"Composite" Girlfriends & Literary Allusions

There seems to be a lot of talk today about the President's admission that the girlfriend in one of his autobiographies is a "composite."  That's an interesting thing to have done.

On the one hand, I can appreciate how it would be a decent act to keep the real girlfriends of one's past out of the glare of the public eye.  If you were writing an autobiography for the purpose of presenting yourself as a public figure, with the intent of trying to push yourself off in politics, it might be kind to leave real names out -- especially when you were talking about sensitive matters of the heart.

On the other hand, a "composite"?  Could you make a composite of two or three people you cared about deeply?  Wouldn't it rather be the case that you can't help but see such people as the individuals that they are?

Consider the letter making the rounds today:
“Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — [T.S.] Eliot is of this type,” Obama wrote in one letter to McNear. “Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. 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?”
This indicates that the speaker thinks of himself as outside "the western tradition," which ought to be problematic enough for the President's defenders.  What strikes me, though, is the way that the literary figures are completely interwoven with the thoughts.  This is common among people who have spent their lives immersed in literature.

I cannot recall ever hearing the President speak this way, though.  He's given a lot of speeches, but literary references are rare within them, and essentially absent from his off-the-cuff remarks.

Now it could be that the private, girlfriend-seeking Barack Obama is just a very different man from the public speaker; apparently Nixon was that way (as Cassandra recently pointed out).  Still, Nixon was also a lot less public as a public figure:  the times allowed a President to be different in private than in public in a way that they don't seem to do now.

So it strikes me as odd.  Either the literature is deeply embedded in the thought process, or it is not.  I've seen no evidence of it outside the book.  What to make of that?


bthun said...

"So it strikes me as odd. Either the literature is deeply embedded in the thought process, or it is not. I've seen no evidence of it outside the book. What to make of that?"

Basing my WAG on what we now know, and don't of the character of I WON, actions versus words, I'd be willing to wager on not.

As some have proposed in the past, maybe the author of the various and sundry odes to I WON is not I WON.

WRT composite girlfriends, that is far too easy a target, so I'll just let er pass while wondering aloud if the Japanese developers of the, ahhh, Sex Robots received any, ah, er, Stimulus Funds.

Texan99 said...

Whoever the author was, it must have come easily to him to think of "girlfriends" as a kind of category of interchangeable units. The President himself married a woman who, like her or not, does have a pretty distinct personality, and he did stay married to her rather than run through a series of standard-issue trophy wives.

Grim said...

Yeah. I'm getting to the point that I'd like to see if the President can box. The book says he learned how, spent many hours doing it in Indonesia. The muscle memory would be long faded, but the basic motions should still be there.

If I were an enterprising young reporter, noting all these odd disconnects, I'd ask him to show off his skills in the ring one day. Either he has them, or he doesn't. Or I'd engage him in a philosophical conversation about T.S. Eliot. Either he can hang, or he can't.

It should be easy to find out, if you were the kind of reporter who had access.

Grim said...

Just to be clear, though, the letter's not from the book. It's from the new Vanity Fair article.

The point is... it's strange, like everything we read about the past of the man who became the President. I don't think we really know who he is at all, even now -- I'd love to know if he can box, or if he does think in literary allusions that he has taught himself not to share with us. If he does, what are they, and why is he afraid to share them?

bthun said...

"The President himself married a woman who, like her or not, does have a pretty distinct personality"

Why Tex, with that tactful assessment you're exhibiting an abundance of Southern grace and charm.

*the hun tips his hat to the lady!* =;^}

Assistant Village Idiot said...

No, the Full Southern would have tagged any mild criticism with "bless her heart."

Grim said...

Well, she's from Texas -- they're Southern, but they've also got their own thing going on.

Anyway, it's very close. She'd have been all the way there if she'd just made this slight modification:

The President himself married a woman who, bless her heart, does have a pretty distinct personality...

bthun said...

I read the "bless her heart" as implicit within the comment. =;^}

Gringo said...

I cannot recall ever hearing the President speak this way, though. He's given a lot of speeches, but literary references are rare within them, and essentially absent from his off-the-cuff remarks.

One Obama literary reference which is not usually recognized as one is "We are the ones we are waiting for."Alice Walker is the author of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. Like Obama, Alice Walker is the product of an interracial marriage.

I view Obama's use of composites as a way to keep nosy investigators off his trail. If you can't figure out who said what in the book, you can neither check the book for veracity nor can you, by interviewing that person, find out what was left out in the book.

