Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gatsby, Morality, and Mr. Blue



Father Alexander Lucie-Smith previews the new movie version of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel of the "Roaring Twenties", in The Catholic Herald:

What a strange world it is, the world of the novel! The reality that the characters live in is wafer-thin, and under the brittle and glassy surface, unpleasant truths lurk. The climactic scenes both centre around dead bodies, as if this were the terrible fact from which humanity is fleeing. In the end the novel is about death, and how we can never cheat it, how it stalks us through life. There is something elemental about the world of Gatsby: on the one hand it is about all the things people want: love, power, money, renown, glamour; at the same time it is telling us that none of these things are lasting, all of them turn to dust and ashes. Gatsby’s palatial mansion on Long Island turns out to be as false as a Potemkin fa├žade.

Gatsby is not really a religious novel, but it is, in an odd way, a moral novel, telling us about the emptiness to be found in the heart of human desire, the hollowness of life. It is close in spirit (as well as date) to T S Eliot’s famous poem The Wasteland. It may not tell us anything about religion or the life of the spirit, but it makes one thing clear. The world is an empty place, and we need some spiritual truths to make life bearable; and faith is the best refuge we have from the sterility of life and the pressing nature of death. Or so it seems to me: I wonder how the film will confront these existential themes?

Father Lucie-Smith's comments reminded me of Father John Breslin's comments in his introduction to Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue, that J. Blue was the Catholic Jay Gatsby:


In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby appeared, a year after Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi and three years before Mr. Blue. The brief novel, now an academic classic, recounts the story of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who takes his place, somewhat brashly, among the moneyed aristocracy of eastern Long Island in pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, the love of his impoverished youth.

In the very first sentence of his novella, Myles Connolly identifies his hero as J. Blue. Could that be a coincidence? Hardly, for someone as well read as Connolly. Jay Gatsby stands for everything that Blue, three years later, rejects: the pursuit of great wealth, the willingness to do whatever it takes to win, the craving for status and acceptance. Gatsby is also, as Blue turns out to be, bigger than life, lavish in style, doomed to die young, a striking figure who fascinates and puzzles his own half-admiring chronicler, the reserved future journalist Nick Carraway.

Can we imagine Gatsby and Blue inhabiting the same space in the Jazz Age before the Crash? Despite their commitments to radically different value systems, these two might have hit it off. Certainly, the view from the skyscraper would have stirred Gatsby; he might even have been able to pick out the light on Daisy's dock in East Egg, with the help of binoculars. And certainly the lavish style Blue takes up briefly on inheriting a fortune--multiple houses, limousines, world trips--would have appealed to Jay Gatsby. But Blue's true delight in his wealth is in giving it away as fast as possible, hiring servants and then setting them up in their own homes, keeping his fortune in over a hundred checking accounts so he can write checks at any time.

There is a startling echo of Jay Gatsby in Connolly's book. Halfway through Gatsby, Nick Carraway reveals the millionaire's origins as Jay Gatz, the son of a shiftless farmer, who re-created himself as the worldly Jay Gatsby, sprung "from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God, a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that, and he must be about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty."

Contrast that with Blue's apostrophe to the stars from the roof of his Manhattan skyscraper: "God is more intimate here. . . . Don't you find Him so? This is height without desolation, isolation without emptiness. . . . I think my heart would break with all the immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I. . . . I'm no microcosm. I, too, am a Son of God!"

Blue and Gatsby clearly serve different Gods, who nonetheless lead each of them to an early grave. Their deaths, however, could hardly be more different. Worshiping mammon and his memory of Daisy, Jay Gatsby finds himself defeated by both. Daisy refuses to admit that she never loved her husband, Tom, thereby destroying Gatsby's romantic dream. Moreover, her willingness to let Gatsby shoulder responsibility for her reckless driving--which killed Tom's mistress--costs Gatsby his life, at the hands of the victim's aggrieved husband.

J. Blue also dies because of the reckless driving of the rich. And like Gatsby, he dies protecting someone else, pushing a homeless black man out of danger and taking the blow from the speeding limousine himself. But there the parallel stops. What propels Blue, like Gatsby, is a dream, but a selfless one, founded on the gospel example of Jesus and renewed in a quite literal way a millennium later by the man from Assisi. Blue has chosen a way of life that startles, challenges, and puzzles the people around him just as thoroughly as Jesus and Francis did in their times.


From the couple of reviews of Baz Luhrman's new film I've read, I don't think that I will see it--sounds too frenetic for me. Perhaps TCM will show the Alan Ladd version this month!

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