Classical Music Artistry

Anna Netrebko in San Francisco in 2010

Angela Gheorghiu with Ella García in San Francisco in 2010

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Classical Music Artistry

I find the cited article published in the New Republic (which magazine I now conclude to be high-brow garbage) to be stupid:

https://newrepublic.com/article/160469/insidious-classism-classical-music

To me, the writer comes off a classist who seeks populist credibility (he’s pop washing). So, let me straighten you all out about classical music in today’s America.

Classical music is a refined art. I am referring to European classical music specifically; but there is no implication here that other forms of classical music — Indian for example — are inferior, they are just different. A true devotee of fine music understands that quality is the essential value, and style is incidental and just a personal preference.

It requires great skill and knowledge to create and perform classical music. That means its practitioners have to devote much of their lives to listening, learning, study and practice (lots and lots of practice) in order to be able to present themselves as good classical music artists — as good as they would like to imagine they could be. It is a calling, an avocation, the sustenance of which also requires its practitioners to be able to peddle themselves off for slots in the job market, always the dreariest of chores for the artistically inclined.

A fraction of classical musicians manage to get paid gigs as members of elite ensembles, like continuing symphony orchestras and opera companies, but these are a minority. It’s just like shooting hoops, millions do it in schoolyards and backlots, but only a sliver of that population of dreamers actually get paid anything for presenting the very specialized skillful use of their bodies.

I personally know a conservatory trained opera singer, who has a long history of paid gigs in regional and local opera companies — which may mount a few of productions every year, perhaps up to a week’s worth of work for a performer — who has scratched a living by giving lessons and working in low level and temporary office jobs like selling classified ad space in a local ‘shopping guide’ newspaper to merchants. This person is in her 60s and has no real savings. But she has devoted herself to her art and been recognized by an internationally known and sought-after opera composer (for a character performance in his opera — I was there), among other professional classical music personalities.

Having been to several local opera productions in Berkeley, I had the chance to meet many people whose classical music careers have a similar profile. Many of these people are young and incredibly accomplished musicians who are seeking to associate themselves with serious opera productions even if it means driving halfway across California to man the wine and hors d’oeuvre table for the reception afterwards. Those food goodies are donated by fans with a bit more in the bank. The helpers will crash where they can before carpooling for their return trips to their places in the provinces.

Most people “in” classical music struggle to self-fund their study of and continuation in classical music. The idea of classical music as pure snobbishness comes from three sources:

— the focus by elite-aspiring music critic-writers (parasites) on the elite of classical music, and their complete dismissal and ignorance of the mass of classical music aficionados out in the demos,

— the encrustation of the glitterati-aspiring wealthy around classical music events and high-end organizations,

— the steep ‘learning curve’ to become a credible practitioner of classical music, which puts off many people challenged by poverty from getting as good an education as they could wish (in anything), and who may also feel no cultural connection to the cultures from which European classical music originated.

The first item is just another instance of jerk parasite critic-writers mired in celebrity culture: garbage for empty and consumerist minds.

The second item is similar to the first, by wealthy parasitic empty and consumerist minds indulging in narcissism, often by arts-donation-washing to polish their imagined halos.

This brings us to the conditions that enable classical music organizations to continue existing, as well as the original conditions that allowed classical music compositions to arise.

An organization like a major philharmonic orchestra or opera company that mounts a full season every year requires a great deal of money to pay for all the musicians, stage hands and numerous other ancillary professionals required, as well as their facilities. Such pay may be considerable for some of the top performers, because they are in high demand because they are just so good.

And that is what such high-end classical music organizations are intended to do: to gather as many of the best performers as possible, meld them into as organic an ensemble as possible, and present classical music, opera and dance of as high an order as such ensembles can achieve. The end product is the delight and inspiration of the audience, which can include way up in the back row of the balcony some of those classical music kids who drove from Fresno to San Francisco for the show. My college student father would buy standing-room-only tickets on the nights of shows at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1940s to see singers like Lily Pons. He saw all the great operas this way; and he was a tenor.

