1. Over at the New York Times, A.O. Scott laments the rife materialism of recent films, focusing on Gatsby, Spring Breakers, and The Bling Ring. Fitzgerald’s message is potent given the flourishing of America’s economy right now amid anxieties from the last few years, but money really didn’t seem to be the main issue. In the movie, on the other hand:
The movie has been faulted, not entirely without justice, for its headlong embrace of the materialism that the novel views with ambivalence. Mr. Luhrmann, though following the book’s plot more or less faithfully, does not offer a stable moral perspective from which the world of its characters can be judged. Rather, he immerses the viewer in a sensual swirl of almost tactile opulence…
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby may be subject to analogous confusion, but Mr. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is something else altogether. The movie’s view (literally, its visual presentation) of American materialism is not moralistic, but pornographic. It traffics in the sheer libidinal pleasure of money and what it can buy.
Of course, lest culture commentators like Scott lose sight of the plank in their own eye, it’s worth remembering that wildly prosperous societies, like Gatbsy’s, don’t engender the desire for money so much as facilitate it – that is, prosperity is just the easiest way for Gatsby to justify himself. Any sort of Us/Them divide on the subject of self-indulgence here doesn’t work, because the same psychology is at work – hence Nick’s morbid fascination with Gatsby, and the vacant eyes of Eckleburg watching over all. Gatsby’s prosperity is only a means to Daisy, and in the work’s great reversal, Daisy herself becomes overshadowed by the green light near her dock – in other words, self-actualization is the real Object here:
Their fellow strivers — which is to say, criminals, opportunists and shortcut seekers — are explicitly buoyed by versions of the American gospel of self-improvement. Daniel Lugo is inspired by a self-help guru whose videos (like “Pain & Gain” itself) are a heady cocktail of hedonistic display and high-minded exhortation: “Be a do-er, not a don’t-er!” One of Lugo’s partners is a devout Christian who does not so much lose his faith as adapt it to the requirements of a way of life that includes cocaine, fornication, torture and attempted murder. One of the most ardent thieves in “The Bling Ring” belongs to a family devoted to the Secret, which promises followers “the Power to have everything you want.”
Jay Gatsby himself, in Fitzgerald’s book (though not in the new movie), was an early practitioner of the discipline of self-actualization. At the end of the novel, his father, Henry C. Gatz, pays a visit to Nick Carraway, bringing a copy of “Hopalong Cassidy” in which young Jimmy Gatz had inscribed some rules for living, including a schedule of useful activities and the instruction to “read one improving book or magazine per week.” “It just shows you,” the elder Gatz says of these notes….
This is how we live: greedily, enviously, superficially, in a state of endless, self-justifying desire. This is the pursuit of happiness, mirrored in the pleasure these movies provide. But go ahead and cry [cf. 2 Cor 7:10].
Dark, but perhaps true. And also a tad curmudgeonly.
2. On a lighter note (ha), The Internet’s hosted an unusually profound discussion about sexual ethics the past few weeks, and we’d be remiss not to mention it here. If The Great Gatsby didn’t offer enough moral/ethical fodder, there’s plenty more on the sex subject. An n+1 article, (way) too explicit to link to here, kicked off the discussion:
What if love fails us? Sexual freedom has now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I have not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with no possibilities except total sexual freedom, I was unhappy. I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention—the pornographers were there by choice—marked the difference between my nihilism and their utopianism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
The implication is partially to question complete laissez-faire on the issue, as decidedly non-religious writers and bloggers have hastily been trying to improvise a ‘sexual ethics.’ In an insightful piece at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf suggests that Kant can give us some guidelines:
Gobry suggests that Emmanuel Kant provides a framework everyone can and should embrace, wherein consent isn’t nearly enough to make a sexual act moral–we must, in addition, treat the people in our sex lives as ends, not means. Here’s how Kant put it: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Does that get us anywhere? A little ways, I think…
The mode [Rod] Dreher more commonly operates in could be summed up as, “Look at this intractable problem through the lens of my experiences. Others disagree deeply for these reasons, but I have found x and y so true in my life, and I’m going show you why.” He and Alan Jacobs both have a talent for showing you what is wonderful and good and quietly exhibiting what it means to them to be practicing Christians in a way that can’t help but make you think, “…there’s got to be something true in this if it’s inspiring him.”
Of course treating people as ends, not means, is laudable and right. But it’s hard not to be skeptical about our ability to do so. Christianity’s ethical approach is an important and valuable part of the conversation, as Freidersdorf recognizes, but in this problem – and the Gatsby one, and many others – grounding the discussion in an accurately low anthropology could shed lots o’ light on the issue.
