Sentence Analysis: Pico della Mirandola

When it comes to old writing, we tend to come across long, beautiful sentences—beautiful, but also headache-inducing. It is as though the author wanted to take the scenic route instead of the shortcut while writing, at the expense of the reader’s understanding. It is difficult to pause and appreciate the effort and mastery put into these sentences—resemblant of poetry—when you’re too busy figuring out what is being said. As such, I am starting a series on sentence analyses where I’ll find particularly well-written and melodious sentences, pick them apart, and explain what and how they mean. My hope is twofold:

(1) As a reader, you will be able to understand these sentences when you come across them without stressing, taking time instead to admire them.

(2) As a writer, you will be able to improve your own writing, learning a trick or two from famous authors who knew what they were doing precisely because they, too, learned from authors before them.


Without further ado, here is a sentence drawn from Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (page 14), color-coded to aid in comprehension:

Unknown-7.jpegWe, raised up into the loftiest watchtower of theology, from which, measuring with indivisible eternity the things that are, will be, and shall have been, and looking at their primeval beauty, shall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, aroused with the ineffable charity as with fire, placed outside of ourselves like burning Seraphim, filled with divinity, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.” (71 words)


Base sentence:
We shall be prophets of Phoebus, and finally, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.

Explanation: The base sentence is the sentence in its simplest form, complete with the subject, which is what or whom the sentence is about, and the predicate, which is what is said of the subject. In this case, if we get rid of all the fluff, we are left with a simple, straightforward message: “We will become like Gods.” Technically, though, the actual base sentence is “We shall be prophets of Phoebus”—that’s literally it. The other half, because it is joined with “and,” makes it a compound sentence. 


Base sentence with appositive:
We shall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.

Explanation: This part of the sentence is tricky because “his winged lovers” comes right after Phoebus, which makes us think that it is about him, not us, as if to say that we will become Phoebus and also “his winged lovers”; however, the phrase is actually an appositive, meaning it clarifies a noun—in this case, us: As the “prophets of Phoebus,” we are also “his winged lovers.” The fact that “prophets” and “lovers” is plural, in addition to “we” being the subject, helps us piece this together. To test this, we should be able to substitute the two: “We shall be his [Phoebus’] winged lovers.” 


Base sentence with appositive and past participles:
We
,
raised up into the loftiest watchtower of theology, shall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, aroused with the ineffable charity as with fire, placed outside of ourselves like burning Seraphim, filled with divinity, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.

Explanation: Each of the highlighted phrases ends with “-ed,” like “raised,” “aroused,” “placed,” and “filled,” and they all apply to us; it is we who are being “raised,” “aroused,” etc. But what makes this hard to miss is that the first phrase is separated from the last three, tricking us into thinking they are separate when, in truth, they are all connected. Pico’s decision to split them up, creating discontinuity, is mostly logical, for the first refers to the watchtower, whereas the rest return back to us; or his decision might also have been to add variety to the sentence, effecting a sense of anticipation. 


Base sentence with appositive, past participles, and present participles:
We, raised up into the loftiest watchtower of theology, (from which, measuring with indivisible eternity the things that are, will be, and shall have been, and looking at their primeval beauty,) shall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, aroused with the ineffable charity as with fire, placed outside of ourselves like burning Seraphim, filled with divinity, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.

Explanation: Several additions are noticeable here, namely the gray “from which” that serves as an adverb phrase, indicating where the action is taking place (the watchtower) to clarify the following parts; the green present participles, which will be the main focus; and the new predicate, left in black ink, embedded within this new scene.

(Before getting to the present participles, allow me to comment on the black text: I decided to make this its own element because, without contextualizing it, the sentence becomes needlessly complex with so many commas—is he listing something? Clarifying something? This is further complicated when we notice that “shall be” later follows “shall have been,” making us think they are part of the same thought when they are really not. Pico is describing “the things” as being both past, present, and future—that is, they belong to “indivisible eternity,” mentioned just before. The “shall be” is not adding onto “the things,” but is returning to the very first word of the sentence, “We.” Oftentimes, this embarrassing trap of too many commas right around each other can be avoided by using a semicolon.) 

We, measuring with indivisible eternity the things that are, will be, and shall have been, and looking at their primeval beautyshall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.


