May 8, 2012


B.H. Obama and T.S. Eliot (Peter Lawler, May 7, 2012, Big Think)

2. Not only has our president read "The Wasteland," which was a pretty standard introductory assignment when our literature programs were better than they are now.  He's read an essay by Eliot that shows that literary excellence of any kind is necessarily situated in a tradition.  And I will hazard the guess that that's why our president understands why Eliot refused to choose between "ecstatic chaos" and "lifeless mechanistic order"--both of which, of course, dispense with the ennobling and realistic discipline of tradition. It's the tradition--and the poet in response to the tradition--that maintains the tension between the two extreme ways of dissolving the forms and formalities that constitute human life. [...]

6. Obama shares, "at times," the fatalism of the Western tradition, the fatalism he finds in Eliot.  Life and death feed off each other.  We are born to die.  Our fertility--every dimension of our eros--depends on our mortality.  The poet is attracted by but refuses to succumb to the various efforts--imaginative or political--to escape who we are.  In this respect, we could wish that our poetic president would be more critical of the transhumanist impulses of our techno-optimism, and maybe even more critical of the "birth dearth" that plagues the sophisticated West.

7. Fatalism, our president seemed to think at other times, is reactionary because it gets in the way of our hopeful or progressive political efforts to transform our condition.  Our president is more socialist than Eliot, but his fatalism--what he learned about the Western tradition from poetry--chastens his political hopes at least to some extent.  We would wish our poetic tradition would chasten those hopes more.  The tension between fatalism and the belief in indefinite perfectibility is one that should characterize our best political reflections, and we postmodern conservatives are more with--although far from completely with--Eliot here.

8. Our president wrote he respects conservatives such as Eliot more than "bourgeois liberalism." He seems to mean that bourgeois liberals don't address our deepest longings, and they're blind to how flat-souled or one-dimensional bourgeois aspirations often are.  This is not a political statement so much as an acknowledgment that poets and the study of the best poetry of our tradition are more indispensable than ever in bourgeois times.

Posted by at May 8, 2012 5:46 AM

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