May 9, 2012

Barack Obama on T.S. Eliot and Fatalism

Barack Obama at Harvard
New York magazine has a story with the trashy title "Barack Obama’s Old Girlfriends Get Dishy" that turns out to be about poetry. They pulled from a Vanity Fair article, which in turn is an excerpt from a forthcoming Obama biography which includes some observations from a few Obama girlfriends.

Everything you put to paper matters when you become the President.

The letter quoted below was sent to Alex McNear, an Occidental College student in the eighties who must have had some interest in postmodern literary criticism. Though this is no Obama love letter (I hope), I know I wrote a few literary letters myself as an undergrad.
I had a back and forth exchange with a girl-friend about T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets (never did get my annotated copy back from 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?

New York also did a little analysis and grading of young Barack's take on Eliot.

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