Barack Obama’s Waste Land; President as First Reader

GalleyCat reported today that the new biography of Barack Obama gives an extensive picture of Obama’s literary interests, including a long excerpt of a letter in which Obama details his engagement with TS Eliot and his signature poem, The Waste Land. Obama’s analysis:

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.

A Portrait of Barack Obama as a Literary Young Man – GalleyCat.

For a 22 year old, you’d have to say this is pretty good. I’m impressed with the nuance of Obamas empathetic imagination, both in his ability to perceive the differences between the three great conservative poets of that age, and in his ability to identify with Eliot against his own political instincts. This is the kind of reading we’d like to inculcate in our students, and I think it lends credence to the notion that a mind trained in this kind of engagement might be better trained for civic engagement than those that are not. But too often even literature profs are primarily readers of the camp, so to speak, lumping those not of their own political or cultural persuasion into the faceless, and largely unread, camp of the enemy, and appreciating without distinction those who further our pet or current causes.

This is too bad, reducing a richer sense of education for civic engagement into the narrower and counterproductive sense of reading as indoctrination. I think the older notion was a vision of education that motivated the founding fathers. Whatever one thinks of his politics, passages like this suggest to me that Obama could sit unembarrassed with Jefferson and Adams discussing in all seriousness the relationship between poetry and public life. It would be a good thing to expect this of our presidents, rather than stumbling upon it by accident.

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What does an education for democracy look like?

I’ve been reading a good bit lately about the importance of education for democracy, most recently via the new Patheos post from my colleague John Fea.  As is often the case, John roots his analysis of our current state of affairs in its comparison to the vision of the founding fathers in the early republic.  Broadly speaking, the narrative John sketches is that we have moved from an education for democracy to an education for utility (or for jobs).   Our contemporary discourse is focused almost exclusively on the purposes of education in procuring paying jobs for individuals and securing economic health for the nation.  Of this current state of affairs, John notes the following:

But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.

Some of what John is saying is echoed in Andrew Delbanco’s book, which I discussed a couple of days ago and have made my way through a bit further.  The virtue of Delbanco’s book is to push John’s analysis even further in to the past, noting the high value that the Puritans put on education as a means of developing the whole person.  In other words, the writers of the early republic had inherited what was essentially a religious ideal.  We seek education fundamentally out of an ethical commitment to others and out of a religious commitment to a higher calling.

despite its history of misuse and abuse, there is something worth conserving in the claim, as Newman put it, that education “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” 18 College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character— the attenuated modern word for what the founders of our first colleges would have called soul or heart. Although we may no longer agree on the attributes of virtue as codified in biblical commandments or, for that matter, in Enlightenment precepts (Jefferson thought the aim of education was to produce citizens capable of “temperate liberty”), students still come to college not yet fully formed as social beings, and may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 733-739). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Delbanco argues that the uniquely American insight about a college education–a gift as unique and perhaps more important than jazz or Hollywood–is that this ideal of a transformative education is not limited to an elite but should in principle be available to all.  This is why the American system of general education at the tertiary level is nearly unique in the modern world.

The question, however, is whether this ideal has ever been realized in practice.  The answer is obviously no.  College attendance was in fact very limited until very recently, and the kind of education Jefferson and others imagined was primarily achieved through other means than a college education in the populace as a whole–in what we would now call high school or even earlier since even compulsory high school was a post-republican ideal.  Ironically, the very intense conflicts in the United States over the value of college and whether or not college should focus on liberal learning or professional preparation is precisely a consequence of the efforts toward its democratization.  The conflict between “practical” education for the masses and liberal education for the elite is a very long an old argument, one that has animated discussions about education throughout the twentieth century.  Think of the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington  over what kind of education was most likely to secure freedom for the average AFrican American.

The more democratic that American education has become, the more the questions about what exactly we are preparing the average student for has been driven home. This is why both a liberal President like Barak Obama and conservative CEOs agree that what’s most important is education for a job.  Those of us in the liberal arts like John Fea and I disagree.  We show ourselves to be participants in a very old and long standing debate in American education, one as yet unresolved though proponents of a liberal education have been knocked to the mat pretty often lately.

Literature Matters, yet again!