A few of those SRO and balcony kids might eventually break into the big time, like Anna Netrebko — an amazing and radiant soprano — who worked her way up from cleaning bathrooms in Siberia to get through music school, to being a well-deserved international phenomenon. Another such phenomenon is Angela Gheorghiu, who had to navigate her early career through the corruption of Ceausescu’s Romania. I took my younger daughter to see operas with each of these leading ladies — incandescent performances — and they were very sweet to my 10-year-old girl. Why? because they remember where they came from.

So, the directors of classical music organizations (the money men) have to cajole, entice and flatter wealthy patrons — which sometimes includes the Federal and State governments — to fork over bundles of spondulix in order to keep the doors open. Hence the coddling of the American bumpkin aristocracy. Ticket sales are never enough in the U.S. In Europe, where governments are more generous with arts funding because they are maintaining the essence of their cultures, ticket prices are widely affordable. And guess what?, the classical music halls in Europe have large and steady audiences as a result.

It is true that Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and many other classical music stars, had elite patronage that enabled them to compose and perform and not starve to death for doing so. Back then there was no ‘corporate classical music safety net’ if you want to call it that, and the great classical music stars of old times had to do their own money-man schemes for their own survival. And it is never pretty holding out your hand, even if you really are an artist. Ticket sales were never enough.

But the annoyance of encrustation onto classical music by the empty-headed glitterati-aspiring was still present. In a letter to his father, Wolfgang Gottlieb/Amadeus Mozart famously complained that one of his performances was treated as background muzak by the assembled aristocrats (he needed the money), talking and paying scant attention to the actual performance, and that the chairs they sat on were better listeners (and more intelligent!). Artists want their art regarded with full attention and critical appreciation, not relegated as background decoration.

There are always bigots and careerist mediocrities who try to take on the superiority attitudes of the wealthy patrons of their field, and it is unfortunate indeed when a young student is confronted with one of these as a ‘teacher.’ Truly superior talents have no need for snobbishness or of a patronizing attitude. When you observe these in a ‘highly ranked’ professional in any field it is usually a cover for deep-seated insecurity and intrinsic mediocrity. I certainly found this to be true in professional physics and science. It is unfortunate for classical music as a whole that such assholes can tar the entire genre in the minds of many ‘regular folks.’

The issue of the dense filter to mass inclusion as performers presented by the steep learning curve will always be with classical music. It is an essential part of the refinement of the art, just like the multi-year aging that separates fine wines from chug-a-jugs. American critics of classicism in classical music are usually pointing to the low proportion of African Americans in the genre. Of course there have been and are fantastic African American classical music performers: Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Wilhelmenia Fernandez, Denyse Graves, quickly come to mind. What drives people into seeking to be classical music artists is the desire to go beyond the technical limitations of popular music, and to go beyond the simpler appeals to the ear and to the emotions of popular music.

The one genre that can rival classical music in this regard is (the best of) American Jazz. However, the idea that jazz is all free-flowing improvisation is wrong; it has a very strict etiquette of ensemble performance, and a very traditional orthodoxy regarding reverence for its cannon. There can be much free-flowing noodling during rehearsals to find the right grooves for performance nights (and occasional days), and which performances then host sequences for solos which may contain busts of improvisation supported by ensemble play in the background. Pure set pieces with song can drift into being show music.

Where jazz is most artistic and classical is where a dedicated practitioner performs a timeless composition with fidelity to the original, repeatedly over the years, and makes it fresh every time for every audience; because for some of the people hearing it live it may be their first time. Joe DiMaggio (“Joltin’ Joe” and “The Yankee Clipper”), who had a hit nearly every three times at bat during a 13 year career (0.325 batting average) had said he always tried getting a hit each time at bat to delight a kid probably in the stands who had been taken to this one game in hopes of seeing a baseball hero knock one out of the park. Joe DiMaggio was a classical baseball player.

So the only real barrier to getting into classical music is the self-imposed one of not wanting to do so. The connection to all previous artists in that genre is the desire to hear, know, compose and perform music at its technical and artistic best: quality is the essence. That draw of quality has brought people of all kinds and from all cultures-of-birth into the classical music world. And such new blood helps invigorate and evolve a timeless art form. Barriers to “inclusion” into classical music “society” (a.k.a. money and celebrity — nothing to do with art) which are imposed by wealthy, ignorant and bigoted snobs and mediocrities, are failures of character by those people and are not an intrinsic aspect of the classical music genre itself.

