SO, HOW GREAT IS GATSBY?
I refer here not to the book, or the Baz Luhrmann movie, which we will get to — I mean Jay Gatsby, né James Gatz, the shadowy presence at the heart of what I have no problem calling the great American novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald, by way of his narrator Nick Carraway, said he was great — it’s right there on the cover of the book, though barrels of scholarly ink, and presumably mountains of ink-jet cartridges, have been drained in attempting to address what exactly “great” means. It can’t merely mean that he was great as in, “huge” — that he gave big deliriously wild Trimalchio-like parties that lit up the night sky like a world’s fair. Could the word signify something more playful — that Gatsby was like a circus magician introduced by some carny barker: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the great Gatsby!”? That’s closer, but hardly sufficient: magical Gatsby certainly is, having appeared in West Egg as if by prestidigitation, trailing clouds of mystery and rumor, but that wouldn’t begin to explain the morally probative Nick’s fascination with him. Well, maybe the title’s ironic, then — signifying a guy who’s all show and no core, who Nick at one point describes as a “turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore.” But that won’t work either, since Gatsby keeps confounding Nick’s more cynical judgments, so that by the end Nick is telling Gatsby that “you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Clearly “great” means something complex and multifaceted, befitting a character who’s come to stand for the manifold paradoxes of the American Dream.
Best, then, to back up and start at the start. Nick begins his meditation on Gatsby by telling us that he “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Nick, reserved stolid Midwestern that he is, hates the ostentation and fakery of people like Gatsby — the stupid pink suits, the “old sport” mannerisms, the gaudy mansion a “factual imitation” of some tourist hotel in Normandy, the empty spectacle of parties so conspicuously consumptive that the “the solemn dumping ground” of the Valley of Ashes is practically necessary just to burn all the trash they leave in their wake. Nonetheless, after scorning Gatsby this way, Nick declares that “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He had an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” How to resolve this cognitive dissonance clogging up Nick’s narrative of Gatsby’s “greatness”?
Much of the enduring power and beauty of the book, let me suggest, depends on Nick (and Fitzgerald) not resolving it. In a painful little essay entitled “The Crack-Up,” which Fitzgerald wrote while he was recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1936, he talks about something he calls “first-rate intelligence.” “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he said, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The ability not to freak out over contradiction, to accept the seemingly unassimilable — that’s the hallmark of a capable modern consciousness. And Nick’s got it: the perceptive acumen necessary to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of Gatsby’s moral history without foundering on the rocks of some final univocal explanation. Nick can present to us Gatsby’s shallow persona, his meretricious tastes, his underworld “gonnegtions,” his monomaniacal pursuit of a woman whom any reasonable-minded person would say isn’t worth the trouble — yet at the same time show us how stirring, how beautiful is his self-invention; how pure is his passion for Daisy; how moving, how quintessentially American is his implacable drive, which can settle for nothing less than transcendent happiness. Wallace Stevens, in “Sunday Morning,” written a decade before Gatsby came out, spoke of how even “in contentment, I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss.” It could’ve served as the novel’s epigraph: there’s no more dramatic rendering of that (maybe) glorious, (maybe) stupefying need in all of American literature than in Jay Gatsby.
All of which makes The Great Gatsby a sort of Rorschach blot to test out our own feelings about the scary power of dreams to propel us into an unimaginable future, and about the even-scarier power of romantic passion, with its promise to drown the twin despairs of loneliness and meaninglessness in the elixir of love’s mysterious blisses. If you find Jay Gatsby sort of dismissibly nuts, as in “Why the hell should I care about a gangster who cares about nothing except stealing somebody’s wife and remaining deludedly faithful to an irretrievable past?” — well then you’re probably missing that American romantic gene. If, on the other hand, you fairly swoon at Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope,” his desire for bliss unending, then you might possess a romantic readiness that’s akin to your hero. Nick Carraway, we know, bounces from one pole to the other, depending on the moment, muscularly exercising his first-rate intelligence. And Baz Luhrmann — whom, don’t worry, we will get to — seems to believe in the power of dreams, and in romantic passion, almost — almost — as much as Gatsby does.
