The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies


The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies

The Great Gatsby is a marvelous novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a poet of the 19th Century English Romantic type, for that was the literature that clearly inspired him, as he himself said about his only academic focus during his college education (he being Princeton University’s most accomplished and famous non-graduate).

I was not too impressed with the latest (2013) glitzy movie of the novel, by Baz Luhrmann. Gatsby is so much about the poetic and lyrical use of language to convey emotionally, rather than logically (like my good science reports), the psychological states of the characters of the Gatsby tale.

A plot is always necessary of course, but in literary art it can be a mere skeleton on which to hang the real pulsing flesh of the story. Movies present plot first and foremost. The most artistically refined ones can give a sense of the poetry of experience, but this is not typical. The Baz Luhrmann movie was total Hollywood: big, flashy, loud, bombastic, hyper-realistically unreal, and impatient to blast you with a sensation.

Fitzgerald is just the opposite. Sure, there are big flashy loud extravagant background scenes in the Gatsby story, but they are really like painted backdrop curtains to the stage of the imagination on which the compelling psychologically vibrant interplays and soliloquies that fill the foreground of the tale are spun out by Fitzgerald’s prose. So I think a Hollywood movie, especially one intentionally a “blockbuster,” of the Gatsby story is just far from any art of Fitzgerald’s league, even if it has mass appeal as safe-decadent entertainment.

I suppose it could be possible for someone of the caliber of Jean Renoir to make a Gatsby movie that is much closer to the spirit of what Fitzgerald was striving for with prose, but I don’t think such a film masterpiece would have much appeal to general audiences. So, it would never be made because who in the movie business would put up the money to make a supremely artistic, psychologically subtle, and lyrical sure-fire flop?

Every movie of a novel is always a set of excerpts strung together as the filmmaker’s interpretation, or rip-off, of the novel. Can’t be helped. Douglas Sirk (the German director who made iconic 1950s American melodrama pictures with Rock Hudson) said that it was easier to make a good movie from a defective or second-rate novel, because the moviemakers (director and screen writers) could patch and fill the given story as they thought best to arrive at an integrated product that worked well as a mass-market movie. Really good novels had everything about the characters’s make-up and plot factors all tightly wrapped up “perfectly,” so there was no room to adjust the story to make for a popular movie without also degrading the quality of that story. It’s the old “the movie is not like the book.”

Some novels are too good to make equally good movies of. Catcher In The Rye is one, and its author, J. D. Salinger, refused to sell the film rights to any of his novels because he could only see movie versions degrading what he had produced for readers. The ideal prose-to-movie process (for both good prose and a good movie) would be having a superb writer craft tales specifically intended for being made into movies, where that writer was also a superb moviemaker, and who would make the film.

Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was such a writer-moviemaker. Serling had many beautiful turns of phrase flowing out of his commentary on his Twilight Zone episodes on TV, and mixed into the dialog of the characters in his stories. But Serling’s stories only spun on for 25 minutes (half hour shows) or 50 minutes (hour shows).

Fitzgerald’s novels have much longer and interwoven thematic arcs, and were meant to be absorbed by a reader over many, many hours, probably over the course of days, weeks. Fitzgerald really wrote for pre-TV even pre-movie 19th century hopeful young American minds (like his), but who had lived through the consciousness-shattering experiences and devastating losses of WWI, and were now making their way through the chaotically fragmenting 1920s, maybe sometimes crazy happy times but with many disappointments for most, since most were not rich and would never get to be.

So, I just don’t see how any movie can capture The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald’s incredible, incredible second masterpiece Tender Is The Night. In my daydream of being a great screenwriter and movie director, I would do the impossible and make a lush compelling epic of Tender Is The Night, something with the cinematic scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and the psychological clarity and depth of Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.

Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann’s movie (which I did watch attentively) is the reaction of a reader (instead of a non-reading movie fan) who was enchanted by the spell of Fitzgerald’s poetic and yet amazingly economical outpouring of prose that transmits the deep feeling of the Gatsby tale. I see little subtlety and glaring falsities in, and feel much bombast from the movie. You just fall so deeply into the story as told by Fitzgerald, especially with Nick Carraway as your guide into the lower psychological depths, but you are pushed back so hard and pocked with shrapnel by Luhrmann’s movie. It’s obvious that the brassy blare is what makes the movie “successful,” but that success is the exact opposite of what Fitzgerald gave us. (Yes, the movie would have to have been made by the Jean Renoir of La Grande Illusion and La Règle de Jeu.)

The Gatsby story is about the losses of optimistic illusions about American life and about romantic ideals, and then about attempted nobility failing at life while rich crass ignorance and bigotry triumph in the way parasites triumph by degrading the totality of the lives hosting them. Tom Buchanan is Trump, and Daisy Buchanan then as now is an airhead (not a shrewd careerist Melania), a simple pretty nonentity that has no intellectual depth but is pleasant to look and talk with, and on whom the love, longings and life ambitions of a driven man can be projected as movie myth is projected onto a silver screen and appear to shimmer with magical promise. That may be the most cinematic aspect of the novel, Daisy as a metaphor of the movies, magic by optical illusion and without any substance at all, which if believed in without reservation draws naïve optimistic romanticism to its actual doom.

Well, so much for my babble about Gatsby and movie attempts at Gatsby. As Peter Byrne has told me: “Never judge a book by its movie.”


Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?

Louis Proyect writes: “I understand the reluctance to put a plus where Trump does, but this article [“How New Jersey’s First Coronavirus Patient Survived,” in the New York Times, ~3 April 2020] indicates that a doctor who was close to death had a miraculous recovery after receiving Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine.”

Remdesivir ( “Remdesivir (development code GS-5734) is a novel antiviral drug in the class of nucleotide analogs. Remdesivir is an adenosine analogue, which incorporates into nascent viral RNA chains and causes their pre-mature termination. It was developed by Gilead Sciences as a treatment for Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus infections, though it subsequently was found to show antiviral activity against other single stranded RNA viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus, Junin virus, Lassa fever virus, Nipah virus, Hendra virus, and the coronaviruses (including MERS and SARS viruses). It is being studied for SARS-CoV-2 and Henipavirus infections. Based on success against other coronavirus infections, Gilead provided remdesivir to physicians who treated an American patient in Snohomish County, Washington in 2020, who was infected with SARS-CoV-2, and is providing the compound to China to conduct a pair of trials in infected individuals with and without severe symptoms.”

Hydroxychloroquine ( “Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), sold under the brand name Plaquenil among others, is a medication used to prevent and treat malaria in areas where malaria remains sensitive to chloroquine. Other uses include treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and porphyria cutanea tarda. It is taken by mouth. It is also being studied as an experimental treatment for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Common side effects include vomiting, headache, changes in vision, and muscle weakness. Severe side effects may include allergic reactions. Although all risk cannot be excluded, it remains a treatment for rheumatic disease during pregnancy. Hydroxychloroquine is in the antimalarial and 4-aminoquinoline families of medication. Hydroxychloroquine was approved for medical use in the United States in 1955. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, the safest and most effective medicines needed in a health system. In 2017, it was the 128th-most-prescribed medication in the United States, with more than five million prescriptions.”

My CONJECTURE (a non-medical person’s hypothesis) is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus (causing COVID-19) may act in a somewhat similar manner to the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). If so, this hypothetical (and likely only partial) similarity might lead some doctors treating critically ill COVID-19 patients to administer the drug combination of: the antiviral drug Remdesivir to reduce the viral load, and the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine to buttress the patient’s immune system, which is assumed to be in a pre-existing weakened condition.

My following description of the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) and its several disease-causing effects are drawn from the book The Invisible Invaders, Viruses And The Scientists Who Pursue Them, by Peter Radetsky, (published by Little, Brown and Company, 1991, 1994). Passages quoted from that book are woven into my interpretive discussion, below.

Bone marrow produces a number of kinds of blood cells, including “the B and T lymphocytes, which comprise an essential part of the immune system. Without these disease-fighting cells [we] couldn’t fend off the mildest infection; something as insignificant as the common cold could kill [us].”

The Epstein-Barr Virus is ubiquitous in people (~95%), it invades B lymphocyte cells, but is usually held in check by the human immune system, which produce antibodies to eliminate EBV-infected B lymphocyte cells.

In poor regions with primitive and/or inadequate hygiene (e.g., parts of Africa) children are exposed to EBV early in life (3-4 years) and may only get a mild ‘childhood’ disease of sore throat, cough and flu-like symptoms for a few days, and that’s all. “For some reason, whether because of the immaturity of their B lymphocytes (the cells the Epstein-Barr virus invades) or the immaturity of their immune system as a whole, [most of these] children infected with EBV rarely come down with any kind of obvious illness.” (The EXCEPTION to this will be described further below.) Thereafter, these minimally affected and now recovered children have antibodies to EBV.

In the developed and generally very hygienic countries, children may not be exposed to EBV until much later: adolescence and early adulthood. “But when the virus invades later, the result is usually more severe: a case of mononucleosis. In causing a more serious illness in older people, EBV acts much like other viruses, hepatitis and poliovirus among them. The reason may be that in older individuals the immune system responds inappropriately to infection. In any case, as far as EBV is concerned, at least half of the people belatedly infected with EBV experience significant illness.”

“Mononucleosis is a disease in which blood cells proliferate out of control. Here [is] a virus, EBV, that was first detected in cancer tumors [Burkitt’s lymphoma], and now [has been shown] to be intimately involved in mononucleosis, a common cancer-like disease… Mononucleosis is essentially a disease of developed countries.”

Now for the EXCEPTION.

Denis Burkitt, a Scottish surgeon and physician practicing in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, first identified the cancer “Burkitt’s lymphoma” in African children, by engaging in a massive study and expedition between 1957 and 1961. In 1963, EBV was isolated by M. Anthony Epstein and Yvonne Barr from specimen tumors sent by Burkitt to London in 1961. If so many African children were exposed to EBV as toddlers with little consequence (and certainly no mononucleosis in early adulthood), why did some of those children develop the specific cancer of Burkitt’s lymphoma?

Obviously, the fundamental factor that can lead to Burkitt’s lymphoma is exposure to and infection by EBV.

The first necessary co-factor to developing Burkitt’s lymphoma is having “been exposed to an unusually heavy dose of the [EBV] virus.”

The second necessary co-factor to developing Burkitt’s lymphoma is “a weakened immune system.”

“It has been suggested…that Burkitt’s lymphoma arises as a result of immunological disorders in children exposed since early infancy to heavy malarial infection.” [Guy de Thé, 1978].

