From The Dream To The Womb From the Dream to the Womb: Visionary Impulse and Political Ambivalence in The Great Gatsby It seems hard to believe in our period, when a three-decade lurch to the political Right has anathematized the word, but F. Scott Fitzgerald once, rather fashionably, believed himself to be a socialist. Some years before, he had also, less fashionably, tried hard to think himself a Catholic. While one hardly associates the characteristic setting of Fitzgerald’s novels, his chosen kingdom of the sybaritic fabulous, with either proletarian solidarity or priestly devotions, it will be the argument of this essay that a tension between Left and religiose perspectives structures the very heart of the vision of The Great Gatsby. For while Gatsby offers a detailed social picture of the stresses of an advanced capitalist culture in the early 1920s, it simultaneously encodes its American experience, at key structural moments, within the mitigating precepts of a mystic Western dualism. Attempting both a sustained close reading of the novel, and the relocation of that reading within wider philosophic and political contexts, this essay will therefore consider the impact of a broad mystical strain of Western thought upon Fitzgerald’s political analysis.
For while it is a commonplace that Fitzgerald was fascinated, throughout his life, with what is variously conceived as the ideal, the Dream, inspiration, the visionary, or Desire, a tradition with which this essay opens, the political uses of the ideal have largely escaped notice. Fitzgerald’s excitably visionary sensibility, nourished in high school years by Catholic mysticism, fashioned him into a superbly perceptive critic of the appropriation of human need of the ideal by developments in American capitalism in the 1920s. In response to economic crisis in the early years of this decade, the national advertising media developed and promoted a new cult of glamour, seeking through its allure to create a mass consumer market and revivify the foundering work ethic. Fitzgerald’s entrancement by the suggestive power of beauty sensitized him both to the spell and the mendacity of that mass promise: to the cruel contradiction between the fostered impulse of ecstatic outreach and the terminal drudgery in which the many were entrapped, a drudgery ideologically occluded by the national imagery of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty allotted the glamorous few. It sensitized him, too, to the crunch choice, in a polarized yet paralyzed legitimate economy, between poverty and crime. But if at one level the novel works to demystify North American society in the Roaring Twenties, at another it redeploys the ideal to absolve the system from its inequities, aligning the failure of economic and cultural aspiration with a tradition of high metaphysical defeatism.
The ancient creed of the unattainability of the Dream thus functions in theological exculpation of a social formation in crisis, conferring apotheosis on pessimistic quietism. Fitzgerald’s remystification of social values, and the ambivalent, uneasy conservatism that asserts itself as the novel’s ultimate position, are confirmed, finally, in Gatsby’s construction of gender relations and of the lower classes. Woman, in Gatsby, is the exquisite vehicle of solipsistic disengagement from a social order in crisis: not only at the obvious level of Romantic transcendentalism but as offering, on a subliminal plane, through a submerged and recurrent maternal imagery of sanctuarizing womb and suckling breast, a yearning for regressive, infantilizing retreat from the relentless pressures of competition. Conversely, the spectral underclass, simultaneously invisible and obtrusive, marginalized and central, wreaks the novel’s horrific climax, emerging as the apocalyptic assassin of that ideologically saturated ideal order. In summary, we shall find that, in a sterile dialectic of demystification and prompt remystifying, the Marxian critical perception so powerful in The Great Gatsby, rather than generating progressive impulse, becomes, by anxious turns, metaphysically annulled, sexually eschewed in regressive libido, and climactically demonized in proletarian displacement. It is commonly acknowledged that at the heart of the novels of F.
Scott Fitzgerald there runs a poetry of desire, an unshakable process of quest set in motion by beauty. The youthful reveries of Gatsby, for instance, effect perhaps what Greek philosophy called a metanoia or conversion of vision to a further dimension of truth or destiny: a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing (100). Ineluctably compelled by visitations of a transfiguring beauty, oriented round a field of transcendence, the novelist who in the 1920s styled himself the trumpeter of the Jazz Age would in an earlier age have articulated his ravishing disturbances in the discourse and dyad of a mystic. Listening to the tuning fork struck upon a star, Fitzgerald stands squarely in an ancient and Western tradition of inescapably frustrate enchantment. Only I discern / Infinite passion, and the pain of finite hearts that yearn, wrote Browning; and these lucid terms of Romantic formulation recapitulate a metaphysical tradition common to two millennia of idealist aesthetics.
In this tradition, the cravings set in motion by inspiration reach upward towards an ideality ontologically far removed in splendor from the quotidian material realm, which the ideal haunts nonetheless with a kind of incalculable and aesthetic gravitational pull. The ecstatic outreach this inspires may be interpreted as towards the immaterial world of First Forms (Plato) or an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover that calls like a lover (kinei hos eromenon); it may be towards a transcendent Christian Creator, upon whose natural forms play, in the discourse of Christian Platonism, dazzling beams or enargeiai that draw back the contemplative observer into their divine source; or it may be that the raptus draws poets into a pantheistic Romantic world-spirit, into a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused. However construed, structural to the entire tradition is a shining higher order by which mortals mired in a corrupt, contingent realm become, in Fitzgerald’s language, for a transitory enchanted moment compelled into an aesthetic contemplation (Gatsby 182), and gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder (112). Fitzgerald, then, and his Gatsby experience intimations of what was once conceived as the beatific. Daisy, as the inexpressible exquisite disclosing the radiant higher kingdom (here, indefeasible wealth), necessarily remains descriptively discarnate, in contrast to the sexually profiled Jordan and Myrtle (11, 25). Daisy gleams like silver, like the silver pepper of the stars, exists as a voice, a singing compulsion, an incarnation, educing the marriage of unutterable visions to her perishable breath (150, 21, 9, 112). But Daisy is, precisely, perishable: tragically inadequate to the inspiration she kindles.
For Fitzgerald, the terms the world affords for the instantiation of ideality are inadequate; yet the ideal remains indefinable in terms of any other order, any specifiable transcendent origin. Fitzgerald thus diverges from the classic Western dualism that offers a transcendent situating of inspiration: for him, it has neither ground nor viable instantiation. Displaced and demystified by contemporary secular cynicism, Fitzgerald’s relation to the ideal is precisely Nick’s: Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
(112) The traditional sacramental instinct endures, internalized yet alien, an elevated profundity fast fading into unintelligibility. As a liminal reflex persisting within modern America’s metaphysical amnesia, its wording proves illegible to a society whose telos is the vulgarity of private profit. If beauty lacks a transcendent ground, personality’s springs become problematic, impossible of final judgment: there may, reflects Nick, or there may not be more to the lifestyle of romantic grace and aspiration than an unbroken series of successful gestures; and conduct may ultimately be founded on the hard rock or wet marshes (2). Given the disappearance of an Absolute, the emotional triad on which Gatsby is built is decisively distinct from that of Christianity and Platonism. In the latter, awakened desire, colliding with a resistant phenomenal world, can yet remain assured of some ultimate translation to immutable and perfect transcende …