From about 1935 to 1975, Existentialism attracted much attention. One of its leading exponents was Jean-Paul Sartre, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. One of Sartre’s major works is his early novel Nausea (1938). Nausea emphasizes the importance of blind chance (contingency, accident).1
Sartre argues that there’s no reason or purpose in life. He supports this view by pointing to Darwin’s theory (Darwin had spoken of random mutations, and a struggle for survival). In an earlier issue, I wrote that Existentialists believe that “the universe is accidental, contingent and absurd, in other words, that there is no rational purpose to life.”
Existentialism broke with Hegel, who believed that history had a rational order, that history was a rational process. Marx was influenced by Hegel, and Marx believed that history was controlled by grand laws. While Hegel viewed history as the unfolding of spirit, the growth of consciousness, Marx viewed history in material terms, as the unfolding of economic laws. For Existentialists, history was a random process, just as the individual’s life was a random process.
|The world into which we are thrown has no sufficient or necessary reason for existence, no rational order. It is simply there and must be taken as we find it. Being is utterly contingent, totally without meaning, and superfluous. Human existence as such is equally meaningless. “It is absurd that we were born, it is absurd that we die,” writes Sartre in Being and Nothingness. We do not know where we came from, why we are here, what we must do; or where we are going. “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of the weakness of inertia and dies by chance,” says one of Sartre’s characters in Nausea.2|
Existentialism strikes a chord with people like myself who don’t believe that the universe is governed by a wise Creator. There is indeed something arbitrary, something meaningless, in human life, and in the universe as a whole. But this is only shocking and upsetting if we expect life to be otherwise, if we think that life “should” be otherwise. If, on the contrary, we accept life as it is, and don’t expect it to be otherwise, we may decide that life is tolerable, even wonderful. If life seems to lack meaning and purpose, couldn’t we assign it some meaning/purpose — couldn’t we invent some meaning/purpose? Why can’t we choose to see the glass as half full, rather than half empty?
In many ways, Existentialism is the opposite of what I call the Philosophy of Today. Existentialism sees contingency, chance, but we don’t. We see meaning, synchronicity, occult forces. Existentialism accepts Darwin’s theory, and believes that Darwin has proven that life is random and meaningless. We believe that evolution must involve synchronicity, will, occult forces, so we believe that Darwin’s theory is false, or at least incomplete. If a clock stops when its owner dies, Existentialism sees chance, coincidence, but we look for meaning, synchronicity, occult forces.
Our worldview is more upbeat, more uplifting than Existentialism; we don’t find life nauseating. The organic universe is more warm and welcoming than the mechanical universe. Our time can build a Unified Theory of the humanities and the sciences, we can achieve what Nietzsche called The Great Noontide. Since our worldview is upbeat and uplifting, it’s perfectly suited to be the foundation of a new religion.
In his novel Of Human Bondage, the English novelist Somerset Maugham dealt with some of the same issues that Sartre dealt with. Like Sartre, Maugham was an unbeliever, an atheist. Maugham felt that life was filled with suffering, and suffering seemed to have no purpose.
|The effort was so incommensurate with the result. The bright hopes of youth had to be paid for at such a bitter price of disillusionment. Pain and disease and unhappiness weighed down the scale so heavily. What did it all mean?|
Maugham’s protagonist, Philip Carey, finds consolation in the thought of suicide. His only hope is that he’ll inherit money from his uncle, but if the inheritance doesn’t come, he plans to end his life:
|The awful fear seized him that his uncle, notwithstanding his promises, might leave everything he had to the parish or the church. The thought made Philip sick. He could not be so cruel. But if that happened Philip was quite determined what to do, he would not go on in that way indefinitely; his life was only tolerable because he could look forward to something better. If he had no hope he would have no fear. The only brave thing to do then would be to commit suicide, and, thinking this over too, Philip decided minutely what painless drug he would take and how he would get hold of it. It encouraged him to think that, if things became unendurable, he had at all events a way out.3|
Kafka also found consolation in the thought of suicide: “The handiest way out,” Kafka wrote, “beckoning perhaps already since childhood, was not suicide itself, but the thought of suicide.”4 Like Maugham, Kafka felt that the pain and effort of living had no meaning or goal: “I had a miserable week. Much too much work at the office. Maybe that is the way it’s always going to be, from now on; one has to earn one’s grave.”