The fact that infection with EBV in an individual with a weak immune system can lead to cancer was proved by the case of David, “The Bubble Boy.” David was born with no immune system and lived in the sterile interior of a plastic bubble (a tent). In 1983, he was given a bone marrow transplant from his healthy sister, but he died in 1984 at the age of 12. The cause of death was cancer, “the B cells that David had obtained through the bone marrow transplant had run amok. He died of cancer of the B lymphocytes, with tumors similar to Burkitt’s lymphoma. All the cancer cells contained Epstein-Barr virus. [David’s] sister had at some point been exposed without harm to EBV; she passed on this otherwise harmless dose to David through her bone marrow.”

Epstein-Barr virus causes a very broad stimulation of B-cell growth. Out of that a tumor can develop if given “some kind of other agent that compromises the immune system… In the case of Burkitt’s lymphoma, that agent is almost certainly malaria.”

Guy de Thé [1984]: “We know that very early viral infection can lead to Burkitt’s lymphoma. It’s a situation exactly like [that of] cigarette smoking and lung cancer. You don’t fully understand the mechanism, but you can measure the risk. Very heavy and early exposure to EBV is as though you were smoking all your life, two packs a day. Then malaria enters at the second level, by promoting further proliferation of the B cells infected with EBV. We’re all infected by EBV, but nothing happens to most of us because our immune system controls the infected B cells. Malaria specifically depresses the part of the immune system whose job it is to control the B cells. And after that, something, possibly a chance event, induced by nobody knows what, causes a change in chromosomes that transforms the cell into a tumor cell.”

Now, recall the CONJECTURE. Hypothetically, a similarity of causes exists between:

— the cause of serious COVID-19 illness and death (by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, plus an assumed immunodeficiency co-factor), and

— the cause of Burkitt’s lymphoma, as well David “Bubble Boy’s” cancer of the B lymphocytes (by the Epstein-Barr virus, plus an immunodeficiency co-factor; which for Burkitt’s lymphoma is malaria, and for David was a complete lack of an immune system).

Some doctors working under the stress of trying to save dying people during the explosive growth of this current COVID-19 pandemic, and who may have made conjectures about causes similar to the one stated here, arrived at the drug cocktail of:

— Remdesivir, to try a direct reduction the SARS-CoV-2 viral load in the patient’s respiratory tissues; and

— Hydroxychloroquine, to buttress an assumed immunodeficiency — as with malaria — of inadequate control of B lymphocyte cells presumably infected with the virus.

So much for my amateur speculations on the Remdesivir plus Hydroxychloroquine cocktail administered to some COVID-19 patients.

What I can see clearly as fact is that doctors and virologists are in a frantic race against death (within days to a couple of weeks for the unlucky patients), to save as many COVID-19 stricken as they can, while yet having incomplete knowledge about the mechanism, and its unknown associated co-factors, by which the SARS-CoV-2 virus actually causes fatalities. Also, they are simultaneously trying to ascertain the details of both the progression of infection and the nature of all associated co-factors that aggravate the disease to the point of fatality, so as to then be able to design drugs that cure COVID-19, and vaccines that can prevent people from developing the disease if exposed to the virus.

Both as individuals and as a society we should be very grateful to the medical people working so furiously — and for many at great personal risk — on COVID-19 today, and on all the as yet little-known and untamed viruses that might infect us in the future; and we should support their work fully (politically and financially) as a matter of public health national policy. “Public” as in Medicare-For-All, and as in drug and vaccine development that is as much a publicly funded and owned service, rather than only a for-profit exploitation of human need by a mercenary pharmaceutical industry.

Acknowledgement: I want to thank Gretchen Hennig for giving me a copy of Radetsky’s book, and for explaining the concept of “viral load” to me.


From Caesar’s Last Breath To Ours

After the career: books donated in 2019.


From Caesar’s Last Breath To Ours

Human Life is a sexually transmitted planetary disease, Climate Change is the disinfectant that will cure it. (I’ll explain myself on this later.)

Sam Kean’s concluding 5 paragraphs, on CO2 in the atmosphere, from his book Caesar’s Last Breath (And Other True Tales of History, Science, and the Sextillions of Molecules in the Air Around Us, 2017, Back Bay Books, Little Brown & Co) are interesting, being a series of statements of long-known physical quantities. Since I studied “gas physics” for my graduate studies (in the 1970s), and I developed an interest in climate change at least by 2004 (when I published my first article on climate change), I’ve known the basic facts Kean commented on for quite some time.

In one of my technical books on gas physics (Introduction to Physical Gas Dynamics, by Walter G. Vincenti and Charles H. Kruger, 1965, John Wiley & Sons, NY) an example is given in which the authors illustrate the physical phenomena of gaseous diffusion by showing that the last breath expelled by Julius Caeser will have taken years to fully disperse in a homogenous manner throughout the earth’s atmosphere, and so each person ‘today’ would likely breath in, on average, 5 molecules of that last breath. One amazing feature of the example is that it shows just how many molecules there are in each cubic meter of air (at sea level and ‘normal’ temperature), 2.69×10^25 per meter^3 = 2.69×10^19 per cm^3. Vincenti and Kruger quote the following from James Jeans’ 1940 book An Introduction to the Kinetic Theory of Gases (Cambridge University Press):

“…, a man is known to breath out about 400 c.c. of air at each breath, so that a single breath of air must contain about 10^22 molecules. The whole atmosphere of the earth consists of about 10^44 molecules. Thus one molecule bears the same relation to a breath of air as the latter does to the whole atmosphere of the earth. If we assume that the last breath of, say, Julius Caesar has by now become thoroughly scattered through the atmosphere, then the chances are that each of us inhales one molecule of it with every breath we take. A man’s lungs hold about 2000 c.c. of air, so that the chances are that in the lungs of each of us there are about five molecules from the last breath of Julius Caesar.”

The average spacing between air molecules (at sea level, or “standard temperature and pressure” = STP) is about 3.3×10^-7 centimeters. Since air molecules travel at an average speed of 5×10^4 centimeters/second (at STP), and each such molecule travels an average distance of 6×10^-6 centimeters before colliding into another molecule (obviously whizzing by many others between collisions), the frequency of collisions per molecule is about 10^10 collisions/second, or about 10 collisions per nanosecond.

Each such collision will deflect the colliding molecules into new directions of travel, so it can take them a very long time to actually transport from Point A to Point B separated by global distances. One number bandied about by commentators on climate change (who at least halfway know what they’re talking about) is that it takes “30 years” for local CO2 emissions to begin having a “global effect” as part of global warming. This is basically the timescale of atmospheric homogenization by diffusion of the locally emitted plumes, because of course the individual CO2 molecules of such plumes are quite ready to absorb infrared radiation, and lose it as heat released to other air molecules during collisions (the actual mechanics of global warming) from the instant those CO2 molecules are formed.

A different indicator of atmospheric trace gas homogenization is that a uniform (independent of geographical location) quantity per unit mass of radioactive fallout absorption/take-up by trees was first measured (recently, from tree corings) to have occurred in late 1965. Radioactive fallout was first created in 1945, and the greatest number of atmospheric (and any) nuclear explosions, by far, occurred in 1962. Some geologists have now proposed labeling the beginning of the Anthropocene from late 1965, and calling that year the end of the Holocene (which is/was the current geological epoch, which began with the last glacial period/retreat approximately 11,650 years ago). “Anthropocene” because it is the first epoch in which human activity (anthropo) has a global geophysical impact; such impacts being worldwide nuclear fallout (as in the 1957 book and 1959 movie On The Beach), and anthropogenic CO2/greenhouse gas-driven global warming.

When I first wrote about global warming/climate change, it was out of this perspective as a gas physicist trying to explain the technical details to a lay audience. I soon learned that the audience was not only laying, but snoring. I was trying to prod “people” into action to forestall climate change by “greening” energy technology, since I was also an engineer focused on “energy” and “efficiency.” Plus I was hoping a huge public shift in this direction would open up some nice ($$$) job opportunities for me. But the snoozing audience just wants consumerism at the lowest common denominator level, and the Big Bosses just want bombs (and money for themselves). So no sweet high-tech green-physics job for me, but more firepower for the ‘criminalated’ psychopaths who are our guiding self-worshipping self-imagined Olympians, more gargantuan Black Friday tsunamis of electro-plastic garbage consumerism for the ‘amnesiatariat,’ and as a result giga-tons more carbonation of the atmosphere and acidification of the seas, and less viability for our planet with its growing human population.

Since “the human element” (mental inertia, ego, tribalism) always controls and limits the actualization of any technical enterprise by a group of people — like greening away from fossil fuels — it was quickly obvious to me that though most “solar energy” technologies were ancient and well-understood “we” were not going to give up fossil fuel convenience, wealth-generation and enablement-of-political-power in favor of green energy, and so consequently global warming could only increase. And it has, and will. So I write about climate change “for the art of it” and for personal satisfaction, in particular to put my views “on the record” for my children. But I can only fantasize, without belief, that such writing will have any practical political effect — of course I’d like it to, but I’m a realist. Happily, it’s always nice to hear every now and then from someone who already agrees with my views, that something I’ve written has given them some encouragement.

And that is where the arc of my climate change consciousness — from the science to our society — has brought me to today: human connection. Given that fossil fueled humanity is intransigent, and now the advance of climate change is implacable (“tipping points”), I see the best focus for most people’s limited energies beyond their immediate survival and family needs to be the developing of a consciousness of climate change and political reality, and a commitment to acting toward others at a minimum with benign neutrality and better yet with compassion, honesty and solidarity, so human society is generally improved and economically more leveled, regardless of the geophysical conditions under which it exists at any given time. For a society that is as deeply humane as I’ve suggested (and vastly different than today’s) then if and when we really do enter a rapidly accelerating “end time” our individual exits would be as decently humane as possible because they would be occurring within a societal death-with-dignity of a society of broad solidarity. I suppose this is kind of glum thinking, but maybe that’s an inevitable result of my growing ‘old’ in these times.

All this has been a rather prolix introduction to a video about climate change I thought you might enjoy. The Age Of Stupid is a 90 minute British documentary from 2009 (five years in the making) that remains brilliantly cogent about the “human element” driving the climate change geophysics, and is also refreshingly accurate about the physical details of that geophysics. [1] The Age Of Stupid Revisited is a 15 minute look back on the original documentary, from today. [2] Nothing has changed for the better; for the worse yes. Reflecting on this documentary, on the arc of my climate change consciousness, and on my belief (which I wish future reality would contradict) that there will never be any significant collective action to stop anthropo-exacerbation of climate change, and to also end poverty and to economically level national and world societies, I arrived at the rather tart characterization that: human life is a sexually transmitted planetary disease, and climate change is the disinfectant that will cure it.


