Monday, July 23, 2012

# 2 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Foreboding in the Pool

Norma's drowning pull?
Sarah peeks under the pool cover.
If you make your inflatable bed...
Marat: cherub slain by a maiden

Gaius Maecenas is a name that readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby should reckon with for two reasons.

First, Mr. Maecenas (70 BC – 8 BC), a very wealthy, connected Roman politico and “munificent patron of literature,” referenced early in the text as a member of an alliterative triumvirate of lucre ("Midas and Morgan and Maecenas"), is credited as having built the first heated swimming pool. Jay Gatsby died in his own fabulous marble pool, so naturally we look back to the origins of chlorinated currents.

Secondly, he is a name source for a character in Satyricon, written around 61 AD by the Roman author and “party animal” Petronius, one “Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus.” An anonymous scholar noted: “This name…shows how pretentious [the character] is. Gaius is a popular name in the family of the Caesars, Pompeius is the name of a Roman general, Maecenas was the name of the Emperor Augustus’ ‘spin doctor.’” Petronius’s character, a classical representative of the life of superluxury, is commonly known simply as “Trimalchio,” and he so inspired Fitzgerald that he modeled Jay Gatsby after him and even named an early version of the novel, "Trimalchio." Gaius Maecenas is therefore the forebear of Gatsby’s forebear.

By invoking Trimalchio, Fitzgerald was walking in the fresh footsteps of T.S. Eliot. The epigraph of Eliot’s "The Waste Land," published three years before The Great Gatsby, is a quote uttered by Trimalchio while relating the story of the Sibyl, described by a devotee of the poem as “an old, withered, but immortal woman who is tired with life and wants to die…”

In The Waste Land’s first stanza we are presented with another woman’s ominous vision. “Fear death by water,” sniffles Madame Sosostris, the tarot card reader with a cold. This warning gets our associative synapses firing as we imagine Gatsby’s fresh corpse floating on a “pneumatic mattress” in his swimming pool.

John McGuirk explained that Madame Sosostris’s warning is inapt because the purported seeress misunderstands myths and therefore the possibility of rebirth: “Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death.” In the later stanza titled “Death By Water” we read of the recently drowned Phlebas the Phoenician and we again rush for exegesis, in this case furnished by Arwin van Arum: “The majority of interpreters…see Phlebas’ drowning as a death by water that brings no resurrection, although there is a strange sense of peace in the death.”

Not all deaths by water invoke peace, nor do they involve drowning. Some are in fact fearsome and violent. Along with the shooting of Gatsby, we recall the stabbings of Marion Crane while showering in the Bates Motel (in the 1960 movie Psycho), and Jean-Paul Marat while reading in his bathtub (memorialized in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, “La Mort de Marat”).

Hitchcock, with his frantic pace and varied perspectives (cut to Face! cut to knife against torso! cut to silhouetted slasher!), dialed up the victim’s fear and vulnerability—to such an extent that one poll named this the “most nail-biting moment of all-time” in cinema. This death and its ensuing prolonged, clinical clean-up, deprive the criminal Marion Crane of the rebirth or spiritual comfort she may have desired. writes, “She goes to her room and takes a shower, which feels to her like absolution. But it’s too late for that.”

David, in contrast, glorified Marat the victim, whose draped, languid posture and cherubic smile suggest not fear but stoic heroism, even though his death was sudden and at the hands of a stranger, Charlotte Corday. The painter, who had visited Marat just the day before, assigns him a rebirth, according to the Web Gallery of Art: 
“…the most striking element is the arm hanging down lifeless. Thus David has unobtrusively taken over the central image of martyrdom in Christianity to his image of Marat. Revolutionary and anti-religious as the painting of this period claimed to be, it is evident here that it very often had recourse to the iconography and pictorial vocabulary of the religious art of the past.”
Unlike David, who in his painting honored the face and flesh of a close friend, Fitzgerald via Nick Carroway focused on the icon and the dream. Gatsby is noticeably depersonalized through the gospel of his death and burial; the emphasis is on the insufficient mourning. His body is not described.