The Web has been recently awash with literary analyses of the inaugural, of all things.  Some of this is due to the excitement surrounding the fact that Obama had an inaugural poet.  Well, I’m glad to have poetry present on the national stage, but I’ll be honest that I thought the poem was a yawner and tone deaf to the moment.  Too much writing for other intellectuals at Yale instead of the man and woman in the street.  Maybe I wanted something more incantatory and straightforward.  Walt Whitman.

There’s also a good bit of literary kerfuffle over the state of Obama’s prose in the inaugural address.   Charles Krauthammer derides “the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln’s second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush’s second inaugural.”  Ok, I might take this more seriously if Krauthammer didn’t try to assert the oratorical superiority of our last president, but he’s not alone in finding the speech tame.

On the other hand, Stanley Fish–sorry, I’m on a bit of a Stanley Fish kick these days–gives a thorough going literary analysis of the speech, spying in Obama’s use of parataxis a biblical rhetoric fitting for the occasion:

But if we regard the text as an object rather than as a performance in time, it becomes possible (and rewarding) to do what the pundits are doing: linger over each alliteration, parse each emphasis, tease out each implication….

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Paratactic prose lends itself to leisurely and loving study, and that is what Obama’s speech is already receiving. Penguin Books is getting out a “keepsake” edition of the speech, which will be presented along with writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (You can move back and forth among them, annotating similarities and differences.)

So the prose is Lincolnesque….or not.  It’s enough to make one believe in the kind of reader response criticism that Stanley Fish largely abandoned, wherein the reader makes up the text as he goes along.  Still, I guess if I had to choose a reader to trust, Stanley gets my vote. (Disclaimer:  Fish was my prof at Duke in grad school, and Krauthammer has irritated me for years, so what do I know).

All I know is that it is good to know we have a President whose language calls for attention that reaches beyond ridicule.

Lee Siegel on Obama and the New Yorker: or, I feel smarter when people in the NYTimes have the same ideas I do

Lee Siegel has a piece in the NYTimes today that is relatively close to my own analysis of a couple of days ago as to why the New Yorker cover fails at satire.

The problem is that the cartoon accurately portrays a ridiculous real-life caricature that exists as literal fact in the minds of some people, and it portrays it in terms that are absolutely true to that caricature. An analogous instance would have been a cartoon without commentary appearing in a liberal Northern newspaper in the 1920s — a time when Southern violence against blacks was unabated — that showed a black man raping a white woman while eating a watermelon. The effect of accurately reproducing such a ridiculous image that dwelled unridiculously in the minds of some people would have been merely to broaden its vicious reach. The adherents of that image would have gone unsatirized and untouched.

In satire, absurdity achieves its rationality through moral perspective — or it remains simply incoherent or malign absurdity. The New Yorker represented the right-wing caricature of the Obamas while making the fatal error of not also caricaturing the right wing. It is as though Daumier had drawn figures besotted by stupidity and disfigured by genetic deficiencies — what might have been a corrupt 19th-century politician’s image of his victims — rather than the corrupt politicians themselves, whom he of course portrayed as swollen to ridiculous physical proportions by mendacity and greed.

But if that very same New Yorker cover had been drawn in a balloon over the head of a deranged citizen — or a ruthless political operative — it would have appeared as plausible only in the mind of that person. The image would have come across as absurd and unjust — a version of reality exaggerated to the point of madness.

By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.

Well, Siegel is more literate than I am since I can barely conjure anything at all to mind associated with the name Daumier. Good thing we have Wikipedia. And Google.   The internet as a collective memory machine. In any case, Siegel’s point seems not so very far from my own when I said:

We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

Come to think of it Siegel begins his piece by noting how wonderful it is that the world is obsessed with things normally reserved for literary scholars, kind of like my own notation that I’m thrilled that the world is abuzz with cultural theory.  Or not.  Is this a case of great minds–in this case my own and Siegel’s–thinking alike?  Or is it possible that Lee Siegel is a secrete devotee and admirer of Read Write Now.  And could it be a case of internet plagiarism.  And does such a thing exist. INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW!

