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Obama's Thoughts On T.S. Eliot, From David Maraniss's Biography 'Barack Obama: The Story'

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Yesterday, Vanity Fair ran a revealing article with multiple excerpts from David Maraniss's upcoming biography of President Obama, "Barack Obama: The Story." The article included letters and diary entries provided by two of Obama's ex-girlfriends, Alex McNear and Genevieve Cook.

Sure, there was a load of interesting gossip about Obama in the article: he had problems saying the L-word, he liked to eat tuna, his ex pictured his 'ideal woman' as a 'strong black lady.' But we found a tidbit about poet T.S. Eliot particularly curious.

McNear, Obama's college girlfriend, wrote him a letter discussing her term paper about T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." He responded with the following:

"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?"

What exactly was he getting at? We asked Dr. Christopher Flynn, a professor of English Literature at St. Edward's University in Austin, TX to translate these phrases into plain English.

Essentially, he said, the undergraduate Obama meant, "'I respect philosophical conservatives like T.S. Eliot more than modern, simplistic liberals. He [Eliot] was too backwards in insisting that we can either indulge in every appetite we have, or indulge in nothing. But he was backwards because he had examined the world carefully and given up on it, not because he didn't understand it.'"

Flynn went on, "Obama is referring to what he sees as a false choice on Eliot's part. A choice between indulging the appetites and living ascetically. The appetites he refers to extend without limits. Lust and gluttony, on a personal level, war and genocide on the global level. Against these he sees the almost equally distasteful choice of a cold, regulated life, a lifeless life, really."

"He isn't clear about what he respects about Eliot's conservatism. It isn't bourgeois liberalism, there's that. It isn't ignorant, so there's that as well. As far as I can tell, he likes the style of Eliot's conservatism more than anything. It's cold and rational. Unlike Ezra Pound, he doesn't embrace the bloodlust of the Nazis, but he also doesn't walk around with protest signs like a bourgeois liberal."

Flynn concludes, "I don't want to say that he's valuing style over substance, but I guess I am. It's fascinating to see that even when he was a student, he was as interested in the manner of thought as in its substance."

Maraniss's book doesn't come out until June 19, but the revealed tidbits, undecipherable or not, are sure to have people already pre-ordering their copies.

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Filed by Zoë Triska