GalleyCat reported today that the new biography of Barack Obama gives an extensive picture of Obama’s literary interests, including a long excerpt of a letter in which Obama details his engagement with TS Eliot and his signature poem, The Waste Land. Obama’s analysis:
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.
For a 22 year old, you’d have to say this is pretty good. I’m impressed with the nuance of Obamas empathetic imagination, both in his ability to perceive the differences between the three great conservative poets of that age, and in his ability to identify with Eliot against his own political instincts. This is the kind of reading we’d like to inculcate in our students, and I think it lends credence to the notion that a mind trained in this kind of engagement might be better trained for civic engagement than those that are not. But too often even literature profs are primarily readers of the camp, so to speak, lumping those not of their own political or cultural persuasion into the faceless, and largely unread, camp of the enemy, and appreciating without distinction those who further our pet or current causes.
This is too bad, reducing a richer sense of education for civic engagement into the narrower and counterproductive sense of reading as indoctrination. I think the older notion was a vision of education that motivated the founding fathers. Whatever one thinks of his politics, passages like this suggest to me that Obama could sit unembarrassed with Jefferson and Adams discussing in all seriousness the relationship between poetry and public life. It would be a good thing to expect this of our presidents, rather than stumbling upon it by accident.