[Side note: Thanks to Monda over at “Theres just no telling” and to Jon Vaitl at “I have an Idea “for their comments yesterday.  Monda, I actually just resubscribed to The New Yorker so I guess I haven’t given up on them yet, though I am tempted.  Jon, I don’t actually think irony is always smug.  As a literary device irony can depend upon the speaker knowing something that either his hearers or his subject do not, but it can also depend upon readers understanding a doubleness within a discourse that is not self-evident to the speaker.  For instance, Satan’s effort to tempt Jesusare ironic because he is tempting Jesus to doubt his status, and also attempting through that doubt to displace Jesus as the central focus of the world’s story.  The reader perceives the irony of this situation, however, in noting that Jesus demonstrates his heroism not by overt demonstrations of power, but through the simplicity of resistance.  Satan’s temptation becomes the occasion for Jesus demonstrating his strength through weakness, a central feature of the the gospel narratives.  Satan does not seem to perceive this, even when the reader does, or can.  Similar kinds of doubleness exist throughout Christian stories:  Joseph’s being sold into slavery as an act of evil by his brothers and an act of goodness by God;  the story of the crucifixion as an act of evil by human beings and an act of love by God.  Redemption, in this sense, is always ironic.  I’ve wondered whether irony is present in unique ways in the Western World because of the centrality of the Jewish and Christian narratives.  Rheinold Niebuhr’s notion of th irony of history might suggest so, but I’m not enough of an expert on how irony functions in non-Western cultures to say with any security.

Obama, Prissy Prince Charming; Or, why it is possible to be an Obamabot and have a sense of humour

I’m not much convinced that The New Yorker cover works as satire (more on that below), but I think the guys over at JibJab have another hit with this take on the political campaign.


More later on why I think this works and the New Yorker cover fails, but first I have to say I’m so glad that the world is abuzz with cultural theory! Ok, not so much. But the New Yorker’s ill-fated attempt at satire has the chattering classes hard at work trying to parse questions of genre, reader response, aesthetic taste and various other kinds of folderol. If it was satire, would people get it? If people didn’t get it, could it really be considered satire. Does the message of the image depend upon it’s intended audience as David Remnick

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding?  You Decide

Satire or New Yorker inbreeding? You Decide

seems to suggest it does when he asserts that it’s intended, after all for “Readers-of-the-New-Yorker,” that snooty bunch. But is the meaning of the visual text here determined by the intention of the artists and the reading capabilities of an intended-and-oh-so-sophisticated-audience? In this day an age? When ANY text has no chance of being targeted exclusively at an intended audience because it will immediately be spewed endlessly into the blogosphere. What is an intended audience in such a world?

I’m impressed by the degree to which the discourse has revolved around criticisms of readings and possible readings. Maureen Dowd–I liked her much more when she was being smug and condescending about Hillary Clinton–smirks that obama is prissy and humourless and should just realize that COME ON, everyone in New York knows its just a joke. This seems just like the kind of answer a New Yorker would give, believing as they do, and apparently Maureen does, that the world is their oyster.

Philip Kennicott has a more interesting take on this same general idea over at the Washington Post. Agreeing with Dowd that Obama may be a bit too prissy in his response to the cover, he goes further and links it to the particular aura of printed material in comparison to our video-oriented imagination. Satire lives, but only in the bawdy possibilities of the moving image.

On “Saturday Night Live,” a sketch in which Michelle Obama tossed the flag in the fireplace and Barack Obama took off the pinstripes to reveal a flowing white robe would be seen as outrageous — and funny. Print cartoonists, unfortunately, find themselves working in an oxygen-free environment that is increasingly akin to the atmosphere of academia, or PBS. Cable television makes print seem like something ancient and sacred, a rule-bound sanctum fraught with the ever-present risk of sacrilege. Print is becoming a strange land where the solitary reader might easily go astray.

“People say, well, I get it, but I’m afraid that so-and-so is not going to get it,” said a mildly exasperated Remnick.

Which is to say that even as we pride ourselves on our media sophistication, as debunkers and decoders of the visual, we fret about the power of the printed image to circulate beyond the comforting control of television’s continuous interpretation and contextualization. In the age of YouTube — where for the most part we can still laugh at each other and ourselves — we are increasingly becoming print-humor iconoclasts, terrified that someone might be worshiping images in the wrong way.

