Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Beautiful and the Damned

      "Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle." F. Scott Fitzgerald

The impetus for F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was the pursuit of love. Zelda, his golden girl, had given up on him, broken off their engagement, and he was desperate. He went for it - reworked and finished the novel, which was very successful, and eventually won back her heart. 

It is probable that Fitzgerald continued at heart a romantic, which partially explains his idealism and disenchantment. Partly, however, he was a thinking man, and any realistic analysis of life leaves one without illusions. 

The genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald is his candid, wry appraisal of human nature, coupled with his painting of scenes that you can smell and taste...stale wine and damp New York streets...of atmospheres that pervade your own. His vocabulary is better than mine. I mean, actual light years beyond the simple tripe I have pedaled. The way it is fashionable to write these days is like a shop-window cupcake, too saccharine and very stale. 

In the spirit of fashion, I also take myself much too seriously. I cringe and turn from the painful gap between the real and ideal. I am only a late and sporadic blogger of 2009 or so. There are ten different ideas that bloom against my mind windows, and fade and fall while I'm driving, or talking, or doing the supper dishes. If I do recall them, and type madly in a quiet moment, they seem ridiculous when I've printed and fleshed out their fragile bones. Lumpy, gawky clowns, missing essential body functions. Yet I am creator and label them my own.

At the moment I'm about three-quarters through Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned, about a self-absorbed couple, early 1910's, who dissolve from leisure and drink and boredom. "A devastating portrait of the nouveaux-riches...reckless ambition and squandered talent.." reads the eloquent dust jacket.


There is a preciseness of vocabulary and efficiency of phrase in Fitzgerald's works that sums up possible pages of thoughts into one or two neat sentences. 
The quote that follows is an example of his extraordinary potency with language:
'So Gloria's heart was very bitter, for in one week, on a prolonged hysterical party during which Anthony whimsically divested himself of coat, vest, and shirt in a theatre and was assisted out by a posse of ushers, they spent twice what the grey squirrel coat would have cost.'

However - what is it all about? Why is this novel from an older era resonant for this day in 2015?
It seems that all actually good books tell us what we know but are afraid to face: that life is a wasting, patronizing business. 
Also, that not one of us really knows what we are doing.

A person tries their level best against all odds, and works and sacrifices and slaves, and no one cares or understands them. They have dug hard for purpose, and hold it tightly in their grasp. They cannot look away from it, or the vast surrounding field of holes dug, of purposes left, missed, or squandered, will lessen theirs somehow.

Another is given too much. Opportunity, money, encouragement, and still they will not lift the spade. Resisting nothing, holding everything, praised by all, they never see a need. And yet eventually they realize no one cares for them either. Each is preoccupied only with his own purpose and meaning, whether found in someone else or chipped from the bleak world. 

This is what Scott Fitzgerald lays out so relentlessly in his novels. He makes all of us to be fools, and does not leave himself out of it. Therein comes the gentle wit, the unapologetic humor that knows too well the folly and destruction of human nature, and yet says, "here we are!" We do not understand what we are, though we share together in life's struggle.

Anthony and Gloria do nothing - but they do it so beautifully.... and so resolutely, we applaud them. Though we deride their idiotic choices and wish they could shake themselves from the stupor, we understand why they cannot. We have ourselves noted the pull of apathy's self-destruction. We have resisted, filling all the hours with noble purposes and work, practices and plans, and still wondered what it was all for.

Perhaps it is faithless of me. I am, after all, a Christian. I have been set free and given the greatest love and greatest purpose of all. I know this! I do not take it for granted.  And still I know full well the futility, and wonder what it is all for. What else do we have? But to struggle and hope, dream dreams, and use our short days the best we can. 
If they, if I, could only stop wondering and guessing at the meaning of life for five minutes, perhaps I, and Fitzgerald's sad characters, could enjoy it. 

A recurrent theme is the world's capacity for war, and famine, and poverty and injustice. There is no God in Fitzgerald's America, only an impersonal and careless force, an impotent entity. Of God he writes, "It is a truth set at the heart of tragedy that this force never explains, never answers - this force intangible as air, more definite than death."

And so he accomplishes what a host of others have in more recent times, whole books being written and whole movements based on this: that God cannot be acknowledged but he must be blamed. It is in fact, in this enlightened day and age, a prerequisite for intelligence - God must be denied and discussed only cynically and in the third person. They had a great handle on it in 1920. We haven't really improved upon this piling on of all the grief of the world on God, and never giving Him the dignity of speaking for Himself, lest ye be judged. It has simply become more common, in 2015. 
As if He had not borne all grief. 
Still, I join humanity in asking what it all is for. 

I am enjoying this novel immensely; it helps me to think. I can enjoy it, but I cannot analyze it apart from my beliefs in a purely secular fashion. It wouldn't do any justice to the depth of either vision. 

   "I don't care about truth. I want some happiness."

...says the glamorous main character, Gloria Patch. 
Now, where have (or is it haven't?) I heard that before?


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting. If you have trouble, sign in with your Google account, or email me at