April 1, 2017

1. The Great Gatsby

A. The Breaking Point

[Spoiler warning: If you’re thinking of reading The Great Gatsby, you may want to skip the following.]

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the protagonist, Tom Buchanan the antagonist. Jay decides to confront Tom, and tell him that his wife (Daisy) has never really loved him, she loves Jay. Meanwhile, Tom decides to confront Jay, and tell him to stay away from Daisy.

Jay and Tom collide on a hot summer day at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Daisy is complaining about the heat.

“The thing to do is to forget about the heat,” said Tom impatiently. “You make it ten times worse by crabbing about it.” He unrolled the bottle of whiskey from the towel and put it on the table. “Why not let her alone, old sport?” remarked Gatsby. “You’re the one that wanted to come to town.” There was a moment of silence. The telephone book slipped from its nail and splashed to the floor.... Gatsby examined the parted string.1

Just when Jay and Tom are colliding, just when the tension is reaching a “breaking point,” the string holding the telephone book breaks. Could this happen in real life? Can tension between people affect inanimate objects? Is it just a coincidence that the string breaks at that moment, or is there some sort of relationship between mankind and inanimate objects? Were we right to say, Everything is connected? If a clock stops when its owner dies, is that just a coincidence? Is the universe an organic whole in which everything is connected, and everything — even a clock, even a string — has some sort of energy, consciousness, life?

In 1909, Jung visited Freud in Vienna, and asked him about the occult.

Because of [Freud’s] materialistic prejudice, [Jung later said,] he rejected this entire complex of questions as nonsensical... I had difficulty in checking the sharp retort on the tip of my tongue.... At that moment there was [a] loud report in the bookcase.... I said to Freud: “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.... I now predict that in a moment there will be another such loud report!” Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.2

The quarrel between Freud and Jung, like the quarrel between Jay and Tom, seems to be manifested in a disturbance in the world around them, in the inanimate objects around them. How did Fitzgerald grasp this profound truth? It’s possible that he experienced something like this, but I think it’s more likely that he found something like this in the work of another novelist, such as Conrad. It’s impossible to over-state Conrad’s influence on Fitzgerald.3

Doubtless we could find countless examples, in literary works, of a connection between people and inanimate objects. And doubtless we could find countless examples in the real world of such a connection. A connection between people and inanimate objects can also be demonstrated through controlled experiments, as we saw in an earlier issue.

B. Fortune’s Wheel

The Great Gatsby is often called Fitzgerald’s best novel. It was written when he was about 27, and in the prime of his career. When he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was already a famous writer, already married to Zelda. Did he anticipate that his best days were behind him, that ahead lay trouble and early death? In my book of aphorisms, I said, “People can often foresee the time of their death.” The narrator of Gatsby, Nick, says

“I just remembered that today’s my birthday.” I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.... We drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.

People who are 27 or 30 don’t usually feel that they’re moving toward death, they don’t usually view the next decade as “portentous, menacing.” In Fitzgerald’s essay “My Lost City,” one finds the same sense of impending decline:

I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.

In his early days, Fitzgerald seemed to have everything — fame, money, a beautiful wife. But beneath the surface, trouble lurked — Zelda’s mental problems, Scott’s alcohol problems, etc. When Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, Fortune was about to turn her wheel, and Fitzgerald sensed it.

The magic of his early days with Zelda was gone. When Gatsby returns from the war, he visits Louisville, where his relationship with Daisy had blossomed, but “he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.” Zelda was no longer a princess, she was a responsibility. Gatsby tells Nick how he hesitated to kiss Daisy:

Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees — he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.... He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.

C. Lost Illusions

Gatsby is a dreamer, and Daisy is the woman of his dreams. When he finally comes face-to-face with Daisy, it’s difficult for her to live up to Gatsby’s dreams:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy 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. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.5

Don Quixote is also a dreamer. Does Western literature have a tendency in this direction, a tendency that began in the Renaissance period, a tendency that sets it apart from Greco-Roman literature? Is there an introspective tendency in the Western psyche, a tendency created by, or at least strengthened by Christianity? Does introspection create an inner life, a fantasy life, and a corresponding dissatisfaction with reality? Even in a modern writer like Proust, dreams/illusions play an important role.