The novelist is neither a movie director nor a painter. Fitzgerald gives us a kill without the hysteria and immediacy of Hitchcock, and without the sensual adoration of David. We experience the scene in the past tense through Nick’s eyes, memory and pacing. There is the unraveling of the lies in the wake of the accident, the build-up of Wilson’s unhinging and revenge wish, and Nick’s measured but charged vocabulary (“the holocaust was complete”) after finding George Wilson’s body.

Marat was slain by a “cool, gracious, studious maiden”; Crane was offed by a man behaving and dressed as his mother; and Gatsby was done in by a publicly cuckolded, needy widower. Murdering a bather is evidently not a macho deed.

Fitzgerald displays a painterly technique throughout his masterpiece, most obviously through his use of color (white, yellow, green, etc.). In the final image of Gatsby, the slain hero slowly rotates on his mattress as blood traces a circle around him “like the leg of transit.” Nick had circled his train schedule before rushing out to the mansion, foreshadowing this symbolic circling.

Gatsby’s corpse spins because the mattress had bumped into leaves, affirming that it is the first day of autumn, and evoking nature-worshipping concordant with pagan observance. Casie Hermansson wrote of the narrative’s emphasis of Time, “This seasonal calendar is more than just a parallel, however. It is a metaphor for the blooming and blasting of love and of hope, like the flowers so often mentioned.” In his death representation, Gatsby becomes a human water-clock marking the end of youthful exuberance and sexuality, and announcing the season to cease sowing and begin reaping.

As the body turns, we gaze at the water and contemplate related classical imagery. The Mythical Creatures Guide cites Walter Burkert: “The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs is deeply rooted not only in poetry but in belief and ritual; the worship of these deities is limited only by the fact that they are inseparably identified with a specific locality.” The guide adds, “Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs.”

What a nymph gives, a nymph can take away. In Argonautica, the chronicle of Jason and the Argonauts by Appolonius of Rhodes in the 3rd century BCE, there is the tale of Hylas, the beloved, handsome friend of Heracles. Hylas is thirsty, so he is drawn away from his entourage to a pool where he meets a nymph and his fate, as we read at the Online Medieval Classical Library: 
“A water-nymph was just rising from the fair-flowing spring; and the boy she perceived close at hand with the rosy flush of his beauty and sweet grace. For the full moon beaming from the sky smote him. And Cypris made her heart faint, and in her confusion she could scarcely gather her spirit back to her. But as soon as he dipped the pitcher in the stream, leaning to one side, and the brimming water rang loud as it poured against the sounding bronze, straightway she laid her left arm above upon his neck yearning to kiss his tender mouth; and with her right hand she drew down his elbow, and plunged him into the midst of the eddy.”
Sweet terror in this death by water! John William Waterhouse captured the boy’s defenselessness in his 1896 painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, which Ezra Pound called, “Foreboding in the Pool.” By calming the waters and cloning six more fair nymphs, Waterhouse accentuated the erotic allure of the event.

Like the springs of yore, the modern swimming pool has been at times linked with the energy and force of female libido. This is unforgettably demonstrated in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard.

When Joe Gillis arrives at Norma Desmond’s mansion, her swimming pool, like her house and her persona, is a former marvel that is now decrepit. In fact, the pool is filthy and rat-infested. Norma is a withered Sibyl-like figure, unfit to be Joe’s lover because her sexual identity has been neglected and untended for years.

Later, the consummation of their affair is confirmed at the pool, which has been miraculously cleaned and restored. Norma, born again, announces: “I’ve never looked better in my life... Because I’ve never been as happy in my life.” She then towels off Joe and clutches him around the neck from behind. The sinister movement reminds us of Argonautica and the drowning-pull of Waterhouse’s Nymph A. Norma is no longer a Sibyl.

Later still, Joe dies and floats in Norma’s pool and, by association, her dangerously revived perception of herself as a celebrity sex goddess. Like Joe, Jay Gatsby is shot by a mad, spurned lover, though not his own.

The 2003 French film, Swimming Pool, took a few more explicit laps with the motif of an Older Woman and Her Pool. Sarah Morton, a successful English writer, opts to spend a summer at her publisher’s desirable country house in France. When Sarah arrives, the pool is covered with tarp and littered with leaves, and her character’s Dowdy and Uptight Index is at record highs.

