Saturday, January 9, 2016

Obama as Literary Critic

[ed. See also: Barack Obama and the intellectual as President]

Recently, while writing an essay on T.S. Eliot for The New York Review, I read or reread the work of many earlier critics, and was impressed most by two of them. One was Frank Kermode, who was ninety when he wrote, in 2010, one of his greatest essays, “Eliot and the Shudder,” a breathtakingly wide-ranging and sharply-focused piece about Eliot’s unique response to the common experience of shuddering. The other was a twenty-two-year-old college senior named Barack Obama, who wrote about Eliot in a letter to his girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, when she had been assigned to write a paper on The Waste Land for a college course.

Obama’s letter appeared in a biography by David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story, published in 2012, and prompted dozens of comments, some praising, some condescending. What struck me on rereading it was that, hasty and elliptical as it was, it exemplified literary criticism—like Frank Kermode’s—at its best, and showed why it might be worth doing. It also pointed toward something unsettling about its author’s later career.

This is what the young Obama wrote to his friend, divided into paragraphs for easier reading on screen:
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?
Obama begins with a strikingly suggestive insight into Eliot’s literary and religious tradition and his special relation to it: Eliot is one of a line of Protestant visionary and apocalyptic writers from Thomas Münzer (or Müntzer) in the sixteenth century to Yeats in the twentieth, but distinguishes himself by finding his apocalypse in the actual world, not in a visionary one. Obama then describes Eliot’s double impulse toward, on one hand, a visionary realm of “ecstatic chaos” together with “asexual purity,” and, on the other, the “lifeless mechanistic order” and “brutal sexual reality” of everyday existence. And he recognizes that Eliot accepts this double impulse as a tragic fate that he can never transcend or escape.

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.

by Edward Mendelson, NY Review of Books |  Read more:
Image: Thomas Grauman/Corbis