June 3, 2017

Are We All Jay Gatsby?

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
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 farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

~ Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve always loved the ending lines of The Great Gatsby, not just the last sentence, which is the one that is quoted the most, but, say, the last four paragraphs, which I tend to regard as, essentially, more of a poem than a piece of prose—while the ending line is, even on a formal level, very close to poetry, due to both a wave-like alliteration with the letter b, as we read the monosyllabic words “beat,” “boats,” “borne,” and “back,” and to being written almost in iambics (as we well know, iambic is a meter, often used in Shakespeare’s writing, that alternates stressed and unstressed syllables to create a da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM pattern).

But apart from the lyricism of these lines, I must confess that the more I get older, the more I understand how much truth there is in them. To a certain extent, they connect Gatsby to all of us. After all, by ending the way it does, the novel makes Gatsby explicitly represent all humans, “boats against the current” whose fate is already sealed since the very beginning of the story: being “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” or alternatively being frustrated in our dreams to restore a past that cannot return. One way or another, we are all losers. You can’t escape it. That’s also why Gatsby, Myrtle, and George Wilson die, and why no one come to Gatsby’s funeral. It all feels kind of empty and pointless, especially after all the effort that Gatsby put into trying to recreate his and Daisy’s love … Well, that empty feeling is basically the whole point.

At the same time we must remember that this is one side of the coin. The other side is that while all human beings appear to be condemned to an inevitable defeat, there’s a chance that our defeat might be only apparent. Take the most inevitable of defeats, the one against time. Whoever you are and whatever you do, you are subject to the inexorable law of time, and yet, in a way, time is not, by necessity, the last word, in just the way in which, for us Christians, death is not a disaster, but a new beginning—Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). In other words, death is not the last word for those who are believers in the resurrected Christ.

General Douglas MacArthur
As for time, if our body can’t help submitting to the laws of nature, the same cannot be said for our soul. Whether you want it to or not, the body gets old—sure, we may be able to slow down the process, but it cannot be reversed. On the contrary, the spirit may continue to be young, because, well, “youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Or at least that’s the way Samuel Ullman put the whole thing in his poem “Youth.” But I couldn’t figure out a more eloquent and effective way of putting it, and general Douglas MacArthur—who hung a framed copy of a version of the poem on the wall of his office in Tokyo, when he became Supreme Allied Commander in Japan—probably couldn’t either.

“Youth,” the poet continues, “means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of 60 more than a boy of 20. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.” Yes, courage, adventure, ideals—isn’t that what being young at heart and in spirit is all about? The rest of the poem is a glorious crescendo of joy and confidence..

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spring back to dust.

Whether 60 or 16, there is in every human being's heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing childlike appetite of what's next and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station: so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the Infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at 20, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at 80.

Samuel Ullman
What a great, simple lesson for all of us! Here, among these lines, is where F. Scott Fitzgerald’s melancholic and pessimistic view of life is bound to founder and, even more so, is proved to be wrong. And mind you, without calling into question metaphysical and/or religious beliefs, which are personal and subjective. If the inexorable law of time can be eluded, then there is still hope, nothing essential is lost. Or, to put it very simply, as Billy Graham says, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” It’s up to you to live life to the fullest, to follow your dreams and make the world a better place for you and everyone.