Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz

I don't know that anybody wants or needs yet another discussion of The Great Gatsby. Just about everyone has read it and you've probably heard that it's some sort of critique of the American Dream. I doubt that. It has something to do with the American Dream but it's about something far more fundamental than that.

I thought it was about the American Dream when I was in high school. I thought that largely because my Grade 11 English teacher, Sister Dodd, told me that was what it was about. A modern nun with all that comes with that, she saw Christ as a person who had come to warn of the dangers of middle class complacency and materialism in late twentieth century America.

I loved the book anyway and read it many times. I read the whole thing out loud to my girlfriend at the time because she was too lazy to read it herself. And then I got to CEGEP and did the English literature survey course. The second volume of the Norton Anthology of English Literature in those days included Heart of Darkness. It may still. Anyway, I read in order to write an essay. And when I did, I made two discoveries that changed my life. The first was that the Conrad novella is a male masterpiece. Like many men, and not a few women, reading it changed my life for the better by teaching me important lessons about what it is to be a man. The second, equally life-changing discovery, was that Fitzgerald was very much influenced by this book. For all intents and purposes, he used it as a template to create Gatsby.

I'm not going to even begin to try and prove that. I'm just going to go with it. I blog, you decide.

If we begin at the beginnings, there are four points of similarity that should really strike us.

  1. In both we have a narrator who tells the story of a seemingly extraordinary man. I say "seemingly" because it gets harder and harder to decide where the narrator leaves off and his subject begins as these stories go on.
  2. Both stories are mythic. That is, they read like mythology and not like a story we might be expected to believe actually happened at any time in history. Every attempt to make a movie out of either has failed for the simple reason that the stories don't work like stories. They're oft-told tales that we might believe their respective narrators have worked over and over again to create myths to make sense of life. I say "we might believe" because both narrators are themselves fictional characters.
  3. Both start with a philosophical proposition, a moral proposition.
  4. And both start with a hermeneutic suggestion telling us how to interpret the tale we are about to hear.

I'll deal with just the last two for now.

The moral proposition at the start of Heart of Darkness is this:
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."
The moral proposition at the start of The Great Gatsby is this:
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had all the advantages that you've had."
The first thing I think is worth noting is that neither of those moral propositions is terribly profound. The only thing that saves them from being truisms is that we have a tendency to forget about such things even though they ought to be obvious and a timely moral reminder can be a good thing. That said, both have a pseudo-profound feel about them in the mouths of their respective narrators.

What saves both is the hermeneutic claim. We are told not to look for direct simplicity in either story.
The yarns of seaman have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted) and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
Fitzgerald's Nick gives us the same warning, albeit in a more plainspoken way.
He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me but also made me victim of not a few veteran bores.
The trite commonplace Nick's remarks occasion is to say that this proves that he is an unreliable narrator because he makes all sorts of judgments and therefore en garde. He thinks his judgments but is remarkably reticent about expressing them or acting on them. I think the point in both cases is that we should not treat these stories as anything like mystery stories. They are more like film noir in that the story is really about human nature and not a particular set of human events and we might say that the genre starts here: Conrad invents the form and Fitzgerald gives it its American setting.

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