Vanity Fair is running part of David Maraniss' Obama biography (here), and it features letters Obama wrote to girlfriends when he was a 22-year old recent Columbia College graduate.
Maraniss's take: “Obama was the central character in his letters, in a self-conscious way.” And how.
In one letter [the girlfriend] told Obama that she was writing a paper in her modern-poetry class at Occidental about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” His reply wove its way through literature, politics, and personal philosophy:
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?
OMG. Is this the sort of thing English professors have to wade through all the time? How do they stop their eyes from rolling long enough to finish grading papers?
I wonder why Obama didn't bother to read all the footnotes when he breezed through The Waste Land, with its obscure allusions, Sanskrit epigraphs, and such? The footnotes are actually part of the poem, after all. But never mind. At least the 22-year old Obama shared the fatalism of the [W]estern tradition "at times," and that's really deep.
I underlined my favorite
Here's a boy-girl exchange from Allen's Bananas:
(The Girlfriend) "I have my Yoga class tomorrow."
(Allen) "Yoga? I love Yoga."
(Girlfriend) "Do you really? Yoga is one of my great passions."
(Allen) "I love Eastern philosophy. It's... it's metaphysical, and redundant. Abortively pedantic."
(Girlfriend) "I know what you mean. Have you read the I Ching?"
(Allen) "Not the actual Ching itself, but I have dabbled in Kierkegaard."
(Girlfriend) "Oh, well, of course, he's Danish."
Young Mr. Obama would have been better served by watching some Woody Allen movies with his girlfriend and cutting back on all the abortively pedantic letter-writing.