Obama’s Love Letters: The Power of the Poetry Nerds

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I don’t know if it means anything — it might mean nothing — but two of the most powerful people in the world, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, apparently spent a lot of time in college thinking, writing or speaking about T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

For those familiar with English majors on American campuses in the quarter century from 1964–89, this may be unsettling news. But before we spawn any conspiracy theories about a global takeover by surly, anemic stacks dwellers — “If they can make you buy health insurance, they can make you read Lacan” — let’s consider the facts:

Last October, in a post linking to our cover on Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, I quoted the passage from Eliot’s “East Coker” that she cited as a touchstone in her first major public speech at graduation from Wellesley in 1969. “There’s that wonderful line in ‘East Coker’ by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before,” Clinton said at the time. The actual lines are:

… What there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate — but there is no competition —

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Not bad. But that is tame stuff compared with Obama’s analysis of Eliot more than a decade later. We learn from the great David Maraniss in the Vanity Fair excerpt of his upcoming biography, Barack Obama: The Story, that the President went way deeper on Eliot as a 20-year-old at Columbia University in New York City. In a letter to his then girlfriend, apparently responding to her deconstructionist interpretation of Eliot, Obama wrote:

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.

O.K., maybe we all will be reading (rereading?) Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts in 2013. But if that makes you want to vote for Mitt Romney, you fail to see the full scope of the threat. Clinton and Obama ended up majoring in political science. Before he got his business and law degrees at Harvard, Willard Mitt Romney spent his time tracing the influence of Homer and Dante on 19th century thought as an English major at Brigham Young University.

Apparently the stacks dwellers were up to — or onto — something.