Like the past participles, the present participles are identified by their “-ing” endings: “measuring” and “looking.” Who is doing the “measuring” and “looking”? Not the watchtower, but us—we are the ones who, from the watchtower, are doing these things. Both phrases are necessary for understanding the black text, as explained above: We are “measuring… the things” and “looking at their primeval beauty.” This is most obvious when we isolate them with regard to the base clause, removing the past participle phrases. 


Now that you know what the sentence is really about and how it was composed by Pico della Mirandola, reread it without the color aids to see if you can understand it easier without tripping up over it! 

“We, raised up into the loftiest watchtower of theology, from which, measuring with indivisible eternity the things that are, will be, and shall have been, and looking at their primeval beauty, shall be prophets of Phoebus, his winged lovers, and finally, aroused with the ineffable charity as with fire, placed outside of ourselves like burning Seraphim, filled with divinity, we shall now not be ourselves, but He himself who made us.”

Kierkegaard and The Great Gatsby (2 of 2)

Read part 1 here.


Unknown.jpegKierkegaard’s Repetition is a novel, much as The Great Gatsby is, but more explicitly philosophical, and with a pretty similar plot. The Danish philosopher’s book is narrated by Constantin Constantius, who meets a poetic “Young Man” that has fallen in love with a girl. Problematically, like Gatsby, the Young Man loves the idea of this girl, not her herself, and this complicates matters, seeing as she would like to marry, while the Young Man has his misgivings, believing himself unfit for marriage. As such, the girl “was merely the visible form while his thoughts, his soul, sought something else that he attributed to her.”[1] Hm, this quote sounds familiar… “[Gatsby] talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy” (117).


Moving forward, Constantius, at this point the Young Man’s confidant, considers the root problem to be that the Young Man “no longer needed that ladder rung by which he had climbed.”[2] I feel like I have heard this before… “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb it, if he climbed alone” (117). Evidently, Kierkegaard’s Screen Shot 2019-10-29 at 9.15.45 PM.pngRepetition and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are like perfect matches, paralleling each other in theme and story. The biggest difference, though, is that whereas the Young Man is soon to be engaged and wishes to escape it, viewing it as a burden, Gatsby would give anything to be in that same position with Daisy; the one wants not to be married, the other desires it with his whole being. Who is the better of the two? Gatsby only wants to marry because he does not know that he loves only the memory of Daisy; he does not face the truth, so he is deluded. Is he in the wrong, then, to want to marry? Perhaps we ought to respect the Young Man more, because at least he is honest with himself, knowing that his love, comparable to Gatsby’s, is actually misplaced. Or is he more cowardly than Gatsby for fleeing into the world of poetry, abandoning the girl entirely, using her as a mere source of inspiration? (This digression has nothing to do with repetition, by the way, but these are good questions to ponder as a reader.)


The attempt at repetition is carried out by Constantin Constantius. Earlier, before the events of the novel, he had gone to Berlin for vacation, staying at a nice hotel, enjoying city life, attending a show at the local theater—an overall enjoyable experience, one that Unknown-1.jpegmade an impression on him. So in order to test his hypothesis, he chooses to repeat his trip to Berlin; Constantin will do everything he did the previous time, experience by experience, and this shall either confirm or refute his theory. What happens? It ends disappointingly. It is a total failure. His trip to Berlin is disastrous, leaving him discontented and dejected. The owner of the hotel got married, making Constantin feel left out; the food was not as good; he did not get a good seat for the show—a show which itself was nothing special, overhyped in his mind, as it was nothing like the first time. He determines, “I had discovered that there simply is no repetition and had verified it by having it repeated in every possible way.”[3] How ironic, to disprove repetition by repetition!


However, if you think about it, his experiment was technically designed poorly, part of the reason, I think, his answer was negative: The reason the repetition failed is that, as he set out in his hypothesis, repetition consists in the reliving of each experience as it laboratory-2815640_960_720.jpgwas. This means that the owner had to have been single, the food in the same condition as the first time, the same seat available, and the performance good; instead, what the experiment discovers is that external circumstances change, preventing a perfect repetition, not that repetition per se is impossible. Were he to have conducted it as a scientist would, enclosing life in an isolated system, with all the independent variables the same, then maybe the outcome would have been the same—or maybe not. The fact is, this did not happen, and life does not play out in a laboratory setting in which factors can be manipulated to make room for contingencies, contingencies which are just a part of life, with all their moving parts influenced both by real people and natural phenomena and, decisively, time. Constantin’s visit to Berlin falls apart due to his mistaken premises from the outset, namely that reality does not change.