Having a character of quality is “classical,” the one exceptional talent that anyone can choose to possess.

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The Artistry of Gifting

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The Artistry of Gifting

In the book The Gift, Lewis Hyde described (among other things) how Bob Dylan benefitted enormously by having copyright-free access to traditional folksongs with which to hone his craft (and gain young artist income for performing them). The production of new art needs the free nourishment of old art in order to continue the cycle of cultural rebirth. http://www.lewishyde.com/publications/the-gift

Bob Dylan just sold his entire catalog of songs (to Universal Music Group) for probably upwards of $300,000,000. Stevie Nicks (of the band Jefferson Airplane, etc.) had previously sold her entire catalog for $100,000,000. Yea Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread, the Summer of Love has withered into the Winter Of Our Discontent: COVID spiking, mass loss of income, mass foreclosures, mass you’re on your own healthcare (mass health don’t care), mass social contamination, exclusive celebrity indemnification.

Tom Lehrer (now 92), the wickedly funny satirist and songwriter, has put his entire music catalog — lyrics and sheet music — in the public domain. He grants everyone permission to do anything they want with his entire artistic/musical output, without cost and in perpetuity. You have till 31 December 2024 to download any or all of Tom’s songs, before he closes his website. https://tomlehrersongs.com/

Who knew in 1959 that “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park” would morph into official U.S. government public health policy (for us homo sapiens pigeons) in 2020? https://youtu.be/yhuMLpdnOjY

Jonas Edward Salk (1918-1995) was a medical researcher who developed the first vaccine against the polio virus. Before the Salk injected vaccine was introduced in 1955, polio was considered one of the most serious public health problems in the world. The 1952 U.S. epidemic, in which 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with some form of paralysis, was the worst polio outbreak in the nation’s history, and most of its victims were children. According to a 2009 PBS documentary, “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.” During 1953 and 1954, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000; by 1962 that number had dropped to 910. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonas_Salk

“Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible.” https://www.salk.edu/about/history-of-salk/jonas-salk/

Between 1954 and 1961, Albert Sabin (born Abram Saperstein, 1906-1993), a medical researcher, went through a tremendous effort to develop and test an oral vaccine against all three strains of the polio virus. To develop and prove the safety of Sabin’s oral vaccine, upwards of 100 million people — in the USSR, Eastern Europe, Singapore, Mexico and the Netherlands — were tested with it.

The success of that campaign by 1960 opened the door to testing in the United States, on 180,000 school children in Cincinnati. The mass immunization techniques that Sabin pioneered with his associates effectively eradicated polio in Cincinnati, and that technique along with the oral vaccine itself broke the chain of transmission of the virus, and has led over the last four decades to nearly eradicating the disease worldwide.

“Sabin refused to patent his vaccine, waiving every commercial exploitation by pharmaceutical industries, so that the low price would guarantee a more extensive spread of the treatment. From the development of his vaccine Sabin did not gain a penny, and continued to live on his salary as a professor.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Sabin

On 12 April 1922, Frederick Grant Banting (1891-1941), Charles Herbert Best (1899-1978), James Bertram Collip (1892-1965), John James Rickard Macleod (1876-1935), and John Gerald “Gerry” FitzGerald (1882-1940) — the key participants in the project (in Canada) to develop therapeutic insulin, a project initiated by Banting in 1920 — wrote jointly to the president of the University of Toronto to propose assigning the patent for the artificial production of insulin to the Board of Governors of the University in such a way that:

“The patent would not be used for any other purpose than to prevent the taking out of a patent by other persons. When the details of the method of preparation are published anyone would be free to prepare the extract, but no one could secure a profitable monopoly.”

The assignment to the University of Toronto Board of Governors was completed on 15 January 1923, for the token payment of $1.00. Following further concern regarding (drug company) Eli Lilly’s attempts to separately patent parts of the manufacturing process, Robert Defries (Assistant Director and Head of the Insulin Division at Connaught Laboratories, which administered the insulin patent) established a patent pooling policy which would require producers to freely share any improvements to the manufacturing process without compromising affordability. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulin#Discovery

“Tell me someone who’s not a parasite, and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.” — Bob Dylan

Some people are successful in life and lucky, but some are successful at life and are radiant.