3. …Which brings us to Mary Karr’s fantastic interview at The Fix, where she talks about getting sober – you know, the kind of real change for the better that we all desire, the hope that lies at the heart of A.O. Scott’s piece on Gatsby, for example. Here’s how it happened with her, in her (incredibly articulate) words:
Q: There’s a notion of your being and celebrating the pistol-packing outlaw—a very Texan lack of adherence to convention—which addicts often resemble. But in recovery, the idea of surrender, of adherence to rules, is something people have to learn. How have you managed?
A: I used to think of it as an adherence to rules, and the really horrible thing about quitting drinking is, I think, inside my mind I was so divided against myself. Nobody really talks about what happens to you and your level of self-confidence when you tell yourself every [single] day you’re going to drink X, and then you drink 10 times that—or you’re not going to drink at all and you drink anyway. You become very split off against yourself. So there was a part of me that would yell and scream and say, “You stupid [person], [come one], you said you weren’t gonna drink and you drank anyway.” And there was this other part that was like “[Don’t listen to] those people! [Don’t listen to] the rules!” you know, blah blah blah…
You assume that when you quit drinking, you’re surrendering to that kind of nasty schoolmarm rule-maker. But for me getting sober has been freedom—freedom from anxiety and freedom from…my head. What has kept me sober is not that strict rule-following schoolmarm. There’s more of a loving presence that you become aware of that is I think everyone’s real, actual self—who we really are.
Blake said, “…we are put on Earth a little space / That we might learn to bear the beams of love.” And I think, quote-unquote, “bearing the beams of love” is where the freedom is, actually. Every drunk is an outlaw, and certainly every artist is. Making amends, to me, is again about freedom. I do that to be free of the past, to not be haunted. That schoolmarm part of me—that hypercritical finger-wagging part of myself that I thought was gonna keep me sober—that was is actually what helped me stay drunk. What keeps you sober is love and connection to something bigger than yourself.
When I got sober, I thought giving up was saying goodbye to all the fun and all the sparkle, and it turned out to be just the opposite. That’s when the sparkle started for me.
Freedom, the giving up of control, “bearing the beams of love” – Karr has about as low a practical anthropology as anyone I’ve ever met, but real hope from something “bigger than yourself.”
5. For a bit more on anthropology, The Harvard Business Review reports, plainspokenly, that You Experience a Silent Rage After Exerting Self-Control:
People who chose an apple over chocolate before selecting a movie were 16% more likely to prefer an anger-themed film, such as Anger Management or Hamlet, than people who selected a movie without having made such a food choice, say David Gal of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Wendy Liu of UC San Diego. This and other experiments suggest that the denial of immediate gratification may give rise to a silent rage: Exerting self-control can also intensify people’s irritation toward controlling messages.
Luther said it before Harvard, but this is an example to which we can all relate. Or maybe apple-eaters just tend to be angrier…
6. “Of course it is happening in your head, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Slate.com reports this week on Harry Potter tourism, which is becoming something of a religion. Kids want to see the real platform nine-and-three-quarters, and why shouldn’t they?
The Harry Potter tourists and devotees seem to understand that the world of Harry Potter is not real, but nor is it quite unreal. Another way to put this is that if you read a book 10 times, it probably is more real than, say, a sandwich you eat without thinking…
The true devotees want to see actual issues of the Daily Prophet; they want to hold wands, to revel in and touch the details of the fantasy world. They resemble nothing so much as pilgrims lining up to see a shred of fabric that may or may not have been worn by the Virgin Mary; they are interested in the bric-a-brac of the Potter universe the way pilgrims are interested in relics. There is some greater hunger that can’t really be explained away by general consumerism and the desire for fantasy brought to life in plastic things. They are in thrall to a deeper desire, a less material need. The more I think about it, the more I think religion offers a better way to understand the powerful, passionate embrace of Harry Potter than the idea of a mere book.
J.K. Rowling’s genius was to create a lush magical world that exists just beneath the surface of the regular, mundane world, which carries on oblivious to its existence. Which is to say implicit in Harry Potter is the idea of slipping through, of stepping in, through a fireplace, through a toilet, through a brick wall at King’s Cross station, through a bright red London phone booth, to the magical world. The portals are beckoning, you just have to find them. It is this tantalizing sense the fanatics are after; the vivid magical world so close you can touch it, just out of reach.
It looks a little over-dramatized and lacking some of the humor/dryness of the book, but young Vardaman’s voiceover sounds awesome:
And finally, coming to a Netflix near you this Sunday (talk about “one-way love”):