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From The Dream To The Womb

.. nce. But in Fitzgerald’s secular narratives of desire, the impetus of lyric promise is decisively disintegrated by the world’s crude bathos and despoliation; and the Dream lacks sanctuary beyond the sphere that resists it. Lyricism, proceeding thus to frustration, must always revert to nostalgia, to elegy: Can’t repeat the past? . .

. Why of course you can! (111). In the tragic chiming of these three tones – lyric promise, its failure, elegy – is composed all Fitzgerald’s work. In Gatsby they are found from the outset in the opening meditation, where romantic readiness issues only in a foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams, but where, in retrospect, [o]nly [dead] Gatsby was exempt from my reaction; and they form a pattern pursued to the final page, where the green light and orgiastic future turn out year by year [to] recede before us, our boats being borne back ceaselessly into the past, yet where the mind consolingly retrieves from a half-enchanted past the Dutch sailors and their magnitude of wonder. The triad structures, too, the essential outline of the narrative and the mood-modulation of the parties. Those parties which open with blue gardens, where men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars (39), but falter into violence, drunken stupor, screaming wives, and cars in the ditch, close upon the glance backward to Gatsby alone on his lighted porch bidding courteous farewell.

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Missing its final triumphant harmonic, the beat of a sacramental rhythm becomes the pulsing headache of private tragedy; Fitzgerald the mystic turns nostalgic drunk. As this brutally condensed outline suggests, Gatsby, on one crucial plane, is a religious, almost a crypto-theological narrative, displaced thoroughly and with explicit, ironic inadequacy into the secular discourse of a sharply portrayed social formation. And within this particular society, the unutterable visions of this son of God (112, 99) may no longer figure and excite an assimilation to the universal, a passage from epiphany to serene contemptus mundi. They are socially conditioned, on the contrary, to kindle a strife for merely personal and financial achievement, to seek a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty (99). I have emphasized this religious dimension at length because I think it vitally important to appreciate the power, centrality, and dignity of this rapturous pull toward the ideal – its colossal vitality, as Fitzgerald puts it: no amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart (97) – in order to understand both Fitzgerald and ourselves.

The Platonic and medieval worlds – though doubtless deluded in their metaphysics, which they moreover betrayed in their social practice – could affirm that, in some bedrock ontological sense, the real was the radiant and the radiant was the real. The substance of joyous and visionary beauty was not the delusion of a youthful libido or abnormal temperament but rather possessed the stature of noesis: it was, that is to say, the momentary experience of authentic insight into the ultimate nature of reality as ineffably glorious. Against this, we have the society of Daisy and Tom, whose crabbed credo is I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything. . .

. Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated! (18). Fitzgerald’s novel thus stands as a locus classicus of the affective impoverishment, the crippled cynical sensibility, of the twentieth-century West, which has shriveled and discredited the ideal, peripheralizing the human faculty of wonder to the misfit status of the merely aesthetic. At the age of twenty-three, however, Fitzgerald had written to a Catholic friend: I can quite sympathize with your desire to be a Carthusian. . . .

[I am] nearly sure that I will become a priest (quoted in Bruccoli 109-10). The Catholicism of his upbringing, in which Monsignor Fay had confirmed him as a teenager, was subjected to gnawing doubt in his Princeton years and finally rejected the year after leaving: the sublime cravings of Catholic mysticism had been routed by one for the freshly encountered Zelda; but a form of religious sensibility never left him. Indeed three stories (The Ordeal, Benediction, and that section on the early life of Gatsby which was to become excised from the novel and form an independent story, Absolution) center on the pain, fervor and self-consecration of visionary religious experience. Fitzgerald had been attracted to Catholicism in the first place by the way that Fay had revealed in the church a dazzling, golden thing, and by the fact that Fay loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate. He was drawn in Fay, as in Gatsby, to the faith shining through all the versatility and intellect (Bruccoli 40-41). There’s that gift of faith that we have, you and I, Fay had told him, that carries us past the hard spots (quoted in Allen 44).

Like the young Gatsby in Absolution, Fitzgerald outgrew Catholicism but not his sense of the ideal, which he relocated in the City of the World: in a mysterious something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God (Fitzgerald, Absolution 150). It was, one might comment, a worthy translation, for the great city, at least in one of its aspects, summons the immense poetry of the possibilities of the future, imaging transformation, joy, prosperity and beauty. Musing on the great towering cities, Raymond Williams reflects, This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible? (6). It is precisely as a kind of dislocated mystic, surveying North America with the paradoxical eyes of an atheist thirsty for a visio dei, that Fitzgerald becomes, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis, acutely sensitized to what, in his period and ours, replaces the traditional teleological sublime: the allure but also the fraudulence, the spectroscopic gaiety and foul dust (Gatsby 45, 2), of capitalism’s transaction with the ideal. Transposed into more sociological terms, I hope to demonstrate that Fitzgerald’s deracinated, incorrigible, vocational aestheticism positioned him, in a secular age, as a superlative critic of capitalism’s appropriation and concentration of beauty in a new and historically unique institution: glamour, which Fitzgerald knows as thoroughly as a martyr his Bible.

Fitzgerald’s more-than-aestheticism makes possible, in a dialectic of addiction and contempt, a searching demystification of capitalist society and its debased teleology of glamour – which, by the same token, he can never quite renounce. Anti-capitalistic, yet ultimately reactionary, throwing upon the commodity the devotional light of a vanished absolute, The Great Gatsby recalls Lukcs’ dictum that the characteristic form of the bourgeois novel is that of the epic of a world abandoned by God (88). Although Gatsby has often been exposited in terms of its tragic paradox of corrupt hero and incorruptible dream (154-5), nearly all such readings have been conceived in the very general, sometimes even universalizing, cultural terms of an erosion of the American Dream by materialism.1 We need, however, to impart economic and class specificity to such hazy generalities – for so Fitzgerald’s novel did – and one such welcome case is the work of Michael Spindler. My own essay, while it agrees with Spindler’s that Gatsby is particularly expressive of that ideological conflict which the rise of the leisure class and the growth of consumption-oriented hedonism was generating in American society in the 1920s (167), will attempt a textually and psychologically fuller reading than Spindler’s shrewd, cogent but very brief study allows. Further, I do not agree that Fitzgerald repudiates and distances himself from Nick’s constant romanticizing of Gatsby’s love of Daisy and of wealth: Nick’s ambivalence is precisely Fitzgerald’s, as his essays, My Lost City, Echoes of the Jazz Age, and Early Success make clear. Such ambivalence can rather be traced, I feel, to the coexistence in Fitzgerald of the cool Marxian eye with the fervent dislocated mysticism of his Catholic inheritance, though I must also disagree sharply with the sancta simplicitas of Joan Allen’s conclusion in her pious study of the Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald that the novels project an Augustinian antithesis of matter and spirit by which the fate of the world and its revelers is one simply of damnation for sin (44, 103).

A properly historicist reading of Gatsby is one true, perhaps, not only to the tension we shall see between the work ethic and the ethos of consumption but to the fullness of bathos between the meretricious ideal hymned by capital and the ideal of a joyous, stable and beautiful integrity of being, adumbrated in older traditions: an ideal whose very violation suggests so hauntingly that infinitely richer structures of human social life and feeling are both necessary and possible. English Essays.


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