Tuesday, December 19, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Catholic Paradise: Further Thoughts on David S. Brown's Paradise Lost

The January 5th edition of Commonweal contains my review of David S. Brown’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paradise Lost. My take is that though Brown’s book gives us a unique angle on Fitzgerald’s work, it doesn’t do enough to give us a complete portrait of the author. A large part of that, as I argue in the review, stems from Brown’s misunderstanding of the kind of paradise that animated Fitzgerald’s art, and I’d like to elaborate on that a little more in this post.

Brown’s thesis is an interesting one: Fitzgerald is a cultural critic who, like many thinkers of his day, saw in the Roaring Twenties an America fallen from a more virtuous, heroic past. He spends a lot of time showing us that Fitzgerald critiqued the modern American moment, and that his characters struggle against stronger materialistic forces that shape culture, but he doesn’t adequately explain why they struggle in the first place.

You could argue that this kind of struggle is the hallmark of Fitzgerald’s life and work. It’s a peculiar kind of struggling, actually, for it is not straightforward resistance. Arthur Mizener called Fitzgerald a “spoiled priest,” and though subsequent biographers such as Matthew Bruccoli have thought Mizener made too much of that phrase, it is useful, for it captures the divided nature of Fitzgerald’s ambitions and of his characters’ outlook. The author and his protagonists—Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway as well as Amor­­­y Blaine from This Side of Paradise and Dick Diver from Tender is the Night—are of two minds, as they all twist and turn in the materialism in which they willingly partake. They are caught up in the very debauchery against which their idealism pushes back.

Fitzgerald’s personal life bears this out. Though he enjoyed great success with This Side of Paradise, his subsequent novels never sold as well, and he was in near-constant need of cash (his lifestyle didn’t help in this regard). He solved this problem by writing a tremendous volume of stories for the Saturday Evening Post, most of which were hastily written and of a low quality. Fitzgerald saw this as a necessary evil of sorts. After all, the stories put money in his pocket—some $4,000 per story, according to Brown—but he was unable to write them without feeling like he was prostituting himself to middlebrow tastes. He hated his dependency on the Post and yet he couldn't tear himself away from the easy cash. Very frequently he asked for personal loans and advances on yet-to-be published works from Scribner’s, his publishing house. His editor Max Perkins bore the brunt of these difficult requests (Perkins was a personal friend of his as well as his editor), but they ate up Fitzgerald too. In his letters to Perkins asking for loans we witness a desperate man torn apart by his desperation, unwilling to ask for money, yet financially unable not to do so. He could not let go of the horror of the request even while making the request itself.

Mizener’s bio does an excellent job of bringing this paradoxical element of Fitzgerald to the fore. He quotes an unnamed friend of the author as saying that “he never really enjoyed his dissipation because he disapproved intensely of himself all the time it was going on.” Mizener continues: “However damned this attitude may be, it could exist only in a man whose basic feeling for experience was a religious one.” The animating force behind Fitzgerald’s work is indeed religious. Though, like for Amory Blaine, Catholicism existed only as a “ghost of a code” for him, it so thoroughly shaped his outlook that to write about Fitzgerald without grappling with his Catholicism is to miss him almost entirely. Unfortunately, Brown does exactly that.

As a young man at the Newman School Fitzgerald’s two major influences were Shane Leslie, a visiting Irish Catholic writer, and Monsignor Sigourney Fay, whom Fitzgerald lightly fictionalized as Monsignor D’Arcy in This Side of Paradise. Both men groomed Fitzgerald to be the next great Catholic novelist in the manner of Robert Hugh Benson (whose Lord of the World is among Pope Francis’ favorite books, by the way). At one point Leslie wrote in his diary that Fitzgerald was thinking of becoming a priest. Fitzgerald ultimately chose a different direction for his life and art. 1917, he claimed in an entry in his Ledger, was his “last year as a Catholic,” but his break from the Church wasn’t a clean one. He married Zelda Sayre (an Episcopalian) in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and had his daughter Scottie baptized by a priest friend who served as her godfather. As I mentioned in the review, he requested a Catholic burial, which was first denied, then later was granted, thanks to Scottie’s persistence, in 1975. Though he was famous for his philandering, and though Zelda battled serious mental illness, he never divorced her. For much more on Catholicism’s influence on Fitzgerald and his work, see the outstanding book by Joan M. Allen, Candles and Carnival Lights: The Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I know that to say that Fitzgerald was more Catholic than he appeared is not necessarily to show that his faith animates his fiction. To do that, we have to look at the divided nature of his protagonists, who, like Fitzgerald himself, both pursued mammon and loathed themselves for it.