[1] The Age of Stupid

[2] The Age of Stupid revisited: what’s changed on climate change?
15 March 2019


Criminalated Warmongers

Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn (20 June 1909 – 14 October 1959)

The Dawn Patrol is a 1938 film about British World War I fighter pilots, roistering and dying in an aerial war of attrition in France with their German counterparts. It was directed by Edmund Goulding from a screenplay written by Seton I. Miller and Dan Totheroh, which was adapted from a story by John Monk Saunders. The film starred Errol Flynn (Captain Courtney), Basil Rathbone (Major Brand), David Niven (Scott), Donald Crisp (Phipps), and Morton Lowry (Donnie Scott), and was produced by the Warner Brothers Studio as a remake of their earlier 1930 film of the same story.

The film features wonderful aerial combat sequences, filmed in 1930 with real and old World War I fighter planes, and with additional realistic scenes of action in the air and on the ground filmed in 1938. This film has no female characters at all, which was also true of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, also a World War I spectacle.

While ostensibly an action picture set in wartime, with the riotous camaraderie among young, enthusiastic, free-spirited, gung-ho, fun-loving and serially drunk air aces, The Dawn Patrol unfolds as an increasingly grim and unrelenting Greek tragedy of the loss of human connections and human lives into the maw of a vast industrialized plague of mechanized warfare. I think this film reflected the end of the period of unanimous American antiwar isolationist sentiment prior to World War II (1939-1945), which was most vividly reflected by the 1930 film All Quiet On The Western Front, which was based on Erich Maria Remarque’s incredible and timeless 1929 book of that title.

The Dawn Patrol is an excellently made film, it never drags as the sequence of scenes, whether action-packed, comedic, tense or reflective, flow smoothly across the viewing screen to present us with the braided threads of the story.

To my mind the gem among these scenes is one where Errol Flynn, as Squadron Commander Captain Courtney, is speaking privately with a fresh replacement pilot with no combat experience, Lieutenant Donnie Scott, played by Morton Lowry. Captain Courtney is welcoming this new man into the squadron, and giving him a feeling of full inclusion into the camaraderie of his fighter pilot group, before Donnie Scott’s first mission the next day, which will also sadly be Donnie’s last as we learn later. Courtney’s little speech is quiet, warm, personal, friend-to-friend and bracingly honest about the war, instead of being officious, patriotic and militaristic, from a superior to a junior officer. Courtney tells Donnie that:

The war is “a great big noisy rather stupid game that doesn’t make any sense at all. None of us know what it’s all about or why. Here we are going at it hammer and tongs, and I bet you those fellows over there feel exactly the same way about it, the enemy… Then one day I suppose it will all end as suddenly as it began. We’ll go home till some other bunch of criminalated sitting around a large table shoves us into another war and we go at it again… Do you remember my father used to be a professor of biology at Queen’s? He always used to say: man is a savage animal who periodically to relieve his nervous tension tries to destroy himself.”

When I first heard this monologue, I heard “criminal idiots” for “criminalated.” But over many repeated listenings to the recorded monologue, I could only hear 5 syllables as in “criminalated” and not 6 as in “criminal idiots.” Is “criminalated” an English word that has fallen into disuse, or is perhaps archaic?

In the trailer to The Dawn Patrol, which includes a part of this scene, one clearly hears “criminal fools,” which would be logically appropriate but is only 4 syllables. In the actual film itself the recorded speech of that scene contains the 5 syllable word which I can only decode as “criminalated.” This is true on 2 separate DVDs issued by Warner Brothers, one of the complete movie, The Dawn Patrol, and one of a documentary on Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Errol Flynn, which includes this entire scene.

Through the wonders of the Internet I learned that “criminalated” appears in the text of The Enchanceried House, a short story for juvenile readers written by Edith Nesbit (1858-1924), and included in her 1905 book Oswald Bastable and Others. One of the features of Nesbit’s stories was the misconstruction of words spoken seriously by the fictional boy Oswald Bastable, for a comedic effect on the reader. “Criminalated” appears as follows:

“No English gentleman tells a lie — Oswald knows that, of course. But an English gentleman is not obliged to criminalate himself. The rules of honor and the laws of your country are very puzzling and contradictory.”

We can imagine that Donnie Scott was born in 1897, and as an 8-year-old in 1905 read The Enchanceried House. So, in 1915 as an 18-year-old hearing from superior officer Captain Courtney, probably four years older at 22, about the meaning of World War I, that Courtney would characterize the criminality of the perpetrators of the catastrophe that would engulf them both, by using a childhood and childish reference — “criminalated” — to belittle the remote statesmen who blundered Europe into that early 20th century effort of man to destroy himself.

Men and women filmgoers in their 40s in 1938, who had read and remembered Oswald Bastable stories, could easily have recognized the “criminalated” reference in Captain Courtney’s monologue to Donnie Scott. If so, it would have given the scene added poignancy for them, since it would cast the tragedy of World War I fighter pilot deaths as a meaningless sacrifice of children.

In 1938, when Errol Flynn gave one of his best performances in The Dawn Patrol, his biologist father, Theodore Thomson Flynn, served as the Chair of Zoology at Queen’s University of Belfast. It seems Flynn’s script included a reference to his real father-son relationship, as an inside joke.

Regardless of whether one hears “criminalated,” “criminal fools” or “criminal idiots,” the accuracy of Captain Courtney’s description of the futility and criminality of World War I is indisputable. This is a gem of antiwar expression that remains relevant to the present day, within a fundamentally antiwar film that connects with its mass audience as an exciting aviation action cinema entertainment.

World War I, “the war to end all wars” lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. It ended 101 years ago today.

The Dawn Patrol (1938 film)

The Dawn Patrol (1938)

The Dawn Patrol — Trailer

“But an English gentleman is not obliged to criminalate himself.”

High Germany
25 February 2018


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lyrical Aviator

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry, simply known as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (29 June 1900 – 31 July 1944), was a French writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist and pioneering aviator. He became a laureate of several of France’s highest literary awards and also won the United States National Book Award. He is best remembered for his novella The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) and for his lyrical aviation writings, including Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight.

Saint-Exupéry was a successful commercial pilot before World War II, working airmail routes in Europe, Africa and South America. At the outbreak of war, he joined the French Air Force (Armée de l’Air), flying reconnaissance missions until France’s armistice with Germany in 1940. After being demobilised from the French Air Force, he travelled to the United States to help persuade its government to enter the war against Nazi Germany. Following a 27-month hiatus in North America, during which he wrote three of his most important works, he joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa, although he was far past the maximum age for such pilots and in declining health. He disappeared and is believed to have died while on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944.

Prior to the war, Saint-Exupéry had achieved fame in France as an aviator. His literary works – among them The Little Prince, translated into 300 languages and dialects – posthumously boosted his stature to national hero status in France. He earned further widespread recognition with international translations of his other works. His 1939 philosophical memoir Terre des hommes (titled Wind, Sand and Stars in English) became the name of an international humanitarian group; it was also used to create the central theme of the most successful world’s fair of the 20th century, Expo 67 in Montreal, Quebec. Saint-Exupéry’s birthplace, Lyon, has also named its main airport after him.

The above three paragraphs (out of many more) are from:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince, published in 1943, is estimated to be the 3rd best-selling book ever, with 140 million copies sold.

List of best-selling books

Today’s blog post was motivated by my reading of Wind, Sand and Stars, a book described as follows:

Wind, Sand and Stars (French title: Terre des hommes, literally “Land of Men”) is a memoir by the French aristocrat aviator-writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and a winner of several literary awards. It deals with themes such as friendship, death, heroism, and solidarity among colleagues, and illustrates the author’s opinions of what makes life worth living. It was first published in France in February 1939, and was then translated by Lewis Galantière and published in English by Reynal and Hitchcock in the United States later the same year.

in the wikipedia article about it:

Wind, Sand and Stars,_Sand_and_Stars

It is an excellent book. My copy is a 222 page book published by Time-Life Books in 1965, with a preface by “The Editors of Time,” an introduction by Pierre Clostermann (a leading Free French fighter-plane pilot of World War II, who was also a member of the French National Assembly), and the 10 chapters of Saint-Exupéry’s English language version of his book Terres des hommes. Those chapters are titled: The Craft, The Men, The Tool, The Elements, The Plane and the Planet, Oasis, Men of the Desert, Prisoner of the Sand, Barcelona and Madrid (1936), Conclusion.

Chapter 2, The Men, is about the pioneering long-distance air-mail flights (over the Sahara Desert, the Atlantic Ocean and Andes Mountains), exploits, crashes and survival epics of two French aviators active in the 1920s and 1930s, Mermoz, and Guillaumet. Besides being entirely captivated by the romance and adventure of early mechanized flight, they were also entirely committed to expanding the reach of aviation to advance the development of human civilization.

Chapters 6, 7 and 8, Oasis, Men of the Desert, Prisoner of the Sand, involve numerous recollections of Saint-Exupéry’s three years flying over the Sahara, of being stationed at remote desert outposts, and in Prisoner of the Sand (the central story of the book) of crashing in the Libyan Desert and nearly dying of thirst during a four day ordeal of hallucinatory trekking, along with his mechanic Prévot.

Chapter 9, Barcelona and Madrid (1936), is a fascinating eye-witness account of Saint-Exupéry’s time in Republican Spain during the first year of its Civil War, getting close to the fighting, and trying to understand the willingness of simple people to voluntarily risk (and sacrifice) their lives in very sketchy, under-equipped and under-manned operations for the defense of the Republic.

An excellent photo-essay about the Prisoner of the Sand airplane crash, and struggle of human survival, is given at:

29 December 1935: Wind, Sand and Stars
[Saint-Exupéry’s desert crash in the Simoun airplane]

The author of the above blog, This Day In Aviation (which is excellent for its topic), Bryan Swopes, has also posted a nice summary (with numerous photos) of Saint-Exupéry’s life;

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (29 June 1900–31 July 1944)
[nice summary, with photos]

Saint-Exupéry’s 1935 Prisoner of the Sand experience was the inspiration for his story 8 years later, The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry’s writing has more of a lyrical-philosophical nature than of a thriller adventure story of the kind adolescent boys (including me) and B-movie producers love. But those more thoughtful musings on the human condition, and on the interactions of strangers from vastly different cultures in the much wider and less-connected world of the 1930s, arose out of Saint-Exupéry’s immersion in the professional life of a remote-country and endurance-flight aviator, and have been the compelling draw to his many aviator-readers worldwide for over 80 years. And one needn’t be an aviator to also fall under the spell of their elegance.

