Western Dualism in The Great Gatsby

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It seems hard to believe in our period, when a three-decade lurch to the political Right has anathematized the word, but F. Scott Fitzgerald once, rather fashionably, believed himself to be a socialist. Some years before, he had also, less fashionably, tried hard to think himself a Catholic. While one hardly associates the characteristic setting of Fitzgerald's novels, his chosen kingdom of the sybaritic fabulous, with either proletarian solidarity or priestly devotions, it will be the argument of this essay that a tension between Left and religiose perspectives structures the very heart of the vision of The Great Gatsby. For while Gatsby offers a detailed social picture of the stresses of an advanced capitalist culture in the early 1920s, it simultaneously encodes its American experience, at key structural moments, within the mitigating precepts of a mystic Western dualism.

Attempting both a sustained close reading of the novel, and the relocation of that reading within wider philosophic and political contexts, this essay will therefore consider the impact of a broad mystical strain of Western thought upon Fitzgerald's political analysis. For while it is a commonplace that Fitzgerald was fascinated, throughout his life, with what is variously conceived as the "ideal," "the Dream," "inspiration," the "visionary," or "Desire," a tradition with which this essay opens, the political uses of the ideal have largely escaped notice. Fitzgerald's excitably visionary sensibility, nourished in high school years by Catholic mysticism, fashioned him into a superbly perceptive critic of the appropriation of human need of the ideal by developments in American capitalism in the 1920s. In response to economic crisis in the early years of this decade, the national advertising media developed and promoted a new cult of glamour, seeking through its allure to create a mass consumer market and revivify the foundering work ethic. Fitzgerald's entrancement by the suggestive power of beauty sensitized him both to the spell and the mendacity of that mass promise: to the cruel contradiction between the fostered impulse of ecstatic outreach and the terminal drudgery in which the many were entrapped, a drudgery ideologically occluded by the national imagery of a "vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" allotted the glamorous few. It sensitized him, too, to the crunch choice, in a polarized yet paralyzed legitimate economy, between poverty and crime.

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