I would argue that this paradox is, at the bottom, religious, because it hinges on the importance of personal conversion. In my review I compared Fitzgerald and his characters to searchers in the tradition of Dante. They are driven by the desire to gain paradise, even though they may never be able to escape the dark woods which keep them chained to their own sin. One might compare them to Augustine’s famous line asking God to make him chaste, “but not yet.” Augustine possessed the desire to right himself, but not the will to carry it out. We may stray far from that true way, but so long as we are willing to redirect ourselves, we are not without hope. Re-commitment is the most important thing, more important even than the change in action that it aims to brings about: without the ability to turn one’s soul, there is no hope of a new direction.

Remorse, then, is something like the embers of the spiritual life. The death of the spirit is the refusal to mourn sin. Fitzgerald, alcoholic, adulterer, narcissist extraordinaire, was certainly a debauched figure, but he was a torn one because he clung more firmly to remorse than he did to sin. Ultimately, this is a sign of hope, not despair, and appropriately his characters are questers for the paradise to which this remorse points them.

This paradise is not one buried in the past but one that lies forever before them, a paradise not gained by social change but by personal conversion (in the literal sense of “turning with”). Brown’s realm is the social, not the personal. It makes perfect sense, given his vantage point, to claim, as he does, that Fitzgerald’s gaze was directed backwards: “to write with a full heart of lost cities and lost ages, after all, is to believe in the power of Eden’s promise.” Yet what promise does Eden have? Eden cannot be regained. To “believe in the power of Eden’s promise” is ultimately to mourn its death, for it can never be brought back. Belief in the power of Eden’s promise is nostalgia, which is a stranger to hope. Fitzgerald’s characters are tragic for sure (Gatsby’s lonely funeral is about as somber as it gets), but we cannot help but admire their earnestness in spite of their tragic circumstances, an earnestness (Gatsby’s love, Amory’s quest, Diver’s charm) that holds whatever promise there is of redemption in the modern age.

In my review I make a big deal of Brown’s misquoting of Rupert Brooke’s lines from “Tiare Tahiti.” The mistake may be a small one (a matter of punctuation, really) but it speaks to Brown’s larger error in misunderstanding the nature of the paradise that drove Fitzgerald’s art. Brooke’s poem presents a tension between the desires of the flesh (which lie “well this side of paradise”) and the wisdom that says that we are made for something more, which Brooke presents as a kind of Platonic heaven where “the Eternals are, and there / The Good, the Lovely, and the True.” The speaker of the poem calls this wisdom folly and instead urges his lover to seek the pleasures of the here and now. I’ll quote the last stanza in its entirety, which is quite beautiful, and from which Fitzgerald took the title of his first novel:
Taü here, Mamua,
Crown the hair, and come away!
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.
Hasten, hand in human hand,
Down the dark, the flowered way,
Along the whiteness of the sand,
And in the water’s soft caress,
Wash the mind of foolishness,
Mamua, until the day.
Spend the glittering moonlight there
Pursuing down the soundless deep
Limbs that gleam and shadowy hair,
Or floating lazy, half-asleep.
Dive and double and follow after,
Snare in flowers, and kiss, and call,
With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual,
Well this side of Paradise! ....
There’s little comfort in the wise.
The ellipses in the penultimate line, which Brown omits in his quoting, are not insignificant. They express a hesitancy in the speaker’s conviction that there’s nothing to be lost in pursuing the desires of the flesh. He doesn’t renege on his advice, but he stops short of a whole-hearted endorsement of the passions. He doesn’t say that the wise are wrong. He says that their vision of paradise offers “little comfort.” Comfort is what the speaker seeks, it’s what Amory Blaine seeks, and it’s what Fitzgerald himself sought—the comforts of drink, sex, the admiration of his peers. The wise may in fact be right, but let’s not think too much about it until we are dead—“wash the mind of foolishness / Mamua, until the day.” In the image of paradise and in the ellipses that follow it we see a trace of the double-mindedness that marks Fitzgerald’s characters, reluctant as they are to pursue pleasure with full conviction.

“Tiare Tahiti” provides Fitzgerald with a title for his first novel (the original version was called “The Romantic Egotist” but he changed it when Scribner’s asked him to heavily revise the manuscript) and therefore it offers a specific vision for the kind of paradise that drove Fitzgerald. Brown’s reworking of the lines (“Well, this side of paradise, / there’s little comfort in the wise”), however inadvertent, inverts Brooke’s intended meaning. There is comfort on this side of paradise, Brooke implies, and that’s why it’s so difficult to put aside the desires of the flesh in the name of some eternal ideal. But those ideals still have some pull on the searcher, and the resultant tension between flesh and spirit is what drives Fitzgerald’s fiction (more so than it does in Brooke’s poem, which sides pretty heavily with the flesh). For Brown to miss this is to misunderstand the implications of his own title, for he, as Mizener did before him, takes it from Fitzgerald’s first book. Fitzgerald’s vision of paradise may involve the glory days of the American past, as Brown argues, but ultimately it is a religious one, more inspired by Dante than Milton, closer to the Catholic Church than to the Antebellum South.

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