post-modern love

Barack Obama’s Old Girlfriends Get Dishy

Barack Obama as student at Harvard university, c. 1992
Barack Obama as student at Harvard university, c. 1992 Photo: Apic/Getty Images

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.

That’s probably what Alex McNear, an Occidental College student in the eighties with an interest in postmodern literary criticism, thought when she stumbled on this solipsistic little stem-winder from her old college boyfriend, right?

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 mean, you call that a love letter? Who did this guy think he was, with all these delusions of grandeur? What’s he doing now? Probably some spreadsheet monkey with a picture of Eliot taped up in his sad little cubicle, amiright, Alex?

Oh, you say he’s the current president of the United States? Huh. Guess he’s doing all right, still probably contemplating the Big Ideas. Gotta say, though, hope he’s learned to write a less dickish love letter.

(The whole Vanity Fair article, an excerpt from a forthcoming Obama bio, which also contains observations from another Obama ex, Genevieve Cook, is well worth reading  for a picture of a stage in Obama’s life that has been mostly mediated for the public by his own descriptions. Or if you just want to hear about the the youthful “sexual warmth” of the leader of the free world.)

Barack Obama’s Old Girlfriends Get Dishy