Despite his age and less than ideal health during World War II, Saint-Exupéry managed to gain an assignment with the Free French Air Force as a pilot, flying a F-5B-1-LO unarmed photo-reconnaissance variant of the Lockheed P-38J Lightning twin-engine fighter. On 31 July 1944 he took off from his base on the island of Corsica for a mission in the Rhône Valley. He was never seen again. “In 1998 a fisherman found his silver identity bracelet on the sea floor south of Marseilles. Parts of the aircraft were recovered in 2003.” Bryan Swopes summarizes that day in his brief photo-essay:

31 July 1944
[Saint-Exupéry’s loss in his P-38]

As a mechanical device, the P-38 Lightning was a beautiful thing from the perspective of form-following-function, that function being aerial performance. But, sadly, the purpose for that function was to be a tool of war, a killing machine; and from today’s greater appreciation of green energy and the understanding of global warming, the P-38 and all its war-plane kin, past and present, are terribly wasteful carbon polluters relative to the few people they carry and the destructive uses they are put to. Aside from these regrettable realities, I think the P-38 has beautiful lines from every perspective, and I can imagine the exhilarating experience of flying one.

Was Saint-Exupéry shot down on 31 July 1944, or did he experience a fatal mechanical failure? Hard to say, conclusive evidence either way is lacking. Records of Luftwaffe (the air force branch of the German Wehrmacht military forces) operations for southern France at that time are lacking due to their wartime destruction, and the debris patch of Saint-Exupéry’s P-38 is long and wide, and the pieces mostly all quite small, implying a high speed impact on the water. The highly fragmented nature of the debris, along with its corroded state after over 60 years on the sea floor, has made it impossible to detect any bullet holes that one would suppose to exist if a Luffewaffe fighter-plane had shot down Saint-Exupéry’s P-38.

Saint-Exupéry expressed his ethos this way, on pages 126-127, in Prisoner of the Sand, in my edition of Wind, Sand and Stars:

My world was the world of flight. Already I could feel the oncoming night within which I should be enclosed as in the precincts of a temple — enclosed in the temple of night for the accomplishment of secret rites and absorption in inviolable contemplation.

Already this profane world was beginning to fade out: soon it would vanish altogether. This landscape was still laved in golden sunlight, but already something was evaporating out of it. I know nothing, nothing in the world, equal to the wonder of nightfall in the air.

Those who have been enthralled by the witchery of flying will know what I mean — and I do not speak of men who, among other sports, enjoy taking a turn in a plane. I speak of those who fly professionally and have sacrificed much to their craft. Mermoz said once, “It’s worth it, it’s worth the final smash-up.”

An artist’s impression of Saint-Exupéry’s last flight.





The red arm of the doomed American Indian
in his death-gasp
nailed the harassing American Eagle to the cross
at mast-top of the sinking Ship-of-State,
hull stoved-in
by unconquerable purity of majestic Immensity,
the pulse of Nature
that had been so monomaniacally pursued,
a blind raging exterminating profiteering quest
to capture, kill, and boil down its essence
for liquid fuel
burning in that self-annihilating hunt’s engine
only to be quenched out steaming
by the precipitous plunge into cold finality
of eternally billowing oblivion
in whose dark depths Nature ranges free.

One chastened orphaned wanderer
vomited out of the deep illusory unconscious
by random pity,
buoyed uncoffined by lost despair,
drifts beyond prophesy he now knows
will ever be unheeded
and yet fulfilled.

7 August 2019



Happy 200th, Herman!

Herman Melville, 1870


Happy 200th, Herman!

The first of August 2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick or, the Whale (1851), as well as numerous other novels, short stories and much poetry.

Because of the depth of his thought as well as the range of his invention, Herman Melville (1 August 1819 – 28 September 1891) remains America’s greatest writer of literary fiction, and also one of its superior poets. I consider Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) the quintessential American novelist because his masterwork, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), is such an exquisite encapsulation of anti-slavery and anti-bigotry moral principle within a widely popular coming-of-age boy’s adventure story. But Melville is America’s deepest literary artist, his novels are metaphors for long-running threads of reality entwined as the American experience.

While Mark Twain’s facile humor and droll prose made him very popular with his 19th century audiences — both through publications and with live appearances — Herman Melville remained largely neglected during the last forty years of his life, by a reading public that was alienated by the complexity of his art. That complexity resulted from the combination of his literary sophistication, strongly influenced by the poetic language and moral insights of both William Shakespeare and the King James Bible; his personal philosophical thought as the fundamental source for his writing; his morally enlightened (non-racist) attitude about the world’s people; and the wit of his continuing critique, embedded in his fiction, of Americans’ myopic for-profit utilitarianism and obsessive hucksterism and con-artistry, which continues to this very day.

Herman Melville, 1860

I am no amateur scholar of Herman Melville and his literature, nor do I pretend to be. I am just one of millions of readers who since 1851 have been entranced by Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. I have read this book at least three times since 1961. With each reading I was older, more experienced, and was able to gain more insight about and appreciation for the literary use of the American language, and 19th America, out of the richness of Melville’s prose. I used the image of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal and fatal obsession to hunt down and kill the white whale Moby Dick, in a recent article of my own, as a metaphor for humanity’s current obsession to continue racing with its self-destructive fossil-fueled capitalism, which is the profligate source of greenhouse gas emissions causing anthropogenic global warming climate change.

Many readers today would find Melville prolix, abstruse, convoluted, and with a confounding multifarious vocabulary. This obviates Melville’s work from achieving instant contemporary mass pop-appeal. However, that prolixity, abstruseness, convolution and wide-spectrum vocabulary we grumble about now could reflect the devolution of Americans’ thought processes and language from a measured 19th century pacing of consideration to a hurried jittery 21st century attention-deficit superficiality: the shorn American language of today, our no-brainer “New Speak.”

Herman Melville, 1861

Herman Melville gained popular success as an author with his initial novel Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life, gathered during his time as a whaler and seaman in the South Pacific between early 1841 and late 1844. Typee was followed by a sequel, Omoo (1847), which was also successful and paid him enough to marry and start a family. His first novel not based on his own experiences, Mardi (1849), was not well received. His next fictional work, Redburn (1849), and his non-fiction White-Jacket (1850) were given better reviews but did not provide financial security. (1)

Moby-Dick (1851), although now considered one of the great American novels, was not well received among contemporary critics. His psychological novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) was also scorned by reviewers. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. In 1857, he traveled to England and then toured the Near East. The Confidence-Man (1857) was the last prose work that he published. He moved to New York to take a position as Customs Inspector and turned to poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War. (1)

In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876, a metaphysical epic. In 1886, his son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, left one volume unpublished, and returned to prose of the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891. The 1919 centennial of his birth became the starting point of the “Melville Revival” with critics rediscovering his work and his major novels starting to become recognized as world classics of prominent importance to contemporary world literature. (1)

Most of Melville’s works can now be found on-line. (2)

Herman Melville, 1868

A most interesting and knowledgable commentator on Herman Melville’s works is Louis Proyect, both because of his familiarity with Melville’s texts, and because of his discussions of how Melville’s themes are critically reflected in the social contexts of both the 19th century and today, and of how Melville’s anti-racist attitudes contrasted favorably with the “utilitarian” consensus of his times, and even ours. (3), (4), (5).

To end this commemoration of Herman Melville and his literature, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, I borrow the following paragraphs from Louis Proyect (3). Mark well what ye read here, for we need slake our forgetfulness and remember this conviction today.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

Herman Melville, 1885


(1) Herman Melville

All images of Herman Melville here are from Wikipedia.

(2) The Life and Works of Herman Melville

(3) Deconstructing cannibalism
5 January 2016

includes Louis Proyect’s articles:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian
6 December 1998

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
18 October 2004

(4) The Confidence Man
23 December 2013

(5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples
16 February 2008


Ye Cannot Swerve Me: Moby-Dick and Climate Change

“Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”
— Herman Melville (1819-1891), Moby-Dick, Chapter 37.

This is one of many passages, in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, describing Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal obsession to hunt down and kill the white bull sperm whale whose name is the novel’s title. (1) Ahab sought vengeance for being scarred — with curved conical teeth up to 20 cm (8 in) long and weighing up to 1 kg (2.2 lb) each — from head to knee and having his leg torn off, against Moby Dick, who had fought off a pursuit by whalers led by Ahab on a previous voyage:

“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now… Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!… and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

But Starbuck, the First Mate aboard their ship, the Pequod, was having none of it. Starbuck was a devout Christian, a Quaker, eschewing all violence except for the hot bloody rush of catching and killing whales to boil their blubber down to the fine oil that would fetch handsome profits at the Nantucket market. Starbuck objects to his commander’s private scheme hijacking the Pequod and her crew from “the business we follow… I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.” To Starbuck, Ahab’s obsession is not only a derailment of their business but even an affront to God, because Ahab is intent to avenge himself on Nature itself through its organic manifestation as this one mighty white whale:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” Starbuck replies to Ahab, “that simply smote thee from blind instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

As regards human activity, Starbuck was right, but we now know that sperm whales are intelligent animals, like all cetaceans, and not purely dumb brutes: they have both memory and intent. The sperm whale brain is the largest known of any modern or extinct animal, weighing on average about 7.8 kilograms (17 lb), more than five times heavier than a human’s, and has a volume of about 8,000 cm^3. The sperm whale’s cerebrum is the largest in all mammalia, both in absolute and relative terms. (2)

The story, Moby-Dick, is famous around the world and most people know that Ahab and all his crew except one, Ishmael, perished in a failed attempt to wreak Ahab’s vengeance, which even cost the sinking of the Pequod, stove in by Moby Dick’s ramming. The novel is much much more than merely its sea adventure plot, and description of 19th century whaling. It is a roving philosophical inquiry into the nature of character, faith and perception; as well as a metaphor for Melville’s ruminations on American democracy, which was shifting from a free association of agrarian ruralists to an increasingly industrialized regimentation of expansionist outlook. Melville’s Moby-Dick, along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885), are the quintessential American novels (in my opinion, at least).

A key point in Moby-Dick is that the crew willingly joined into Ahab’s scheme, and despite Starbuck’s opposition to it. By rights, and whaling industry regulations and customs, the officers and crew of the Pequod were duty-bound to wrest control of the ship from Ahab because he was usurping the use of the vessel and its personnel for his private ends, and away from its intended purpose. The fully outfitted Pequod, bound on a three year hunting expedition, represented the investments of the owners and many shareholders, including widows and orphans of lost Nantucket whalers, as well the ongoing labor investments of the Pequod’s crew, which were to be paid out of the expected harvest of whale oil.

Maximizing that harvest was the whalers’ business, and it was intended to be pursued as a voluntary association of men into a hierarchical organization glued together by a commonality of personal financial interests. Ahab used his fearsome magnetic personality, like witchcraft, to steal the souls of his men and make them instruments for the implementation of his own personal hatred. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, made this exact diagnosis of Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) and the German nation under his dictatorship during 1933 to 1945. (3) That same diagnosis can be applied, in varying degrees, then and now, here and abroad, to many political “leaders.” The eternal question for the many laboring crews of the many workshops of this world — agrarian and industrial — is: do we work dutifully to the death, or till cast adrift as expendable, and do we willingly follow the leader to perdition if he is hellbound and determined for it; or do we rebel, overturn the structure of command, and lead ourselves even if such freedom entails a hard life?

