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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Imprisoned Souls

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Imprisoned Souls

We live in a world rich in its diversity of intolerance of independent thought and self-directed living.

Such expressions of personal independence and creativity are threats to the slavish conformity of the mass of fearful, repressed people hiding in their submissiveness to traditional ideologies that give them status in social hierarchies that limit the full human potential of the individual.

This maintains, without merit, the elevation of patriarchs and power-hungry mediocrities, who clip the wings of the human spirit, and direct the enforcement of their systems of mental and physical imprisonment of the masses serving them.

1 October 2018

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Ella García’s response to “Imprisoned Souls”:

I read it, and in my limited life experience I agree. But now, for my sake, I want you to write one last stanza with encouraging words. I’m noticing what you just said in everyday life and I want happy words.

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A Self-Directed Life

Even in the most restrictive of societies, it is always possible for a person to keep their independence of thought alive, at a minimum as an inner experience and unexpressed part of daily life. From that oasis of freedom, you can do two things:

— work out your artistry, even if it is only mentally, or if it is as simple as the perfection of the skills of awareness and deft action that you apply to your work and your routine actions; and

— be conscious to incorporate your accumulating observations and experiences into the strengthening and refinement of your own moral character.

Retaining control of who you are as an authentic human being — regardless of external circumstances — is the essence of leading a self-directed life.

If and when you are fortunate enough to live in better and freer social circumstances, then take advantage of your luck by using the opportunities open to you, to expand your artistic efforts and to reach for achieving your full human potential.

The joys of life do not hang from trees like ripe fruit ready to be picked, nor sweep into you as gifts like balmy breezes at the summer seashore. They are born out of you as a natural consequence of leading a self-directed life.

Live long and prosper.

2 October 2018

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Why the Columbine and Las Vegas Massacres?

After the 1999 school massacre in Columbine, Colorado – an exurbia community – by two disaffected teenage boys (who also killed themselves), I came to the conclusion that the killers’ “motive” was not at all a purposeful urge, goal, revenge or obsession, but instead a complete self-abandonment into nihilism – a giving up – and the horrible eruption of that destructive nihilism was a symptom of those boys’ lack of culture – an abysmal lack of culture. I see the same about Stephen Paddock, the shooter in Las Vegas; his fury to kill emerged out of a profound lack of culture.

It seems to me that these rapid-fire suicide-killers had been born into and raised (probably somewhat thoughtlessly) in a cultural void. Their world was a generic beyond-suburbia commuter outpost of sprawl, malls, video games and Internet pablum and porn, instead of real books of literature, real art instead of plastic flamingo-level decorations, and real music instead of throwaway canned between-commercials pop. They had never absorbed real culture, which is the emotional and intellectual glue that binds an individual to the wider human communities both in the present and through the long arc of time.

Those boys (young and old) had lives of material ease, but they had absolutely no spirit because the nurturing and feeding of the spirit – the essential purpose of culture – was absent from their lives. I believe the spiritual-cultural hollowness of their cores was a reflection of the spiritual-cultural desert that was their environment.

By their late teens the two Columbine killers had had enough of it, and could see nothing in their possible 60 to 70 years of future living except more of the same. That “more of the same” is the listless life Stephen Paddock lived until he too had had enough, at age 64. As they looked into their futures the Columbine teens could have thought that maybe they could become insurance agents or realtors, or some other “normal” occupation that would see them harnessed to the spinning wheels of pointless money-making. And they would have their free time to be just as hollow as their comfort-providing work would be: more video games or video poker?, hanging out at the same beer joints with the same kind of empty-headed crowd?, watching another game on TV?, getting married and keeping up the same kind of families they had grown up in?

What would be the point? It was like looking down an arrow-straight empty four-lane freeway across a dry-lake salt-flat that stretched out to their 80th year and led to nothing but a dead end. Why spend the better part of a century bored, waiting to get to nowhere after having spent the whole trip doing nothing because nobody cared anyway, and end up just as useless as they were now, then die unnoticed and thereafter remain forgotten? Why not cut out all the slow stuff, the boring, tiresome waiting and pointless work, and just get one incredible orgasmically exciting machine-gun humping high, and then check out in a blink before the let-down set in?