But, first, back to Gatsby’s desire for imperishable bliss.
Back before Jay Gatsby was Jay Gatsby, back when he was a dirt-poor North Dakota farm boy named James Gatz, he wrote out a daily schedule on the flyleaf of his copy of Hopalong Cassidy that makes him out to be a devoted disciple of Benjamin Franklin. In its meticulous attention to how he should spend each hour of the day, James’s values are clear: it’s all about working hard, saving money, not wasting time; it’s about a punctilious morality and a desire to improve himself by studying electricity and “needed inventions” (the Franklin reference obvious now); it’s about the belief that early to bed and early to rise promises health, wealth, and wisdom. Though at that age he’s still concerned with being “better to parents,” this will not last. By the time he’s 17, he’s thrown aside his upbringing and begun his transformation: young Gatz’s heart is now in “constant, turbulent riot,” filled with dreams of some ineffable destiny and a notion of identity that “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” He takes to the road, where he soon enough finds himself a new father figure, the millionaire “pioneer debauchee” Dan Cody, who for five years mentors him, presumably in the arts of money-making. When Cody dies, however, the newly minted Jay Gatsby is swindled out of an inheritance, leaving him as ambitious as ever but penniless.
Enter the Great War. He enlists and is brought down to Kentucky to train to become an officer. There he meets Daisy Fay, a witty, beautiful, much-sought-after debutante with a thrillingly musical voice. Daisy’s parents are monied, and she, like most girls of her social station, is looking for a husband who can offer her more of the life to which she’s become accustomed. The young Gatsby is able to hide his impoverished roots: he is not only wearing an army uniform, but has trained himself since adolescence in “elocution, poise and how to attain it.” (It was part of his boyhood schedule.) In any case, the two fall — well, madly in love. The adverb is silly — not just clichéd but evasive, because what is the nature of Gatsby’s love for Daisy in their first fevered months? We get only one brief glimpse of it, and even that glimpse is filtered through Nick’s telling, but in a way it is everything. To understand Gatsby, to understand what motivates him to spend five years of his life in the single-minded pursuit of a lost lover who is now the wife of one of America’s richest young men, to understand how he arrived on his massive lawn staring out at night at the green light on Daisy’s dock across Long Island Sound — is to meditate upon a single kiss.
It’s the best kiss in American literature. Gatsby tells Nick about it after one of his parties, the one that Daisy and her husband Tom attend after Gatsby has reignited his affair with her. Gatsby is out of sorts, in sudden despair that Daisy doesn’t understand or even remember the love they once shared. Nick interrupts, reasonably, to tell him, “I wouldn’t ask too much of her. You can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby’s famous retort, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” prompts him to explain to Nick what past it is that he’s hell-bent on repeating. And it’s all in that kiss. It takes two paragraphs to set up. It begins with the two lovers walking down a sidewalk one cool autumn night. They turn toward each other and listen as the “quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars.” A stir and bustle among the stars! As Nick tells it, in Gatsby’s mind the stars above are aligning ahead of this coming kiss, as if the kiss were cosmically momentous. (This explains Gatsby’s later, gnomic comment that Daisy’s love for Tom “was just personal.” Daisy’s love for him, by Gatsby’s lights, transcends the mere personal — the very heavens are involved.) With Daisy close to him, Gatsby is so filled with the ideal of love that he’s been fostering in his head that he feels as if he could, right now, climb “to a secret place above the trees” — to a romantic’s platonic heaven, as it were, where he “could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder,” his mind romping “like the mind of God.” But that communion with the divine can only happen, he realizes, “if he climbed alone”; it would be a communion with love as Idea only. So he makes a crucial decision. He will forsake the platonic Ideal for a real-life communion with his lover. He brings Daisy’s face close to his own. “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” Gatsby seems to envision the kiss as a compromise: uniting the ideal of love in Gatsby’s head — his “unutterable vision” — with the real, mortal flesh of Daisy’s lips — “her perishable breath.” But then something extraordinary happens. “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
Fitzgerald was raised Catholic, and he doesn’t use the word incarnation lightly. Theologically, the incarnation is Christ himself — the infusion of divinity into physical human form, the meeting of spirit and flesh. The passage suggests that the kiss is a romantic incarnation: the infusion of “the unutterable vision” of love in Gatsby’s mind into the physical form of their kiss. For once in his life, in other words, Gatsby’s Ideal is absolutely realized; he has everything he ever dreamed.
