Novelists

Candles and Carnival Lights

This piece by Mary Claire Kendall, appearing in today’s forbes.com, is an account of a lecture on F. Scott Fitzgerald by Charles Scribner, whose great-grandfather published The Great Gatsby in 1925, and whose father in the 1950s instigated the renaissance in appreciation of Fitzgerald’s work that continues to this day.

Scribner’s lecture, entitled “From Paradise to Party Lights,” was delivered last month at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum. Kendall’s account of the lecture glistens with the romantic tone familiar in writing about Fitzgerald, but it is still well worth reading. It is a shame, however, that the lecture itself is not available on the Internet. What Kendall gives us of Scribner’s remarks is engaging in many ways, not least in this description of what Scribner takes to be the secret to Fitzgerald’s magic:

The real magic lies embedded in his prose. It reveals itself in his amazing range and versatility… There is a sacramental quality in which Fitzgerald’s words transform their external geography as thoroughly as the realm within. The ultimate effect, once the initial reverberations of imagery and language have subsided, transcends the bounds of fiction.

It is a suggestive description: the sacramental quality of Fitzgerald’s prose…the effect of which transcends the bounds of fiction. There is a an obviously religious, indeed Catholic, resonance to these words, and the very title of Scribner’s lecture echoes, intentionally or not, a 1978 book by Joan M. Allen, Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York University Press). One wonders whether Scribner had Allen’s book in mind when writing his lecture, and whether in the lecture itself he explored the Catholic themes in Fitzgerald’s work, and in particular The Great Gatsby. Anyone doubting the presence of such themes should read Allen’s discussion of The Great Gatsby as well as the analysis of Fitzgerald’s short story, “Absolution,” that precedes it.

Fitzgerald’s first-person narrator in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, boasts in his opening monologue of his talent for reserving judgments, which he claims is “a matter of infinite hope.” But then immediately he qualifies himself:

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or on the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction–Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.

This famous passage depicts the ambiguity in what Nick has taken away from his sojourn in the East: a desire for the world to stand at moral attention forever, and a desire to exempt Gatsby–the master of the revels–from his moral judgment.

Perhaps Nick’s attitude toward Gatsby reflects a related ambiguity in Fitzgerald himself, an ambiguity between his fascination with the allurements of this world and his moral sensibility, a sensibility deeply rooted in his Catholic upbringing. The title of Allen’s book, Candles and Carnival Lights, is meant to underscore this ambiguity. As she puts it:

The title of this book means to suggest Fitzgerald’s divided nature. The appearances of his life and work, the lights of the carnival which attracted and destroyed him and his fictional brothers, the apparently glamorous life, is one component. But that masks his profound moralism, the realization of sin and destructiveness which underlie and permeate the temporal world. The carnival lights had outshone the candles, but the candles had indelibly touched him….

It is doubtful whether Fitzgerald meant Gatsby to be a wholly negative comment upon its protagonist. The “whole burden of this novel,” he wrote in 1924, “[is] the loss of those allusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” Is Fitzgerald in his novel critiquing allusions that obscure truth, or is he glamorizing them?

In any event, and perhaps despite authorial intention, I believe The Great Gatsby can fairly be read as a comment upon the destruction wrought by unbridled Eros. Eros, C.S. Lewis argues in The Four Loves, is not merely sexual desire (what Lewis calls Venus); it is the tendency to make of the beloved an idol, an elevation that no mortal can long pretend to be worthy of. Unchecked, says Lewis, Eros turns into a demon, or at least, in Gatsby’s case, into someone who feels “he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.”

At Christmas director Baz Luhrmann will present at least the fifth cinematic or televised version of The Great Gatsby (produced for a Gatsby-esque 127 million dollars). Given what one sees in the teaser trailer, it would require some of Nick Carraway’s infinite hope to expect from the film an exploration of the moral issues raised by Fitzgerald’s novel. But that is just the sort of attention The Great Gatsby deserves–not only from directors, but from all readers who return to this American classic.

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