I can really only go part way with him on this. Do we really think print is sacred. Just the other day in my reflections on Hard Times I was suggesting that we are so super saturated with “print”–broadly considered–that print has lost it’s aura. I think the same applies to the image.

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

Tom Toles, The Washington Post, July 16 2008

[Side note: I can see the point that everyone can be a little condescending to readers in fly-over country, still, I think this take from Tom Toles on the controversy is a lot smarter than the original and a lot better satire too. Score one for the post, and tom Toles.]

It may, of course, be that a good number of lefties have been holding Obama sacred, and The New Yorker cover doesn’t work for the same reason that jokes about Jesus mother don’t play in the Vatican.

But really, I don’t think the real issue is that all the Obamabots are humorless. I thought the JibJab video was hysterical–and not just because it’s skewers are equal opportunity. It’s because the satire reveals and revels in something that is kind of really true about Obama, who is the subject of the piece. By contrast, the real subject of the satire on the New Yorker cover is nowhere to be seen–and, to be honest, nowhere in consciousness. We could, of course, satirize the reader of the The New Yorker because the reader is at the scene of reading and so, in viewing the image, would view something grotesquely true about themselves. Instead, the New Yorker cover tries to laugh at someone else without referencing that someone else anywhere in the image. Thus the image seems to be “about” Obama even when we pause and have to say “No, it really can’t be.”

This is not a lack of irony on the part of readers, as Remnick and others have lamented. Rather, the image is not ironic at all, playing off a doubleness contained within the image or within the readers’ experience of themselves viewing the image. Instead, it is a kind of postmodern archness which is anything but ironic. Indeed, I think it’s kind of smug.

On the other hand, the JibJab video really does reveal something that’s kind of true about Obama, as much as I love him. If stretched and distorted and made into a grotesque–which is what satire does, witness Swift–then you really feel the truth of the criticism that Obama is just a little too good to be true, and that too good to be trueness depends heavily on a lack of specificity that lets us project our fairy tales on to him. He will inevitable disappoint (witness Dowd’s grouchiness). In this sense, the video becomes not only about something that seems vaguely real about the Obama candidacy, it becomes about us as the viewers of the video (and more specifically as viewers of Obama). We see the truth about ourselves and our fantasies in ways that make us uncomfortable but also make us want to laugh.

None of this necessarily makes me happy, about the New Yorker, I mean. I used to think that The New Yorker was the repository of all that was smart and superior and intelligent in the world. But the guys over at JibJab are way smarter. Score another one for video. Where the smart people are.

Barack Obama Secretly Married to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Who knew?

This just in from the New York Times as of 6:07 p.m. on Saturday afternoon:

But out on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, was warmer and cozier, sometimes adopting the Bill Clintonesque I-feel-your-pain message used to such great effect by his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in swing states.

Now I really hate to do this because everyone and their grandmother thinks that all an English professor does is check grammar. Still, I MUST point out that in this case “his wife” refers all the way back to the proper noun “Mr. Obama” since in fact “Bill Clintonesque” is an adjective modifying the noun “message.” And for you grammar hounds out there, a possessive pronoun cannot refer back to an adjective. No doubt the error was overlooked by an Ivy League undergraduate who is interning as a copy editing assistant and who never had to learn grammar since it is skipped in honors classes. Of course, writers mostly don’t bother with grammar anyway. Too far beneath them. Especially if they write for the New York Times.

However, one is intrigued by the possibility that this is NOT in error. Maybe Barack and Hillary did secretly tie the knot in Utah somewhere, or at least somewhere wherein the fact that you may already be married doesn’t matter very much. This gives a whole new angle on the tensions between Barack and Hillary on the campaign trail. What we all merely took for underhanded politics was really romantic and sexual tension gone awry. Hillary’s anger at Barack’s sexism was no doubt given an extra edge by the fact that he skipped doing the dishes and left the seat up the last time they were together. And what about this intriguing photo of the two love-birds together. Party unity, indeed! As for that evening of reconciliation at the home of Diane Feinstein where she said knowingly that she would “leave the two of them alone together”? No doubt with a wink and a nod. Inquiring minds want to know.

