Readings — From the November 2008 issue

The American Void

( 2 of 4 )

After watching countless speeches and carefully reading his words, I have absolutely no sense of who Barack Obama is. It’s very odd. The more one listens and reads, the greater the sense of opacity. Take The Audacity of Hope: there is an easy, informal, and relaxed style to Obama’s prose. He talks about going to the gym, ordering a cheeseburger, planning his daughter’s birthday party, and all the rest. He mixes position statements and general policy outlines with autobiographical narrative in a compelling and fluent way. Yet I found myself repeatedly asking: Who is this man? I don’t mean anything sinister by this. It is just that I was overcome by a sense of distance in reading Obama, and the more sincere the prose, the greater distance I felt. He confesses early on that he is not someone who easily gets worked up about things. But sometimes I rather wish he would. Anger is the emotion that produces motion, the mood that moves the subject to act. Perhaps it is the first political emotion.

At the core of The Audacity of Hope is someone who lives at a distance, someone distanced from himself and from others and craving a bond, a commitment to bind him together with other Americans and to bind Americans together. There is a true horror vacui in Obama, a terror of loneliness and nothingness. He yearns for an unconditional commitment that will shape his subjectivity and fill the vacuum. He desires contact with some plenitude, an experience of fullness that might still his sense of loneliness, fill his isolation, silence his endless doubt, and assuage his feelings of abandonment. He seems to find this in Christianity, to which I will turn shortly.

But perhaps this opacity is Obama’s political genius: that it is precisely the enigmatic, inert character of Obama that seems to generate the desire to identify with him, indeed to love him. Perhaps it is that sense of internal distance that people see in him and in themselves. Obama recognizes this capacity in an intriguing and profound remark when he writes, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He is a mirror that reflects back whatever the viewer wants to see. Somehow our loneliness and doubt become focused and fused with his. Obama’s desire for union with a common good becomes unified with ours. For that moment, and maybe only for that moment, we believe, we hope. It is a strangely restrained ecstasy, but an ecstasy nonetheless.

The occasional lyricism of Obama’s prose is possessed of a great beauty. His doubts about being a father and a husband in the final chapter of The Audacity of Hope are touching and honest. And when he finishes the book, like a young Rousseau, by saying that “my heart is filled with love for this country,” I don’t detect any cynicism. Yet Obama writes and speaks with an anthropologist’s eye, with the sense that he is not a participant in the world with which he so wants to commune. Experience is always had and held at a distance.

The passage in The Audacity of Hope that both focuses this sense of distance and complicates the problem I want to address is the death of his mother from cancer at the age of fifty-two, when Obama was thirty-four. He writes, for once, in a flare of directly felt intensity:

More than once I saw fear flash across her eyes. More than fear of pain or fear of the unknown, it was the sheer loneliness of death that frightened her, I think—the notion that on this final journey, on this last adventure, she would have no one to fully share her experiences with, no one who could marvel with her at the body’s capacity to inflict pain on itself, or laugh at the stark absurdity of life once one’s hair starts falling out and one’s salivary glands shut down.

His mother was an anthropologist. She died as an anthropologist, with a feeling of distance from others and an inability to commune with them and to communicate her pain. Perhaps this is the root of Obama’s horror vacui. But to understand this, we have to turn to his discussion of religion.

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