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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The Melting of the Fortress of Solitude

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The Melting of the Fortress of Solitude

The American dream is the eternal one: wealth by luck, power by wealth, and freedom from responsibility by power. The American nightmare is our most democratized experience: impoverishment by design, powerlessness by impoverishment, and the shackling of the powerless to responsibility for the crimes of wealth.

We live in a mediocracy, the mark of failure is success. To be fully human is to fail at being a successfully commodified robot.

The orgy of gun violence we live with daily is the product of a complete failure to craft and make universally available systems of genuine education. It is because minds are depreciated and discarded en masse to facilitate the obsession for accumulation that our mass consumption and massive violence are so pervasively mindless. We are drowning in the blood of our own unacknowledged denial, our own decapitated awareness of responsibility.

Genius for social uplift and human enlightenment are quarantined as diseased, as deadly infectious threats to the barbaric insanity of our approved nationalist ideology — as they rightly are. Ours is a society of blithe mad mediocrity, which is only confused by the continuing urge of the excluded to resist their impoverishment and disappearance. The ploughing under from public visibility of the exploited disfavored and the powerless meritorious is our greatest and most assiduously censored tragedy; but the coincident creeping destruction of a species that lusts for its viral affliction to sociopathic degeneracy, and its own ultimate extinction, is not. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad. Character is fate.

Some would say it has always been so throughout human history, and others would say that today’s American societal rot is of recent origin: since Trump?, since Bush?, since Reagan?, since Nixon?, since the defeat of Henry Wallace?, since the end of World War I and the death of Eugene V. Debs?, since the betrayal of Lincoln’s last hopes by the tawdry Grant administration and in the fatal corruption of Reconstruction after the Civil War? Regardless, it is our tolerance for that rot today and our obliviousness to history before yesterday that is our fundamental civic sin. The scrawny weed poking through the cracks in that blanketing obliviousness is hope.

Hope is a delusion that makes it possible to get through life day by day, and so it is immensely valuable. Perhaps by the unpredictable quantum fluctuations of the physical universe, and the unknowable future emergent variants of genetic succession, hope will percolate through the obstacles of our times to decisively kill off the obdurate fearful bigotries that collectively imprison us, and to miraculously deliver us — more likely our descendants, should we have any — into a humane form of advanced civilization.

And while the despairingly idealistic and fearfully materialistic will mock the popular yearnings for liberation as stupid millennialist naïveté, those yearnings will persist as long as they are denied realization, whether that end-of-history is the improbable and transcendent enlightenment of our species, or the implacable iron socialism of extinction brought about by Nature’s indifferent abandonment of us all.

Our compulsions are willed, not pre-ordained. Our particular isolations are the triumph of mediocrity over the potential of humanity. It is our coldness of heart that is melting our finest dreams.

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Lorca, Balada de la placeta, Español-English

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Balada de la placeta, a poem by Federico García Lorca (5 June 1898 – 19 August 1936), appears three times here:

1, the original Spanish
(as found on one internet site, https://mir-es.com/redis.php?g=lorca&link=774)

2, the above with a line-by-line literal translation

3, my attempt at a “poetic” English translation/paraphrase (with many compromises).

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Español:

Balada de la placeta
(Federico García Lorca)

Cantan los niños
en la noche quieta;
¡arroyo claro,
fuente serena!

Los niños

¿Qué tiene tu divino
corazón en fiesta?

Yo

Un doblar de campanas
perdidas en la niebla.

Los niños

Ya nos dejas cantando
en la plazuela.
¡Arroyo claro,
fuente serena!

¿Qué tienes en tus manos
de primavera?

Yo

Una rosa de sangre
y una azucena.

Los niños

Mójalas en el agua
de la canción añeja.
¡Arroyo claro,
fuente serena!

¿Qué sientes en tu boca
roja y sedienta?

Yo

El sabor de los huesos
de mi gran calavera.

Los niños

Bebe el agua tranquila
de la canción añeja.
¡Arroyo claro,
fuente serena!

¿Por qué te vas tan lejos
de la plazuela?

Yo

¡Voy en busca de magos
y de princesas!