I think it is the deep, personal absorption of and sensitivity to culture, and even tradition, that fills a psyche with the substance needed for living life joyfully; and the substance which occupies what would otherwise be a spiritual-cultural void that can only produce interminable lassitude or explosions of destructive nihilism erupting out of deeply submerged despair.

I think the appreciative absorption of culture, along with the received gifts of affectionate nurturing, kind friendship and confident love, are the necessary courses in a complete education of the human heart. I see major tragedies like the Columbine and Las Vegas massacres, as well as so many little-noticed murders of the same sort, to be the result of our society’s many failures at providing all our people with that necessary education of the heart.

I was prompted to write these comments after reading the following article, pointed out to me by Anthony Tarrant.

I went to School with the Vegas Shooter
Greg Palast
13 October 2017
https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/10/i-went-to-school-with-the-vegas-shooter/

See Anthony’s comments at his blog page:

Why Stephen Paddock Snapped In Vegas
15 October 2017
https://anthonytarrant.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/why-stephen-paddock-snapped-in-vegas/

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The photo above is of John F. Kennedy’s grave as it appeared in April 1964. My photos of this grave are the only ones I have with any relation to guns and gun violence.

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Now published at Dissident Voice:

Why the Columbine and Las Vegas Massacres?
18 October 2017
https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/10/why-the-columbine-and-las-vegas-massacres/

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My Favorite Classics

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This article originally appeared as:

My Favorite Classics
30 July 2012
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci51.html

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Books

•   History Of The Peloponnesian War (~411 BC), by Thucydides (English translation by Rex Warner, Penguin Books)

A coolly analytical and psychologically probing account of the 5th century BC war between Athens and Sparta. War is the continuation of politics by violent means. Thucydides’s insights on the hows and whys of war and rebellion: democracy devolving to demagoguery, subversion, mutiny, revolt, atrocities, revolution, conquest, dictatorship, alliances, balance of power, foreign intervention, hegemony, and overreach, are timeless. This is a book for the ages.

•   The Three Musketeers (1844), by Alexandre Dumas (English translation)

This sparkling novel is the combination of a hero tale of a young man vanquishing opposition to gain an honored place in society, with a friendship tale of men bonded by “one for all and all for one” while maneuvering around the political intrigues of their nation’s first minister and shadow ruler, to maintain their personal honor and rescue that of their spoiled and indolent royal patrons, by relying on their valor and swordsmanship. Glorious.

•   The Brothers Karamazov (1880), by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (English translation)

This is a passionate philosophical novel about the moral struggles and ethical conflicts erupting through the love affairs, hunt for wealth, spiritual quests, cognitive dissonances, and crimes of the three (or four) Karamazov brothers and their dissolute father; and an expansive intricate meditation on the fracturing of the medieval Christian mysticism of the Russian psyche impacted by 19th century industrialization, and the seepage of rationalism and nihilism in through the fissures. Epic and probing.

•   Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (1884), by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

Mark Twain wrote that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and Huckleberry Finn is “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” Because of his innate good character and his beneficial friendship with Jim, an escaped slave, the adolescent Huckleberry Finn comes to see black slavery and its enabling racism as morally wrong despite their being treated as upright and legally essential to American society, by the white adults of his time. This is the quintessential American novel, scintillating and funny, still fresh, still relevant, still controversial.

•   The Rebel (1951), by Albert Camus (English translation of L’Homme révolté by Anthony Bower, Vintage, 1991)

This book is a philosophy of politics exploring the idea and attitude of rebellion throughout European history. Once you rebel at allowing a particular injustice to continue, you become increasingly open to rebelling against the continuation of other injustices. This expansion of rebelliousness as a consequence of increasing awareness of injustices distinguishes the archetypal socialist from his opposite, the archetypal Tory, whose mind shuts out sympathy to remain focused on the personal association with privileging power. Allowing increased awareness of injustices to expand your rebelliousness against the powers that are indifferent to them, or cause them, brings you into community with the bulk of humanity: “I rebel, therefore we exist.”