A critic named Robert Emmet Long has argued that The Great Gatsby is influenced by Conrad’s works, especially Almayer’s Folly, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness.6 Long argues that Conrad’s early work, such as Almayer’s Folly, is about romantic illusions that are shattered by reality. Thus, Conrad’s early work resembles Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which depicts the protagonist’s illusions with ironic detachment (Flaubert’s work had considerable influence, even outside France).7

Beginning with Lord Jim, however, Conrad starts to sympathize with his dreamer, to see his dreamer as a better man than those around him.8 If the dreamer isn’t an unqualified hero, he at least has some heroic qualities. This is the template that Fitzgerald follows in Gatsby. Gatsby is corrupt but also noble, and his nobility shines more brightly when set against the pettiness of those around him. As the narrator, Nick, puts it,

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damned bunch put together.”9

Gatsby’s large soul is manifest in his smile: “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” Here again, Fitzgerald seems to be following a Conrad template; the protagonist of Lord Jim also has a memorable smile.

While Jim is talking about his plans, Marlow notices that a “strange look of beatitude overspread his features.... He positively smiled! ....It was an ecstatic smile that your face — or mine either — will never wear, my dear boys.”10

Perhaps the most famous image in Gatsby is the green light at the end of the Buchanan dock, a light that symbolizes Gatsby’s great love (Daisy), but also belongs to Gatsby’s adversary (Tom). Likewise, in Almayer’s Folly, the houses of the protagonist and antagonist are separated by water, and Almayer can see his foe’s lights at night.11 As Gatsby’s dreams for the future center on Daisy, so Almayer’s dreams for the future center on his daughter, Nina.12

D. Car Accidents

Though Fitzgerald often follows a Conrad template, his plot revolves around a contemporary situation that Conrad doesn’t deal with: the car accident. Car accidents raise various moral issues: How should we respond when we hit a person or an animal? Should we stop if we see a stranger having a problem? In an earlier issue, I discussed “driving dilemmas” in the work of the American writer Andre Dubus, and I wrote, “Driving seems to be a fertile field for moral choice because when we’re driving, we have to make split-second decisions, and we’re often dealing with strangers.”

After Daisy hits Myrtle, Gatsby pretends that he was driving. I was reminded of the Chappaquiddick accident, when Mary Jo Kopechne drove off a bridge, but Ted Kennedy pretended that he was driving.

After Daisy hits Myrtle, Gatsby tries to hide the evidence: “He gave instructions that the open car wasn’t to be taken out under any circumstances — and this was strange, because the front right fender needed repair.” If people hit someone and keep going, they often try to hide the evidence. I even heard of a case where someone killed a pedestrian and kept going, then later drove their car into a stone wall, so the damage from the second accident would hide the damage from the first accident.

E. Weak Ego

In an earlier issue, I said, “One of the chief characteristics of the intellectual is a weak ego.” I discussed photos of Proust, Forster, and Joyce, concluding that their weak ego “manifests itself in a posture that isn’t erect, but rather tilted.” I noted that, in group photos, they’re usually on the edge of the group, not in the middle.

Because of his weak ego, the intellectual is poor at wielding authority, and is frequently the butt of ridicule. This lack of authority, lack of force, makes it difficult for the intellectual to be a teacher. Joyce, Thoreau, Aldous Huxley — all tried their hand at teaching, but couldn’t control the students. Joyce said his students were “aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.”

Fitzgerald doubtless had a weak ego, and he was impressed by people of the opposite type, impressed by people with a strong ego. Instead of the phrase “strong ego,” Fitzgerald uses the phrase “self-sufficiency.” He describes a self-sufficient woman who doesn’t even look at him when he enters the room: “If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it.” He says, “Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me.”4 Fitzgerald is “stunned” by self-sufficiency because it’s foreign to him, because he doesn’t possess it himself.

F. The James-Wells Debate

Henry James distinguished between ‘selection novels’ and ‘saturation novels.’ His own novels were selection novels, the material being selected to create structure; a selection novel has “a controlling idea and a clear center of interest.” Academics are impressed with this sort of novel, impressed with structure. James felt that younger novelists (like Compton Mackenzie, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells) were creating saturation novels “which he associated with discursiveness and ‘the affirmation of energy, however directed or undirected.’”13 Perhaps the best example of a saturation novelist is Thomas Wolfe, who is ignored in The Academy.

