Editors Note: Jonathan Povilonis’ essay on The Great Gatsby, posted here on Patrol a few weeks ago, was picked up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog “The Dish” and accompanied by anonymous criticism of Povilonis’ piece. Below Povilonis answers a few of those critiques.
Maybe it was just a catchy title, but I’m much less interested in the question, How Great is Gatsby? than the question, What does it say about me as a moral being that I think he’s great? Though, at this point in my life I’m happy enough to have readers that extend beyond my family and Facebook friends, and so I can overlook the apparently contagious (and admittedly kind of cool) misspelling of my name, which, I suppose, comes with that territory (the one beyond close friends) anyway. Today’s prompt: an Anonymous Reader (A.R.) of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish, reportedly found my Gatsby article’s “faulty logic … stunning”—which I will take as a figure of speech considering both the availability of horrendous opinions on the internet ensuring that the educated elite will have something actually stunning to be stunned about, and the fact that the A.R. didn’t criticize my logic but my premises and the conclusion that logically follows from them. (I would also like to apologize to the other A.R., whom I will not address because whose argument I didn’t find in conflict with my own.)
The A.R. was apparently quite upset about what s/he believed to be my premises and the line of argument following from them, but I think the A.R. was mistaken. And whatever unfairness is done to the A.R. by her/his only being allowed a few paragraphs on the Dish is more than cancelled by her/his privilege of remaining an A.R. throughout this pseudo-discussion: the A.R. was allotted about five sentences to summarize what s/he believes “the entire point” of literature and why I missed it with Gatsby, but it seems that if/when I miss his/her point, the remaining ability to hide her-/himself from the small amount of people who might care about this (including myself) is a fair trade (i.e. I don’t get to know who I’m talking to/about). All this to say that it seems more productive to clarify the argument that I believe I made in my former piece rather than launching a fortified attack against the A.R., who I think is right about one way to “miss the point of literature entirely,” and wrong about my having missed it.
I submit to you that those who believe that my article entirely missed the point of literature entirely missed the point of my article, which was not about the literary merit of Fitzgerald’s novel but about what the success of this novel in America might indicate about American culture. It doesn’t matter whether this is a good book or a bad book, Americans have decided that it is a compelling book, one worth reading; and when this many people have found it compelling for this length of time, it also means that it is an important book, that is to say, culturally significant. The point, of course, is not to condemn this cultural significance, but to think about it.
So then, my question was not How Great is Gatsby? or Why does anyone think this is a good book when its story is about such a bad man?—rather, my question was/is What can we learn about a culture who really likes this story? What does it say about American life/values/goals/economics/ethics/&c. that many of us find the story, and as importantly, the man Jay Gatsby, lovable? In other words, what was Fitzgerald saying to/about us in The Great Gatsby and what conclusions can we draw from its success as a cultural phenomenon? The A.R. didn’t quite say what the “entire point” of literature actually is, the one I missed, but I’ll go ahead and say that this seems like it’s a got a decent shot of gaining her/his approval: literature is good/bad insofar as it tells the truth well/poorly about its culture, our way of life. (If this criterion is rejected/refused, I would like to reassure everyone—especially “Gus,” the virtually (in at least two senses of this term) anonymous commenter on Patrol’s website—that I am still giving most of my time and all of my money to educational institutions.)
Thus, I probably agree with the A.R. about the “deeper level of the metaphor that can speak on many levels [mixed metaphor about metaphors and repetitive diction, sic]” and the “symbol of our flawed great country” and the struggle with “personal baggage” and “the weight of our choices” and so on, but that wasn’t what my article was about. You may recall that I acknowledged that there is some very real truth in this novel, and that it’s “true because it’s also in us.” So if you don’t love Jay Gatsby, fine; if you don’t love Leo-D, fine: you probably had a much different experience in the theater than did I. But more important for me is that a lot of Americans are quite enamored by Gatsby, and while fewer were equally enamored by his incarnation into the same body as J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Frank William Abagnale Jr. et al, the point my article was trying to make is that this Gatsby-love reveals something about American culture and humanity-in-general that we, in pretty much all social settings, prefer not to talk about. (And if you’re still not convinced that this is a particularly American problem, or at least that it has a distinctly American variety, I would ask that you please talk to one (1) non-American about America and actually, you know, listen.)