•   The Way Of Zen (1957), by Alan Watts

A book of organic completeness, elegant clarity, and absorbing calmness on the historical development of Zen Buddhism, and the expression of its practice through the arts and as a personal attitude. Buddhist insight about the human condition emerged from Hinduism, unfolded with breathtaking expansiveness as the Mahayana school, spread from the Indian subcontinent throughout southeast Asia and north past the Himalayas to Tibet and China, where it combined with Taoism to produce the Chan Buddhism of the Tang Dynasty, and spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan as Zen Buddhism, the thoughtless direct experience of enlightenment. Refreshing.

Music

•   Le Nozze Di Figaro (1786), music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro is an effervescent comic opera on the wiles of the servants Figaro and his fiancé Susanna to thwart the philandering intent of their master, Count Almaviva, which threatens their wedding and their prospects for continued employment, as well as grieving Countess Almaviva. After a day of madness, all ends well. Da Ponte’s witty and politically clever adaptation of Pierre Beaumarchais’s play is spirited along by Mozart’s gloriously frothy and tuneful music, a masterpiece of art.

•   Variations And Fugue On A Theme By Handel, Opus 24 (1861), solo piano music by Johannes Brahms

Brahms invented a little Baroque theme for the piano, attributing it to George Frideric Handel, and then spun a glorious series of variations on it. Every tempo and musical mood is encountered here, from sparkling songbird-like warbling one could imagine in a Rococo landscape as painted by Watteau, to the ponderous pulsations of the dark lower depths of the collective unconscious of late 19th century Europe, when God died giving birth to psychology, Marxism, evolution, and quantum physics.

•   La Bohème (1896), music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacoso

The second half of Act 1, when Mimi and Rodolfo meet and fall in love, carried along by waves of the lushest romantic music ever composed, which swirls and swells through arias (Che gelida manina, and Sì, mi chiamano Mimì) and duets (O soave fanciulla) of wondrous melodic lyricism, can lift an appreciative listener out of the deadening banality of the routine, gladdening the heart and flooding the mind with the intrinsic beauty of life. The entire opera is a cascade of music as effulgent as the splendor and heartache of love itself.

•   Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956), vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, orchestra conducted and arranged by Buddy Bregman, songs composed by Cole Porter

Cole Porter’s tunefully witty songs seem to say all that can be said about living and loving in the modern America that burst out of the 1920s and raced through a turbulent 20th century. Ella Fitzgerald was the unparalleled jazz and American popular song vocalist of that century. With Ella, the words are always so clear, the emotion so simple and direct, the voice so pure, warm, radiant and natural, and the song is always perfect.

•   West Side Story (1957), musical conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, film version (1961) produced and directed by Robert Wise

Romeo and Juliet replayed in 1950s Upper West Side Manhattan, a musical theatre production with high-energy singer-dancers giving life to lyrics, music, and dance that are too cool to be classical, too classical to be pop, and too with-it to ever get old. In this retelling of the tale, Romeo Montague is a Polish-American boy, Tony, whose family-of-the-streets is the white boy gang, The Jets. The Juliet Capulet here is Maria, a Puerto Rican girl who, along with many thousands of her people, has migrated from the Island, and whose older brother leads a gang of Puerto Rican turf defenders, The Sharks. It is vivid, taut, rhythmic, and moving.

•   Morrison Hotel (1970), words and music by The Doors (Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore)

The flowering of the Baby Boom generation out of its 1960s adolescence and into its first golden years of adulthood was, for many American boy-men of the time, hammered back into itself by the oppressive demands for conscript warriors and national treasure by America’s Vietnam War. I was one the war was reaching to pull in. For me, the intensity of the cognitive dissonance between experiencing the expanding consciousness of maturing youth, awakening to the many possibilities of a long and fruitful life, yet simultaneously confronting the implacable colossus of Death intent to absorb me immediately by war, is captured by the rock and roll and blues music of this unrelenting album by The Doors. Spellbinding.

Films

•   The Maltese Falcon (1941), by John Huston, with: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr.

Unraveling a good yarn based on Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel of the same name, The Maltese Falcon has a taut screenplay unreeled at a fast pace, memorable characters, wit, mystery, suspense, action, and a hero possessing an admirable toughness of character. An unequalled American film classic that is impossible to duplicate.