The young Fitzgerald was much impressed with Compton Mackenzie. Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was “written under the spell of Compton Mackenzie, one critic even pointing out nearly a hundred points of similarity between This Side of Paradise and Mackenzie’s Sinister Street.” Fitzgerald once wrote, “I sent [This Side of Paradise] to Mencken with the confession that it derives from Mackenzie and Wells.”

But Gatsby was written under the spell of Conrad, whom James cited as a selection novelist. When you read Gatsby, you feel that it has structure, it isn’t just a record of experience. Fitzgerald’s earlier work isn’t as carefully structured. In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald identifies with the protagonist, but in Gatsby, Fitzgerald detaches himself from the protagonist. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses a Conrad-style narrator who can observe the protagonist with a blend of admiration and blame. This Side of Paradise deals with lost illusions, as Gatsby does, but it uses the ‘saturation approach’ rather than the ‘selection approach.’

Henry James had a debate with H. G. Wells about the novel as a genre. James championed structure, form, craft, and his arguments resonated with The Academy and with Highbrow Culture. James’ arguments were “one of the first and most significant formulations in Anglo-American letters of what will serve as one of the central tenets of high literary modernism.”14 Like T. S. Eliot, James champions the formal and the impersonal. The Academy admired Eliot and James, while ignoring Wells and Wolfe.

Wells celebrates the novel’s “moral persuasive” force. He believes that the novel can make us want to change ourselves or change the world, the novel can be social or political. For Wells, the world isn’t stable, it’s in flux; his interest in social change made him a pioneer of science fiction. While James is interested in method, Wells is interested in matter.

We are going to write about it all [said Wells]. We are going to write about business and finance and politics and precedence and pretentiousness and decorum and indecorum, until a thousand pretenses and ten thousand impostures shrivel in the cold, clear air of our elucidations.14B

James viewed the novel as a self-contained whole, an artistic whole. The novelist assumes that a stable world is “established in advance.”15

2. Miscellaneous

A. In a recent issue, I said, “Depression and suicidal feelings seem to be on the rise; in the U.S., it has become difficult to meet a young person who isn’t taking anti-depressant medication.” There has been a spate of suicides at Penn; the student newspaper says the latest suicide is “likely the twelfth Penn student since February 2013 to die by suicide.”16

B. I’ve often thought that the most valuable things for college students to learn are meditation and yoga — in a word, mindfulness. When I was in college around 1980, such things weren’t taught — weren’t even mentioned. I never heard the word “Zen” in my college years. Now, however, mindfulness is being taught to the elderly, and to young children. There are mindfulness programs in British elementary schools (click here for a BBC report).

C. Nietzsche says somewhere, One advantage of aristocratic origins is that it enables one to accept a moderate poverty. If we turn this around, if we make both sides of the equation negative, we get, One who doesn’t have aristocratic origins isn’t content with a moderate poverty. Perhaps this throws light on Newt Gingrich. Gingrich didn’t have aristocratic origins, and was eager to get rich. This eagerness for wealth may have been his downfall; as soon as he became Speaker, he signed a book deal for $30 million, and his career started its downward trajectory. The Clintons seem to have similar origins, and a similar eagerness for wealth. Obama probably comes from a higher social class, and he seems less eager for wealth.

D. In an earlier issue, I said, “Memory problems often begin around age 40.... Acquiring knowledge after age 40 is like putting water into a leaky bucket.” Apparently John Singer Sargent also felt that acquiring knowledge was like putting water into a leaky bucket. Above the library in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sargent painted the Danaides pouring water into a leaky bucket, as if to say, “Enter this library and gain knowledge, but don’t expect to retain it.”

3. Crime

I found a good article on crime at Vox. Vox has some good writers (Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, etc.), and some interesting ways to explain the news.

In a recent issue, I discussed an essay in Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt, an essay that said the American criminal class numbered about 20 million. Eberstadt defined “criminal” as felons in prison, plus felons who have been released from prison. I said that Eberstadt wasn’t counting felons who hadn’t been caught, or had been caught but not convicted.