That’s why I did that little thing near the end, though it seems a lot less creative and insightful now, about three relevant “camps” in which people can stand in response to The Great Gatsby: (1) the Cool-Story[-Bro]-But-No-Big-Deal camp, (2) the I-Like-This-Book-But-Don’t-Know-What-To-Do-With-How-It-Makes-Me-Feel camp, and (3) the Cool-Story-But-I-Already-Knew-That camp. My article was primarily for those in camp (1) or (2), but mainly for those in camp (2) because I didn’t do much to make the argument that we’re all selfish and repulsive; I just assumed that you would know we are. Meaning: only those who were already at least somewhat aware of our cultural/human condition would be able to hear what I had to say about it, such that if you don’t think the world is in many ways operating under the rules of self-interested power struggles, you probably will be convinced neither by my article nor by my take on Fitzgerald’s novel, even though I would say that you (those in camp (1)) are most in need of convincing. And I also assumed that that the old cliché, about how good literature works to unsettle the settled and settle the unsettled, is true. If you already believe our culture is selfish and repulsive (camp (3)) and you’re (hopefully) a little troubled by this, Gatsby should settle you: other people believe the world is like this too and find it troubling, so: comfort in numbers/at least you’re not crazy.
But if you’re like me and you want to hope and maybe even believe the world is a good place in which the rules of love and justice have the benefit of the doubt in our social, economic, and political relations then you were probably pretty damn uncomfortable during the movie or the book, or, as the A.R. pointed out, during a lot of what is considered good literature. Because those things which pass for love and for fairness in The Great Gatsby are pretty obviously not love and not that fair, but thereby discomforting because they also pass for love and fairness IRL, here in America. A very important part of aesthetic experiences is the truth that art objects reveal to/in us; and because of this, the point of my article was not to say Man, The Great Gatsby sucks because of its evil protagonist, but instead to uncover again what, as Gatsby had already shown, sucks about us: that there are some bad things about me and you and our world and so it does nobody any good to read this book and not talk about these bad things.
Because one of the most unfortunate things that can happen to us after such aesthetic/ethical experiences is that we simply forget them, that we accept pleasure from their beauty but with nothing more than the memory of said pleasure, we move on. Either to the next art object or the next productive task or whatever else will offer us pleasure. Of course, this only cycles back to my article’s (and, I would argue, much of Fitzgerald’s) point—that we’re selfish and we do things almost entirely for our own pleasure—which is why I wrote the article in the first place (yes: to explain, for my own pleasure, how we all act for our own pleasure). I wanted us to return to those uncomfortable areas that The Great Gatsby made known to us—to sit with them, to absorb them—precisely because it is so easy for us to forget them unless we make such returns intentionally and explicitly.
This is what people in humanities departments call the Affective Functions of texts: what happens to the reader when s/he reads them. I intended the article to be some sort of collective aesthetic-moral exercise in which we reflected on why it felt so easy and normal to love Jay Gatsby and what this ease reveals about me/us/our culture, even though in most settings and forums we prefer to keep those things hidden because they are socially repulsive because socially damaging (if this sounds like a lofty/arrogant reason for writing, I won’t deny it, but only ask you to consider why anyone writes anything). Things like the real reasons behind why we’re in sexual relationships or the motivations behind our getting richer while others get poorer—because if the only time we spend thinking about these things occurs in the isolated instances of aesthetic experience, we have a very limited chance at any sort of improvement.
And so while I’ve probably given the A.R. enough of a hard time already, I’d like to return to what I was saying about the point of literature in general. If the author’s responsibility to good literature is to tell the truth about us, I’d argue that the readers’ responsibility is what we do with it, what we might do in response to this revealed truth, in attempt to correct the wrongs it has identified. My article was simply one such response, an effort aimed at keeping these undesirable truths uncovered and in plain view; because a lot of people have read the book, and maybe felt uncomfortable, and then forgot about it. So while I certainly didn’t provide any resources that can contribute to concrete change, I sought simply to return these truths to our cultural consciousness, so that we might repeatedly face the need to address them, individually and collectively; because only while acknowledging these truths can the beginnings of virtuous change occur. In other words: explicit, nonfiction reflection seems a pretty necessary supplement to fiction w/r/t getting things done. This, I submit, is closer to any “entire point” of literature; and as one that exceeds the limits of the genre it requires additional reflection. Or to say it another way: How Great is Gatsby? Not so great, but the real point to be remembered here is: Neither are we.
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