What T.S. Eliot Teaches Us About the GOP Primary

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April 2 2012 7:02 PM

What T.S. Eliot Teaches Us About the GOP Primary

Romney’s Etch A Sketch. Santorum’s pink bowling ball. The poet and critic understood how a concrete thing could sum up a person—or a candidate.

T.S Eliot.
The poet and critic T.S Eliot

Rick Santorum messed up during his visit to a bowling alley in Lacrosse, Wis. last week. He was chumming with the nearby university’s College Republicans when a young man reaching for a bright pink bowling ball caught his eye. “You’re not gonna use the pink ball,” Santorum warned him. “We’re not gonna let you do that—not on camera.” And then he went for cute: “Friends don’t let friends use pink balls.”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

A Reuters reporter, Sam Youngman, overheard the wisecrack and tweeted it to the masses. The Human Rights Campaign instantly issued a statement condemning Santorum’s “ignorant” remark for “advancing tired gender norms.” The blogosphere lit up with indignant commentary. How costly the blunder will prove—whether it will earn a footnote in history books about the 2012 campaign—remains to be seen, but “Pink Ballgate” has already rolled into the lexicon, darkening presidential prospects that already weren’t exactly rosy.

Santorum’s bowling ball represents the latest in a series of objects that have attached themselves to candidates in strange and damaging ways. It’s not hard to imagine a train of Etch A Sketches chacha-ing through Mitt Romney’s nightmares. Back in 2000, Al Gore was laid low by a lockbox. Michael Dukakis was done in by a tank in 1988. In his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot advanced the theory of the objective correlative, a concrete thing or set of circumstances that crystallized the essence of something abstract. Eliot wrote, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding … a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

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This modernist claim, that the scientist/artist could brew specific feelings from fixed ingredients, has experienced a bizarre rebirth on the Republican campaign trail. Only now there are no artists, only fluky events that conspire to tangle up the mythologies behind particular candidates with certain physical facts. In our age of constant media exposure, political figures have grown nebulous, enveloped in clouds of perception. Somehow Santorum’s bowling ball and Romney’s Etch  A Sketch have tapped into and solidified the abstractions, the popular anxieties, swirling around these two candidates—they’ve lodged in our imaginations as the politicians’ objective correlatives.

Anyone who’s been 7 years old can see where the Romney/Etch-a-Sketch analogy gets its sticking power. The Massachusetts governor has offended fringe and center alike by slip-sliding all over the conservative-moderate spectrum. When senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom announced on CNN that Romney planned “to hit a reset button for the fall campaign … to shake it up and start all over again … like an Etch A Sketch,” voters were beamed an indelible mental image of the candidate’s stated convictions dispersing into tiny random dots and realigning into a picture of who knows what. (Give Eliot an Etch A Sketch, and he’ll show Romney fear in a handful of dust.) Plus, there’s the toy’s polish, the telegenic shine of its blank screen, the smooth lack of transparency with which its designs emerge. Perhaps most damning, the Etch A Sketch unlocks certain fears that, for Romney, a void exists where his beliefs should be. That the true fuel of his campaign is sheer—and perhaps infantile—ambition.

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