Obama’s Love Affair with “Waste Land”

R. B. Kitaj, “If Not, Not”

Some people have expressed surprise that 22-year-old Barack Obama’s recently-published love letters would mention the poetry of T. S Eliot, both because Eliot is a conservative and, well, what is Eliot doing in a love letter anyway? If you’re going to quote classic poems, why not John Donne or Walt Whitman (Bill Clinton’s choice) or D. H Lawrence (who I read voraciously at 20).

Judging by my own youthful love letters, however, it makes sense. Obama is using what he learned in his Columbia University humanities classes to figure out the big things in life, which include the state of the country, the meaning of life, and, yes, sex. Love letters to a kindred soul provide an opportunity.

Here’s the Obama passage that everyone is citing:

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?

I don’t entirely follow all the threads of this but what I get is that Obama, frustrated with his job and separated from his girlfriend, wants to throw himself passionately into things bigger than himself, both public and personal (i.e., sex). He therefore mentions figures that were looking for ecstatic experiences. Thomas Müntzer was a contemporary of Martin Luther, a 15th century Anabaptist preacher who was both looking for union with God and caught up in social movements. Meanwhile Yeats (for a while) and Pound got caught up in the romanticism of great man fascism, with its ringing put-down of anemic bourgeois liberalism.

But Obama, while he feels the tug, is also suspicious of passionate immersion, and one can see here already the caution that characterizes the president. He distances himself from Müntzer, Yeats and Pound and turns instead to the more “fatalistic” Eliot—an Eliot who would later describe himself as a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglican in religion.

Here’s how Adam Kirsch in a New York Times article explains the politics:

Mr. Obama speaks respectfully of Eliot’s “reactionary” stance, because he sees that “it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.” That is, Eliot, like so many of the greatest modern writers, thinks of liberalism as an inherently shallow creed, because of its inability to reckon with the largest things — death and the meaning of life. Since Hobbes, liberalism has been defined as a form of government designed to preserve us from violent death. But death, Eliot reminds us, can’t be avoided, and the trivial concerns of everyday life are just a distraction from that ultimate truth.

That’s the import of the mocking lines from the poem Mr. Obama cites, “Four Quartets”: “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,/The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,/The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters. …”

In explaining Obama’s attraction to Eliot, Kirsch may be thinking about how Obama, even while progressive, has been cool towards leftwing idealists (including, perhaps, his mother?):

It is rare for a politician to give the sense that he has genuinely encountered this kind of “fatalism,” or despair. After all, politics in a liberal democracy is all about the distribution of worldly rewards; to believe with Eliot that such rewards are essentially futile is to nullify the whole purpose of politics. Mr. Obama’s ability to recognize the poetic truth of Eliot’s conservatism, while still embracing the practical truth of liberalism, is what makes his letter not just a curiosity but also a hint at the complexity of his mature politics.

You’re excused if you’ve forgotten that we’re talking about a love letter here, but I can testify that for me at this age—and for Obama too, apparently—getting caught up in big ideas and getting caught up in sex are all part of the same thing. It’s not incidental that The Waste Land is about a barren land of frustrated desire. Here’s how Columbia professor Sara Cole reads Obama’s references to fertility:

He is referring to the poem’s overarching principle, which Eliot had picked up in part from several famous anthropologists of his day, that life follows death, flowers bloom from dead land, after winter comes spring, after drought rain; out of these seasonal images, as Obama recognizes, we can generalize something about human experience: that the harshest, ugliest, most trying and most violent experiences generate beauty, accomplishment, and dignity.

Young Obama may be in the grip of his hormones, but he doesn’t want to reduce his desires to mere carnal encounters. By contrasting “ecstatic chaos” with “lifeless mechanistic order,” “asexual purity” with “brutal sexual reality,” he shows he wants his love life to be high and soaring. He wants his relationship to be more than that of the couple in the The Waste Land, the “young man carbuncular” and the typist, who engage in a sterile afternoon rendezvous.

It’s easy to make fun of this. Noreen Malone of New York Magazine calls the young Obama “dickish” and takes him apart with withering sarcasm:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every young lady interested in literature goes through a phase where she finds terribly pretentious young men terribly attractive. She is so wowed by his deep knowledge of the Western canon — and more of a turn-on still, his ability to deconstruct it — that she ignores the fact that every discussion of the Great Existential Questions ends up being, basically, all about him and his superior philosophical mind and how he is on a higher plane than everyone else because he really thinks about this stuff, you know? When he asks for her opinion on literature, it is often done with a slightly patronizing whiff. Yet she hangs on his musings and his attentions. She treasures his missives — until some day, years in the future, she comes across the old correspondence she saves and is able to laugh at how silly and self-serious they both were in their youth.

I asked Julia if, when I would launch into epistolary monologues about Nietzsche’s life force and Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectuals and Freud’s death wish and Karl Marx’s humanity stepping into its full potential and D. H. Lawrence’s copulating turtles, she was turned on and she replied, “Oh yeah.” Looking back, I tend to judge myself less harshly than Malone does, but maybe that is because I deal with students this age all the time. I like the fact that they haven’t yet become graduate specialists or work place pragmatists. They have discovered they have minds that can make sweeping connections and bodies that can make their own kinds of connections and they want to put them all to use.

Even if all of this is risible in retrospect, isn’t it nice to know that great books can get you laid? Maybe I’ll mention that in next semester’s syllabus.

A note on the artist: According to R. B. Kitaj, his painting If Not, Not bears “a certain allegiance to Eliot’s Waste Land.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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