This index drops during the film, as the director François Ozon stated in an interview, “As Swimming Pool progresses, Sarah evolves in both her attitudes and her clothes. She blossoms, becoming more feminine and luminous.” The catalyst for Sarah’s metamorphosis from Sybil to nymph is the young, voluptuous and reckless Julie. Her main activity is bathing in and lounging by the water. Watching Julie unsettles Sarah, and one of her coping mechanisms is to painstakingly clean the pool. Ozon elaborated: 
“I’m utilizing the swimming pool for its plasticine quality and also for its enclosed and confining aspect. Contrary to the ocean, a pool is something that you can manipulate. The swimming pool is Julie’s space. The pool is like a cinema screen on which you project things and through which a character enters. It takes a long time before Sarah Morton gets into the swimming pool. She can do it only when Julie becomes her inspiration, and only when the pool is finally clean.”
In view of Sarah Morton and Norma Desmond, we see that an actively used, clean swimming pool connotes a vigorous sex life and nymph-like identity. What about the male Gatsby and his pool? It is notably “unused” the entire summer—Gatsby swims in it for the first time the day after the vehicular manslaughter of Myrtle Wilson, the first day of his loss of Daisy. His swim and his float on the mattress replace an amorous encounter with the woman who dwells across the water.

The tedious 1973 movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford, depicts the murder scene in blinding whites, creating an atmosphere of sterility. Gatsby’s marble swimming pool is not dirty and dingy like Desmond’s, but then he is a young man obsessed with a dream girl, not a faded star dwelling behind curtains. Superficially, his pool resembles Norma Desmond’s as a symbol of Roaring Twenties’ decadence and celebrity, and, because of its non-use and emptiness.

Ah, existential emptiness depicted by a young man floating on a mattress in a plasticine pool—we would be talking now about the 1967 movie The Graduate, right? Incidentally, “plasticine” derives from “plastic,” recalling Mr. McGuire’s one-word career advice for Benjamin Braddock.

Tim Dirks describes Benjamin Braddock as he idles away his summer in both his parent’s pool and in the bedroom with Mrs. Robinson, and he explains how the director Mike Nichols made sure the viewer sees the parallel:

“With a clever transitional device and a montage of images, suggesting the emptiness and joylessness of his life, [Benjamin] walks back and forth transparently between these two pursuits and worlds. He rolls off the raft in the backyard pool, pulls on a white shirt, and enters a doorway to the Braddock home… One of their many sexual contacts is symbolized by his rising up onto a inflatable rubber pool raft (after the dive), inter-cut with his landing on top of Mrs. Robinson in the hotel bed.”
If you make your inflatable bed, you lie in it in more ways than one, like Benjamin and like Gatsby. Benjamin escapes his purgatory of the Pool and Mrs. Robinson, but Gatsby is not so lucky: he succumbs like Joe Gillis and Hylas. Gatsby’s nymph-murderer Daisy is two degrees of separation from the actual shooter, though her action provoked him.

We can only wonder if Mr. Maecenas commissioned a mattress to go with his new creation. We do know that the first swimming pool would have evoked already established conceptions of Life, Death, Rebirth and mainly feminine Sexuality. By the 1920’s, the pool had already attracted connotations of extravagance and celebrity. Its usage, covering and maintenance—and lack thereof—provided powerful imagery for subsequent artists with insights into psychology and astute abilities to press the viewer’s and reader’s button.

In his own death by water, Jay Gatsby participated in and contributed to a long and vibrant tradition of viewing a commonly refreshing recreational activity as something much more complex. The glamorous life is negated, love is lost, and absolution is denied for the hero who was blind to the foreboding in the pool.

See you in the deep end.


The Centathlete said...

There is eloquent praise of Gatsby from Jonathan Yardley, the celebrated reviewer of The Washington Post. His writings on classic novels are readily available online. I sent him a note of admiration and received this reply:

Thanks for the kind words and the link to your blog, which I very much look forward to exploring. Another blogger has done a very nice job of organizing my Second Reading pieces:

Indeed it is a much better job than the Washington Post's Website has done. Sixty of the pieces will be published as a real book on real paper next year by Europa Editions. I'll attach below a piece I wrote when the notorious list was first issued. It may or may not interest you. I've also found a followup I did two weeks later.

Best regards,


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