May 20, 2013

Self-respect and The Great Gatsby

I read (and saw) the Great Gatsby again recently. I have read it before, but I don't think I got it then. That seems to be the reaction most people have, the first time around. What I found boring was the emptiness of the book. It was full of these complicated social nuances, and I felt even more like an outsider than Nick Carraway. I didn't have the patience to read between the lines, and maybe I wasn't equipped to do it at that time in my life. My impression was not favourable: I chiefly remembered scenes that were hot, dry, and dusty, without much dialogue, and without much plot. I was wrong. Gatsby is not a desert; it's more like a swimming pool with a blue surface and a deceptive bottom.

"You look so cool," Daisy says to Gatsby. "You always look so cool" - and I didn't understand why or how this could possibly mean, "I love you." I was too used to characters who knew what they wanted, said what they thought, were solidly good or bad (or mostly so, anyway). Didn't really get then how people can want two or three or four contradicting things at once, all the while knowing that all of them are bad choices. Also didn't really get how you could convey that in literature.

This time, I'm fascinated by Jordan Baker. Careless, distant, dishonest, but a sporting loser all the same. She seemed to me to be the only person in the novel who knew exactly what she was doing, and was not afraid.

I have a difficult time thinking about Jordan Baker without thinking also of Joan Didion's essay, "On Self-Respect." I read the essay before my first crack at Gatsby, but this second time the links are becoming clearer to me. Didion suggests that Jordan Baker has self-respect and character, even if it may be a bad character.

"Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things," Didion writes. "If we do not respect ourselves...we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out - since our self-image is untenable - their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others is an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give."

Compare this idea with Daisy, a beautiful little fool with a voice like money. A suggestive and sensual voice that tailored its tone just for the ears of the particular man listening at the moment. I wouldn't want to lay bets that Jordan will be happier than Daisy, but at least she won't have the same miseries.

She, unlike Daisy, will know where she stands, without suffering from what Didion calls, “alienation from self:”

"In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home."

An ugly possibility, that one. I think about Daisy packing up her trunk and running away with Tom, rather than facing up to Gatsby - and just the day before she had kissed him in the salon of her own home, saying, "You know I love you." If that isn't alienation from the self, I don't know what is. It is possible to simultaneously love and say no. She would have done better to state the facts baldly.

I can honestly say that I enjoyed The Great Gatsby this time, though it was dark and sad. (Aside from all the other sadnesses in the book, I wonder what happened to Myrtle's little dog).

The first time I read Gatsby, I admit I skimmed through it with hardly any idea what was really going on. I probably said that I 'got' it, but I lied. Maybe that was because, like Jordan Baker, I could not endure being at a disadvantage.

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