Oh, what a tangled web did Obama weave,
When first he “composited” Genevieve.
Vanity Fair has published extracts from a forthcoming biography of Barack Obama featuring letters he sent one of his college girlfriends, Alex McNear, and journal entries written by Genevieve Cook, a girlfriend of his post-graduate New York period. Obama had previously admitted, that the “New York girlfriend” presented in Dreams from My Father was largely based on Genevieve, but it was in certain important features, a “composite” of her with other girlfriends. The extracts flesh out a good deal of what was lost, and thus hint at what was gained, in that act of literary “compression.”
Cook’s entries are thoughtful, and of course, quite personal. In one of them, we learn that she would tell Obama she loved him, and he would respond by—thanking her. In several, we see her trying to articulate and weigh the implications of the peculiar “distance” and holding-back she detected in Obama.
You have to feel somewhat sorry for him, having such intimate judgments of his past love-life opened to all, in part because you know that any modern president, and not just a remarkably un-vetted one who wrote a memoir that played footsy with fact, is going to eventually get this treatment. If a president has former journal or letter keeping friends–or lovers–willing to share for a price, we’re going to read those.
Barack and the women in question shared an interest in exploring ideas, literature—that was a source of the attraction, and, to allude to the famous E.M. Forster line, the connection-seeking. Indeed, he sent a letter to Alex McNear advising her how to read T.S. Eliot:
I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year… 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.
A number of conservative commentators have used that quote in ways that make me squirm. They apparently hold an expectation that all real conservatives will regard it as ridiculous. NRO has a slide show that juxtaposes it against goofy young Obama toker photos. At Ricochet, Diane Ellis gives us this headline: Young Obama May Have Been Even More Pretentious than Current Obama. Thankfully, many of the commenters there are much more charitable, sounding the obvious “didn’t a lot of us write embarrassing stuff in our college years” line, thereby showing us that Ricochet’s aim of fostering civil web discourse bears real fruit. But a far more typical conservative response is exemplified by that headline, and without the “may have been.” And that angers me. I know in a previous thread I said Obama was a faux intellectual, and received a partial correction from James Ceaser, but at least towards the younger Obama, I feel egg-head-ish solidarity, and resistance to the charge of pretentiousness.
Consider the quote. Obama’s use of “he accedes to maintaining” admittedly displays a classic tick of trying-too-hard undergraduate writing. And there’s certainly a kind of a sketchy flirt in his getting into the sexual aspect. But what particularly jumps out is that this guy in his senior year is trying to be serious about literature, and doing a better job of it than most of us would have. I do not detect much calculation here about how to impress this woman; rather, I get the sense of a young man who is in a season of giving himself over, even obsessively so, to literature and things intellectual. Hints of Obama’s now well-known narcissism, or at least, tone-deafness with regard to how speak about himself, are already there, but still.
He was a HUNGRY student. And here at Postmodern Conservative, we salute such.
When we learn from his old Pakistani friends that he began quoting from a tattered copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and that that book had something to do with his trying out an identity less “international,” and more American and black, those of us who know Ellison do not detect pretentiousness nor low calculation. Of course the father-haunted Obama would gravitate toward father-haunted Ellison, and of course he would be interested, at a personal level, and with respect to future political ambitions, in Ellison’s extended reflections on Afro-Americaness.
And while my impression is that 8 out of 10 English departments these days are hopeless, having surrendered the tenure-granting strings of power to dogged espousers of leftoid theory, so much so that the sane advice for literature-loving young persons is to avoid pursuing English graduate study, the mention of Ellison cannot but remind me of the high calling literary studies can still have. Currently I’m teaching Walt Whitman in an American Political Thought class, and while his call for a new class of American Poets, ones who would help better realize the Democratic Personality is too grandiose and pantheistic for its own good, in a writer like Ralph Ellison you begin to see how such a call might be seriously answered:
Ellison and I regarded ourselves as being the heirs and continuators of the most indigenous mythic prefigurations of the most fundamental existential assumption underlying the human proposition as stated in the Declaration of Independence… Yes, it would be the likes of him…and me…the grandchildren of slaves freed by the Civil War, betrayed by Reconstruction…who would strive in our stories to provide American literature with representative anecdotes, definitive episodes, and mythic profiles that would add up to a truly comprehensive and universally appealing American epic. Whatever the fruits of that ambition, he and I conceded nothing to anybody when it came to defining what is American and what is not and not yet.
That’s Albert Murray, in his introduction to the book of his and Ellison’s correspondence, Trading Twelves, where he also describes the impression the young Ralph Ellison made on him:
…my memory of his sojourn there [at Tuskeegee University] was kept alive by the sight of his name on checkout slips of so many of the library books of fiction, poetry, history, and literary criticism that had become the main part of my own personal extracurricular reading program. Some of the books had been checked out by him more than once between 1933 and 1936, and in many instances he was the only borrower.
So it annoys me that many conservatives seem to automatically fall into mockery, when they encounter intellectual proclivities in the young. Now what is done with those proclivities is another matter. I am not comparing Obama the grown man to Ellison the grown man. Ellison became one of our best novelists, and really accomplished much of what Murray sketches. Obama has become one of our very worst presidents, particularly in his unprecedented degree of mendacity-employment and his sickening shamelessness about it, a disgrace related to his exacerbating his party’s habit of reality-denial about fiscal, labor, and other economy-shaping policies. He is well on the road bankrupting us all. In addition, while it has not yet had serious consequences, we can only regard his acceptance of paint-by-the-numbers race-pandering by his allies and appointees as a betrayal of what Ellison taught.