After such fulfillment, complete and entire, who wouldn’t spend five years doing everything in his power to get that bliss back?
If his film is any indication, Baz Luhrmann is nodding vigorously in answer to that question. In the last moments of his movie, Nick Carraway, having finished his manuscript entitled “Gatsby,” which is about the events of a summer so disturbingly tragic that it’s landed him in a sanitarium for “morbid alcoholism” (more on that in a second), stares one final time at the title page, realizes something is amiss, and scrawls “The Great” above the name. His meaning is not ironic, paradoxical, playful, or anything else multivalent; for Luhrmann’s Nick, Gatsby is an unabashed tragic hero: he is great because he is so dedicated to a romantic dream that he is willing to pay for it with his life. In the novel, when Nick tells Gatsby “you’re worth more than the whole damn bunch put together,” Gatsby answers him with a “radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.” If Gatsby saw this film, he’d be rewarding Luhrmann with just such a smile. If Nick saw it, he might point out, in the interests of balance, that Luhrmann, after having Nick say the “whole damn bunch together” line, drops the next line from the novel: “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”
Now, it isn’t saying much to declare that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is the best film that’s ever been made of the novel. There’s never been even a passably good Gatsby — even the talents of Jack Clayton, Francis Coppola, and Robert Redford in 1974 yielded a bewilderingly tepid, limp movie. What we can say about Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it has Jay Gatsby’s visionary obsessiveness, its high romantic yearning, not to mention Gatsby’s interest in flash and spectacle. If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, none of these qualities will come as a surprise, though Moulin Rouge’s romanticism was undercut by pop irony: the lovers’ use of Elton John’s “Your Song” to speak their deepest yearnings precludes any deep identification with them: we know we’re steeped in a pop discourse as shallow as it is alluring. But Luhrmann’s Gatsby doesn’t undercut the romance; it intensifies it. The result is a dizzying, florid hothouse of a movie that in the first third overdoses on spectacle, verges on hysteria, nearly teeters into the absurd, but in the final two thirds rights itself to become, to me, a complex, lush, sympathetic representation of Gatsby’s longing for bliss imperishable.
Purists of the novel have plenty to complain about. The frame story, in which Nick has entered a sanitarium as a “morbid alcoholic” is counterfactual (the novel states that Nick has only been drunk twice in his life), lamely dramatized (the doctor in particular), and unnecessary (Nick hardly needs to write the story for therapeutic reasons). The artificiality of the acting in the first part of the film, particularly by Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan Baker, is so in-your-face that it detracts from the psychological realism the film insists on later. This goes double for the elaborately artificial mise-en-scène: all those get-a-load-of-this-CGI backdrops of the Valley of Ashes; scenes choreographed so that a half-dozen of Gatsby’s servants exit a half-dozen doors at exactly the same time using exactly the same movements; the vertigo-inducing camera, endlessly swooping and zooming, which, when combined with Luhrmann’s patented nano-editing, makes it difficult to think a clear thought during the first quarter of the movie. Then there are the ridiculously fast car scenes, which Luhrmann films as if he’s trying to compete with The Fast and the Furious. And, for God sakes, Mr. Luhrmann: 3-D? Dude, why?