Like Sartre, Maugham believes that life is accidental and meaningless, and will someday be extinguished:
|On the earth, satellite of a star speeding through space, living things had arisen under the influence of conditions which were part of the planet’s history; and as there had been a beginning of life upon it so, under the influence of other conditions, there would be an end: man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment.5|
When Philip’s friends, Cronshaw and Hayward, die, Philip thinks that their lives were meaningless:
|There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.... [Hayward’s] death had been as futile as his life. He died ingloriously, of a stupid disease, failing once more, even at the end, to accomplish anything. It was just the same now as if he had never lived. Philip asked himself desperately what was the use of living at all. It all seemed inane. It was the same with Cronshaw: it was quite unimportant that he had lived; he was dead and forgotten, his book of poems sold in remainder by second-hand booksellers.|
But then Philip has a change of heart. He starts to see the glass as half full instead of half empty.
|If life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.|
Philip compares life to the design on a rug:
|That was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life... that it made a pattern.|
But the pattern of a rug probably has some meaning, some tendency, perhaps a tendency toward balance and wholeness. Likewise, an individual has a tendency, a tendency toward personal growth, balance, wholeness. (Jung argued that man has an innate drive toward wholeness, toward personal growth.) So perhaps Maugham shouldn’t stop at the notion of “pattern.”
At the end of Human Bondage, Philip decides that the rug of life should have a simple pattern, not a complex one: “The simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect.” One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s view that the highest attainment is the universal.
The case of Maugham shows how one can perceive that life is suffering, pointless suffering, but nonetheless accept it, even rejoice in it. The same glass that one previously viewed as half empty can be viewed as half full.
What if someone said to you, “Everyone in the world is short, no one is tall.” You’d probably respond, “Your definition of ‘short’ and ‘tall’ should be changed.” Likewise, if someone says, “Everything in life is meaningless,” perhaps you should respond, “Your definition of ‘meaningful’ should be changed. You should call certain things ‘meaningful,’ perhaps you should call everything ‘meaningful.’” When people find life meaningless, doesn’t that imply that they’re asking too much of life, they’re looking for too much meaning?
Of Human Bondage is often called Maugham’s best novel, but it isn’t as engrossing as his short stories. The main theme is the protagonist’s obsessive love for a woman. One might compare Human Bondage to Proust’s Swann’s Way, which also deals with obsessive love. No literary work depicts obsession (“bondage”) in stronger colors than Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
Maugham’s intelligence is apparent in his philosophical remarks, as when he discusses fate and freedom:
|“The illusion of free will is so strong in my mind that I can’t get away from it, but I believe it is only an illusion. But it is an illusion which is one of the strongest motives of my actions. Before I do anything I feel that I have choice, and that influences what I do; but afterwards, when the thing is done, I believe that it was inevitable from all eternity.” “What do you deduce from that?” asked Hayward. “Why, merely the futility of regret. It’s no good crying over spilt milk, because all the forces of the universe were bent on spilling it.”|
Maugham seemed to view Human Bondage as his magnum opus, so it’s more philosophical, and less entertaining, than his short stories.
When you read a novel from a different era, you learn about the details of life in that era. For example, Maugham describes a hospital as a place for poor people; apparently the affluent didn’t go to hospitals in Maugham’s day, they were treated at home. Employees, in Maugham’s day, were often given housing and food by their employer (this was true in China until recently). Sometimes the concerns of Maugham’s characters are the same as our concerns, as when he describes someone who’s afraid that if he uses pain-killers, he’ll become addicted to them.
I read an essay about E. D. Hirsch, who’s known for the book Cultural Literacy (1987). Now 88, Hirsch created a network of private schools, schools that try to teach “Core Knowledge.” He also influenced the CommonCore initiative in public schools.
The essay appeared in National Review; the author is M. D. Aeschliman. Aeschliman has had a long career, teaching at Boston University, the University of Virginia, etc. Hirsch also taught at Virginia.
Though Hirsch’s views on education are conservative, Hirsch insists that his political views aren’t conservative. Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, has an epigraph from the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci complains about progressive educational theories that gained currency around 1900:
|The new education created a kind of church that paralyzed pedagogical research. It produced curious aberrations like “spontaneity,” which supposed that the child’s brain is like a ball of string that the teacher should help unwind. In reality, each generation educates and forms each new generation. Education opposes the elemental biological instincts of nature; it is a struggle against nature, to dominate it.|
So Hirsch’s approach, the conservative approach, tries to bend human nature, while the progressive approach tries to release nature, express nature. The godfather of the progressive approach is Rousseau, who believed that human nature is originally good, but is corrupted by civilization. Hirsch & Co. believe that civilization is good, and students should be taught the history of civilization. Hirsch’s first book was Wordsworth and Schelling (1960); here Hirsch discusses romantic pantheism and nature worship.
