Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 2

I've been talking about common features at the openings of Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. Another one is that we get a sort of blanket condemnation of humanity followed by a thin slice of redemption, a slice so thin it isn't really there.
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a slightly different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to ..."
Notice that this isn't even halfway convincing. I don't think it's meant to be. Marlow may well mean it but Conrad doesn't. What we have here is an intentionally bad argument. It's partly here to hide an esoteric claim that British colonial practice was every bit as ugly as the Belgian practices that will get a thorough going over as the story goes on. But that's not all it is.

What Nick tells of Gatsby is just as unsatisfactory an argument.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt I wanted the world to be at moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
To which we should scream, "What?" Nick may really mean it but Fitzgerald doesn't. It's not just that, as I'm sure you know, Gatsby actually turns up, not "all right in the end", but dead in a swimming pool. It's that everything Gatsby does has a sordidness about it; he's a bootlegger who tries to steal another man's wife.

In both Marlow's and Nick's tales, the side of the story we sympathize with is the side we are encouraged to take and the two novelists are challenging us to see just how long we're willing to go along with this. Just how much immunity do we think we are entitled to by virtue of being readers of these stories and not participants in them?

Bonus point:

Yesterday, I was saying that the commonplace criticism that Nick is, despite his claims to the contrary, very judgmental, doesn't hold. The long quote above is an example of what I mean. Nick tells us that Gatsby represents everything he has unaffected scorn for and yet, despite this, he doesn't condemn him. Whatever is going on here, it's nothing we can simply condemn Nick for.

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