And this brings me to global warming climate change: fossil fuels are the opiates in the addiction to war that would be the death of humanity by Planet Earth’s rejection of it.

Do we work dutifully to the death, or till cast adrift as expendable, and do we willingly follow the leader to perdition if he is hellbound and determined for it; or do we rebel, overturn the structure of command, and lead ourselves even if such freedom entails a hard life? Is humanity as a whole worth our individual pains in this effort? Or, is the idea of restructuring human civilization — and soon — to jettison capitalism, authoritarianism, and their enabling fossil-fueled militarism and marbling corruption, just a chimera that would use up our individual life forces to no avail; is it simply better to accept the inevitability of inequitable finalities and “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” as Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote? (4)

I, personally, rebel at this surrender because I see it as a betrayal of our young people, and an insult to our honor and to our fully liberated frontal lobe intelligence (though much of that is neglected and unused, I’ll grant) and our technical capabilities. But I don’t dismiss the question: I guess I’ve gotten old.

It has been 31 years since climatologist James E. Hansen, in testimony to the U.S. Congress in June 1988, made one of the first assessments that human-caused warming had already measurably affected global climate. Shortly after, a “World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security” gathered hundreds of scientists and others in Toronto. They concluded that the changes in the atmosphere due to human pollution “represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe,” and declared that by 2005 the world should push its emissions some 20% below the 1988 level. (5)

Since then, basically, nothing substantive has been done by our governments to combat this existential threat. And today the reality of global warming climate change — the crisis of continuing existence — is known, viscerally, to everybody (even the liars).

Our geophysical problem is the slowing of the advance of global warming, by drastically reducing the rates of continuing accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases (like volatile organic compounds, VOCs) whose aggregate heat-trapping mass could push Earth’s climate system past an unknown threshold or “tipping point,” triggering a sudden and catastrophic transition to climatic conditions significantly more hostile to human survival.

What may not be fully appreciated is that our geophysical problem may be far beyond human capabilities to ever be resolved even were humanity to metamorphose itself through a rapid social evolution producing a miraculous reformulation of human civilization into an enlightened temporal Nirvana liberally powered entirely by green energy.

Will climate change drive humanity to extinction? If so, how much time have we got?, and how will it happen? These questions are on the minds of many people today. In this essay, I will follow paleontologists deep into the geological past to see if it can offer any analogs to the evolving climatic conditions of today, and in that way give us a window into our future.

Average Global Surface Temperature History

The trend of average global surface temperature between 1900 and 2100 — relative to the average temperature during 1951 to 1980 (the “datum” for our temperature scales here) — is shown in the following figure (6).

Projections (colored lines), with uncertainty bounds of ±1 standard deviation (shading), for future surface temperature rise from models that use different economic scenarios. Scenario A2 (in red) represents “business as usual” where temperature is projected to rise by the end of the century between 2°C and 5.5°C if no effort is made to constrain the rise of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, which by 2100 could range between 525ppm and 1000ppm (ppm = parts per million of the air volume). The solid bars at right indicate the best estimate (solid line) and possible ranges (grey shading) for each scenario. (6)

A view of this relative temperature history between 1880 and 2016 follows.

Notice that the temperature distance from the 1951-1980 average global surface temperature ranges from -0.8°C (1917) to +1.3°C (February 2016). Planet Earth today is about 1.5°C warmer than it was in the 19th century. What was the global surface temperature at earlier times?

Planet Earth has gone through many cycles of glacial and interglacial intervals over the previous 800,000 years. During those Ice Age climatic oscillations, the concentration of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) in the atmosphere cycled between about 170ppm and 300ppm, and temperature cycled between about +4°C and -10°C about our mean global surface temperature datum. (7)

Climate change during the previous 65 million years has been charted as follows. For the details of this image, see note (8).

The green trace shows oxygen isotope measurements (for the oxygen-18 isotope as a fraction of the oxygen present in the sample) on the stacked layers of carbonate (chalk) deposits down through the seafloor (obtained by core drilling), formed from the compacted shells of ancient foraminifera. Temperatures later than 13Mya (Mya = million years ago) are shown in the box at the lower right of the above image; the dashed horizontal line indicates the datum. Temperatures (relative to the datum) between 65Mya and 35Mya are shown in the box in the upper left of the image. Antarctica was glaciating, thawing and reglaciating between 35Mya and 13 Mya, and science has insufficient data to determine the temperature history for that complicated interval. (8)

Notice the little spike labeled PETM, at 56Mya in the image above. This is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a very short-lived (200,000 years) high temperature excursion. The height of this temperature spike is likely underestimated by a factor of 2 to 4 because of the coarse sampling and averaging involved in this record.

At least since 1997, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum has become a focal point of considerable geoscience research because it probably provides the best past analog by which to understand impacts of global climate warming and of massive carbon input to the ocean and atmosphere, including ocean acidification. Although it is now widely accepted that the PETM represents a “case study” for global warming and massive carbon input to Earth’s surface, the cause, details and overall significance of the event remain perplexing. (9)

Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)

The paleogeography of 56Mya was not that different from today; there was no ice at the poles, the Atlantic Ocean was not as wide as it is now, and India was only just beginning to collide with the rest of Asia. The climate during the Eocene Epoch (56Mya to 34Mya) was much warmer then today: Redwood trees grew in the Canadian Arctic, and the environment of that polar region looked like Okefenokee Swamp (straddling the state boundaries of present-day Florida and Georgia); mid-latitude continental interiors were warm through the winter, with giant palms growing in Wyoming and crocodiles ranging through the swamps and rivers. The poles remained ice-free during the entire interval spanning the Paleocene Epoch (66Mya to 56Mya) and the Eocene Epoch (56Mya to 34Mya).

The expected rise in average global surface temperature during the 90 years between 2010 and 2100 is like the rise in global temperature, going backwards in time, from ‘now’ to 35Mya: about 4°C to 5°C above the datum. “In just a few human lifetimes we’re going to change conditions in the atmosphere to a state that hasn’t been seen in 35 million years” commented Dr. Scott Wing (Curator of Fossil Plants, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC) in his detailed lecture on the PETM. (10)

During the Paleocene, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (also called “partial pressure”) was estimated to have been at 380ppm to 400ppm, and then rose to 800ppm just prior to the onset of the PETM (56Mya), producing a global temperature about 4°C warmer than our datum. The CO2 concentration then doubled or more to at least 1600ppm to 2000ppm within a few millennia at the start of the PETM, ‘quickly’ (in geological terms) producing an additional temperature rise of 4°C to 8°C.

Between 4,000 and 7,000 billion tons of carbon were injected into the atmosphere within the initial millennia of the PETM; the first (and biggest?) pulse lasting less than 2,000 years, and the emissions ending within 20,000 years. It would take the natural processes of CO2 removal 200,000 years to return the CO2 concentration and the global temperature to their levels prior to the onset of the PETM.

The amount of carbon injected into the atmosphere during the PETM is about the size of the carbon burp that would (will?) be realized by burning the entire fossil fuel reservoir humanity has at its disposal. However, the rate at which atmospheric carbon (CO2 and CH4) was emitted during the PETM is at least 10 times slower than today’s anthropogenic emissions! What may have taken 3,000 years during the PETM, we are accomplishing within 300 years; in fact 200 million years of fossil fuel accumulation has been burned in about 160 years.

The essential point here is that it will take 100,000 to 200,000 years to get back to the “normal” climate we left behind us in the middle of the 20th century. On this, Dr. Scott Wing commented: “The effects last for 200,000 years. So this is a global shift, which to a geologist looks like a transient change, like a perturbation, like a blip, but to any sane human it’s forever.”

Where did PETM carbon emissions come from? Science does not have a definitive answer, but its four estimates, ranked from most likely to least likely are:

— methane bubbling up out of warmed deep ocean methane hydrates (ice-like solids trapping methane, produced by microbes feeding on decaying organic matter, and formed in the cold and high pressure at the bottom of oceans) and then oxidizing in the atmosphere (CH4 combining with oxygen to produce CO2 and water vapor);

— extensive wildfires that included the burning of peat deposits (because the burning of all terrestrial vegetation alone would have produced insufficient carbon, so the burning of peat would also have been necessary);

— volcanic intrusions into organic-rich sediments at the floor of North Atlantic off Scandinavia (a region of very active volcanism at the time) cooking the sediments to release CO2 and methane;

— the warming and oxidation of any permafrost that may have remained, and it giving up lots of carbon.

It is possible that a combination of these four effects may have occurred.

All the soils formed in the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming during the 200,000 years of the PETM have been compacted to stacked layers of sediments 40 meters thick in total. During the PETM that region had a warm dry tropical climate; bean plants proliferated. Before and after the PETM the climate was temperate and bean plants were absent from the Big Horn Basin (at least in the respective fossil records). During the first 150,000 years of the PETM, warm climate plants (like beans) moved north even to the Arctic, and then retreated south during the last 50,000 years of the PETM, with temperate climate plants reappearing.

Plants growing in a high CO2 environment make less green pigment and have lower nutritive value, so plant eaters have to eat more to sustain themselves, or evolve to smaller sizes to reduce their metabolic requirements. Animals and insects did both during the PETM. Ancient horses first appeared in America at the very beginning of the PETM, and they ‘quickly’ shrank in size by about 30% — to the size of domesticated cats today. With the uptake of CO2 at the close of the PETM and the return to ‘normal’ Eocene conditions, this species of tiny horses increased in size by 76%. A similar shrinkage of body size during the PETM occurred for the other mammal species present at the time, including primates.

The four major scientific lessons of the PETM are:

— big emissions of carbon into atmosphere result in warmer climate and more acidic oceans, and that acid seawater dissolves deep marine chalk (and kills marine organisms living in the lower few kilometers of the oceans because dissolved oxygen has been scavenged — hypoxia — and because shell formation, for the protective casings required by many marine organisms, is impossible because of the acidity);

— there are self-reinforcing cycles of carbon release with increased temperature: CO2 and CH4 capture and retain heat and warm the atmosphere; that warms the oceans and results in intermittent rainfall on the continents (heavy rains with long dry spells between); that causes an abundant growth of vegetation, which parches during the droughts and dry spells and feeds wildfires releasing more CO2, heating the atmosphere and oceans further; that leads to the dissociation of marine methane hydrates, which release methane gas and heat the atmosphere and oceans even further; a sequence of vicious cycles;

— rapid global warming changed where plants and animals lived and how they interacted (this is affecting 21st century people, too), and drove rapid evolution in the body sizes (shrinkage) of mammals;

— and the effects last for 200,000 years because it takes Nature that long to clear out the excess CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans.