Political Enemies or Love-birds? You Decide
Combatants or Love-Birds? You Decide!

John McCain–Happy Hemingway or Hillary Redux

This in from the NYTimes evaluating last night’s victories by John McCain and Barack Obama:

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain of Arizona won a commanding victory over Mike Huckabee in the Wisconsin contest and led by a wide margin in Washington State. All but assured of his party’s nomination, Mr. McCain immediately went after Mr. Obama during a rally in Ohio, deriding “eloquent but empty” calls for change.

Umm…I’m wondering. Why does McCain think he can make this line work any better than Hillary has made it work for the past three months? Still, McCain comes at it from a slightly different angle. If, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, Hillary is trying to protect the legions of naive American innocents from from the seductive Black Lothario, it seems to me that McCain is invoking more directly the masculine resistance to beautiful words that has dominated white male experience in the United States for the past 150 years or so.

No accident that McCain’s favorite novel is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. This from Vanity Fair:

The enduring question about John McCain is what, finally, he is willing to do to win. His favorite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s story of an idealistic American, Robert Jordan, who goes to fight for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is willing to risk his life but never his honor, and his dying meditation, that “the world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” gave McCain’s second memoir its title.

Indeed, McCain has more than his share of doomed to dutyFor Whom the Bell Tolls poster integrity that characterized Hemingway’s public persona. The title of Hemingway’s book, of course, refers to an ultimate destiny in death and the unflinching effort of the real man to face that inevitable destiny with something like grace. A characteristic effort of Heminway’s heroes, even when they mostly fail the chance. There’s a way, of course, in which McCain clearly does live out the Hemingway mythology. The prisoner of war refusing to bend the knee to his enemies, the maverick political independent, the loyalty to Bush on principle regarding the war, even when in his heart of hearts I think McCain finds Bush despicable. Even McCain’s political story this primary seasons unfolds like that of a Hemingway hero, the man willing to do what he believes in without resources. The belief that a man should stand up and do the right thing even in the face of overwhelming odds and the inevitable odds of death. As the Times suggested a couple of days ago, he doesn’t even pander well, which is precisely what makes him attractive to so many. Even I like McCain, and I disagree with him about almost everything. Proof again that policy statements and knowing the ropes may be important things for a Senator, but it’s not so clear that this kind of political minutiae is what will get people to follow you.

[Ironic side bar: The title of Hemingway’s novel is drawn from John Donne’s MeditationFor Whom the Bell Tolls First Edition number XVII, republished as the following poem:

‘No Man is an Island’ MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I say “ironic” because Donne’s meditation is primarily about the unity of mankind, “No man is an island.” We are all part and parcel of one another, involved in all mankind. Sounds positively Obamian. We are the hope we’ve been waiting for. We are the world. We are the children.

In Hemingway’s hands the solitary confrontation with death is a chance for the man to test one’s mettle against the worst that nature offers, like the bullfighter in the ring. Finally we do this alone. I can’t quite see McCain with Donne. Maybe if he stood up and said, “any man’s death diminishes me…except that of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and various and other choice enemies who would be better gotten rid of.”]

Nevertheless, even if McCain runs on this Hemingwayesque idealism, he’ll give Obama a better run for his money that Clinton is right now. On the other hand, if he tries to tell the American people that they are naive for hoping that the world can be different than thepolitical world the baby boomers created …well…politicians don’t get so far telling people they are stupid. The irony of McCain is that he was, in some respects, the Obama of the last political season. If he goes against the instincts that made him a winner in the past, he’ll just be another old guy that Obama will blow out of the water.

Side bar number two: Obama might well be saying, it’s morning in America. Hillary could learn more than one lesson from Ronald Reagan.

Side bar number three: I’m not so sure Obama isn’t more ruthless and politically savvy than Clinton gives him credit for. He appeared on television in the middle of Clinton’s speech last night, and every station in the country dropped Hillary to hear what he had to say. Why does Clinton think Obama is so unable to handle tough as nails and ruthless Republicans? He’s shown every ability to handle tough as nails and ruthless Democrats like, umm, Bill and Hillary Clinton.