Friday, July 24, 2009

The Great Gatsby

Rereading The Great Gatsby reminds me of how silly the "rules" of punctuation are. In the hands of a master of dialogue, description, and the evocation of grand ideas, all such rules become mean and petty things. That's how I encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald. Seriously, when's the last time you read a book so good that you grabbed your nearest writing reference guide, asking, "How'd he do that?"

For me, finishing Fitzgerald's gorgeous final pages again - easily my favorite conclusion to any book I've read - demanded a return to Lynn Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves, whereupon I rediscovered her primary rule about comma use - a perspective that Fitzgerald understood and I have yet to fully master: "Don't use commas like a stupid person" (p. 96). Few books inspire me to consider my own stupidities when it comes to punctuation. Gatsby has that effect on me.

In a Facebook thread last night, I chatted on this topic with a couple of pals for a few hours, and I feel confident that I could extol The Great Gatsby's adventuresome punctuation for a few hours more (especially considering the war between open-minded editors and pusillanimous pedants who have added and struck commas from Fitzgerald's masterwork for decades as if gaining or losing ground in literary trench warfare). But, no. I will write no more of commas today. It's enough to reflect on the words themselves and what they inspire.

Some of my favorites (spoiler alert):
I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. (p. 40)
From the copy I'm reading, the 1995 "authorized text," I learned that an editor of an earlier version replaced the word "was" with "saw." Consider the implication of that alternative paragraph: Nick observes a casual watcher and identifies with him abstractly. That's it. Compare that statement to Fitzgerald's (apparently) original intent: "I was him too." These four words transform Nick into a figure more mysterious than "Jay," despite Nick's affirmation to the reader that "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (p. 64). Gatsby's narrator reminds me somewhat of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's eyes, always presumed to evoke some god's-eye morality upon the scene. Transforming "saw" to "was," the eyes of the narrator become less fixed. For me "the doctor" loses some of his objectivity also. In Gatsby none see without distortion. The city, the technological manifestation of human will, stretches beyond our natural perception and moral constraints.
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. (p. 61)
Anyone who has read my preliminary inquiries into the nature of the flâneur gaze, which owes more to Walter Benjamin than Charles Baudelaire or Georg Simmel, will recognize my identification with the "restless eye" roving that passage. The "flicker" draws me first, the telegraph-dance of light and sound - zeros and ones - that connects the historical "modern" to contemporary life, a world of "men and women and machines." The desires for anonymity and safety that mark so much of public life, the "hidden streets" and "warm darkness" amid the bright lights of surveillance, the death of secret places, seems thereafter to give way to our choice to eschew the hope of authenticity altogether, our increasingly common choices to broadcast ourselves relentlessly and without shame. This is the meaning behind a phrase that has pushed me toward my current projects: We Are All Tourists [here's Margo Jefferson's deployment of the words; I have no idea who uttered them first]. Performing ourselves for others, reading others as performances too, where do we hope to find ourselves? Gatsby resonates still, even when his answer fails.
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" [. . .] He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . (pp. 116-117)
Nostalgia spins out a kind of mania for many of us, certainly for me, to recover what we've lost in our efforts to become who we are. In this sense, "Jay," in all his fanciful fakery, is America. He is the deluded confidence in the future that grounds itself in the past, in its civic religion, in its frontier myths, in its caricatured heroes against which few of us seek our measure. Despite our frantic faith in change - tearing down cities to build cities, tearing away identity to build identity - we are fundamentally a conservative nation, I think, seeking through jeremiads of one form or another to rebuild some fantasy foundation, to condemn the choices we've made. Like "Jay," we repeat the past even when erecting ourselves upon a tabula rasa. We all would be "founders" of ourselves, dreaming to give birth to ourselves alone upon the untamed fields of possibility.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further . . . . And one fine morning ----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 189)
How many students have struggled that last passage, with its "green light" and "blue lawn" and "dark fields" and its boats that struggle forward "against the current," driven to the past? Well, not me. For me The Great Gatsby and all its dazzling imagery and invitations to think carefully about the written word (which includes, regrettably, shocking ambivalence concerning Nick's observations about race, ethnicity, and class), these all represent merely one of the things I ignored in high school. I ignored Gatsby for the same reason I ignored so many of my homework assignments back then; I saw (or "was," either way) no future; I had nothing to prepare. Why read this ponderous stuff?

My "fine morning" appeared years later and an ocean away when I began to imagine how the written word can reveal subtleties and complexities which are otherwise shorn by thought-killing entertainments that help us pass the time. It took me years to reach the point that many clever students claim in high school, the awareness that precision and discipline liberate our ambitions, even as they confound them somewhat. Once more I relate to Gatsby, even in his death, recognizing his ambition to "stretch out our arms further." He knew at the end what I am coming to understand: No matter how far I go to make myself, I can never quite escape the place that made me.

1 comment:

FitToSeeJane said...

Interesting post. I've listened to editors of a new Jane Austen edition muse over the placement of a comma- before a word in the first version, and after the word in a later publication. Did Jane, while living, make the change, or was it a publisher, or even a typesetters mistake?
I would never want to make the call. It's like altering a shadow on the Mona Lisa. A comma can change the whole meaning of a paragraph, and when you have an author that crafts them so carefully it's very important. For me, as a reader, I don't begin to notice those things until the second or third reading. And I don't reach that point with many books.