Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

Barack Obama’s Waste Land; President as First Reader

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.

A Portrait of Barack Obama as a Literary Young Man – GalleyCat.

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.

Unemployed Philosophers Abounding; Or, It’s Much Less Fun to Talk About Unemployed Business Majors

Philosophers are in the news these days.  By what I can tell from the media, un-and-underemployed philosophy majors are sprouting from the sidewalks, infesting Occupy America movements, and crowding the lines for openings in the barista business.  I am reminded of the line in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland where he witnesses the hordes of urbanites crossing London Bridge and imagines them as an original infestation of the walking dead:

Philosophers, so many, I had not realized unemployment had undone so many.

The proliferation is further astonishing since my own Department of Philosophy begs borrows and steals students from other departments to make a living.  From what I can gauge in the news media they are not looking the right places because every news reporter living seems to find them easy pickin’s right at hand at every street corner.

A few days ago I posted on a peculiar opinion piece from Frank Bruni at the New York Times, wherein philosophers and anthropologists were given as examples of what’s wrong with the American educational system, graduating as it does hordes of unemployable thinkers with their heads too far in the clouds to realize the damage they are doing to themselves by reading Immanuel Kant.  This morning in my local newspaper I was treated to Nate Beeler’s editorial cartoon, featuring an unkempt and bewildered looking philosophy major on a street corner begging for food, his sign suggesting that he will “epistemologize for food.”  Finally, my day was topped off by an NPR story on the grim prospects for this year’s college grads.  The story finished with an interview with the ever omnipresent philosophy major, and noted, mockingly, that the student intended to pursue medical school after finishing his philosophy degree.  Good to see at least some philosophy major has some sense. I was actually thinking about how wonderful it was to find a student who was so accomplished in both the sciences and the humanities.  More fool I.

How philosophers came to represent the ills of recent college graduates is beyond reckoning.  Though I did do some reckoning.  According to Stats from the Department of Education    between 2006 and 2011, American colleges and Universities graduated approximately 117,891 philosophy majors.  In the same time period these same colleges and universities graduated 1,687,105 business majors.  Give or Take.

According to a Georgetown University study, recent humanities majors unemployment rate is about 9.4%, which means that we probably have about 11,081 unemployed philosophy majors running around loose and unattended.

By comparison, according to the Georgetown study 7.4% of recent business majors are unemployed.  Which means that 126,532 business majors are running around loose and unattended.  Give or Take.

I think the outcome of this entirely off the cuff analysis is that the average person crowding into line for barista openings at Starbucks is probably not a philosopher.  I’m wondering why there are no interviews with business majors on how they feel about the fact that their educational choices did not prepare them for the job market.

We shouldn’t laugh off the difficulties of these figures in general.  Recent college graduates are desperately hurting, whether they majored in philosophy or business;  they are loaded with debt and many are not finding jobs.  And while philosophers are struggling marginally more than some others, the point is that philosophy majors are not hurting in some extraordinary fashion because they have chosen to major in philosophy.  This is a generational problem visited on this generation of student through political, economic, and cultural decisions that were not of their doing or making.  To trash philosophy students as if they were witless is a snide form of victimizing victims of  a system and culture these students did not create.  It relieves us of responsibility to the many who are struggling and enables us to imagine that it is all their fault because of the poor educational choices they’ve happened to make.  Ironically, it enables us to ignore the plight of 128,000 unemployed business students as well, since they have all come to be represented by unkempt and irresponsible philosophers.

I don’t buy it.  A student thoughtful enough to read and think through Kant is thoughtful enough to be aware of what she might be getting herself in to as a philosophy major.  Such students deserve better than mockery and contempt.  They deserve our gratitude in reminding us that an education is about more than just the bottom line.  That we do not give them this is to our discredit, not to theirs.

Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?

On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.