The similarity to Gatsby is impossible to miss: After the war, Gatsby “made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville[,]… walking the streets where their footsteps had clicked together through the November night and revisiting the out-of-the-way places to which they had driven in her white car,” the atmosphere “pervaded with a melancholy beauty” (160). Fitzgerald’s choice to make the trip “miserable but irresistible” is telling. Just like Constantin’s return to Berlin, Gatsby’s to Louisville brings not happiness but sadness, nostalgia, as it is haunted by the memory of Daisy, whose trace he cannot find anywhere in the city, alone, empty.


One can feel the desperation in Gatsby, his feverish restlessness, his determination to reclaim what is lost as he literally retraces his and Daisy’s steps, viewing where “they had driven,” as if expecting this to bring something about, some miraculous reversal of Unknown-2.jpegtime, as if this pathetic ritual will turn back the clock. But it is gone. As is Constantin’s Berlin. Well, not quite—Gatsby and Constantin are not trying to relive Louisville or Berlin, otherwise there would be no problem, but their experiences of them. Foolishly, they replicate their external situation at the neglect of their internal situations. They were different men back then, with different desires and ambitions. That has changed now. Their views of the world have changed. The ghost of James Gatz, Jay Gatsby’s old self, drifts through Louisville, as does Daisy Fay, giving the city “a melancholy beauty”—just because Gatsby is disappointed does not mean that the city and his memories of it are not still beautiful. The melancholy heightens the city’s beauty. This, Gatsby must have thought, a wan, wistful smile on his face, is where I fell in love with Daisy Fay. A melancholic beauty, truthfully.


pexels-photo-670720.jpegWeighing in on these experiences, Kierkegaard clarified, “The confusion consists in this: the most interior problem of the possibility of repetition is expressed externally, as if repetition, if it were possible, were to be found outside the individual when in fact it must be found within the individual.”[4] This is what I said earlier, about both characters recreating the settings of their pasts at the expense of their consciousnesses; as such, it will never be the same. Yet we cannot just stop here at this depressing conclusion, Kierkegaard warned; there is more to repetition: The real question pertains not to its possibility, but its actuality, i.e., the question is not Can repetition happen? but Did repetition happen? Something is clearly very wrong, or we are misguided, considering Kierkegaard himself, through Constantin, literally just declared repetition to be impossible moments ago. So we go on.


Unknown-3.jpegConstantin, having disproved repetition, is in no place to console the enamored Young Man, for whom he has no advice; the Young Man’s prospects are not good. Taking initiative, the Young Man runs away, turning to Job from the Old Testament for answers; Job, the faithful believer in God; Job, who lost everything for his faith; Job who, for his faith, received everything back in return. This point in the narrative corresponds to when Gatsby becomes a bootlegger, gets money, and buys his mansion. The Young Man, seeing himself in Job, realizes that his relationship with the girl, like Job’s with God, is a test of sorts, an ordeal, and “inasmuch as ordeal is a temporary category, it eo ipso is defined in relation to time and therefore must be annulled by time.”[5] Put alternatively, the Young Man acknowledges that time heals all wounds. The solution to his quandary is simple: Wait it out.


Further in line with the Job comparison, the Young Man finds himself “waiting for a thunderstorm—and repetition.”[6] His situation is a “knot and… [an] entanglement,” which “can be untied only by a thunderstorm.”[7] What is the significance of all this religious imagery and language? Kierkegaard himself was a Christian, so his ideas were Unknown-4.jpeginfluenced heavily by his faith, a faith in which time plays a powerful role. The Young Man’s thunderstorm is some imminent event, a destructive event that will shake up his world, utterly destroying and transforming it, so that he can then rebuild it from the ground up; it is a cataclysmic upheaval that, out of nowhere, when he is at his lowest, will strike mercilessly and indifferently, causing him to reevaluate himself in virtue of its sheer awesomeness. He cannot effect this thunderstorm, just as Constantin cannot effect a repetition of Berlin or Gatsby Louisville; it must happen of its own accord, independently of him. Conclusively, Gatsby, like his fellow Young Man with his thunderstorm, must weather out (no pun intended) his love for Daisy. What might this look like?


