Conversations June 25, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

5:45 AM. Trees like islands in the milky white fog, layer after layer of them.

Okay, Papa. Let’s talk. I finished Gatsby again early yesterday, and got into Tender Is The Night — 50 pages or so. It certainly starts off slowly. I’m having to restrain my impatience. If I had just picked it up for no reason, I’d have put it down nearly at once. After your prose, clicking and moving, it’s hard to be patient with somebody describing the night sky hung like a bowl from a single star —

You might as well put in your appreciation for Gatsby that you wrote yesterday, though.

Okay. [Begin]

9:15 AM. Gatsby is still a terrific book. It seems to me, though, that Gatsby’s life and success — if it may be called a success, anyway his life that he built — reflect Fitzgerald’s naïve romanticism quite as much as Gatsby’s. It takes a romantic to dream up something like that. In a way, it’s Hemingway in his immature period of trying to be published in the Saturday Evening Post, only complete with a devastatingly effective style. For the first time maybe I see Hemingway’s meaning in saying that Fitzgerald had all that talent but hadn’t done the observation necessary to portray something true. It’s a terrific book, but it’s a boy’s story like Treasure Island, only transposed into material that wouldn’t have been suitable to, or acceptable to, boys. It is a boy’s idea of how the wicked world functions. Only — boys don’t commonly assume that wickedness prospers — or even could prosper, and they don’t factor in stupidity in human affairs. Time gives them these factors.


Those of us who knew him could see that, always, of course. Speaking of impatience, I was always impatient that he hadn’t taken the time to learn his trade — and one element of the writer’s trade is to know and understand the human heart, not just his own. Where his plot and characters could be constructed out of himself, he did fine. Gatsby, “The Lost Decade.” But when he had to report what he had not observed, or had to understand what he had seen but not understood, he was at a severe disadvantage. And it seemed to us that he didn’t need to be.

It looked to you like a waste of talent.

Terrible waste of talent. It was one thing, you know, if you were born with no talent, or no opportunities. Then if you didn’t get any place, didn’t accomplish anything, whose fault was it? But to be given everything, so that with just a little application, a little discipline, a little consistent hard work as a regular feature of his life even if his wife was crazy, even if she was crazy jealous of his work and did her best to sabotage it, with all that natural talent he should have been able to be the greatest writer of his generation. Or — okay, so writers can’t be ranked — let’s say he could have been, and should have been, would definitely have been, a phenomenon, not just a phenom.

For the non-baseball-fans out there, a “phenom” is what the old-timers and the observers call the new kids who come up to the Majors with a great prospective reputation; i.e., they’re going to do great things. Often enough, a “phenom” is only a flash in the pan.

So, Papa, do you still think that way?

Well, it’s tragedy all over again, like your discussion with Carl the other day. Given what he was, the whole curve of his life could have been pretty well predicted from outside. What looks — inside time-space; on your side of the physical/non-physical line — like avoidable misfortune or waste or even open-handed stupidity may look different on this side, where what went into the makeup of that “individual” is more obvious, and where we are more aware of the interaction between person-group and social-group, as your guys are calling them.

Fitzgerald as a person was created as a metaphor for the 20s as an era, you’re saying.

It might be closer to say, he was created out of the stuff of the postwar era, and his possibilities and those of the age were in close sync, which is why he met that amazing instant success.

So, as Fitzgerald went, so went the Jazz Age?

Let’s go into this a little more carefully, and I think Carl’s temperament and experience — what he brought over to this side, in other words, his developed self — can explain things more easily, in the same way (and for the same reason) that you can bring forth some kinds of information easier than other kinds.

Makes sense. All right, welcome as always, Dr. Jung.

You should beware of ever envying someone who meets sudden, easy success, because such a one is nearly always marked as having a task to perform that will probably be beyond human strength. You will notice perhaps how many people who attain such success in youth die young, or break, or both.

This is not the same thing as someone coming into the world with a specific talent or set of talents and developing them throughout a long lifetime, and the two cases are often confused one with the other.

I’m sensing some musicians as examples — Mozart, but I can’t get the counterpart. Oh, Beethoven, I take it.

Mozart came in flying, no time to lose. He never lost his connection, never had “external” troubles that came between him and reception of the music that came to him continually — a supernova, burning himself out relatively young. Beethoven had to work, to struggle, to develop and deepen his talent. But this is not a good analogy for what I want to convey. Let us state it abstractly — which will make Ernest wince — and then perhaps specific application will suggest itself.