•   Casablanca (1942), by Michael Curtiz, with: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson

The greatest Hollywood movie ever. Why? Because it is about the triumph of character despite the selfish desire for love, and despite the onset of dark times with corrupting ideologies. In this story, a very regular and emotionally-damaged guy comes to realize that maintaining an incorruptible character is his greatest asset. From this, he can redirect his life into a principled fight against the evils of his time, and find fulfillment in that choice even with no guarantee that he and the other defenders of decency, freedom, and human dignity will be successful, or that he will survive. But, we know he will.

•   The Big Sleep (1946), by Howard Hawks, with: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Sonia Darrin, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook, Jr., Bob Steele, Louis Jean Heydt

A tangled detective story based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, unraveled in a most fascinating way, with lingering ambiguities, and accompanied by many witticisms, spasms of action, and numerous instances of exquisitely-sexual repartee. Perhaps having a future Nobel laureate as one of the screenwriters (William Faulkner) helped produce a film that rewards endless viewing. This is the ultimate hard-boiled detective story, “it has all that the Falcon had, and more.”

•   Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa, with: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki

This cinema masterpiece appeared nine years after Japan’s devastating defeat in the Pacific War and at the start of its four decades of amazing economic growth. In this film, Kurosawa and his collaborators looked to Japan’s past with new postwar eyes and hopes focused on the future. This film’s vitality reflected the resurgence of Japanese society, remembering its cultural wisdom and capacity for endurance as embodied in Zen and samurai traditions, while reinventing itself into a late 20th century Asian Tiger economy. The film itself has a wonderful screenplay, visually stunning photography (Kurosawa shone lights into mirrors and onto faces to make them glow, and dyed the rain black sprayed by fire trucks); and the pacing never falters whether in quiet and intimate scenes, comedy, expansive and majestic scenes, or during the fury and chaos of battle. “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself.”

•   Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), by David Lean, with: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, I. S. Johar

This is an epic about an Englishman’s romance for adventure ripening into bitter wisdom, by being subjected to the furious heat of desert warfare waged against Turkish artillery and mechanized forces during World War I by Bedouins with handguns on camelback. It is also an epic about “the great game,” the unprincipled schemes of European imperialists to gain control of the sources of the world’s petroleum, and of the related struggles by “the natives,” the many poor, dark-skinned populations living atop subterranean deposits of fossil wealth, to gain their independence. Finally, it is a story about love through companionship, and of the psychological scarring caused by rejection. This film is a glorious widescreen color epic with lush and rapturous music, and a stupendous cast with each member playing his part perfectly. Magnificent.

•   The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), by Richard Lester, with: Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Michael York, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Simon Ward, Geraldine Chaplin, Jean-Pierre Cassel

These two scintillating films are the two halves of the perfect “Three Musketeers” movie. Originally intended to be shown together as a two-part epic, they were released as two separate movies a year apart because of a clash between contractual obligations to exhibitors, and the difficulties of completing the editing of the final product. These films follow Dumas’s novel reasonably closely, for which we are thankful, and the wonderfully written screenplay includes some inventive flourishes that help move the action along briskly and give the films their verve and kick. Oliver Reed at his peak embodies the character of Athos (an unmatched portrayal in my opinion), Faye Dunaway plays the malevolent Milady de Winter with delicious guile and enchantment, Christopher Lee is a superbly menacing Comte de Rochefort, Richard Chamberlain has finally given us a cinema Aramis with the wit of Dumas’s original, and the rest of the cast all play their parts delightfully. For those who love The Three Musketeers, this film is a joy for the ages.

Enjoy!

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My Favorite Classics (Books, Music, Films)

Swans has just published a Special Summer Edition with recommendations on books, music and films, by fourteen authors including yours truly. Each author lists and comments on about 5 or 6 recommended books, 5 or 6 works of music, and 5 or 6 favorite movies. In total about 230 works are reviewed, a wide and interesting array from which you might easily find a few that would add to your summer enjoyment. I was the editor of this special issue of Swans. My own particular article in it is:

My Favorite Classics (Books, Music, Films)
30 July 2012
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci51.html

Culture is a refuge in times when the individual has little temporal power. Enjoy it and it may reward you with fresh inspiration.