President Obama can add literary analysis to the skills section of his resume.
This week, Vanity Fair published excerpts from Obama’s letters to two girlfriends from his early 20s. Prominent among them was this section of a letter written to Alex McNear, an undergrad at Occidental College with whom Obama had carried on a long-distance relationship from Columbia University in New York. Near had mentioned she was writing a paper on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Obama wrote to her:
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?
Although nearly everyone at ABC News has nuanced and well-developed views on Yeats, and while none of us had to look up Thomas Müntzer on Wikipedia, we nonetheless decided it would be fun to ask Eliot scholars for their opinions on Obama’s analysis.
(Plus, as a 20 year-old writing about Eliot to his girlfriend, we wondered whether any of this might be intellectual showboating or mere puffery.)
Two experts, however, were impressed with Obama’s insight.
Here’s Anthony Cuda, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has published multiple books on Yeats, co-edited “The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Vol. II, 1919-1925,” and has written the forthcoming “Passions of Modernism: Eliot, Yeats, Woolf, and Mann”:
I was impressed and delighted when a friend drew my attention to this passage yesterday. The young man who wrote those lines, I thought to myself, was not simply aware of Eliot’s work, which is rare enough; he wasn’t even regurgitating the standard college response to it, which is even more rare, especially given the difficulty of poems like “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets.” Instead, he was responding with verve and originality to one of the vital energies in Eliot’s work, the ecstatic spiritual vision, and to the troubled social realities that helped to shape it. Who cares if it’s opaque or mildly inflated? The prose of most intelligent young people is much worse. This is a student with whom I’d be happy to argue about Eliot.
And Frances Dickey, an English professor at the University of Missouri and resident historian of the T.S. Eliot Society, on what Obama’s reading tells us about him:
Obama was an astute reader of “The Waste Land” and clearly understood Eliot’s aims as a poet and public figure. I find it fascinating but not at all surprising that he was drawn to Eliot, who is a poet of exile and deracination. Obama writes in another letter from the same time that he feels “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me.” The same was true of Eliot when he wrote “The Waste Land.” Kept from playing with the other children in his native St. Louis and considered a Southerner at Harvard, Eliot continued to feel like an outsider when he settled in London. This poem was his attempt to express (among other ideas) his complicated relationship to traditions that he did not really consider his own. Freedom to choose your tradition and way of life can be paralyzing: How to choose between Christianity and Buddhism, between French and English poetry (if you’re Eliot), or among African, Indonesian, Hawaiian, African-American, and Anglo-American cultures (if you’re Obama)?
Obama sympathetically sees that Eliot felt paralyzed by his cultural and political options. Eliot settled for a kind of principled conservatism that Obama says he respects more than bourgeois liberalism: rather than trying to invent himself from scratch, as Yeats or Blake did, Eliot tried to affirm some basic values rooted in history and tested by practice. At the same time, in his search for order, Eliot didn’t go all the way down the road to fascism like his friend Ezra Pound. He looked for a middle way that would do the least harm and keep the most continuity with the past. Again, not at all surprising that Obama, always the pragmatist seeking compromise, felt an affinity with Eliot.
But Obama distinguishes himself from Eliot when he says “the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary”– in other words, Eliot perceived a starker divide between chaos and order than was really necessary. By contrast, Obama suggests that he can live with the contradictions and competing demands of modern life. The difference between them is very much a generational one. In fact, “The Waste Land” helped later generations of Americans see that they could integrate divergent beliefs and values without falling into chaos.