So, this is very interesting. Vanity Fair’s excerpt of an upcoming Obama book has some letters Obama wrote to one of his girlfriends in college. ABC’s excerpted a few of the letters and provided some academic sources who chime in on the merits of Obama’s analysis.
Here’s what Obama wrote to his girlfriend:
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?
Here’s what Frances Dickey, an English professor at the University of Missouri, had to say in response to Obama’s criticism.
Kept from playing with the other children in his native St. Louis and considered a Southerner at Harvard, Eliot continued to feel like an outsider when he settled in London. This poem was his attempt to express (among other ideas) his complicated relationship to traditions that he did not really consider his own. Freedom to choose your tradition and way of life can be paralyzing: How to choose between Christianity and Buddhism, between French and English poetry (if you’re Eliot), or among African, Indonesian, Hawaiian, African-American, and Anglo-American cultures (if you’re Obama)?