Sunday, May 12, 2013

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

“All I kept thinking about, over and over, was 'You can't live forever; you can't live forever.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”
― John Winthrop, (1588–1649)

The first time I read The Great Gatsby was in high school and I hated it.

The second time I read The Great Gatsby in college it changed my life. In fact, I recommend reading The Great Gatsby at least once a year, every year. But if for whatever reason you can't or won't do that, then go watch Baz Luhrmann's new film The Great Gatsby instead.  It's that good.

I've been fascinated by reading the official critical reviews, as though the critics could not see themselves in the film. That so many of them could not, or would not, demonstrates all the more that it is true for our culture today that we are indeed repeating the past.

The Great Gatsby is about us.

 Not "them," but us. You can just be human, of course, but it helps especially to be American. Or wish you were American.  But it is about us - a stern warning even as we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

One of the remarkable achievements of Luhrmann's interpretation of The Great Gatsby is that it lifts the prose up, literally sometimes, so it's unmistakable that a crucial component of the story is that it is about words - the power of words. Or the Word. Or what happens when the Word becomes merely a fading billboard advertisement hovering over the edge of town.  It might be glamorous, but it's not pretty.

A bold step that Luhrmann takes is the soundtrack. Fitzgerald's prose is the prose of the Jazz Age, but the jazz of the 1920's may quickly become quaint or nostalgic to today's thumping iPod generation. Fitzgerald's prose and photographic imagery remain steady and timeless and so Luhrmann's unorthodox decision to blend contemporary hiphop with Gershwin's magnificent jazz is brilliant. We are faced at once, as we would be on the page, that Fitzgerald's backdrop is the 1920s Jazz Age, but the story is now. It is always now. It is now more than ever. And one cannot see the film and not see that it is about now.

In that sense, Gatsby is right when he refutes Nick's assertion that we cannot repeat the past.  “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

How was it that trusted banks and investment firms and quasi-federal government corporations were turned into wanton casinos on steroids, burning through credit with lavish lifestyles and exploiting the very people the legislative innovations were designed to help? “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

Long ago in British history, after a long dark age when theatre seemed to disappear entirely from memory, it made a stunning comeback with the introduction of miracle or morality plays.  These plays, reflecting the most extraordinary play of them all - the Eucharist - were meant to affect a response from the audience, just as the Eucharist should.  They weren't merely for entertainment - they were for worship, you anticipated meeting God when you went to see the play.  It could change you.

The Great Gatsby, whether on page or now on screen, may elicit such a response. One of the first surviving British miracle plays was called The Harrowing of Hell.  Wiki tells us that it is about the "triumphant descent of Christ into Hell between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned)."   The Great Gatsby, with it's cast of the damned, is another kind of descent into hell, filled with extravagant opulence, moral decadence, and greed, one that does not lead to resurrection and redemption, but its own protagonist drowned in the pool.  His "greatness" sadly does not save him.

What was lost to me when I read The Great Gatsby the first time was the power of sin - how corruptible sin is even when presented with the best of intentions.  And no one gets off the hook.  God isn't kidding when He tells Moses to write down on the tablet the first commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me."  He's not doing that to be a "spoiled sport," but to save us all from ruin.  Once we fashion our new gods, we are as doomed as Gatsby.

This I learned after reading it the second time.

Gatsby is the American Dream.  He is reinvented.  He is born one way and he reinvents himself another, tapping into cherished American myths.  The parts that aren't true, he makes up.  His reinvention is for a romantic love, but a love that turns to idolatry.  His dream, Daisy, becomes an obsession and he lives in his dream world, even to the end, for his own personal redemption.  His dream is rooted in show, manufactured, materialistic, and yet also idealistic, romantic - indeed, he wants to be faithful, even as he seems oblivious that in order to attain her, Daisy must be unfaithful, a moral failure.

And so is Nick Carraway, the narrator.

I recall when the book was covered in one of my Creative Writing courses in college, that we discussed whether Nick Carraway was a good narrator.  The book triumphs or fails on whether Fitzgerald was right to place his story in the voice of Nick Carraway.  What Nick sees, we see - do we trust his observations?  Is he right about his perceptions of Jay Gatsby?

Nick is outstanding in his characterizations and his storytelling as the narrator of the book, like Chorus in a morality play.  But unlike his predecessors in literature, he is a participant, he, as a character, is a an example that indeed you can repeat the past because you never learned the lessons in the first place - and even if you did, you are powerless to change on your own.

God in this morality play is reduced to gazing over a desolate and morally bankrupt landscape, as Wilson tells us.  A mere advertisement, fading away, watching as the world He created is wounded without redemption.  If this is how we see God, no wonder all hell broke lose on Wall Street.

It is difficult in this age where sin is a byword, where even Christians look for ways to explain the Gospel without mentioning it, to confront what happens to the landscape where there is moral and spiritual decay.  Baz Lurhmann's film opens with a sensational and over-indulgent Gatsby party which almost fools us into thinking that this is any different then the decadence and despair we later see around Wilson and Myrtle's garage.  Glamor and power do not buy redemption - and in fact, invite ruin.

No wonder some critics are oblivious.

It is indeed The Harrowing of Hell - but one absent of Christ. If we want an America where God is merely an advertisement on a billboard, then indeed we will repeat the past.  If you're not sure, go see The Great Gatsby.

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