that same fatalism: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, Oliver Cromwell, Cardinal Richelieu, George F. Kennan. I think Obama's rather low expectations of the world have helped him thrive amid the storms of his time in office, and anyway I prefer his pessimism to the raging optimism that sometimes gripped his predecessor.

1 comment:

pootrsox said...

I am equally interested in the actual literary criticism and the insight this passage offers into the world-view of our current President.

A true intellectual: someone who thinks, who values thinking through abstract propositions to extract meaning, who recognizes value in more than one point of view...

Amazing that he's survived two terms as President, though it's obvious he's been aged by them.