images.pngNews arrives for the Young Man: His objet d’amor, his girl, has married another man. Gatsby, when he hears the same news, is crushed. The Young Man?—he is relieved. Does this not suffocate him, as it did Gatsby? No, for this is the great thunderstorm which he has been awaiting all along, a blessing in disguise! It has shaken off his shackles, unbinding him; he is no longer held down by his commitment to the girl. In his thinking, he has repeated himself, having returned to his state of existence before he fell in love. Right? Constantin, despite the Young Man’s elation, is skeptical. The Young Man has undergone no personal transformation. He is not elevated. Nothing has really changed, in his view.


pexels-photo-1190298.jpegWhen Constantin revisited Berlin, he did so æsthetically, which for Kierkegaard means doing so in the name of pleasure and exteriority. It goes back to the contrast between external versus internal, basically. An æsthete like Constantin or Gatsby is concerned with his experiences. If he ascends higher, to the level of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, then he is focused on his moral duty, which brings inner fulfillment. This is because “If necessity thrusts him into a certain place, freedom chooses this place… The ethical does not require one to be in the right place at the right time, for the essentials of ethical repetition are at hand in any Unknown-5.jpegtime or place.”[8] The ethicist is self-reliant and can find fulfillment anywhere, seeing as he does not depend on place or time, unlike the æsthete. If he is in Berlin, he can enjoy himself because it is how he spends his time that matters. But the ethicist is just as incomplete as the æsthete, Kierkegaard thought, because when it comes down to it, life is bigger than one is; the ethicist tasks himself with conquering the world by conquering himself, but the world is too big for that. Life cannot be tackled by man, who is feeble in comparison. The ethicist finds himself dwarfed in relation to his obligations, so he ultimately crumbles beneath it. He lives under “the illusion that repetition lies within [his] power.”[9] Man cannot be Atlas, bearing the world upon his shoulders. Hence, it requires another level of commitment: Religiosity.


Unknown-6.jpegWhereas the ethical and æsthetic take place in life, amidst existence, within movement, religiousness is transcendent. The religious man requires a true thunderstorm, which occurs “when every thinkable human certainty and probability [is] impossible.”[10] Repetition, then, depends on a deus ex machina, a divine intervention that goes beyond space and time. Such an occurrence arrives only when one accepts and embraces the Absurd, pushed to the limits of despair and hopelessness, when moving forward seems incomprehensible. Only then does an inward transformation take hold. Constantin thus impugns the Young Man’s supposed transformation, arguing that it befell him by accident, not by Providence.


Likewise, Gatsby is initially delighted to be with Daisy as a young, ambitious man”—but he knew that he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident” (156). The crisis of Gatsby’s life is not what happens after the war, but before it; it happens in the moments when he first meets Daisy because these are the moments that determine the rest of his life, images.jpegconditioning him to believe that she is the one for him. In this case, the event is not chosen in any way; it is a chance event. Many soldiers flirted with Daisy, but she happened to like Gatsby the most. He was merely in the right place at the right time, for he had no qualifications to marry her, his being poor and without a name. Subsequently, Gatsby attributes an almost religious importance to this period of time, like the Christians to the crucifixion of Jesus, using it as the “starting point.” Nick, and even Gatsby himself, acknowledges this indeterminism by beginning with “But,” meaning that, great as it was to be with Daisy, Gatsby knew deep down that it was not right in a sense, that he did not really deserve it, but got lucky. Binding himself to this accidental event, Gatsby establishes dependence on something irreplicable; going forward, he will never be able to repeat this moment because it is based on inner, not outer, conditions. This is proved in his return to Louisville after the war.


pexels-photo-847484.jpegCaputo states, “By virtue of repetition the individual is able to press forward, not toward a sheer novelty which is wholly discontinuous with the past, but into the being which he himself is. By repetition the individual becomes himself, circling back on the being which he has been all along.”[11] Here, Caputo is saying that, with regard to repetition, the individual must forge himself coherently; that is, he must move through life in a straight line. The moment Gatsby meets Daisy, his life is radically changed, made to be “discontinuous with the past.” At first, Gatsby is inspired to become someone new when he meets Dan Cody, which is when he changes his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby; but it is when he meets Daisy that this dream of his peaks, as he wants to be a somebody to Daisy, which means lying about who he is, promising that, after the war, they can start a life together. Gatsby denies his past, which dooms his future.


