My favorite line in all of literature is Marcel Proust’s “The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost”.
The adherents to the ‘meditation and mindfulness’ cult may disagree, as would Camus’s ‘Absurdists’. But surely one of the unique aspects of the human condition is our limitless capacity to imagine, a capacity that takes us far beyond the constraints of our physical existence, to places that thrills promise, making full use of another one of our infinite capabilities, that of wonder. Together, imagination and wonder stretch life to something beyond happiness, and bliss and joy, to something that can be unjustly described as vigor and vitality and excitement, but truthfully something which cannot be expressed in the physical amalgamation of abstract symbols that is words.
You’ve guessed it. I am a romantic, one of the silly little boys who waste their lives with their thoughts in far off places and their heads in the clouds as the indifferent river of time passes us by. There have been many, many, many of us, I imagine, and occasionally some of us get famous, mostly after dying. April 10th marks ninety years since one of the holy books of our cult was published, for occasionally one of these silly man puts together something powerful enough in that physical amalgamation of abstract symbols that leaves even the most pragmatic of men looking wistfully for their ‘green light’.
I am talking of course, about The Great Gatsby. Some would disagree with the label of romanticism. They’ll open the thesaurus, and fire word after word from their formidable repertoire. Modernism. Literary Fiction. Drama. But the romantic isn’t interested in tangling himself in technicalities, for within the first few pages of the book he had stripped away the façade and the pretentious and laid open the beating heart, which he discovered with joyful surprise, as one of his own. A heart that is beating to the tune of unattainable, incorruptible dreams.
The promise of bright lights and the anticipation of glorious moments is a theme that runs throughout Fitzgerald’s literature and short stories, but in Jay Gatsby it is embodied and personified. Rarely in literary history has a character existed that hoped with such audacity and ambition, living in that enchanting time of the 1920’s where America had briefly turned itself into a nation of dreams. Never would such a man ever live in such a time, and never would imagination turn so seamlessly into reality before crumbling away and vanishing in vapor, leaving behind only a faint tinge of regret.
The romantic has already started suspecting Fitzgerald as one of his own, and as Nick first meets Daisy, this hypothesis is confirmed in the following sentence:
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.( he gets up with the tug to his heart) Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” (here he begins jumping with excitement)
A short while later, he sighs melodramatically after reading ‘for a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened — then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.’
Helplessly sucked in now, he devours the pages hungrily, and Fitzgerald keeps throwing him several tasty little treats that keep him going and going, until, again, he stops, holds his breath, and repeats the following lines over and over again to himself-
“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
By now, the ‘colossal significance’ of the novel is fully clear to him, and he closes the book and looks as if fearfully, scarcely believing in the magical experience he is having, yet also afraid that it will be over too soon. For a moment, he stares at it, until he realizes he is being silly, the book is in front of him and he should stop his childish fancies and just finish it already. He goes on, losing himself in the intricate little sentences that flow so seamlessly from one line to the next, but with each word, conscious his heart is getting heavy with the knowledge that he is getting closer to the end, until he gets to a passage that finally elevates Fitzgerald to a place alongside Wordsworth, Shelley, Khail Gibran and the others to a place in the romantic Pantheon.
Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that green light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
He re-reads the passage, disbelieving. This was by no means the most poetic sentence; in fact, in comparison to the rest of the book, it was quite plain. But that plainness captures the romantic spirit, the spirit that dreams with such intensity that reality can’t quite live up to it.
Fitzgerald quickly re-affirms his god-like status.
There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
He reads on, now with something approaching a holy fervor in his heart, and Fitzgerald sends him another blessing just a couple of pages later.
Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air.
He is now imagining a blissful reunion, a love of such sheer power that few can conceive and even fewer feel, but the ominous warnings that have been fluttering faintly finally get their real voice.
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.
It slowly begins to dawn on the reader that the vision was more powerful than reality.. But before he can chew on that, he is hit by another literary orgasm.
Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was incommunicable forever.
For a short time, the dream holds power again, as Gatsby visits Daisy’s house.
It amazed him — he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there — it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms up-stairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.
This is the high of the dream that has long since become the reader’s dream as well. He then begins that painful descent into what the men call ‘real life’. This slow, gradual descent suddenly coils up and hits him in full force in the following sentences:-
He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.
Some cry. Other’s just read on in grief. Fitzgerald, at the closing stages of the novel, then transcends the personal to speak for the human race as a whole.
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.
Before he ends with a faint glimmer of hope, with the one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful lines in all of literature, encouraging the romantic to dream on, and hope.
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow 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.