In Why Knowledge Matters, Hirsch discusses public education in France.
|The most notable, revealing feature of Hirsch’s new book is his discussion, and documentation, of the truly shocking, catastrophic recent decline of public education in France.|
Public education in France, Aeschliman writes,
|has been grievously, perhaps irreparably, damaged by the 1989 Socialist educational “reforms” under the leadership of Socialist education minister (later prime minister) Lionel Jospin.... The left-wing intellectuals Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida were both on the educational committee whose report inspired Lionel Jospin’s [reforms].|
Hirsch quotes a critic of Jospin’s reforms:
|One sees immediately that this kind of system will diminish acquisition of specific knowledge by taking refuge in vague evocations of vague general skills.|
How many times have we heard progressives say that education should ‘teach students to think’?
I sympathize with both sides in this debate; I’m a champion of civilization and broad knowledge, but I’m also a champion of spontaneity. Unlike the French postmoderns and deconstructors, I believe in Truth — objective, absolute, universal Truth — and I believe in transmitting Truth through education.6 But I also believe that there’s a deep wisdom in the unconscious — in dream, imagination, intuition. This unconscious wisdom is especially valuable because it’s tailored to you, it applies to your situation. Many intellectuals have suffered breakdowns because they pursued knowledge and ignored their unconscious.7
On the whole, I favor the Hirsch Approach over the Jospin Approach. I think schools get better results by teaching specific knowledge than by teaching vague skills like ‘how to think.’ The Hirsch Approach has a better chance of inspiring students to learn on their own, to enjoy learning.
In May, 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda rented a house in Westport, Connecticut (my hometown). Scott was 23, Zelda 19. Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, had been published two months earlier, and the first printing had sold out in three days (there were many more printings to come, as the publisher tried to keep up with demand). Scott was becoming famous, and he could sell short stories to magazines for large sums. Scott and Zelda married right after This Side of Paradise became successful. They lived in a NewYorkCity hotel, but their wild parties disturbed other residents, so they were asked to leave.
They bought a car, and headed for the country. Zelda had grown up in Alabama, and was drawn to the beach (among her relatives were senators and judges). They stopped in Rye, New York, but didn’t like it, so they kept driving, following the coast. In Westport, Zelda drove into a fire hydrant, destroying their new car. They took a trolley to the Westport beach, where they found a house for rent. They remained in the house from May to October.8
The house where Scott and Zelda lived
Scott and Zelda, with their Westport abode in the background
The young couple continued to lead a fast life. The literary critic Edmund Wilson, who knew Scott at Princeton, visited them and said they were “reveling nude in the orgies of Westport.” Zelda’s motto, printed in her high-school yearbook, was
Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow.
Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.
When Zelda was still living with her parents, she came home late one night, and her father said, “You little hussy, do you know what time it is?” She replied, “It’s the time when all hussies come home.”
In 1920, Westport was a small town with onion farms and a few big mansions. The onion crop had been ruined by a blight, and the onion storehouses on the coast were being used to store liquor (Prohibition had begun in January, 1920). It was said that Westport’s leading rum-runner was Jack Rose, who had been involved in the famous 1912 murder of Manhattan gangster Herman Rosenthal. This murder is mentioned in Gatsby.
Jack Rose is apparently one model for the mobster in Gatsby, Meyer Wolfshiem. Another model for Wolfshiem is Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series.
In addition to rum-running, Jack Rose was involved in the movie business. In The Beautiful and the Damned, there’s a film producer named Joseph Bloeckman, and in Gatsby, there’s a producer named Newton Orchid.
Fitzgerald’s Westport house was near two big estates, the estate of Frederick E. Lewis, which later became Longshore Country Club, and the estate of Edward T. Bedford. It’s believed that the Lewis estate is the model for Jay Gatsby’s estate, the Bedford estate is the model for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s estate, and Fitzgerald’s own house is the model for the humble abode of the narrator of Gatsby, Nick Carraway. “The setting of Fitzgerald’s Westport place — the cottage next to the millionaire’s estate, the view of grand houses on the shore across the bay [toward Norwalk and Saugatuck Shores] — corresponded with striking accuracy to Nick’s setup next door to Gatsby.” Edward T. Bedford had made his fortune in the oil business, and had built a private race track in Westport; he may be the model for a Gatsby character, “Demaine, the oil man.”9B
Frederick E. Lewis had a tower or “imitation lighthouse” on his beach. In Gatsby, Nick says,
|At high tide in the afternoon, I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.|
An article by Barbara Probst Solomon says,
|The description in Gatsby of the train station, the drawbridge, the road running by the railroad tracks... and the Italian child playing nearby sounded like the station in Saugatuck [a section of Westport], which was then largely Italian.... The sadness of the summer houses closed down in late fall.|
Gatsby appears to be set on the north shore of Long Island, where Fitzgerald spent 18 months; Fitzgerald lived in Great Neck after leaving Westport, and before going to the French Riviera. It’s often said that Little Neck and Great Neck are the models for Gatsby’s West Egg and East Egg. But Solomon says that, while in Great Neck, the Fitzgeralds lived in “a landlocked suburban house,” a house that doesn’t match Gatsby as well as the Westport house. Doubtless Gatsby was influenced by both Westport and Great Neck.