According to the Vox article, many crimes aren’t even reported to the police. So criminals believe that they won’t be punished, they believe that they’ll “get away with it.” Efforts to fight crime have made prison sentences longer, but this doesn’t deter criminals because they expect to “get away with it.” In rough neighborhoods, people don’t help police to solve crimes, they don’t trust police because so many crimes are unsolved, hence it’s harder for police to solve crimes — it’s a vicious circle.

The Vox article strengthens my argument that Eberstadt has under-counted the criminal class, and that the true size of the criminal class is far greater than 20 million, perhaps as high as 30 million.

One of my professors at Harvard, James Q. Wilson, was a well-known expert on crime. Wilson argued that long prison sentences, though they may not deter people from committing crimes, reduce the crime rate, since people who are incarcerated can’t commit crimes.

4. Peter Ackerman

Peter Ackerman has an interesting life story. Born in New York City in 1946, Ackerman attended Colgate, then earned a Ph.D. at the Fletcher School. His Ph.D. thesis was about Gandhi and non-violent movements. He later wrote two books about non-violent movements, and helped to make two documentaries:

  1. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, and
  2. Bringing Down A Dictator (about the movement to oust Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic)
Ackerman’s books and documentaries have influenced various non-violent movements, such as the Egyptian movement to oust Hosni Mubarak.

Peter Ackerman

Ackerman has also tried to allow third-party candidates to become viable candidates for U.S. President. Currently the system of presidential debates makes it difficult for a third-party candidate to participate in the debates, hence third-party candidates aren’t taken seriously. Ackerman is trying to change the rules of presidential debates, to make third-party candidates more viable, and break the “duopoly” of the two major parties.

Since his days at the Fletcher School, Ackerman has been involved in finance. He worked for Drexel Burnham Lambert, once earning $165 million in one year. He was a co-founder of the grocery-delivery company FreshDirect.

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. Am I the first critic to notice this incident? Both movie versions of Gatsby — the 1974 movie and the 2013 movie — skip over the falling phone book. back
2. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Ch. 5, p. 155. Similar cases could be found in Jung’s writings; for example, he says that the mental energy of a medium once caused a steel knife in his family’s house to break into pieces (he preserved the pieces for the rest of his life). back
3. Fitzgerald was especially impressed by Conrad’s Nostromo. Jeffrey Meyers: “Fitzgerald’s letters reveal that Conrad’s art was a constant touchstone for his own. He cited Nostromo as ‘the great novel of the past fifty years.... I’d rather have written Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel... because Nostromo, the man, intrigues me so much. [Conrad] took this man of the people and imagined him with such a completeness that there is no use of anyone else pondering over him for some time. He is one of the most important types in our civilization... one that always made a haunting and irresistible appeal to me.’” (“Conrad’s Influence on Modern Writers,” by Jeffrey Meyers, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 186-206, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/441821) back
4. Though much in Gatsby is Conrad-influenced, I suspect that this passage is “pure Fitzgerald.” I also suspect that I’m the first critic to trace this passage to Fitzgerald’s own lack of “self-sufficiency.” back
5. Is the character of Gatsby credible? Can someone make a fortune in organized crime, but also be a dreamy romantic? back
6. See “The Great Gatsby and the Tradition of Joseph Conrad,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Summer 1966), pp. 257-276, jstor.org/stable/40753900. Long’s article is continued in Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn 1966), pp. 407-422, jstor.org/stable/40753911.

Long summarizes the parallels between Gatsby and Conrad thus: “Almayer’s Folly sets up a framework for the illusionist hero, whose ‘future’ is in conflict with the realities of the present, and whose dream is destroyed symbolically by a ‘betraying heroine.’ With this as scaffolding, Lord Jim adds the dimension of the attempt to recover the past, and thus to reinstate a Platonic identity. Finally, Heart of Darkness adds a cultural reference and theme, contrasting the ‘exuberant imagination’ of a defeated hero with a visionless society.” back