What brought the CO2 concentrations down and ended the PETM? The process of photosynthesis in growing plants pulled CO2 out of the air and bound it into nutrients (sugars, glucose, plant tissues), which partially migrated into animal tissues as food. CO2 was also absorbed by the surfaces of the oceans, and reacted at depth with carbonate compounds to dissolve the sea floor chalk and acidify the seawater. Over a longer term, 10% to 30% of the excess CO2 was removed by weathering reactions in soils, and the erosion by rain and streams of rocks imprisoning CO2 carried sediments back to the oceans, where they settled out on the sea bottom. Long after the time scale of the PETM, those seafloor sediments would be interred by subduction at tectonic plate boundaries.

Carbon uptake is slow. A computer simulation of the instantaneous dumping of 5,000 billion tons of carbon into atmosphere (producing an atmospheric concentration of 2,500ppm of CO2, by volume) showed that:

— roughly half of the CO2 comes out in first 1,000 years;

— 30% to 40% still remains at 10,000 years;

— and it isn’t all removed until after 100,000 years, so by about 150,000 to 200,000 years as occurred with the PETM.

A visual representation of CO2 uptake follows (11)

For a detailed description of the CO2 uptake processes, see note (11).

Similar computer modeling has been done for our climate future out to year 3000. Assuming that the entire fossil fuel reservoir is burned up by year 2100, injecting 5,000 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the global temperature will rise to 4.5°C above datum by 2100 and remain there. Among the expected effects are a sea level rise of 1 meter by 2100, and 7.5 meters (25 feet) by year 3000 because the Greenland Ice Cap will have melted.

The major problem of having elevated global temperature for a long time — and it will be long since Nature takes “forever” to reabsorb atmospheric CO2 — is that major melting will eventually occur. As we are learning from direct observation today, that major melting may occur more rapidly than scientists were at first led to believe on the basis of their earlier computer modeling. If the Antarctic Ice Cap were also to entirely melt, sea level would be 66 meters (216 feet) higher in an ice-free world.

Could humanity today go on a furiously massive campaign to plant more trees and vegetation, so as to suck out excess CO2 from the atmosphere and stop global warming? No. We just can’t emplace enough plants to accomplish this, the rate of CO2 removal implied by this question is beyond the capability of Earth’s biosphere however lush. However, increasing the mass and area of vegetation (plants, trees) would slow the rates of CO2 accumulation and temperature increase, and help us lose ground (against the advance of global warming) less rapidly. So yes, plant!; it would also be a relief to wildlife sorely pressed with habitat losses.

Life in the Anthropocene

Geologists have recognized that we are now living in an epoch whose climate is fundamentally affected by human activity. That epoch has been termed the Anthropocene (12), and it was officially designated to have begun in the 4th quarter of 1965. (13)

“We have started the Anthropocene but the things that we think are untrammeled nature are already trammeled by us. There’s no eco-system on this planet that hasn’t had the human fingerprint on it some way or another. And many of the things that we think are beautiful and natural have already been modified by our ancestors, in ways that may not be obvious to us… What the Anthropocene perspective does is it helps us recognize that with [over] 7 billion people on the planet, and thousands of years, tens of thousands of years-long history already of modifying the planet, that it’s really too late to think about putting anything back the way it was,” Dr. Scott Wing.

I can think of 9 possible negative effects (mainly on human civilization) from severe global warming:

— reduced food production on land because of droughts and desertification, and a reduction of the nutritive value of crops because of high CO2 concentration;

— increased scarcity of fresh water, because of hot dry climatic conditions, intermittent rainfall, and huge population;

— the global spread of disease germs and usually tropical parasites, in a hotter world;

— loss of seafood with acidic seas, and increased starvation for animals and people;

— habitat losses for people, given significant coastal inundation and excessive heat and desertification in continental interiors;

— habitat losses for terrestrial wildlife as with humans, but also for marine life because of the reduced dissolved oxygen and increased acidity of the oceans;

— climate disaster-sparked mass migrations, which among humans will undoubtedly lead to clashes and even wars;

— resource scarcity wars (for basics like water, and for rarities like the semiconductor materials and metals essential to high tech electronics, and maybe in the extreme even for uranium deposits);

— increasingly heartless exclusion of the poor by the rich and powerful (a worldwide ‘Gazafication’ of the hapless poor).

We see some of each of these today, but the questions are: how much worse could it get?, and by when?

The development of human civilization over the last 10,000 years or so was aided by the benevolence of a very stable and moderate interglacial climate. In this new Anthropocene Epoch of increasing climate instability, we can anticipate major disruptions in human affairs, and given the socio-economic disparities and hostilities built into our human societies, we can anticipate the burdens of those disruptions to fall inequitably on poorer people. Misery will pushed down the gradient of wealth towards the destitute. In an extreme projection of pessimism, one could imagine conflicts of immiseration avoidance to devolve into extinction events, like a nuclear war.

However, the anticipated climate variations, like those of the PETM, will not in themselves be sufficiently extreme to force the actual physical extinction of humanity. In 7.95 billion years, when the Sun expands into a Red Giant star, then life on Planet Earth will be evaporated. But until such time, the most likely cause of a premature human extinction would be bad human behavior in response to the climate changes confronting humanity, and which we have caused.

It would be good for us to become familiar with how life is distributed in the Anthropocene, the epoch whose gallop we are spurring, so we can lead it more thoughtfully.

Humanity today comprises only 0.01% of all life on Planet Earth, but over the course of human history our species has destroyed 83% of wild mammal species. (14)

“The world’s 7.6 billion people [in May 2018] represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. The new work is the first comprehensive estimate of the weight of every class of living creature and overturns some long-held assumptions. Bacteria are indeed a major life form – 13% of everything – but plants overshadow everything, representing 82% of all living matter. All other creatures, from insects to fungi, to fish and animals, make up just 5% of the world’s biomass. Farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. The picture is even more stark for mammals – 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.” Where is all that life to be found?: 86% on land, 1% in the oceans, and 13% as deep subsurface bacteria. (14)

One suggested marker for the Anthropocene are the bones of domestic chickens, which are now ubiquitous around the globe. The marker recognized has having achieved complete coverage over the surface of Planet Earth by late 1965 is radioactive fallout from atmospheric atomic and nuclear bomb explosions.

Our Challenge

Remember that the biggest threat to humanity’s survival is anti-social human behavior; climate change alone can’t kill us.

If we choose to experience our present and future of changing climate as a competitive war game — with actual killing and willful destruction — to gain class, factional and ideological advantages in terms of physical security, habitability, food production, natural resource availability, standard of living and social status (ego gratification), then that species-wide dysfunctional response could ultimately lead to a collapse of civilization, and at its worst to a global nuclear war and then actual human extinction.

If we choose to experience our present and future of changing climate as an intellectual challenge to human ingenuity for technical innovation, and as a moral challenge for social organization and for the elimination of socio-economic disparities, then such a species-wide response would improve the human condition regardless of the degree of future climate variability and the geographical distribution of its effects on habitability.

Regardless of what we do or don’t do, the climate will change in ways governed by majestic and interlocking geophysical cycles spanning millennia. Our individual and species-wide experiences of living within this implacable reality will be set by how we choose to interact with each other. Nirvana or perdition are choices entirely within our grasp.

Many will say that obviously climate change as competitive war game is the only realistic alternative because it requires no behavioral changes from our over 10,000 years of “civilized” human history, and because eco-socialism is pure utopianism and thus beyond all realistic actualization. And of course, eco-socialism is impossible in a world of Ahabs and fanatical Ahab followers. But all that is just an excuse to continue with bad behavior. There are no actual physical or biological constraints preventing people from choosing to associate in an eco-socialist manner. The current societal improbability for deeply cooperative behavior does not make future species-wide collective cooperation an impossibility. Responding to climate change could provide a framework on which to build such a species-wide socialist civilization.

So, how would I respond to the Ahabs out there who would tell me: “Everything you say is wrong! God is White! Trump is Christ! Capitalism is Salvation! Ye cannot swerve me!” From me: You can’t accept it because then you wouldn’t be the person you are. You can’t learn if you are unwilling to change. And that, ultimately, is what climate change will be for us: a challenge to learn.

And finally, Nature to Ahab: Ye cannot swerve me! Your world may return in 200,000 years.


(1) Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale, (1851), Penguin Books, 1992.

(2) Sperm Whale,

(3) Carl Gustav Jung, C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Princeton University Press, 21 February 1987, edited by: William McGuire and R. F. C. Hull; “Diagnosing the Dictators” 1938, pages 115-135; “Jung Diagnoses the Dictators” 1939, pages 136-140; (dictators = Hitler, Stalin Mussolini).

(4) “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” (Robert Herrick)

(5) History of climate change science

(6) Global Surface Temperature, 1900-2100
(relative to 1951-1980 average global surface temperature)
National Research Council 2011. Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for Our Climate Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Figure 1.1, page 35 of the PDF file, page numbered 20 in the text.
Figure 1.1 SOURCE: IPCC (2007, Figure SPM.5, p. 14).

(7) Global view answers ice age CO2 puzzle
April 4, 2012 — andyextance

The 800,000 year record of atmospheric CO2 from Antarctic ice cores, and a reconstruction of temperature based on hydrogen isotopes in the ice. The current [2012] CO2 concentration of 392 parts per million (ppm) is shown by the blue star. Credit: Jeremy Shakun/Harvard University

(8) 65 Million Years of Climate Change
(wikipedia, 13 July 2019)

This figure shows climate change over the last 65 million years. The data are based on a compilation of oxygen isotope measurements (δ18O) on benthic foraminifera by Zachos et al. (2001) which reflect a combination of local temperature changes in their environment and changes in the isotopic composition of sea water associated with the growth and retreat of continental ice sheets.

Because it is related to both factors, it is not possible to uniquely tie these measurements to temperature without additional constraints. For the most recent data, an approximate relationship to temperature can be made by observing that the oxygen isotope measurements of Lisiecki and Raymo (2005) are tightly correlated to temperature changes at Vostok as established by Petit et al. (1999). Present day is indicated as 0. For the oldest part of the record, when temperatures were much warmer than today, it is possible to estimate temperature changes in the polar oceans (where these measurements were made) based on the observation that no significant ice sheets existed and hence all fluctuation in (δ18O) must result from local temperature changes (as reported by Zachos et al.).

The intermediate portion of the record is dominated by large fluctuations in the mass of the Antarctic ice sheet, which first nucleates approximately 34 million years ago, then partially dissipates around 25 million years ago, before re-expanding towards its present state 13 million years ago. These fluctuations make it impossible to constrain temperature changes without additional controls.

Significant growth of ice sheets did not begin in Greenland and North America until approximately 3 million years ago, following the formation of the Isthmus of Panama by continental drift. This ushered in an era of rapidly cycling glacials and interglacials.