Solomon says that around 1925, a new society was developing in New York City, a society that fused Jew and Gentile. Fitzgerald discusses this in an essay called “My Lost City”; for Fitzgerald, the marriage of Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay symbolizes the new, multi-ethnic New York. Solomon says that Westport was on the cutting edge of Jew-Gentile fusion. Neighboring towns like Darien were known for a “Gentleman’s Agreement” whereby realtors agreed not to sell to Jews. Westport was different.10
When I was growing up in Westport, one of the town’s most famous residents was Paul Newman, who was half-Jewish, and was married to a Gentile (actress Joanne Woodward).
The best documentary on Fitzgerald is surely Winter Dreams, by DeWitt Sage. A BBC documentary, Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald, is also good. The best film version of The Great Gatsby is probably the one made in 1974; it’s closer to Fitzgerald than the 2013 film. More recently, Amazon made a 10-part series about Zelda and Scott, Z: The Beginning of Everything (I don’t recommend it). Amazon is also making a series called The Last Tycoon, based on Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel.
The Last Tycoon is set in Hollywood, where Fitzgerald spent his last years (1937-1940). Zelda was then in an institution (she had become mentally unstable around 1930). Fitzgerald had a three-year relationship with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist. Graham’s memoir about Fitzgerald, Beloved Infidel, became a bestseller, and was made into a movie. “During those three years, Scott outlined an educational ‘curriculum’ for [Graham] and guided her through it, which she later wrote about in detail in A College of One.”11 (In an earlier issue, I described how the Russian writer Isaak Babel designed a curriculum for his girlfriend.)
According to Wikipedia, “Cambridge University Press has published the complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald in authoritative annotated editions.” Many of the volumes are edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, a leading authority on Fitzgerald. According to Wikipedia, “[Bruccoli’s] 1981 biography of Fitzgerald, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is considered the standard Fitzgerald biography.” Broccoli edited F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, and he edited an 800-page collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories.
|1.|| Sartre’s companion Simone de Beauvoir referred to Nausea as Sartre’s “factum on contingency.” back|
|2.|| This passage is from the American writer George Novack. back|
|3.|| Maugham, Of Human Bondage, Ch. 105 back|
|4.|| The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, by Ernst Pawel, Ch. 12 back|
|5.|| Ch. 106 back|
|6.|| Earlier I criticized skepticism. back|
|7.|| Click here or here for my remarks on this subject. back|
|8.|| The address was 244 South Compo Road, just north of the Longshore property, and just south of Hedgerow Lane. There’s a plaque in front of the house. The house was often referred to as “The Wakeman Cottage”; in 1920, it was owned by the Wakeman family. It was built about 1760.
According to the New York Times, J. D. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye in 1950, while living on South Compo Road in Westport. I don’t know which house on South Compo he lived in, and I don’t know if he was aware that Fitzgerald had also lived on South Compo. Salinger was a fan of Fitzgerald, and he aimed to be a second Fitzgerald.
|9.|| See the NewYorker article by Barbara Probst Solomon. This article has the cool, fashionable tone that many NewYorker articles have. See also Dan Woog’s website and this article. back|
|9B.||According to this website, Greens Farms Academy, on Beachside Ave., started in 1959 on 26 acres purchased from the Bedford-Vanderbilt family. Solomon says that Bedford’s private race track was in “Greens Farms.” As a child, I often visited the Richardson house across from Greens Farms Academy. (The Richardson fortune came from Vicks medicines.)
In Gatsby, the Buchanan mansion previously belonged to “Demaine, the oil man,” and it’s not next-door to Nick’s house; it’s on East Egg, and Nick drives over there in Chapter One. “Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans.” So the location of the Demaine/Buchanan estate resembles that of the Bedford estate: both are east of the Lewis/Gatsby estate, a short drive away (or a long walk away).
Nick’s humble abode is sandwiched between two mansions: “My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season.” One of these places is the Lewis/Gatsby mansion. Who owns the other mansion? Could it be a second Bedford mansion? Solomon says that the Bedford mansion was “nearby” the Gatsby mansion; she speaks of “Bedford’s nearby white palace, which had extraordinary gardens and topiary and rivalled the Long Island showplaces.” My hunch is that Bedford had one mansion, on Beachside Ave., and someone else owned the mansion next-door to Nick and Gatsby. back
|10.|| In nearby New Canaan, Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, lived in a historic house at 63 Park Street. Thomas Wolfe often visited Perkins in New Canaan. back|