7. Long thinks that Conrad was also influenced by Baudelaire: “The use of a great modern city as a culture symbol relates Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby to a tradition of social criticism developing from the nineteenth century. The city of Paris in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal has already been one of the great culture symbols of the nineteenth century, and its influence upon Heart of Darkness is very probable. Baudelaire was among Conrad’s favorite poets, and he had used a passage from one of Baudelaire’s poems, ‘Le Voyage’ (which contains the phrase ‘the horror!’) as an epigraph to one of his own works. Baudelaire had written that evil, though destructive, is more human than passive nonentity; and this vision of evil forms a criticism of the spiritual inertia of modern culture. The same criticism applies in Heart of Darkness, where the infinite potentialities of the human soul are evoked by Kurtz, contrasted with the complacency of the ‘monstrous town.’” back
8. According to Long, Conrad goes beyond Flaubert, beyond Flaubert’s ironic detachment. Conrad draws on an older tradition, the Romantic tradition. “The moral problem raised by Jim,” Long writes, “is really the same issue which had been created by nineteenth-century romanticism: the moral conflict between personal or social duty, and the perhaps higher duty of self-realization.” Kurtz violates moral precepts in the name of self-realization. Kierkegaard violates moral precepts in the name of religious duty. back
9. Long notes that the people who surround Gatsby are described in the same way as the people who surround Conrad’s Jim: ‘Jim’s idealism is challenged by a world peopled by... depraved characters, who heap upon him the full measure of their imprecation. Cornelius passes judgment upon Jim in the name of all of his kind. ‘He throws dust into everybody’s eyes; he throws dust into your eyes, honorable sir, but he can’t throw dust into my eyes.’ Tom Buchanan, speaking for the subordinate characters of The Great Gatsby who are alike in the meanness and confusion of their lives, makes a similar indictment of Gatsby: ‘He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s, but he was a tough one.’” back
10. In an earlier issue, I compared The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness. I discussed how the protagonists, Gatsby and Kurtz, are flawed but noble — more noble than those around them. Elsewhere I discussed Conrad’s influence on Hemingway, and how the eyes of a Conrad character resemble those of a Hemingway character. Finally, I discussed Conrad’s influence on Raymond Chandler. back
11. Another famous passage in Gatsby is the ending: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This was probably inspired by the ending of Heart of Darkness: “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” As Jeffrey Meyers put it, “Fitzgerald, adopting the psychological suggestion of the riverine metaphor, imitated Conrad’s technique in his concluding sentence.” (“Conrad’s Influence on Modern Writers,” by Jeffrey Meyers, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 186-206, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/441821) back
12. Long notes other parallels between Gatsby and Almayer’s Folly: “In the backgrounds of Almayer and Gatsby — in the progression of events bringing them to Sambir and West Egg, with their beliefs in a ‘splendid future’ — there is a remarkable parallel. Almayer is ‘adopted’ by Lingard, ‘the old adventurer’ who takes him as a young man aboard his yacht, the Flash, on a cruise in which every island of the archipelago is visited.... In The Great Gatsby, the role of Lingard is played by Dan Cody, who brings young James Gatz aboard his yacht, the Tuolomee, for a voyage which takes them three times around the continent.” back
13. Robert Emmet Long, “The Great Gatsby and the Tradition of Joseph Conrad,” Part 1, Summer back
14. “The Possibilities of the Novel: A Look Back on the James-Wells Debate,” by Phillip E. Wegner, The Henry James Review, Volume 36, Number 3, Fall 2015, pp. 267-279. For more on the James-Wells debate, see Henry James and H. G. Wells: A Record of their Friendship, their Debate on the Art of Fiction, and their Quarrel. Ed. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray. Westport: Greenwood, 1979. Print. back
14B. Wells wrote a popular book called The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man, as if to fulfill his promise, “We are going to write about it all.” Can you imagine Henry James writing such a book? back
15. Ibid. Virginia Woolf seemed to side with James in this debate. “Virginia Woolf, in another of the most influential documents of British literary modernism, the 1924 essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’ makes claims for the ‘proper’ work of the modern novel that are strikingly similar to those advanced earlier by James. Woolf offers the axiom that ‘all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character — not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.’ But this focus is exactly what we do not see in her predecessors, the Edwardian writers Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy. Their works, Woolf maintains, ‘leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something — to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque.’”(Wegner, “The Possibilities of the Novel”)

Kundera had much to say about the novel. He was a champion of the loosely-structured novel, so he would probably side with Wells rather than James. back

16. See also this article back