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What Obama thought about T.S. Eliot's Waste Land

Associated Press Published: May 3, 2012

If you've ever read or studied T.S. Eliot's excellent poem 'The Waste Land,' you probably have some thoughts about it that you'd be willing to share. (For me, I'll never forget the valiant effort by some of my friends to dramatize it onstage during a talent show)

Here is what the young Barack Obama thought about the poem in a letter to one of his girlfriends, according to excerpts from a new biography of the president by David Maraniss.

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?

One important theme of The Waste Land is the poem's bleak portrayal of modernism, a stern prophesy of sorts for the 20th century. What I find interesting, is Obama's interpretation of Eliot's "certain kind of conservatism," which he describes as "reactionary" and due to "a deep fatalism, not ignorance."

Click to read full article at Washington Examiner


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