Friday, June 5, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 4

A couple of precisions to wind up the first week. I've been arguing that The Great Gatsby uses a structure drawn from Heart of Darkness. I don't mean to suggest that they tell the same story. They are very different stories. What I mean to suggest is that just as Hollywood movies are often written on a formula such as the hero's journey, so too it is with Gatsby which takes its structure from Conrad's novella. (structure aside, the story in Gatsby has more in common with Madame Bovary than it does with the story in Heart of Darkness.)

Second precision regards Gatsby's character. Some may have thought my description of Gatsby as a whore unfair. It isn't. Think of how Wolfsheim describes his relationship with Gatsby. Nick asks if he started Gatsby in business (and "business" is an interesting word choice here). Wolfsheim says, "Start him! I made him." To which Nick says "Oh." Wolfsheim goes on,

I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he said he was at Oggsford I knew I could use him good.
No pimp would describe women he exploits any differently.

I heard a gay male hooker who claimed to be the highest paid prostitute in New York once. He claimed that the key to his success was that wealthy Johns could take him to the opera and be sure he wouldn't embarrass them. That's what Gatsby made of himself. And if we look at the program for self-improvement he wrote on the flyleaf of Hopalong Cassidy as a young man, we can see how he got to be that way.

Rise from bed. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . 6.00 a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling. . . . .. 6.15-6.30 ”
Study electricity, etc. . . . . . . . . . . . 7.15-8.15 ”
Work. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8.30-4.30 p.m.
Baseball and sports. . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.30-5.00 ”
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 ”
Study needed inventions. . . . . . . . . . . 7.00-9.00 ”

General Resolves No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] No more smokeing or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week Be better to parents
There is a seeming innocence here. I wonder how you'd go about studying "needed inventions"? Well, you couldn't because that's some child's fantasy. But if you're goal was to become the sort of male prostitute who wouldn't embarrass a John if he took you to the opera, or if you wanted to be a front for a sleazy character like Wolfsheim or a pretty boy to have around the yacht for Dan Coady, that wouldn't be a bad way to set about doing it.

Of course, it wasn't Gatsby's goal to become the whore he became. And the overwhelming majority of the thousands of boys who sketched out similar self-improvement plans didn't become whores. So, why does Gatsby end up as one? Two things do him in.

The first is that his goals aren't really practical, as indicated by "study electricity, etc." and "Study needed inventions". He'd have been better off paying more attention to his school work. and working hard on the farm instead of running away and loafing on the shores of Lake Superior.

The second failing was his desire to have Daisy. If James Gatz had set about making a solid middle-class existence, a little better than his parents, for himself, which is what the American dream is really about, he almost certainly would have succeeded. He would have met another woman and married her and she would have been a better woman than Daisy. I'll come back to this but there is a moment in the novel when Gatsby trades his high and pure dream for the trash that is Daisy. For now, let's just acknowledge that just about every man falls in love with an illusion at some point but not every man devotes the rest of his life to pursuing her.

Final thought going into the weekend is that Nick has a lot in common with Gatsby. Yesterday, I quoted Nick describing his own self improvement plan:
I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Macenas knew. 
That's just the start. If we read on, we can see how this practical goal rapidly gets set aside by a plan to become the sort of prostitute a John wouldn't be ashamed to take to the opera.
And I had high intention of reading many other books besides. I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the "Yale News"—and now I was going to bring all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man".
And suddenly, all this studying of finance sounds a lot like studying "needed inventions".
But that's nothing compared to the very next sentence in the paragraph:
This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.
Really? Of course not. Fitzgerald didn't put such a stupidity into Nick's mouth by accident. If you're a careful reader, that's supposed to wake you up and start you paying really close attention.

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