Seisetsu, a Zen master in ancient Kamakura, required larger quarters to alleviate the overcrowding of his many students. Umezu Seibei, a well-to-do merchant, decided to donate 500 piecers of gold (called ryo) for that purpose. “All right, I’ll take it,” said Seisetsu. But Umezu was dissatisfied with Seisetsu’s response because a person could live a whole year on 3 ryo, and Umezu had expected an effusive thanks. So he reminded Seisetsu that 500 ryo was a lot of money that he had been donated. “Do you want me to thank you?” asked Seisetsu. “You ought to,” replied Umezu. “Why should I?” asked Seisetsu, “the giver should be thankful.” [see #53 in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps (1895-1990)].

And that’s it, isn’t it?: you donate because you are grateful that you are able to do so. Gratitude is enlightenment, and that is the artistry of gifting.

The Gift is an excellent book, if you are an artist, or at least appreciate art, read it (try your public library). http://www.lewishyde.com/publications/the-gift

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The Smoke Rings of My Mind

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The Smoke Rings of My Mind

I landed in college as a green wide-eyed freshman, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (NOT Penn State!), in September 1968. This was an explosive year, to my mind the most pivotal one in the United States since 1945. My dorm room was in a short cul-de-sac second floor hallway of the large antique pseudo Oxford-Cambridge style ivy-festooned stone masonry men’s dorm quadrangle building off Spruce Street.

I felt really good to finally have gotten out of the prison day-camp Catholic boys high school I’d been in for 4 years, and out of the nice suburban North Shore Long Island town my family lived in during my adolescence (before that being in New York City); and I had a brand spanking new draft deferment that I thought would insulate me from the carnage of the Vietnam War, which was at its peak at that time with the Tet Offensive.

In fact, Lyndon Johnson’s televised speech with the surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection in November 1968 happened two days after my 18th birthday, after which I had to troop down to the post office and register for the draft. That didn’t feel too good believe me, because I’d watched the news and read the papers daily all through high school. Those were my “Greta Thunberg” years, 1964-1968: from the Bay of Tonkin con-job and 1965’s Marine invasion of South Vietnam — “escalatio” as Tom Lehrer called it — to Tet, erupting on January 31, 1968, and pulsing through three bloody phases that year; when I was dreading the fucked-up situation the adults were shoving my way (you know: die for us, it’s good for “the country”).

My own priorities were: #1, study engineering so I could become the next Enzo Ferrari and build my own sports cars; #2, find receptive female companionship to find an outlet for my raging testosterone levels; and #3, stay out of Vietnam. I was not wise as an 18-year-old, I was NORMAL, having been instructed about women (“girls” was the pre-feminist term used then) by Beach Boys songs (those cherub troubadours of the white colonial culture of the Occupied Territories of Mexico’s northern part of Baja California) and Sophia Loren movies.

In the decades since then I’ve come to realize how difficult it is for women everywhere, and most certainly in the United States with its huge proportion of knucklehead males, to accept becoming the “second mothers” to so many needy fake-macho lunkheads: pickings for good husbands, mates and sperm donors (drones in the Bee World) can be slim for so many alert and intelligent women.

But, in the fall of 1968 I was feeling good and with high hopes. I burrowed enthusiastically into my school work and got on the Dean’s List. Three of us in our hallway were socially awkward and stayed in at night from lack of alternatives and fear blunting initiative. Besides, all the coeds had lots of upperclassmen to pick from and who owned cars and had money to spend. So, Joe Williams invited two or three of us to listen to his Bob Dylan records (note: using a plug-in electric machine that played vinyl discs to produce recorded music sounds).

Now, I had heard all the pop music of the day every day before that, because I had gone to my somewhat distant high school in a carpool driven by a neighbor boy’s father (a NYC fireman with rank, so lots of time to call his own), in a Ford Econoline van (a very cute unsafe-as-hell design), and Robert (the son) would put on the radio for every trip. Beside hearing it all in this way (the grating falsetto Sherry Baby too, too many times, but the Rascals on “Good Lovin’” was the best), and outside school it was so easy to hear spillover sounds from radios playing everywhere. At home I listened to the classical music and Spanish Zarzuelas (operettas) so close to my heart. So, by September 1968 I knew about Dylan’s hit songs up to that point.