Stanley Kurtz, in his book Radical In Chief, pointed out that Obama used composites for his fellow "community organizers." That wasn't done to protect their privacy. It was done to hide Obama's tracks.

Anonymous said...

He is the "None" we have been waiting for. I was perplexed at his election. But I have slowly come to realize that our national IQ is so low that he will be re-upped. How did this happen? I enjoy this blog and many of the philosophical discussions. Your blog is an outpost against an intractable and fearless enemy. Yet, honestly, how was this buffoon elected? Has nihilism finally conquered the USA?

Anonymous said...

What do his words mean? What is "bourgeois liberalism"? I doubt Obama could quote the first line of any TS Eliot poem. "The dichotomy he maintains is reactionary", what does that mean? He must have studied with French deconstructionists or their ill beggoten sprouts. No MAN talks this way. And frankly, what an odd way to court a woman. President NOPE is not only a pretentious (like the Harvard MBA student I had to teach calculus) jerk, he's a fantastically pretentious prick.

Cass said...

Well, keep in mind that he was in college, so he was reading all sorts of things one normally doesn't read: literature, and pompously worded criticisms of literature.

So I don't really find it at all that strange. A little pretentious, but young people are frequently a little full of themselves at that age. They are mostly playing at being adults, and if you're surrounded by academicians, then they're your model.

When I was 16, I had delusions of being a great poet (thankfully, I kept these to myself). I wrote reams and reams of le bad poesy and even worse song lyrics that I kept in notebooks along with my friends' poems and song lyrics. I still have them.

Then I grew up, had a family, and had no time for such pursuits :p

Texan99 said...

I agree with Anonymous, that was a lot of pretentious fluff talk that didn't add up to anything.

But about Michelle Obama, you guys are reading me wrong. I despise her politics and her willingness to accept a big tax-funded paycheck by playing on her husband's power and prominence, but otherwise I don't have any problem with her. I've never thought she was ugly, or fat, or that she dressed badly. I don't have any problem with the Farmer's Market business, the White House garden, or the arugula. Basically, in other words, I like her personality just fine. The fact that the President chose someone like her, within the bounds of his probable choices on the political-leanings side, is one of the few things I admire about him.

I'm afraid I have almost none of the Southern lady in me. Every bit of courtesy I display is the result of a hard-fought internal battle. By nature I am a raunchy, uncouth bitch, and if I wasn't raised in a barn I might as well as been for all the good my poor stepmother ever did.

xenophon said...

"Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism..." I love this kind of bull speak. Sorta like being sixteen and cramming for the final. The buckshot theory! Let's spray a splendid and ridiculous gooey round and hope something sticks. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you The buckshot Pres.

Grim said...


Nobody here has said anything vicious or unkind about Ms. Obama: we were just reading your "whether you like her or not" as a suggestion that many people might not. That's just the kind of suggestion that a 'bless her heart' would cover.

In any case, I agree that the President's family life is the main praiseworthy thing about him.

By the way, in my book the difference between a lady and an uncouth woman isn't their inclinations; it's the fact that the lady does what's right in spite of being inclined otherwise. You certainly have that quality, by your own description.


So your theory is that he was just trying it on, so to speak? That would be pretentious indeed; I was willing to give him credit for really being a literary enthusiast.

Maybe you're right, though. It could be just something he was playing at, perhaps chiefly to impress girls.

Grim said...


"Bourgeois liberalism" is a Marxist theoretical concept. Bourgeoisie is the French word for the urban middle class, the kind of people who make their money as shopkeepers or salesmen. These days that's most everyone, but in the 18th century there were still large and important classes outside of it: the two most important were the military classes (i.e., the nobility, knighthood, and others who made their living at war), and the Church. Peasants or serfs made up the largest class, but it was powerless.

What used to be called liberalism in the 18th century was the idea that the nobility and the church should be pushed aside and new, democratic forms of government tried out instead. That's how we got our republic; it's also, though, how the French Revolution happened. Functionally, these democratic states resulted in the transfer of essentially all power from the other classes to the shopkeeper class. Thus, while we tend to think of "democracy" and "human liberty" as very high moral concepts, from the perspective of the middle class there was also a strong element of self-interest in promoting them.

Thus the phrase makes sense: liberalism is the natural outgrowth of that class. The way he is using it implies that he is disdainful of them for having not come to their ideal by reflection, but only because it is indeed the natural outlook of their class: they aren't philosophically committed to liberalism, in other words, they just were born into a class that benefits from it.

It sounds like he's been studying with Marxist literary theorists. Marxism tends to make a great deal out of the bourgeoisie, and its thoughtless embrace of capitalism and liberalism.

