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As he put it himself decades later during an interview in the Oval Office, “I was leading a very ascetic existence, way too serious for my own good.” In most outward ways, compared with what had come before, his life in New York was a minimalist one, without the sprawling cast of characters that had surrounded him at Oxy and in Hawaii and Indonesia.
He felt no attachment to Columbia or to the first jobs he landed after graduation. He was conducting an intense debate with himself over his past, present, and future, an internal struggle that he shared with only a few close friends, including his girlfriends, Alex Mc Near and Genevieve Cook, who kept a lasting record, one in letters, the other in her journal.
In one letter she told Obama that she was writing a paper in her modern-poetry class at Occidental about T. 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.
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. 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.
But it would be a misreading to say that he was tamping down his ambitions during that period. It is exponentially easier to look back at a life than to live it forward.
In retrospect it becomes apparent that New York was crucial to Obama.
Alex had always been fond of Barry, as she called him, and “thought he was interesting in a very particular way.
He really worked his way through an idea or question, turned it over, looked at it from all sides, and then he came to a precise and elegant conclusion.” When Alex came to New York, she gave Obama a call. It was one of those dark, old Italian restaurants that don’t exist in New York anymore.
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You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?