But, Joe Williams said we had to hear Dylan the right way. Joe turned us on to grass: marijuana. We would sit up through the night listening to Dylan’s 1965 and 1966 albums: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Blonde on Blonde.” We laughed our asses off totally stoned listening to “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” — “everybody must get stoned!” — yeah. It was so hilarious to read the “adult” press on this, where the experts saw in this song a deep poetic cry of alienation. Man, the adult world is just one big blivet of puffery.

I had heard all the popular folk music during its period of prominence, which coincided with the Civil Rights movement from about 1961 to its crescendo in August 1963 when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream to the nation and world from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (which is my favorite single building in Washington D.C.), until its triumphs with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At that point Bob Dylan checked out of the topical political protest folk singer-songwriter role he’d mastered, and moved on artistically. No creative person can stand typecasting. Dylan’s early career in pure folk music was masterful, but I wasn’t into folk music. I turned onto Dylan when he went electric. For me a good song has both good words (even poetry) plus lots of really good instrumental music. And this essay is, believe it or not, about that.

Bob Dylan went on tour in 1966, backed by a 5 piece rock band, 4 of whose musicians (except the drummer) were a longtime group that would emerge on their own in 1968 as “The Band.” Dylan was booed at all his concerts in Europe and at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, as a “traitor” to the pure folk music style his earlier audiences had typecast him into. Even his pals Pete Seeger and Joan Baez were put off. Why?

In the late 1930s, Frank Sinatra exploded into popularity because he revolutionized how pop music was delivered to the fans. Earlier singing phenomena, like Bing Crosby, knew how to croon with projection to make up for the deficiencies of the crude electrified public address systems of the times, if one even existed in the halls they sang in. By Frank’s high school years (which he bailed out on) microphones and amplifiers were improving significantly (“modern” hi-fi equipment was finally introduced by RCA in 1941).

Tony Bennett has perceptively pointed out that with this new equipment Frank Sinatra did not need to project, so he “made love to the microphone” and sang in a very intimate style, and which every listener in the dance halls and over the radio broadcasts felt was delivered just to them, person-to-person. The Bobby-Soxers went ape-shit over this, a mega-scale precursor to the Beatlemania of 20 years later.

This is where Frank Sinatra was a pivotal figure in the evolution of broadcast popular music: he had that smooth melting crooner’s voice (and had even taken voice lessons from an ex-Metropolitan Opera vocal coach), he had lovely breath control (much learned from Jo Stafford, listen to her meltingly wonderful “The Nearness of You”) with which to fashion long lingering phrases, and he had that intimate emotional and yet cool even vulnerable at times feeling, which he conveyed so convincingly.

Bob Dylan’s folk music was conveyed to his initially small audiences in just this intimate way. Even without a P.A. system, a non-projective (non-operatic, non-Irish tenor) style of singing was just fine in the always small coffee houses and folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early 1960s. And of course, Dylan’s albums from 1961 to 1964 carried his recorded intimate-delivery folk music far and wide.

Now, the American folk music of the early ’60s was nothing like the polished hip big band standards that Frank Sinatra put out, but even at its most angry, and ‘protesty’ and ‘shouty’, the folk music of those years was essentially intimate (think Phil Ochs): it spoke to the personal feelings for and dreams of social transformation in each of the audience members, and with minimal acoustic instrumentation. Those songs were usually not stadium-sized sing-along sonic-boom anthems like Freddy Mercury’s “We Will Rock You,” even though Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-changin’,” and “Blowing In The Wind” sort of became ones.

So by 1965, Bob Dylan was typecast by his folk fan base as “their” intimate public voice. But by then Dylan had gotten stoned and was now deep into making group electric music for being stoned. That was the first pop music that could burrow into your stone-cave and light up the panorama movie screen of your stone-mind with its soundtrack — for so many of us lunkhead males, and also for plenty of girls (sorry: women) as I soon learned from direct experience —: the blazing folk-rock of Dylan in 1965 and 1966: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”

The poor folkies who wanted to be aurally cuddled by their post-Beatnik second daddy folksong troubadour wailed about their Big Brother’s abandonment of them. This is where Bob Dylan is a pivotal figure in American (U.S.) broadcast popular music: his was the folk-blues phantasmagoria of proto-rap lyrical torrents cascading out on streams of blazing hot blues-rock electric music that engulfed the newly stoned minds of the emerging adolescent and young adult nymphs, and the innocent drones and satyrs scheduled as cannon fodder for the Vietnam meat-grinder. That was me.