Los niños

¿Quién te enseñó el camino
de los poetas?

Yo

La fuente y el arroyo
de la canción añeja.

Los niños

¿Te vas lejos, muy lejos
del mar y de la tierra?

Yo

Se ha llenado de luces
mi corazón de seda,
de campanas perdidas,
de lirios y de abejas,
y yo me iré muy lejos,
más allá de esas sierras,
más allá de los mares,
cerca de las estrellas,
para pedirle a Cristo
Señor que me devuelva
mi alma antigua de niño,
madura de leyendas,
con el gorro de plumas
y el sable de madera.

Los niños

Ya nos dejas cantando
en la plazuela,
¡arroyo claro,
fuente serena!

Las pupilas enormes
de las frondas resecas
heridas por el viento,
lloran las hojas muertas.

1919

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Literal translation:

Balada de la placeta
[ballad of the little square/plaza]
(Federico García Lorca)

Cantan los niños
[the children sing]
en la noche quieta;
[in the quiet night]
¡arroyo claro,
[clear stream!]
fuente serena!
[serene spring/fountain!]

Los niños
[the children]

¿Qué tiene tu divino
[what has your divine]
corazón en fiesta?
[heart so festive?]

Yo
[me]

Un doblar de campanas
[a doublet/pair of bells]
perdidas en la niebla.
[lost in the fog/mist.]

Los niños
[the children]

Ya nos dejas cantando
[you/it already leaves/has us singing]
en la plazuela.
[in the little square]
¡Arroyo claro,
[clear stream!]
fuente serena!
[serene spring!]

¿Qué tienes en tus manos
[what do you have in your hands]
de primavera?
[of springtime?]

Yo
[me]

Una rosa de sangre
[a rose of blood / a blood rose]
y una azucena.
[and a lily.]

Los niños
[the children]

Mójalas en el agua
[wet them in the water]
de la canción añeja.
[of the aged/old song.]
¡Arroyo claro,
[clear stream!]
fuente serena!
[serene spring!]

¿Qué sientes en tu boca
[what do you feel in your mouth]
roja y sedienta?
[red and thirsty?]

Yo
[me]

El sabor de los huesos
[the flavor of the bones]
de mi gran calavera.
[of my great skull.]

Los niños
[the children]

Bebe el agua tranquila
[drink the tranquil water]
de la canción añeja.
[of the aged song.]
¡Arroyo claro,
[clear stream!]
fuente serena!
[serene spring!]

¿Por qué te vas tan lejos
[why do you go so far]
de la plazuela?
[from the little plaza?]

Yo
[me]

¡Voy en busca de magos
[I go in search of magicians]
y de princesas!
[and of princesses!]

Los niños
[the children]

¿Quién te enseñó el camino
[who showed you the way/path]
de los poetas?
[of the poets?]

Yo
[me]

La fuente y el arroyo
[the spring and the stream]
de la canción añeja.
[of the aged/old song.]

Los niños
[the children]

¿Te vas lejos, muy lejos
[are you going far, very far]
del mar y de la tierra?
[from the sea and from the earth?]

Yo
[me]

Se ha llenado de luces
[it has filled with lights]
mi corazón de seda,
[my heart of silk,]
de campanas perdidas,
[of lost bells]
de lirios y de abejas,
[of lilies and bees,]
y yo me iré muy lejos,
[and I will go very far,]
más allá de esas sierras,
[further than those mountains,]
más allá de los mares,
[further than the seas,]
cerca de las estrellas,
[close to the stars,]
para pedirle a Cristo
[to ask Christ]
Señor que me devuelva
[please God give me back]
mi alma antigua de niño,
[my ancient childhood heart,]
madura de leyendas,
[ripe with legends]
con el gorro de plumas
[with a plumed/feathered hat]
y el sable de madera.
[and the wooden saber.]

Los niños
[the children]

Ya nos dejas cantando
[already you/it leaves/has us singing]
en la plazuela,
[in the little square,]
¡arroyo claro,
[clear stream!]
fuente serena!
[serene spring!]