In the shaping of the prospective person — or person-group, as we are saying for the purpose of continually reminding you of a new way of thinking about yourselves and your situation in the earth — there enters a great combination of factors, and this regardless of one’s opinion about reincarnation. As should be obvious, the physical heredity of the new person-group determines the limits of its possibilities. If the new person-group is born here, it cannot be born there, if of these parents with their combined inheritance of traits physical, mental, emotional, etc. and their inheritance of preferences, developed skills, etc., then clearly it cannot be of those parents with theirs. Therefore, regardless whether you choose to see this new incarnation as a re-incarnation or as a new creation — and it seems to me merely a question of how one wishes to consider it — where and when and to whom one is born are necessary limiting factors. This is not unfortunate, it is unavoidable. No element in creation can be unlimited: How could it have shape or form if it were without limits?

Now suppose in the shaping of an individual’s limitations, a combination is chosen that will represent certain traits that will become dominant in the place and time into which he is to live. There you have your representative of certain traits — a certain strand — of that culture-group, social-group.

Napoleon was one such world-historical figure. He did what he did out of what he was. He always knew what to do, which direction to go to represent the things external to himself that were also internal to himself. So long as that correspondence of inner and outer lasted, he could not be defeated or halted no matter what missteps or crimes he might commit. And then — as he himself foresaw — when the correspondence was not there, he fell and the causes of his fall were his own actions that, given who and what he was, could hardly have been avoided.

Goethe is another example, easily as great as Napoleon but not yet — not even yet, so long after he is gone — appreciated for what he did, and was. Nor will I stop for that. You may add it to your list of things to pursue later, if you wish. I was one, Ernest was one, Fitzgerald was one. It isn’t necessarily so obvious and immediately world-changing a phenomenon as Napoleon was. Neither is it necessarily as rare as one might be tempted to think. By far the greatest expressions of a given time and place live and die unnoticed by contemporaries or by history, and this is as it should be. However, in using biography as a touchstone for what one might call inner psychology, or perhaps other-side-explicated biography, we are necessarily constrained to use examples that will be recognized. Of what use would it be to describe as example the way in which an unknown elderly sergeant in Napoleon’s army epitomized and expressed his own local social-group?

I take it we are saying that the tragedy of Fitzgerald — tragic in the “fated result of his inherent makeup” sense of the word — is merely a mirror-image of his age, and in personifying the boom, he was always likely to personify the bust.

That is one of two contrary messages, both of which are true. He was fated to embody the age. However, he also was free to embody, to live out, this or that potential within his over-all potential. Just as common-sense would suggest, he could and did choose among the possibilities, and just because those possibilities were finite and not unlimited did not mean that they were meaningless or illusory.

The purpose of saying all this, of course, is to clarify the place you — whoever is reading this — embody in this scheme. Neither fame nor limited renown nor obscurity affects your task of continual (inevitably creative) choice among the paths open to you. And it is the result of these choices that produces the next set of limitations within which you will choose. Thus your lives are determined (for you do not have unlimited possibilities to choose among); thus your lives are free (for you always have far more possibilities than anyone could ever live).

And so, to wrap up for the moment, Fitzgerald as representative of the Jazz Age?

Suppose that instead of ceding his independence to his idea of things, he had stubbornly determined to live his limitations and had lived a deeper more careful life, he would still have represented his age, if more by contrast — by illustration of the path not taken — and his life and art would have been deeper and perhaps more satisfying to him.

That’s not entirely clear to me.

[EH] I said that the problem with Scott was that he had the idea of the rich as somehow special, and it wrecked him. Well, can you see that now? He used his resources to get enough money that he could spend like them, live like them — or how he imagined them to spend and live — and as a result he wound up imitating the stupid splashy nouveau riche and the vulgar arrivistes but that isn’t the only thing he could have done. He could have used that money that came to him so easily to live a longer life, a quieter life, a more intense productive life. And if he had picked up the strands within himself that were the artist in him and had laid down the strands that were “the envious poor boy who needs to be rich so he could win Zelda” he would still have been Scott; he would still have had a life, and a much saner one. It was his choice. And yet, of course the dice were loaded from the beginning. Still, he could have chosen differently regardless how the dice made him want to choose. He had Max, he would’ve had me and others, who could have been a steadying influence paying more attention to his work, valuing it more, with the partying and the “trying to be one of the boys” for when work was finished for the day.

But then there was alcohol.

You keep coming back to it, and you aren’t quite right. Alcohol inflamed the situation and weakened his will and his confidence and it provided a cheap counterfeit version of the satisfaction that comes with living “there” while you’re working, but if the rest of his life had been okay, he would have been okay and maybe he wouldn’t have felt it necessary to drink so much. People drink to relieve pressure they can’t live with and can’t get rid of, as much as anything else.

Here it is seven o’clock, an hour and a quarter, and more or less on schedule I feel that it’s time to quit for now. How did you work so many hours, Papa?

Partly I kept myself fit. All that exercise helped. Partly I inherited a strong constitution. Partly I disciplined myself with regular schedule and certain expectations of myself. All those things broaden your endurance, they build up your stamina.

I got it. Okay, thanks as always, both of you and the unnamed co-conspirators who are always in the background. More tomorrow, I trust.

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