Thursday, January 07, 2016

Two Literary Critics: Barack Obama & Frank Kermode

The other day I came across Columbia professor and W. H. Auden scholar Edward Mendelsohn's short blog entry at the New York Review of Books on a critique President Barack Obama wrote while still quite young on T. S. Eliot's landmark poem "The Waste Land." (Let me say that though I decry the racially exclusive precincts of New York Review of Books, which only intermittently publishes critical reviews by or about writing by authors who are not white, I nevertheless explore its free blog site, which often offers provocative, distilled commentary by smart people on a range of current topics.) This letter has, as Mendelsohn notes, sparked a range of commentary, some praising the president's critical judgment and some reading it as incomplete, hasty and deficient in one way or another. It is certainly brief, and not a full essay, so any praise has to account for its partial quality. Additionally, Eliot scholars, Modernist academics and critics of Anglo-American literary might dispute its formulation of how to read and understand the St. Louis-born, High Anglican convert, poet, playwright, and essayist.

What struck me, though, to echo Mendelsohn, was the acuteness of the assessment, the deep understanding and ability to articulate, in concise, lapidary fashion what Eliot was wrestling with not just in "The Waste Land" but throughout his work, which scholarship over the last 50 years has increasingly revealed. The tensions between the material and sexual, on the one hand, and the spiritual, abstract and ascetic, on the other, are evident not only in a poem like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which opens with a sensuous simile that is also deeply suffused with the morbid--"like a patient etherized upon a table"--and which one could read as an extended negotiation between the "asexual purity" and "brutal sexual realism" (especially evident in some of his bawdy, racist college and post-graduate poetry, or in the anti-Semitic "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," which appears in Poems (1920), to give two examples) that culminates in a broken reverie culminating in the very morbidity with which the poem began--"till mermaids wake us, and we drown." (Can I also just register here how enduring strange--bizarre--Eliot's two 1920 collections, Poems and Prufrock and Other Observations are? I mean, many of these poems, at least in my reading, have lost none of their thematic and linguistic weirdness, even though they are for the most part formally retrograde at this point.)

That Obama was still a young man--a student? I did not read the David Maraniss biography from which Mendelsohn draws the quoted material--makes this assessment all the more remarkable. Or rather, based on my experience as a teacher of literature and a wide-ranging reader, it is rare. Even my best students for the most part would not be summarizing a work and an author so pithily. That the President, who studied political science, if I'm remembering correctly, can do so, makes it that much more impressive. Mendelsohn has more to say about Obama's critical reading of Eliot's form of conservatism, which was less idealist and utopian than realist and socially grounded, so I recommend reading his complete entry. It isn't "TL;dr" by any means. He concludes by speaking of his mixed feelings about Obama's tenure given his high expectations in 2008, and notes whether the "fatalism" that the president expresses in the letter, in agreement with Eliot, is even desirable in a politician.

I wonder, however, given Obama's rhetoric in his first term, during which he repeatedly expressed what I sometimes felt to be candy-colored expectations about his ability to work with the GOP, which had vowed--publicly, and we have since learned, secretly--to oppose him at every step, whether that "fatalism" was not a useful opinion that his subsequent political rise dispelled. This was a man who ran for the US Senate at a time in which only two Black people ever had been elected to that body, and in a state in which another Black person--Carole Moseley Braun--had previously been elected almost miraculously then lost her reelection bid. In that election, Obama espoused an agenda that was considerably to the left of his Democratic primary opponents, then stayed left in his policy prescriptions as he faced the Republicans, yet won in a landslide. His speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention was anything but "fatalistic"; it was almost narcotic in its optimism, and unsurprisingly elevated him in the national consciousness. He then dared to run for the presidency after only four in the Senate, knowing full well that no candidate from that house who had not also served as governor had been elected in 48 years, yet he did so against one of the most formidable candidates in politics--who is running again--and, defeating her, then went on to soundly defeat his Republican opponent--again.

One way of looking at Obama's choices would be to point to a laser-sharp opportunism, but even the most opportunistic candidate might have feared taking on Daley's Chicago machine in 2004, or Hillary Clinton in 2008. (I was fortunate enough to meet Barack Obama as he was running for the Senate, and told friends that he was the real thing, and would win in November.) What I think Mendelsohn misses, but what has become clear during Obama's two terms, is that for all the missteps, the triaging, the cynicism, the tinselly rhetoric that was clearly meant to be just that, the president does possess a capacity to see quite deeply into the hallmark of many issues--not all, but quite a few--and think several steps ahead, which is rare quality no matter what sort of person we're talking about. Part of this may involve calculation, in the negative sense of that word, which means that someone and some things will have to be sacrificed in favor of some larger goal, and that the particulars and niceties may be fudged, but it also has meant that for all of the GOP's opposition, Obama has pulled off a string of successes that will resonate for decades to come. To put it another way, he has been transformative, and his successes have resulted not from intuitiveness or (just) luck, but from being able to see that by achieving certain things--the Affordable Care Act, for example--a range of other things might come into being.

The fact that this is how he has operated has infuriated progressives--I am one--and upset many of his liberal supporters, but it is also the case that conservatives of the utopian kind--not Eliot's crew--and racists have been pushed to levels of rage that make the emergence of a figure like Donald Trump utterly comprehensible. He is the material emanation of that conservative rage, and whether he wins the nomination or not, his political prominence, despite his clear insufficiency for the job, is a sign not just of how effective Barack Obama has been as president, but how many of the policies resulting from his analytical skills, have proved. Whether they or his policies have proved enough is another issue, though by many objective indicators, the country is doing well, even if communities within it are still struggling. I say this not as exoneration but in a spirit of realism; to put it another way that 11th dimension chess approach that some commentators have called joked about and that the squib about Eliot makes clear has worked in some key ways, though it's also led to a blindness about other things.

This blog post's title suggests that I was going to talk not just about Barack Obama but also about the analytical skills of the late critic Frank Kermode (1919-2010), so let me conclude by pointing J's Theater readers to the essay of his that Mendelsohn cites, "Eliot and the Shudder," which appeared in the London Review of Books shortly before Kermode died at the age of 90. It was originally to be a lecture about William Shakespeare, to be delivered at a lecture for that publication. What resulted, however, is an astonishing piece of literary analysis, so effortless in its learning, so organic (a troublesome word these days, I know) in its argumentation, that it strikes me both as the very best model one could follow and yet almost impossible to reproduce. It is a remarkable tour (de force) of discussion about literature, aesthetics, emotion, faith, sexuality, and so much more that also gives deep insight also into how the word "shudder" itself carries particular kinds of emotional and metaphysical charges in English. This single word, Kermode shows, can convey both an involuntary physiological and emotional response as well as a profoundly sublime one. That strangeness that I noted above in Eliot's poetry is a hallmark of literary effects that can produce a "shudder" in a reader, as Kermode makes clear. A different approach on Eliot than Obama's, certainly, but in the case of both, whether in teardrop or cataract form, two readings--and minds--that, without question, show what a little thinking can do.

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