Also appearing on this graph are the Eocene Climatic Optimum, an extended period of very warm temperatures, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (labeled PETM). The PETM is very short lived high temperature excursion possibly associated with the destabilization of methane clathrates and the rapid buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Due to the coarse sampling and averaging involved in this record, it is likely that the full magnitude of the PETM is underestimated by a factor of 2-4 times its apparent height.

(9) Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)

(10) Global Warming 56 Million Years Ago, and What it Means For Us
30 January 2014
Dr. Scott Wing, Curator of Fossil Plants,
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC

(11) CO2 “lifetime” in the atmosphere
National Research Council 2011. Understanding Earth’s Deep Past: Lessons for Our Climate Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Figure 3.5, page 93 of the PDF file, page numbered 78 in the text.

CO2 Sweepers and Sinks in the Earth System
The carbon fluxes in and out of the surface and sedimentary reservoirs over geological timescales are finely balanced, providing a planetary thermostat that regulates Earth’s surface temperature. Initially, newly released CO2 (e.g., from the combustion of hydrocarbons) interacts and equilibrates with Earth’s surface reservoirs of carbon on human timescales (decades to centuries). However, natural “sinks” for anthropogenic CO2 exist only on much longer timescales, and it is therefore possible to perturb climate for tens to hundreds of thousands of years (Figure 3.5). Transient (annual to century-scale) uptake by the terrestrial biosphere (including soils) is easily saturated within decades of the CO2 increase, and therefore this component can switch from a sink to a source of atmospheric CO2 (Friedlingstein et al., 2006). Most (60 to 80 percent) CO2 is ultimately absorbed by the surface ocean, because of its efficiency as a sweeper of atmospheric CO2, and is neutralized by reactions with calcium carbonate in the deep sea at timescales of oceanic mixing (1,000 to 1,500 years). The ocean’s ability to sequester CO2 decreases as it is acidified and the oceanic carbon buffer is depleted. The remaining CO2 in the atmosphere is sufficient to impact climate for thousands of years longer while awaiting sweeping by the “ultimate” CO2 sink of the rock weathering cycle at timescales of tens to hundreds of thousands of years (Zeebe and Caldeira, 2008; Archer et al., 2009). Lessons from past hyperthermals suggest that the removal of greenhouse gases by weathering may be intensified in a warmer world but will still take more than 100,000 years to return to background values for an event the size of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

In the context of the timescales of interaction with these carbon sinks, the mean lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is calculated to be 12,000 to 14,000 years (Archer et al., 1997, 2009), which is in marked contrast to the two to three orders of magnitude shorter lifetimes commonly cited by other studies (e.g., IPCC, 1995, 2001). In addition, the equilibration timescale for a pulse of CO2 emission to the atmosphere, such as the current release by fossil fuel burning, scales up with the magnitude of the CO2 release. “The result has been an erroneous conclusion, throughout much of the popular treatment of the issue of climate change, that global warming will be a century-timescale phenomenon” (Archer et al., 2009, p. 121).

(12) Anthropocene

(13) The Anthropocene’s Birthday

(14) Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study



2° Institute

data sources for charts below


F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism



F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

For me, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an English Romantic Poet like John Keats (1795-1821), who experienced during his college years — that pivotal time of transition from youth to adulthood — the shock of World War I destroying the Belle Époque and unleashing the blaring, crass, destructive, frenzied and wasteful Youth Quake sociological explosion known as the Roaring Twenties, when the prewar Gilded Age was resuscitated — to eventually reach its apotheosis in Trumpian America — during the postwar prosperity of a hypocritically repressed Prohibition America that was an economic bubble flinging open the starting gates to the modernization of American manners, morals, rhythms, fantasies and expectations, and whose totality we have all experienced as the 20th Century, which we can date as the zeitgeist from 1919 to 2019.

The zeitgeist now is of self-evident global warming climate change, openly acknowledged by all except intransigent ultra wealthy buffoons clinging to their hoards and their pathetically transparent propaganda intended to ward off just taxation.

Fitzgerald was a literary artist, a lyrical romanticist who became the hip young voice of the 1920s outburst because he was able to apply his 19th century mindset and literary facility to articulate — as deep psychological insights of general applicability — his personal youthful experiences and observations of transiting through the World War I cultural shock wave thrusting his generation into the manic modernity of a vastly industrialized, depersonalized and entertainment-obsessed America.

It was because Fitzgerald’s conceptions had been formed in a previous social paradigm that he had a basis from which to objectively evaluate the new psycho-social realities of the 1920s. Younger and less alert people, whose entire awareness of social life awakened during the 1920s, lacked such a contrasting mental framework because they were blindingly immersed in, and distracted and buffeted by their times. Fitzgerald was young enough to be completely hip to and synchronized with the 1920s, but not too young to be unable to understand where the 1920s had emerged from, how they were different from the prewar past, and how they were experienced as matters of personal and societal character.

Fitzgerald, along with his older English contemporary W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), have given me the deepest psychological insights into women as men experience them, and into personal character as it expresses itself through interpersonal relationships, especially between the sexes.

A similar transition of American life occurred forty to fifty years later when the Vietnam War shattered the stability and stasis of 1950s America, from which erupted the cultural efflorescence and political turmoil of the late 1960s, which like the late 1920s burned off the general prosperity that had been accumulated during the economic boom hot-housed during the preceding period of victorious peace.

Culturally alert writers of the 1960s included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Malcolm X (1925-1965) with Alex Haley (1921-1992), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). These writers were as different from F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was from Mark Twain (1835-1910), and none of these others matched Fitzgerald for lyricism, except for a memorable passage in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — on the Mississippi River in early morning — and the calmly eloquent and reflective moments in Tennessee Williams’ dramas.

Fitzgerald was 14 when Twain died, and when Fitzgerald died at age 44 in 1940: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 18, Joseph Heller was 17, Malcolm X was 15, Alex Haley was 19, and Tennessee Williams was 29. W. Somerset Maugham was 22 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, 36 when Mark Twain died, and 66 when F. Scott Fitzgerald died.

Twain’s war shocks were the American Civil War (1860-1865) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), while Vonnegut’s and Heller’s were World War II (1941-1945), primarily, and also the Korean War (1950-1953, for the hot war) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975, for the American phase).

Fitzgerald’s life was so timed that during the third decade of his life — and prime adult years — he also experienced the societal shock of the Crash of 1929 and its immediate aftermath, the Great Depression (1929-1942), when the outlandish and dissipative prosperity of 1920s capitalism collapsed into the socio-economic wreckage of the 1930s, with his own personal circumstances tumbling into ruins along with the times.

I find Fitzgerald’s keen insights on personal motivations and character, and on interpersonal relationships, to be far superior to those of both earlier and later American writers because of how his English Romantic Poetic frame of mind processed his experiences with youthful success and the allurements of fame while confronting the postwar shock of the new in the 1920s, followed by the collapse of illusions with the loss of wealth and social status in the 1930s, and all of that filtered through his intense emotions pulsing out of his marriage to and care for Zelda Sayre, his socially advanced and schizophrenic wife, and mother of his only child.

I can see why Fitzgeraldian lyricism was stripped out of American writing in reaction to the serial disappointments of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the sterility of the Tailfin ’50s, and the Vietnam War, and why Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and imitators of his arid style became popular to this day, given the post World War II re-acceleration of life’s American rhythm, and the relentless commercially driven dumbing down of the American mind.

The loss of lyricism from American literary fiction, since that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not a sign of its increased artistry and insight, but of the opposite.


Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald


Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal.

A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings.

What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn.

With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now (16 March 2019) embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.”

In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties ($238.44 in 2019 dollars) Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world (up to 2001).

An excellent documentary on F. Scott Fitzgerald was produced by PBS and shown in 2001; it includes interviews with people who knew him personally. The documentary on Fitzgerald produced by the BBC and shown in 2013 is an interesting and sympathetic literary criticism.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)

Standing back, looking at the U.S.A. today [16 March 2019], and reading Fitzgerald, one can’t help but remember the old talking point, Fitz or Hem? [Fitzgerald or Hemingway?] Some of us preferred the latter, the new prose style, the correct progressive politics, the lessons in manly courage. But the style has been absorbed, the politics were hardly heroic in the 1940s’ context, and the muscular courage is rather sickening just now as we get news of New Zealand, Paris and Manchester. Fitzgerald’s America, on the other hand, is still with us, money-orientated, cynical, romantic, racist and full of ambition that ends in crime.

— Peter Byrne

It has always been easy for me to see why Hemingway was popular with Americans, but for those very reasons I was not enthralled by him. I have enjoyed some of his prose, but never found a soul there that interested me. Now that I’m older, and have my own memories of being battered around in that money-oriented, cynical, racist and criminally ambitious America, I have found Fitzgerald’s tender heart and withering insights to be just right, both generally and for me. I learn slowly, but I’m glad when I do.

The above comments have already appeared at:

I finished reading Tender Is The Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, on 7 April 2019. I can’t remember ever being so affected by a novel. Fitzgerald’s amazing insights into human nature, human character, social interactions, and marriage, along with his breathtaking lyricism all just leave me stunned. Perhaps I lack the sophistication to know better, and be less impressed.

Also, there are quite a few parallels between Dick Diver’s (ersatz F.S.F.) story arc (as regards his Sentimental Education — see Flaubert) and my own. For me, were it not for the balm of decades having passed since my “Dick Diver” years, it would be painfully so.

I can see where some of the superficial aspects of the novel, such as the glib sophistication and the not-up-to-modern-day politically-correct standards as regards the mention of Negroes (though I found no actual lack of sympathy here) could put off the “typical” American reader today. But, for me, the power of the core insight, emotion and intelligence of the novel shines through those superficial trivialities, and leaves me in silent awe of the majestically tragic and accurate vision – the life – behind the whole work.

Fitzgerald thought this novel his best; he called The Great Gatsby a “tour de force” (it is superb, I liked it) but viewed Tender Is The Night as “a confession of faith.” Reading Tender Is The Night opened up a great insight into F.S.F., the man, for me because I could connect my inner experiences (on marriage and children, and even some on doing science) with his real and fictionalized lives. I can easily imagine being Dick Diver.

Scott was an incandescent artist, who was trapped by fate: by the emotional and financial entanglements brought on by a decent romantic and fundamentally boyish nature, by public fickleness, by societal shallowness and materialism, by marriage to madness, and by all-too-common-and-human personal weakness. Who doesn’t want to be loved?

My thoughts may not be entirely coherent here, but I am overwhelmed.

By 17 April 2019, I was deep into Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western (F.S.F.’s final choice of title). He had a sharp eye and a wicked sense of humor. His abilities never diminished, though sadly he did. His prose is smooth and graceful while at the same time being so rich and suggestive.

