The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.
I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.
If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)
But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.
Droopy eyes under the hat. An old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women. The 50-ish ladies sneered at me when I wandered in off Bleecker and Houston streets on a Tuesday afternoon, but the spider just squiggled his mouth in a thoughtful glance toward me. He then screeched something inaudible to my ears, and his ladies cackled in response like obscene muppets.
I was hungry. That's what I remember most about that day. I had just started a new job in furniture sales and was sending every penny I made back home (which was still nowhere near enough). I had lost weight, but I felt good and desperate. A stranger.
The Bowery Poetry Club was one of my stops, along with Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, the Nuyorican Cafe and the Yippie Museum. By the end of the night I would be in front of a bunch of veteran NYC poets at Big Mike Logan's demand (he pushed me to the stage at the Yippie Museum) reciting my own complaints/poetry after seven drinks on an empty stomach, but I hadn't gotten there just yet. It was only 3 pm as I sifted through all the flyers in the dark, beer-musked Bowery with the screeching spider and his smarmy muppets.
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.
What do you buy a morose Danish philosopher who invented Existentialism for his 200th birthday?
It doesn't really matter anymore, since Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead. He died at the young age of 42, already at this time a mostly broken man, an obsessive writer, a lonely bachelor, and a frequent subject of popular ridicule. Like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (with all of whom he shares some sensibility), he died at a low point of literary success, without much reason to expect that later generations would rediscover his work and call him a genius.
But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely. The questions were of religion, and of how to live a good life, and his answer involved the "leap of faith" or "leap to faith" (a phrase he invented). Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian, but he defied the philosophical norms of his age by expressly refusing to try to justify his belief with reason or logic. The power of religious faith, he pronounced, was in believing without reason or logic.
His belief in Christianity made him a great religious writer. What made him a great Existential writer was the implicit principle that underlies his argument for religious faith: the principle that we human beings regularly think, live and make decisions without reason or logic.
This was as much a "eureka" moment for Western philosophy as Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum two centuries before. Though Kierkegaard had to struggle to explain his ideas to his bewildered Danish and European intellectual peers during his life, his idea of religion as a leap to faith would spring incredible gardens of original modernist thought: inheritors of Kierkegaard include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Paul Tillich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and many more.
(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)
Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.
Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.
He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.
Watergate is not a very distinctive title for a novel about the 1972-74 USA presidential scandal by Thomas Mallon. It was, however, a great name for the scandal.
The term "Watergate" originally referred to the office-hotel complex in downtown Washington DC where, on a quiet day in June 1972, a gang of hapless spies with indirect connections to the Nixon White House were caught in a botched bugging operation. The name "Watergate" always felt right for the scandal, even though it's a made-up word, the invention of a real estate corporation. The "water" refers to the Potomac River and Rock Creek, which merge at the complex's northwestern edge, and the "gate" does not seem to refer to any specific thing at all. (UPDATE: see comments below for some helpful information that suggests the name referred to a water-gate at the nearby historic canal.)
But the Watergate complex was a cool, exciting new locale in 1972, a swirling, innovative work of postmodern architecture that belongs to the same era of urban design as New York City's World Trade Center. The image of water crashing through a barrier seems to evoke something meaningful about the entire scandal that was born there.
It's not clear what Thomas Mallon was aiming for when he gave his imaginative novel the flat title Watergate. There are already many books called Watergate, and this one is different because it's a sensitive, smart literary historical novel, a work of creative invention. Fortunately, the title is the only thing about this clever, humane book that doesn't work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it helped me think about the years of Nixon's fall in a few new ways.
(Since literature and music are two of my biggest passions, I am naturally fascinated by rock memoirs. I find much significance within these books, and in the shadows that surround them. The Great Lost Rock Memoir is a new Literary Kicks series devoted to the art and psychology of the rock memoir, with a special emphasis on older books that may now be out of print. Today, we're examining the memoir of one of the most brilliant, innovative and courageous singer-songwriters of all time: Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Missouri.)
It's fitting that the guy who singlehandedly invented rock and roll when he recorded a song called "Mabellene" at Chess studios in Chicago on May 21, 1955 would later become an early innovator in the rock memoir field. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography was published in 1987, when the author was sixty years old. He wrote the book without a ghostwriter, and says so in the opening sentence:
This book is entirely written, phrase by phrase, by yours truly, Chuck Berry.
The prickly pride revealed in this declaration is familiar to anybody who follows Chuck Berry, who is famously irascible, contrary and unpredictable. His genius for spontaneous creativity mixed with interpersonal dysfunctionality is best shown by his typical refusal to rehearse with the backup bands hired to play behind him in concert. I've enjoyed a couple of Chuck Berry concerts, and I've seen how the edgy uncertainty of an unrehearsed band playing a headline show with a legend always adds some electricity to the room. The unpredictable liveliness of his shows is one reason that 86-year-old Chuck Berry still packs houses today (see him while you can).
He also writes an electrifying memoir, and not the superficial memoir one might expect. As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is rarely introspective or analytical. He's more of a humorist with a guitar, specializing in clever, naughty rhymes. His lyrics also reveal a warm emotional sensitivity, a breezy way with descriptive detail, and a big taste for delicious words in harmonious meters.