Texan99 said...

Grim: I'm considerably more polite here than I am in real life. In real life, I'm the fartin', belchin', foul-mouthed sort, not unduly clean and rarely well dressed.

Grim said...

Forgive me. I often encounter women who don't wish to be thought of as "ladylike," but only insofar as they want to reject being put in a box as to what they are and aren't allowed to do.

But I am not putting you in a box; I am merely noticing that you have made the pursuit of virtue important in your life. "Lady," to me, is merely a term for a woman who strives for virtue. I suppose it may still be a prison, of sorts; but if so, it is a prison you have constructed for yourself.

Texan99 said...

I do strive for virtue, I've just never been good at social graces other than in structured, distant relationships where I can edit repeatedly, if necessary.

I don't think of the social graces as a prison. I admire them in other people, gentlemen or ladies. They're just not for me, and at my advanced age I've given up worrying about it. I have low tastes, and there it is. Most polite conventions are a mystery to me: I usually have to fake them by elaborate effort, on the rare occasions when I venture into situations where that's necessary.

Grim said...

In one sense, social graces aren't a prison; the point of them is that they let you move freely and comfortably. As Miss Manners says, the point of etiquette is to make everyone comfortable. However, if it runs against your instincts, it can seem like a prison.

Virtues in general are like this. They are strengths -- that's what the word means, 'virtue' -- that allow you to do things you otherwise could not do. So, they aren't a prison: they are liberating! Yet at the same time, they can seem like a prison: moderation, self-control, modesty, all of these things can be a great struggle at times.

Texan99 said...

I quite agree. Unfortunately, what makes most people comfortable from a "social graces" point of view is so alien to me that I find it tiring except in occasional spurts: a dancing bear act. I accept the need to make people comfortable, but my own preferences for other people's behavior are so eccentric that it's unrealistic to expect them to conform in return. So, given that the trade-off isn't there for me, I don't let it engross a large fraction of my time if I can possibly help it. I can conform very well as long as I don't overdo it.

Fortunately, I don't have that kind of disconnect when it comes to general standards of virtue and ethics.

Grim said...

Well, on Aristotle's schema, that's "continence" rather than "virtue," but it's striving in the right direction. If he's right about it, the more you practice, the easier and more natural it will become -- indeed, this kind of nature-by-practice is what he calls "second nature." We have that term from him.

Anonymous said...

A succint history of the term "bourgeois liberalism". But do you really think Obama had that kind of distinction or definition in mind when he penned the letter? I understand Obama is a Marxist, it is evident by what he says and does. My first undergraduate course at U of Chicago (1988) required us to read several hundred pages of Marx, but also A Smith and esp. Max Weber. I know the terminology, I simply wonder if he comprehends what he's saying in those epistles. Anyway O can't be too advanced in his studies. Anyone who studied "philosophy" this way knows that you have to go back to Hegel to get the real deal. And then of course being modern, we have to delve into the strange melange of Hegel and Heidegger whose confluence is Kojeve.
I can forgive Obama for writing such drivel as a young man. I wrote tedious poems thinking I would impress the ladies. But I suspect he still thinks this way. And that's what scares me.

douglas said...

"But I suspect he still thinks this way. And that's what scares me."

Bingo! From all appearances, yes, it seems he does. Hopefully, the American people will figure this out in sufficient numbers so as to prevent his re-election.

That whole excerpt reeked of the sort of perfect regurgitation you'd expect from an earnest college student- and about as shallow even as it feigns depth. I remember when I was an Architecture student and could drop the jargon with the best of them, but now that I've spent years outside academia, and only returned to teach recently, I really don't use it much at all- rarely there's a situation that calls for a precise word where only the jargon will do, but I generally eschew it for simpler terms for the sake of clarity. Funny how that works.

Texan99 said...

It makes you long for the take-down scene in the student bar in "Good Will Hunting."

Grim said...

But I suspect he still thinks this way. And that's what scares me.

That's just what I was curious about. He doesn't show evidence of thinking in literary allusions, but apparently at one time he did. Maybe it's like Cassandra says, and it's just a pose he was trying on for girl-impressing reasons; or maybe it made a deep impression on him, but he learned to hide it. (The investigation into his girlfriends seems to show that he has always had a serious interest in learning to hide what was inside; so much so that he seems to have been unable to turn it off, at least with Cook.)

I don't know. Like I said, I'd love to see him box, and if I were a reporter, I'd try to get him to talk literature.

douglas said...

Too bad we apparently have no journalists like you, Grim.