Our Great Gatsby delusion
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” That’s arguably the most haunting line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best known work, “The Great Gatsby,” pithily capturing the essence of his work, namely the self-destructive perils of romantic nostalgia.
It showed, with unsurpassed vividness drenched in masterful prose, the deadly consequences of untrammeled romanticism — of falling in love with the idea of love, taken to its logical extreme.
As Jay Gatsby insisted with heartening conviction, betraying the beautiful delusion that anchored the glamour of his restless life: “Can’t repeat the past… why of course you can!”
His irrepressible confidence, and the seeming boundlessness of his hope, was not bereft of foundation. Originally named James “Jimmy” Gatz, hailing from the poorest corners of rural America, he was a self-made man in his early 30s who did everything within his power to superimpose opulent dreams of younger years unto a pre-established reality.
He thought he could conquer even time with the sheer force of his ambition.
He purchased a surreal castle, which rivaled Walt Disney’s wildest imaginations, across the luxurious mansion that housed the love of his life, Daisy, a careless and attractive woman who abandoned Gatsby for a wealthy rival. In Gatsby’s heart, however, she never left him, for they were bound together by fate and in eternity.
It was the memory of her love that kept him alive in the trenches of Europe during World War I and, later, propelled him to unimaginable success. He remembered how his “heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own,” and how he “knew that when he kissed this girl” he would “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.”
He recalled their first night together, and how “[a]t his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” As the narrator character, Nick Carraway, put it, “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Every night, Gatsby stretched his hands toward the green light projected from the end of Daisy’s residence, sensing how “his dream [of winning back Daisy] must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” Yet, it was all just a phantasm, which ultimately took his life and exposed the unfathomable cruelty of Daisy’s rekindled infatuation.
But the book is more than just a narrative of self-destructive romanticism. The true kernel of wisdom in Fitzgerald’s work was how it eloquently evinced the tendency of humans for self-deception, which, in those with boundless ambition and
self-confidence, gives way to the mindless pursuit of deadly fantasy.
It’s the false belief in “the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” which “eluded us then, but that’s no matter,” since “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther” until “one fine morning” we achieve our goal.
As American psychologist Jared Defife correctly diagnosed, Gatsby’s greatest tragedy was his inability to overcome two primary traumas, which brought him wealth, power and hope but deprived him of a long life that could have been well lived. He was still young, a magnetic gentleman with so much ahead of him.
The first trauma was shame — the deep insecurities over his originally lowly status that never left him. The second was grief, over losing the love of his life to a wealthy rival, which only reinforced his first trauma. He was trapped in the “trauma loop” forever.
Rather than confronting his traumas head on, Gatsby sublimated them into a mindless drive for accumulation, with the ultimate goal of recapturing a lost past. Fitzgerald’s masterwork is a beautifully crafted narrative about the surreal motivations that drive seemingly earthly ambitions.
“The Great Gatsby” exposed the tendency of modern men and women to grind themselves to the hilt for outward achievements, not knowing that their primary task lies instead in overcoming the demons within.
Ours is a world that constantly feeds our wants, rather than motivating us to find contentment and tranquility from within — the very things that Gatsby tragically overlooked.
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