After finishing this novel I’ll have to decide what to read next: This Side Of Paradise or The Beautiful And The Damned. I’ll probably end up reading both. I also have another collection of his short stories waiting to be read, Six Stories From The Jazz Age, And Other Stories. So far, Tender Is The Night is the one that hit me most forcefully in a personal way.

Your words were not lost on me. They got me thinking about Tender Is The Night that I’d read many years ago. I dug it out and launched into a rereading only finished just now [19 April 2019]. The Great Gatsby had always been my favourite among Fitzgerald’s books. I liked its perfect balance and the way it held the American dream up so we could view it from all sides, light and dark. Tender Is The Night struck me, first time around, as misshapen. I still think it suffered from being worked over for too many years. The author’s focus necessarily shifted. However, reading it again, I find the good parts more deeply felt than anything in The Great Gatsby. That was a younger man’s novel. With the years, Fitzgerald, like you and me, got deeper into himself. I think that’s why it touches us so now. I don’t believe we should impose our standards of political correctness on authors of the past. The very fact that they might be out of line for us today is a valuable lesson. I confess that one little thing does annoy me in Fitzgerald’s thinking. Here Hemingway was right. When his friend F.S.F. told him that the rich were different, i.e., beings on a higher plane, Hem replied, “Of course they’re different. They have more money”.

— Peter Byrne

I’m put off a bit by Hemingway’s treatment of Fitzgerald, the man who recommended him to Max Perkins [the editor of both] at Scribner’s [their publisher], which got Hemingway launched on his celebrated career. Besides publicly disparaging Fitzgerald when he was down (in 1936, with the publication of Fitzgerald’s three-part essay, The Crack-Up, in Esquire Magazine), he didn’t even have the courtesy to attend Fitzgerald’s lonely funeral (in very late December 1940), where only eleven people attended (according to one attendee who described the scene in the documentary Winter Dreams), mostly locals from the family that he had rented a house from in Maryland. I haven’t run across anything negative said about Hemingway by Fitzgerald, but only good things (including in The Crack-Up). I don’t think that responding to Fitzgerald with graciousness instead of pettiness would have hurt Hemingway’s John Wayne style macho man public image, it would probably have burnished it instead. But, writers and artists of all kinds are human, and humans are imperfect, and I may be asking too much of some of the icons.

One thing about Fitzgerald that I now know is that he was really a poet, a prose writer who sought to achieve the artistry of the great romantic English poets: Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth. No wonder he was ground down by the commercialism and shallowness of the make-a-quick-buck magazine trade and movie script writing he was forced to do. Just yesterday [20 April 2019], I finished Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. In it I found a line about an August night, so atmospheric, so vivid, so perfect, something the like of which I will never be able to produce, that I copied and saved it:

It was a gorgeous evening. A full moon drenched the road to the lustreless color of platinum, and late-blooming harvest flowers breathed into the motionless air aromas that were like low, half-heard laughter.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, section V.

It is writing like this that makes capturing a Fitzgerald story on film, beyond a mere mechanical visualization of raw plot, impossible.

I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.

— F.S.F., The Crack-Up, 1936

As to Fitzgerald’s failure of political consciousness, he is pretty explicit about owning up to in the The Crack-Up, and once having done so openly it is impossible to imagine he did not have a decent political and class consciousness thereafter. He even mentions Lenin and refuses to disparage Marxists in The Crack-Up. The mid to late 1930s were years of revolutionary labor unrest and socialist advances in the United States: the West Coast longshoremen’s and general strike of 1934, the GM Fischer Body Plant sit-in strike of 1935, and the Social Security Act was signed into law that same year. The 40-year-old Fitzgerald was as different from his 20-year-old Princeton college boy self (on the make, like Gatsby), as was the bottom of the Great Depression for the down-and-outers, from the glittering carefree abandon of the leisure class of the 1920s.

I find it very impressive, admirable, that throughout his writer’s career Fitzgerald managed to produce so much inventive and lyrical work despite his personal circumstances, and that his artistry deepened as he soldiered on.

The Crack-Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald
[originally published as a three-part series in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Esquire.]

The Moment F. Scott Fitzgerald Knew He Was a Failure
By Lili Anolik
Sep 22, 2015

You’re right about Hemingway’s nastiness to Fitzgerald. He makes him appear a befuddled adolescent in A Moveable Feast, otherwise a little book of great charm. A case of the survivor writing history or anyway having the last word, I suppose.

I’ve gone through The Crack-Up and autobiographical pieces again. To my mind, Echoes of the Jazz Age, My Lost City and Early Success are fine, low-intensity essays full of welcome information. Ring, the piece on [Ring] Lardner is a marvellous bit of lit-crit of the kind that only a writer himself can offer another writer. How different from Hem on Fitz! It convinced me that Ring Lardner is the model for Abe North in Tender Is The Night. The Crack-Up proper simply recalls in a kind of diary note what the author already so powerfully represented in Tender Is The Night, Dick’s personal crisis and downhill slide.

Fitzgerald for me is a novelist of greater scope and emotional depth than Hemingway. One little thing, though, bothers me in his outlook. It’s just a germ, his idea of success. But I can’t see it as not leading to the way our esteemed president [Trump] divides humanity into “winners” and “losers”.

— Peter Byrne

I suspect that one of the causes of Fitzgerald’s great disappointment in later life (besides Zelda’s mental health) was the utter shattering of his idea of “success” as it pertained to his own career: the bitterness of a formerly naïve optimist.

Speaking of ‘success’ and its ‘disappointments’, I’ve seen many people who feel life has cheated them out of the success they felt entitled to in their younger imaginations.


Sheilah and Scott, and Abe North
2 May 2019

Sheilah Graham (1904-1988), a successful Hollywood gossip columnist, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) saw each other for the first time at a party thrown by the humorist Robert Benchley on 14 July 1937. Sheilah and Scott soon embarked on a live-in romance that would last until Scott’s death on 21 December 1940. Scott died from a heart attack while in Sheilah’s apartment in Hollywood, while they were each reading during the afternoon. Sheilah told the story of her three-and-a-half years with Scott in her autobiographical book Beloved Infidel (1958), whose title was copied from the title of a poem about Sheilah written by Scott as a present to her.

Fitzgerald was quite a character, scintillating, erudite, charming, warm (to intimates like Sheilah) and witty when sober, but unpredictable when inebriated: by turns silly, manic, aggressive, or conked-out (gin was the preferred “stimulant”). Sheilah Graham (and her co-author Gerold Frank) did a very nice job of giving a clear, vivid, honest and sympathetic portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man, during these last years of his life.

By 1937, Fitzgerald was in debt to about $40,000, according to Graham (which is equivalent to $726,000 in 2019 dollars); his wife Zelda had often been hospitalized for psychiatric problems since 1930 and essentially lived in hospital-sanatoriums from 1934 through 1940; and Scott and Zelda’s daughter, Scottie (1921-1986), was at boarding school and college. To make the money necessary to pay for all this, Fitzgerald accepted work as a screen-writer, from mid 1937 through 1938 (about 78 weeks).

Fitzgerald was paid $1000/week ($18,200/week in 2019 dollars) for the first six months, and $1250/week ($22,700/week in 2019 dollars) for the last twelve months. The estimated gross pay for Fitzgerald (assuming 26 weeks at $1000 and 52 weeks at $1250) was $91,000 ($1.653M in 2019 dollars) — but there were taxes. Despite his lordly income during 1937-1938, Fitzgerald had to live fairly modestly in order to meet all his financial obligations (he drove a used Ford).

Though his attempt to transform himself into a screenwriter and potential movie-maker was a complete flop, and though experiencing serial artistic frustrations and social embarrassments while in late 1930s Hollywood “…the film work was beneficial. It extricated Fitzgerald from a period in which he had been depressed and incapable of writing successfully. It enabled him to repay most of his debts and it gave him the time to start his last novel. It provided him with a plot [for The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western]. His unfinished novel captured a unique portrayal of the film industry. He left us with a wonderful work in progress. Undoubtedly, the final version would have been greater.” [Alan, Margolies, Fitzgerald and Hollywood, from The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002].


Peter Byrne wrote that he saw Abe North, one of the tragic characters in Tender Is The Night, as being inspired by the real Ring Lardner, one of Fitzgerald’s drinking buddy writer friends, whose full potential was squelched by alcoholism.

Milton R. Stern, in his essay Tender Is The Night and American History (in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002), wrote that “in many details Abe North was in part consciously modeled on Fitzgerald’s friend, Ring Lardner” and that “The corruption of the legacy of Lincoln in the legacy of the Grant administration is encompassed in the devolution from the great Abe of the North to an Abe North whose drunken ruin of his great promise is the debauched national heritage after the war [World War I].”


From: The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002


Soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby, John Dewey was to write that “the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.” The world of The Great Gatsby is a version of the new social world feared by the tradition of American moralists from William James to John Dewey. It is a world of broken relationships and false relationships; a world of money and success rather than of social responsibility; a world in which individuals are too free to determine their moral destinies.

Harmony and discord have the same relationship to each other as expectation and reality.

Ronald Berman, The Great Gatsby and the twenties, in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Ruth Prigozy, 2002


8 May 2019

Two “F. Scott Fitzgerald” movies:

Last Call is based on the memoirs of Frances Kroll Ring (1916-2015), Fitzgerald’s last secretary, and sounding board, to whom he dictated his last novel The Love Of The Last Tycoon, A Western. Frances Kroll Ring’s book (1985), highly praised by both scholars and Fitzgerald aficionados for its accuracy, detail and sympathy, is about the last two years (1939-1940) of Fitzgerald’s life. Frances Kroll Ring (herself in 2002) appears at the end of the film. A very well made film, as close as we’ll ever get to “being there” with Scott. Jeremy Irons plays Scott, Neve Campbell plays Frances Kroll Ring, both excellently in my opinion. The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald (2002) is dedicated to Frances Kroll Ring “with affection, gratitude, and respect from everyone who reveres F. Scott Fitzgerald as man and artist.”

Getting Straight is a fun movie of college life and protest in 1970, and centers on a much put upon ex-activist and graduate student of literature (“Harry,” played by Elliot Gould) who ultimately gives it all up (except the girl) in a very spirited defense of the art and spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This movie was approvingly pointed out by Ruth Prigozy, the editor of The Cambridge Companion To F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was surprised at how many references Harry makes to characters and incidents in both Fitzgerald’s novels and in his life (with Zelda and then Sheilah Graham). The movie can be fun without having to know all these references, but it is much funnier being in the know. I thought, my god!, this bright, breezy, light-hearted confection from 1970 would be over the heads of the illiterate comic-book-cartoon-movie-consuming popular audiences of today: we’re doomed!

Last Call (2002, trailer)

Getting Straight (1970, stills and music)