|Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. Image from The Week.|
F. Scott Fitzgerald begins the novel by writing:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't have had the advantages that you've had.'My father told me the same thing many times throughout my childhood and adolescence, and it has stuck with me ever since, too. Not in any practical sense—I judge people terribly all day—but of course, "reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope." Or, as Jesus perhaps more eloquently put it, "judge not that you shall be judged." Which is to say: if Jesus had to take the time to point out the difficulty of avoiding judgments, then it's obviously not an easy habit to kick no matter how much Nick Carraway and I remember being told by our fathers to lighten up on our fellow man.
Fitzgerald closes with some of the most unforgettable language I've ever read:
He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And on fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.Alas, it does matter that Gatsby's green light eluded him, that it eludes all of us who continue to be borne back into a past that doesn't exist, a past that we chase endlessly into an illusory future.
When I read the book in high school, I was quite fond of Gatsby. I ignored or was too unaware to notice that he was a bootlegger, a glorified gangster, a swindler, a liar, and a man who stayed in love with the wrong woman at the cost of his life ultimately. When I read the book the first time, I believed in the green light and the orgastic future. I was a dreamer. I used to make the same lists that Gatsby made, the list that Gatsby's father proudly displays to Carraway as proof of his dead son's vision for his boundless future. You have to have a pretty bright future in mind to make a list laying out your self-imposed spartan schedule with admonishments to yourself to be even better than the list indicates you already are.
Gatsby's future was the dream of a poor man wanting to get rich, to make something of himself to be acceptable to the wealthy woman he had fallen in love with, and to be good enough in his own eyes to be worthy of that woman's love. Since pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is more of an American myth than a reality, Gatsby had to resort to unsavory means and associations with unsavory characters like Meyer Wolfsheim to make his fortune. I guess since I didn't grow up poor I can't relate to that aspect of Gatsby's dream, and thus should reserve judgment on the nature of his wealth accumulation. If you don't grow up without, perhaps it's harder to care about money as you project your future. But I can certainly relate to wanting be wealthy, and particularly in the sense that it probably does help one's love life.
The green light that once fueled my existence flamed out much sooner than Gatsby's did. Gatsby probably wouldn't have been able to live without that vision for his future, so perhaps it's better that it ended the way it did for him.
I guess after reading the book this time I felt more of a bond with Tom Buchanan, whom Fitzgerald says is, "one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax...but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game."
Today, during one of my last days of work at my current job, instead of actually working, I hopped up on my desk to peer over at my co-worker over the cubicle wall that separates us.
"This feels like the last days of high school. The only difference is that this time the authorities don't seem to care that I no longer care, and still expect me to show up and work," I say.
He laughs and says, "I thought you were going to say the only difference is that you got laid more back then."
"Well, that's true, too," I reply. I look away, pause, and stare out at the ocean beyond the glass conference room that surrounds the station of cubicles where we toil. Still standing on my desk like an idiot, I say, "I flamed out at 17." Quickly trying to avoid the potential truth in that terrible statement, I peer over to another co-worker and ask him what the fuck he's doing. He replies but I don't really hear what he says, and I sit back down and think about working, but don't. I spend the rest of the afternoon distracting myself enough to avoid work and eventually head home to write this.
Every so often I get the vision of the green light again. I'll imagine myself as sports writing's next Tom Verducci and that will motivate me for a bit. But then I'm faced with the limitations of the powers of my cognition, and perhaps even worse, my lack of connections, and it all seems feeble so as not to bother with anymore.
I don't think Gatsby could have lived his life if he had realized that his dreams were already behind him. There was a sense in the book of that reality creeping in on him at times, and he willfully ignores it. He tells Carraway that he's wrong, you can recreate the past, old sport.
You can't recreate the past. But, why would you even want to? It's okay to be alive after your dreams of grandeur have died. Even after the green light fades, most of us drive "on toward death through the cooling twilight."
It's not so bad, you just have to try a little to appreciate the setting sun, the twilight, the rolling waves of the ocean just beyond your cubicle wall. It's a lot easier than chasing the impossible dreams and grasping endlessly for the dead, illusory past.