But such criticisms don’t cut that deep. (For starters, just see the film in 2-D.) You can dismiss the film’s obsessive artifice as Luhrmann-esque runaway spectacle, as The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and The New Yorker have, or you can see it as an analog to Gatsby’s own artificiality, the elaborate masks he wears, the painstaking mise-en-scène he has made of his mansion, complete with such a persuasive-looking library that the Owl-Eyed Man labels it “A triumph! Such thoroughness! Such realism!” Gatsby’s life, remember, isn’t quite real even to him: before Daisy re-enters it, he can only make false stabs at realism, and fail; I for one am willing to explain Luhrmann’s production design as an attempt to echo the Owl-Eyed Man’s giddy observation. Of course, if the film remained on that level of artifice, the critics who hate it would be on point, but it doesn’t: as soon as Gatsby and Daisy meet again, in a crucial scene at Nick’s cottage, the film begins to rely much less on spectacle and artificiality: the camera slows down, as does the quick-draw editing, and Luhrmann begins to settle on faces — Gatsby’s and Daisy’s, as they confront a past they’ve lost. He even gets the kiss right.
Luhrmann turns out to be every bit as meticulous with emotional detail as he is with spectacle. The scenes in which he gives us glimpses of Gatsby’s backstory are extraordinarily evocative and precise. And the scene at the Plaza Hotel, where Gatsby finally confronts Tom with the news that he is going to take Daisy away, hews so closely to the novel’s shadings of character and mood that Luhrmann, locked deep into Fitzgerald’s emotional logic, has no need for flashy technique. We watch as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby — whose performance gives nuanced solidity to what on the page always appears evanescent — sees his dream, which is this close to realization (as the novel puts it, “so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it”), begin to crumble before his eyes. Though he gets Daisy to say the words to Tom — “I never loved him” — that Gatsby believes will free Daisy from Tom and bring her back to him forever, she says them “with reluctance,” and then begins to backtrack, and as the scene proceeds, Daisy’s doubts about what she’s doing redouble, and Gatsby’s panic becomes manifest. By the end, he loses control and lunges at Tom (not in the book, but it’s a legitimate translation of the novel’s phrase, “he looked as if he had ‘killed a man’”), which seals Daisy’s decision to stay with Tom and ends any chance that Gatsby’s dream will ever be realized. But “the dead dream fought on,” so that Gatsby ends up taking the blame for Myrtle’s death and sacrifices himself for a Daisy he not only will never have but who never existed except in the crucible of his febrile heart. Luhrmann’s techniques in the last scenes — which include a deadly car accident, a murder, and a suicide — are equally sober, un-fantastic, un-spectacular: the dramatic action requires little assistance from fleet cameras or hyperreal CGI, and Luhrmann wisely doesn’t insist on any. In the climactic scenes, Gatsby rises from a swimming pool to take a phone call he hopes against all odds and evidence will be Daisy telling him that she will return to him. Luhrmann gives himself a tiny bit of license in this last scene: when Gatsby is shot by the crazed George Wilson, he calls out for Daisy before falling into the water. It might be a tip of the hat to Charles Foster Kane’s invocation of “Rosebud” as he dies in Citizen Kane — a character who rivals Gatsby in his delusional passions for success and love — but it’s also absolutely right for the character: what else would Gatsby say at the moment of his death but the name that sums up everything that he ever dreamed of in life?
Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is intoxicated by Gatsby’s tragic dream. While Fitzgerald’s Nick is occasionally able to pull away from his steadfast ambivalence about his friend to utter phrases like “Gatsby turned out all right in the end” — which, when you think about it, is a pretty faint phrase — the entire momentum of Luhrmann’s film is toward fully embracing Gatsby’s “romantic readiness,” his unending desire for bliss unending. It’s a dangerous way to interpret Gatsby — it destabilizes the famously balanced perspective that Nick brings to the book and opens itself to all sorts of criticisms that Luhrmann’s vision is as indulgent, ludicrous, and deluded as Gatsby’s is. But the film will survive those criticisms — it pulls back from romantic foolhardiness when it needs to, all the while insisting that there is glory and beauty in precisely that foolhardiness. Luhrmann endorses the desire for bliss unending as a way of life — beautiful, visionary, illusory — the way perhaps only a filmmaker, steeped in visions beautiful and illusory, ever can.