Las pupilas enormes
[the enormous (eye)pupils]
de las frondas resecas
[of the dried fronds]
heridas por el viento,
[wounded by the wind,]
lloran las hojas muertas.
[cry/crying the dead leaves.]

1919

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English “poetic” translation/paraphrase

Ballad of the little plaza
(Federico García Lorca)

Children are singing
in the night so still,
with clarity streaming
and serenity fills.

The children:

Why is your heart, so divine,
so festive at this time?

Me:

A duet of bells is peeling clear
lost in mists to sight, not ear

The children:

Already, you have us singing
in this little square,
with clarity streaming
and serenity fills.

What is it you are holding
in your springtime hands?

Me:

A blood rose so lovely,
and so white just one lily

The children:

Dip them in the waters that moisten
from the aged song to freshen,
with clarity streaming
and serenity fills.

What is your mouth now feeling
to be so red and thirsty?

Me:

The taste of these my bones
from off my skull’s great dome.

The children:

Drink of the tranquil water
that is this old song’s patter,
with clarity streaming
and serenity fills.

Why go away so far
from this our little square?

Me:

I go to find magicians,
and also princesses.

The children:

Who has shown you the pathway
that leads to poetry?

Me:

The springing source, the flowing stream
of that song as old as dreams

The children:

Are you going far, so far
beyond sea and land, so far?

Me:

A glow of lights has filled my heart
made of silk and now not dark,
it’s also filled with lost bell sounds,
with bees and lily bundles bound.
For I will go away so far
past where you see those mountains are
even further than the seas,
to climb up to the stars at night
and give my plea to Jesus Christ
God, won’t You please return to me
my childhood heart that used to be,
with legends richly ripened then,
and plume my hat to once again
my wooden sword in hand extend!

The children:

Already, you have us singing
in this little square,
with clarity streaming
and serenity fills.

The enormous pupils of the eyes
of those dried and withered fronds
that were wounded by the winds
are crying tears of now dead leaves.

1919

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Mister Yes-Know and Mistress No-No

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Mister Yes-Know and Mistress No-No

People live, people die
People laugh, people cry
People love, people lie
People lose, people fly.

Don’t say what I don’t want to hear
Don’t do what I don’t want to see
Don’t think what I don’t want to know
Don’t feel what I don’t want to be.

Mister passive-aggressive co-dependent
Mistress obsessive-compulsive unrepentant
Acute anticipatory anxiety ascendant,
A mystery inevitably uncomprehended.

Sometimes my art is of quality high
Sometimes my art is of quality low
However it crosses the public eye
I’m always delighted, I love it so.

31 March 2019

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One Soul Saved

 

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One Soul Saved

To believe that climate change can be averted is to believe that humanity can rapidly improve itself morally. Maybe it will, I can’t say. For me, it is better to believe in an ennobling vision and pursue it for a lifetime, even if it fails, than to submit to a tawdry comfortable slavery, which is the cause of that massively popular failure. Aspiring to better humanity is lonely work easily inundated by oceanic inattention and unconscious ingratitude. All that you may gain could only be the bracing realization that you at least kept faith with the honorable in nature during your brief twinkle of living consciousness: one soul saved.

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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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Translucent

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Translucent

I found myself in a cloud of unknowing,
surprised
after journeying with intention for so long.
Everything had fallen away,
renewed emptiness gave life clarity ahead,
bleached of the past,
a wild tropic strand glinting in the blazing dazzle
of liquid crystalline awareness,
the light of day alone in its pristine expanse,
a surviving castaway whose old world drifted
as ghost mist evaporating far out at sea
while fresh footprints in the sand
led from moist cool to dry warmth
up to beckoning verdant meadows deeper in.

It’s a kindness to remember the old moorings,
but I’m no longer there, unnoticed still by long habit.
People don’t annoy as much when not around,
and there’s no reason to explain what isn’t needed,
unthrottling time, dilating space,
receding horizons, demisting vistas.
Things all have their times
and all times fade to nothing
beyond the reach of entangling rescues
by urgent nets of anxiety and possessing wants
left echoless in the wake of this absorbing quiet
filled with possibilities of thought.
Don’t worry to reinter me into old illusions,
I’m not lost, I’m free.

4 March 2019

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