We used to be perfect once. When everything was beautiful and rich and full and the sound of death had yet to creep into our children’s ears. The ground yielded plentiful harvests, and the animals were not afraid of us. We walked along side each other in harmony, knowing that we were all kindred spirits in the presence of God. The light of His presence shown on us as did the magnificence of His Creation, within the world and without, and we were moved to a state of reverence and awe for the beauty that we had witnessed. We were whole.
And then the fire nation attacked. Okay, maybe not, but something happened. Some say it was Pandora’s Box, others say it was a cursed fruit, but whatever the cause – death, decay, cyclical violence, draught, famine, and families at variance with one another – was the result. But where do we go from here?
The Great Gatsby
In The Great Gatsby (a book for which my love has virtually no bounds), we meet the one and only Jay Gatsby, a hapax legomenon of a person. Everything that Gatsby says or does in the novel is the epitome of the human desire to shine light on and reanimate, to quote Bastille, the things we lost in the fire.
Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. (p.110)
This isn’t the only time that Gatsby attempts to recreate the past. In fact, his sole aim in the entire novel is to recapture the lovely Daisy Buchanan, and the love that they shared before a war, Tom Buchanan, and the vicious passage of time stole her away from him. However, as the book’s many readers have noted, most notably John Green in his Crash Course series, Gatsby doesn’t exactly want to recreate the past. He wants to recreate his past.
Because of Gatsby’s singular interest, for which he has returned to West Egg and purchased a home on the opposite side of the sound from Daisy, he is blind to the fact that what he seeks is not what he would claim to seek, and that what he seeks possibly does not exist at all. Nick flawlessly describes this when talking about the connection between Gatsby and Daisy.
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. (p.95)
In many ways, I see Gatsby as a person trying to survive the present. He doesn’t want to engage in it, he didn’t want to drink his own liquor; he only wants to get back to the moment when things were good. Instead of engaging with the present moment, he would like to pretend that the past is suspended in time, that it’s a retrievable thing, instead of accepting the devastating weight of the truth that the past is gone.
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. (p.96)
All this might sound like an indictment of Gatsby, but in fairness to him, it was a difficult moment. It couldn’t have been easy to bear witness to a generation akin to those described in the book Paper Towns by John Green as “those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm.” (p.57)
The roaring 20s was in full force, and people forgot they were married at parties as easily as they sent others to war on their behalf. Gatsby especially, a nouveau riche (or less charitably put by Tom, “Mr. Nobody from nowhere,”), and a man with a love interest so singular that he would destroy his life to attain it, Gatsby would not have been at home in the moment. He would have always had the vision keen enough to see straight through the pale gold, the avarice and carelessness of the 20s.
Coming home from the war couldn’t have been easy, either, and Gatsby is suffering through the same kind of post-war disillusionment that would affect the work of many Spanish artists a decade later, struggling through the aftermath of their own war. He suffers disappointments as profound as that of the father and son in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, when the father apologizes to his son for the ocean he promised they’d visit.
I’m sorry it’s not blue. (p.297)
And Gatsby just can’t take one more disappointment. In this darkness and the haze of confusion, Gatsby creates these totems that allow him to safely traverse the nightmare that was christened The American Dream. He creates these enchanted objects, to guide him through the fog. And because the present is so dreadful and dark, he chooses to believe that these enchanted objects are the way home, and that by reaching the moment that was lost, he can be whole again.
This is exactly what the Bible promises us. The restoration of what we had and lost is the paramount covenant. It’s offered to all of us, who have seen the destruction of the world that we once knew, and would do anything – or believe anything – to get it back. This is what it means to be a Christian. It is not that they are stupid or foolish, any more than Daisy Buchanan is actually the fool she pretends to be. It is that, like Gatsby, the consolatory value of an idea (here meaning the Bible) means more to them than engaging in the present moment. Christians seek to destroy the foul dust in the wake of their dreams.
And to be fair, it’s a difficult moment, and always has been. The heart of The Great Gatsby is that just like Gatsby, we erect these totems to guide us through the nightmare, and we create enchanted objects to be the dreams that we reach for. Because we can’t tolerate the past being quite gone, we can’t fully live knowing that this day we live in will disappear when the world sighs itself awake tomorrow, and we can’t imbibe this hard truth that maybe things have always been this way, that there’s actually no “perfect” to get back to. Daisy sums it up perfectly here:
I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool. (p.17)
Because, as Daisy knows, one of the hardest things in life to be is awake.
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