What is most dismaying about the employment of a composite girlfriend in Dreams, is not the employment itself (which perhaps can be justified as fairly common, as hinted-at up-front, and as protecting others’ privacy), but the using of it to gain black-identity creds with its story about his conflict with her about a play:
One night I took her to see a new play by a black playwright. It was a very angry play, but very funny. Typical black American humor. The audience was mostly black, and everybody was laughing and clapping and hollering like they were in church. After the play was over, my friend started talking about why black people were so angry all the time. I said it was a matter of remembering—nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust, I think I said—and she said that’s different, and I said it wasn’t, and she said that anger was just a dead end. We had a big fight, right in front of the theater. When we got back to the car she started crying. She couldn’t be black, she said. She would if she could, but she couldn’t. She could only be herself, and wasn’t that enough.
According to Dreams, he eventually “pushed her away.” When, like most of America, Shelby Steele thought that story was true, he argued that it revealed that Obama had scuttled a long (and promising) relationship mainly for the sake of better exploring and establishing his black identity , a goal that involved a refusal to further explore his bi-racial identity.
Well, at least we now know that that was not quite the case. Genevieve Cook wasn’t the one at the play, and she claims it was really her initiative that ended the sixteen-month romance.
Still, we must notice that the way Obama told the story undercuts the protect-the-real-persons rationale for creating a composite, because we can now see that anyone who actually knew the young Obama and Cook might have read Dreams and thought “I didn’t know Genevieve was so obtuse about black culture.”
What is more, our now learning who the white Chicago girlfriend was that Obama says this play-incident involved is probably inevitable, and so we’ll likely hear a different side of the story from her, i.e., whether she thinks Obama’s descriptions of her reaction to the play and her distress over not being black were accurate, and if they were, how she feels about his sharing them. Her misfortune was not simply to have dated a literary type who would reveal her weaknesses in some thinly-veiled story or memoir that only a select crowd would read, but to have dated a literary type who also had serious political ambitions and prospects. Obama tried to do right by her by employing the composite, and had Dreams only been the book it was initially presented as, he might have done well-enough by her, but since all along he was hoping that it could also benefit his political ambitions, his inclusion of the play-incident will probably eventually result in exposing her foibles to the largest possible audience. Assuming it really happened, and that she really exists.
(Incidentally, this shows you why the confessional approach that dominates creative writing in our day cannot be made to fit with the responsibilities of political office-holding, which in my judgment says more about the weaknesses of that approach than it does the obvious shortcomings of present media practices. Healthy literary models ought to exist for those writers who do not want to unhealthily shut down the political-responsbility-seeking aspect of their humanity.)
Whatever we make of how Obama twisted his way through such tangles regarding honesty, literary story-telling, and the circumspection owed our dear ones, we are also obliged to consider how his moves relate to his racial identity, and his likely early awareness of that identity’s inevitable political significance. Ms. Composite is all-too-useful in making his path towards greater awareness of the claims Afro-American culture has on him seem to be the natural one. She obscures the actually greater claims that a cosmopolitan contemporary culture had upon him. In reading Invisible Man, it seems Obama fed upon the rich and thick Afro-American cultural husk, to the neglect of the kernel it encased, a universal lesson that an apparently rootless Kenyan-Indonesian-American with lots of Pakistani friends and an Australian-American girlfriend might have benefited from, indeed might even have needed for his own reasons to employ against the attractions to Afro-American culture that the novel stirs. Ms. Composite, represented as enmeshed in her family’s connections and wealthy life, as we now learn the real Ms. Cook was not, and as having issues with not herself being black and with blacks being “angry,” as we now learn the real Ms. Cook did not have, prepared us to sympathize with Obama moving identity-wise in a more black direction.
Had only he really grasped what Ellison taught about the modern individual’s unavoidably self-reliant and-yet-still-ancestor-grounded responsibility for his personality-formation, and about the fraught relation of this task to race in America, and had grappled with the possibility that it was a similarly bold man like Shelby Steele, and not the usual civil-rights-establishment suspects, who had brought out the contemporary implications of this teaching!
And that is all the more why I denounce those conservatives who gleefully snipe at the purported weirdness or pretentiousness of a young ambitious man who—gasp!–apparently took T.S. Eliot and such seriously. Go back to your ESPN or your Larry the Cable Guy if Eliot is out of your league–stick with criticizing Obama’s decisions and speeches, and leave the intellectual dimension of his story to those of us who actually care and know about such matters.
We would actually be happy to learn that Obama was basically a B.S.-er on literary matters, something that these extracts do not prove, and in fact suggest otherwise. Because for us, the really unsettling (Lionel Trilling-like) question is the following: did his engagement with fine modern literature not give him any hesitations, as he successively got in bed with tactically-ruthless socialists, Chicago machine politicians, and black-nationalist “theologians”? Did it do so little for him?
P.S. Genevieve, you made the right call.