In 1969, I lost my deferment (2S) and was classified as ready for war right then (1A), because of some screw-up where it was reported to the draft board that “my” grades were failures. For those people any boy Garcia was the same person, so I get pegged with someone else’s failure. When I called the draft board to complain about this clerical error, telling them I could send them a copy of my dean’s list letter from the school, the old lady scarecrow on the phone just said to me “once we start the process we just keep going.” Up to 1968, 50% of the Vietnam War casualties among U.S. soldiers were Blacks and Latinos, always sent out “on point” by their white-boy lieutenant platoon commanders ‘leading’ their men, from the rear, into jungle ambuscades (I heard about such things from first hand recollections by Puerto Rican veterans who survived their 1960s in Vietnam).

So I basically lost my mind, desperate to achieve my goal #2 before being done in by a failure to meet goal #3; and I kept up my studies in the hopes of being ultimately able to proceed with my career ambitions to do engineering and science in a creative way, should I survive. I eventually lucked out by getting a very high number in the draft lottery of December 1969, and so I was passed over for being inducted into the U.S. military.

And during those years of 1968 and 1969, I listened to much music designed to accompany being stoned: Dylan, Doors, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and even Crosby Stills and Nash. Janis and CSN were favorites in the girls’ dorms (dorms were segregated by sex in those days, so making an overnight stay involved careful planning and inside help to pull off, like a bank heist caper). I learned much about all this music from the young ladies — all of them far more socially aware than me, keenly informed about pop music, and all very bright — who accepted me into their group company to listen to records at night.

After 1969 I started becoming an adult, but that is another story. Last tip: put Crème de menthe into your bong instead of water, especially helpful with hashish.

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ED: Election Day

52 State Flag (proposed); if add Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

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ED: Election Day

I voted for the guy
who would destroy America
at a slower pace.
I’m sentimental, I have kids.

I’m all for Socialism,
I’d just hate having to do it
with Americans.

The Democrats are all for voting
so long as only they
and Republicans
get to do it.

The Republicans are against voting
for everyone
except themselves.

The U.S.A. is a capitalist democracy
which means
elections are bought.
“Bribery” is called
“campaign contributions.”

Why not have Election Week?
A paid time off
National Holiday
during which all votes
are easily counted.
(I know, I know:
there’s no profit in it,
and too damn much fairness.)

Why not have
Parliamentary Democracy?
(I know, I know:
there’s no profit in it,
and too damn much fairness.)

Vote for Blue no matter who?
or
Better Dead than Red?
Ave Imperator
E pluribus unum
Morituri te salutant.

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

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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.”

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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
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint-Exup%C3%A9ry

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
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind,_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]
https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/30-december-1935-wind-sand-stars/

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]
https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/29-june-1900/

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]
https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/31-july-1944/

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.

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Happy 200th, Herman!

Herman Melville, 1870

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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

Notes

(1) Herman Melville
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville

All images of Herman Melville here are from Wikipedia.

(2) The Life and Works of Herman Melville
http://www.melville.org/

(3) Deconstructing cannibalism
5 January 2016
https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/05/deconstructing-cannibalism/

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
https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/23/the-confidence-man/

(5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples
16 February 2008
https://louisproyect.org/2008/02/16/herman-melville-and-indigenous-peoples/

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

 

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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.

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Appreciating F. Scott Fitzgerald

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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)

https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

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:
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2019/03/16/i-learn-about-f-scott-fitzgerald/

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.]
https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/

The Moment F. Scott Fitzgerald Knew He Was a Failure
By Lili Anolik
Sep 22, 2015
https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a38113/f-scott-fitzgerald-1015/

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.

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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].

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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].”

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

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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

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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)
https://youtu.be/uzxx8C2xWDc

Getting Straight (1970, stills and music)
https://youtu.be/vWER0TLWLuo

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I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with daughter Scottie

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I Learn About 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 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. Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)
https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

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