Thursday, June 27, 2013

'He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky... and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is' : The Great Gatsby, Existentialism and Entropy

“To turn the death agony into a gorgeous dance” - this is F Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest achievement according to Charles Thomas Samuels in his essay ‘The Greatness of Gatsby’.

For The Great Gatsby is a far darker existential novel than it may first appear, and yet it communicates its story lyrically with bursts of colour and vibrancy.

Death lies beneath every surface in the novel. Gatsby and Myrtle are the literal casualties, but it is nineteen-twenties American society which claims the rest. Perhaps they are not really living at all, only playing at it. One of the most startling and symbolic passages in the book is the beginning of chapter two. After an upbeat start full of yearning and idealism, there comes a stunning literary portrait of the bitter reality. This is the ‘valley of ashes’, a ‘fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat… where ashes takes the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke… ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air’(29). The image of the men, ‘already crumbling’, becoming dust, outlines the insignificance of the lives lead in this portrayal of society. Ashes, dust, powder, grey, smoke – this is the landscape where dreams die, however brightly and briefly they may shine nearby in New York and West Egg. Over it all presides the ‘eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’, the ever watchful advertisement, a false God of the age. Samuels expresses the idea of ‘atrophy’, the ‘wasting away of self as one grows into the world of sex and money and time’. The whole lifestyle is spectacularly entropic.
Daisy is the space onto which Gatsby projects everything he once knew and desired. She is the green light, the first rapture, the single moment that he cannot recapture. Nick makes some important observations concerning Daisy’s allure in the opening pages. He notes her charming yet seductive qualities – the rumour that her ‘murmur was only to make people lean toward her’ (15), and the way she looked into his face ‘promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see’. (15) But like the watchful eyes of Dr Eckleburg, she is a false promise. She is highly emotive, impulsive and her speech is often hyperbolic. For example, upon reuniting with Nick she proclaims: ‘I’m p-paralysed with happiness’. Perhaps her most famous line is about the birth of her child: ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ (24) - a surprising piece of social criticism coming from her. She lets slip her intelligence and that sensitivity that she works so hard to conceal. Her world does not value these qualities in women. To be a fool is easier. She balks at Gatsby’s desire for drastic commitment – she runs from tension and confrontation. Pleasure comes quickly to the fool but does not last.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy had tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything... No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart. (103)

Nick recognises that the real Daisy can never live up to the fantasy and is ultimately unworthy of it. 

‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured.‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past?’ He cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. (117)

Nick passively watches as it unravels before him, as if to stop Gatsby’s dreaming, to stifle his capacity for wonder, would be a crime.

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. (117)

Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is as much about recovering his own sense of solid identity as about starting a life with her. The idea he has of her is his only constant in his new life. He is almost surprised that her child actually exists, a factor his creation did not account for. Even then he does not give up, though it is suggested he begins to realise the futility of his ambition. 

‘Her voice is full of money.’ He said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. (126)

Gatsby is the ultimate outsider in East Egg. He is ‘new money’, rising through unconventional (bootlegging) means rather than through inheritance. He tries to traverse class boundaries and is literally shot down for it. Hence, he can make such observations as above and command Nick’s admiration:

‘They’re a rotten crowd I shouted across the lawn. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ (160)

That is my favourite line in the book. Perhaps because it seems to be the only real compliment bestowed upon Gatsby’s character in the novel up to that point and it is the biggest possible. He takes the blame for the crash that kills Myrtle, sacrificing himself in a way that no one else could even conceive of. He makes all of the effort that the ‘aristocracy’ have never had to and in the end it is all for nothing. Nick narrates a particularly lyrical passage as Gatsby awaits Daisy’s phone call:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream... A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (168)

The imagery of the valley of ashes is revived in the moments before Gatsby’s death. Nick imagines him having an existential epiphany – recognising the world’s indifference to man’s dreams – the ‘unfamiliar sky’, the ‘grotesque’ rose, the ‘frightening leaves’, where dreams are breathed by ghosts and never linger more than a moment before they are recycled and die again.
In many ways Gatsby is as much Nick’s creation as Daisy is Gatsby’s. He is elevated beyond reality but perhaps is more deserving of it than Daisy.

But characters like Tom Buchanan are not wholly unsympathetic – he is a product of his environment and truly believes that Gatsby ‘ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car’. Nick recognises that what Tom ‘had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ (186)

The climactic tragedy is cemented in the fact that only one other person attends Gatsby’s funeral, everyone else is hasty to disconnect themselves - even those Gatsby trusted and love. Nick’s desperation to get somebody for his friend is heart-breaking. For all he has given, Gatsby receives nothing. He will always be alone at the dock, arm outstretched toward the light.

I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.(188)

Gatsby's greatness lies in the reckless dedication he shows in longing for something greater than himself even if failure is inevitable. He embodies the American Dream but falls prey to its ultimate corruption, its disintegrating nobility.

I firmly believe this is one of the great American novels. Many scholars have written on this but one of the best I have read is by Kenneth Eble, who claims ‘a greatness of theme’. This is the way in which Fitzgerald illuminates past and present, also using the ‘power of myth to convey meaning independent of time, place and the particulars of the narrative’. I would say that Gatsby will always have relevance because it reflects on the human condition in a highly symbolic way – for human beings will always dream and always seek self-improvement; they will always suffer from delusions and many will continue to strive even in the face of indifference. 

Now some words on the FILM (2013) – especially based on responses to the specifics of Baz Luhrmann's style:

It’s like going to a Picasso exhibition and expecting to get a realist portrait.

I knew what I was expecting so I was not disappointed. That does not mean I did not absolutely loathe some bits. The garish, Disney-world aesthetic going on at the parties and Gatsby’s house – the tacky, unsubtle scenes near the beginning at Tom’s city apartment. Tobey Maguire’s ineptness in general. The smack-you-in-the-face heightened visual representations of imagery that was more seriously and subtly symbolic in the book.

But despite all this I still kind of got what I wanted. Which is Fitzgerald’s prose. Literally. In true Luhrmann style passages you witness words unfolding across the screen across the screen, the dialogue is nearly exactly accurate – every important line is held up for worship. The thing that would completely put me off an adaptation of a book like this would be the loss of a sense of the prose, a sacrificing of the specific mechanics of a line. So it was beautiful to me that this adaptation loyally stuck to its source material.

I loved the various different arrangements of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’. ( It recurred throughout as jazz, piano solo, orchestral swelling, haunting echo.  There is an eerie gravity to her voice which radiates through the screen and captures the grimness and the aspiration in the decadence displayed.

DiCaprio grew into Gatsby through the film, particularly in the second half. He mastered the character’s repressed pain and concealed insecurities. Carey Mulligan was also excellent. She was not the Daisy many might recognise from the book – she is much more human. She inhabited her character so fully so as to make her more sympathetic, which I actually liked. There is a simple and quiet beauty about her and the way she can at times seem as if she’s made of porcelain, and at others completely vivaciously alive.

Though I did not necessarily like the scenes of Nick in the asylum, I understood what they were trying to do in framing the story and I think it ultimately made sense. The main omission I noticed was Gatsby’s father, who is the sole person to attend the funeral in the book. Obviously they cannot include everything but his presence did serve to cement Gatsby’s fullness as a character with a real family and history in the book.