pexels-photo-220429.jpegAgain, time is paradoxical in this respect: It is in relation to the past that the future is born. Contrary to Gatsby’s beliefs, it is not in rewriting oneself entirely that one can author one’s own life; self-authorship involves a “circling back” to who one is in the beginning. I do not think—or at least, I do not want to think—this means that who we are is completely determined by our past, only that we should keep in mind our past, because otherwise we tend to overstep our abilities, as Gatsby does. It is interesting to meditate on what, or who, Gatsby might have been had he either moved on from Daisy or not met her at all. Would it be possible for him, prior to Dan Cody, to have pursued his dreams in a more authentic manner? What would this have looked like? Perhaps then Gatsby would have been capable of repetition. 


Unknown-7.jpegIn conclusion, to answer the question “Is repetition possible?” we can confidently say: We’re not sure. Life, according to Kierkegaard, is lived both backward, in recollection, and forward, in repetition. The past is both a source of happiness in its preservation of moments gone by and of sadness in its deception; regardless, we are drawn most to recollection because, in Kierkegaard’s words, “it has nothing to lose.” We like looking back. Repetition, on the other hand—that is not so easy to explain. Admittedly, after reading Repetition, and after reading numerous scholarly essays on it, I still have no clue what Kierkegaard means by repetition or its possibility/actuality. Further, his conviction that true repetition must be religious in character alienates many, making it truly impossible. But I think Kierkegaard’s vagueness is intentional. I think repetition is made purposefully mysterious, both by pexels-photo-91224.jpegKierkegaard and by us, because, as a concept, it is essentially ambiguous. Kierkegaard was considered the first existentialist, meaning he contemplated the life of man; he did not propose simple, easy solutions, precisely because life is neither simple nor easy. We must live it. Life cannot be understood completely. Such is philosophy. So, if we know not whether we can repeat the past, and if this nostalgia causes pain, how are we to cope with this Absurd, paradoxical condition of ours? To begin, let us heed the beautiful words of Fitzgerald: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (189). 

 

 


[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, p. 141
[2] Id., p. 138
[3] Id., p. 171
[4] p. 304
[5] p. 210
[6] p. 214
[7] pp. 212-3
[8] Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, p. 30
[9] Id., p. 31
[10] Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 212
[11] Caputo, op. cit., p. 12

Various images from Pexels.com.

For further reading: Fear and Trembling/Repetition by Søren Kierkegaard (1983)
Søren Kierkegaard’s Repetition. Existence in Motion
Radical Hermeneutics
by John D. Caputo (1987)

To Repeat or Not to Repeat: That is the Question
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1995)

 

Kierkegaard and The Great Gatsby (1 of 2)

Unknown.jpegNostalgia is a universal human feeling. It is the “pain of returning.” Think back to a time when you were happy—in the very act of remembering, that happiness is blotted out by its being in the past, the way the sun’s warmth and brightness are blotted out by a passing cloud. This theme of nostalgia, of wishing to relive the past, with the despairing sadness that accompanies it, is central to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel remains a classic for its beauty and strength, communicating timeless truths to which we can all relate, one of its chief themes being our relation to the past. The novel, instead of offering a comforting solution, seems bleakly to confirm what we already know to be true: That the past is, and always will be, in the past, so while we can long for it to return, Unknown.pngthis longing will get us nowhere. Following Gatsby’s life, we feel a sort of solace because, as a character, he represents the same conflicts we have inside ourselves, which is why the book’s ending is so powerful: If he is the hero for whom we are rooting, who represents the path we need to take, what does the ending mean for us? If we cannot relive the past, then why do we yearn for it? What is the point? How is this supposed to be uplifting? Previously, in discussing The Great Gatsby’s treatment of love, we turned to Plato; this time, in order to ask whether we really can repeat the past and what that means, we turn to the Danish Existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who might be able to shed some light on our seemingly Absurd, paradoxical condition. 


Unknown-1.jpegIn 1843, Kierkegaard published Repetition, a book about—surprise!—repetition. He wanted to figure out whether it was possible to repeat something. As we all know, to repeat something is to do it again. If I take a step forward, then I can repeat that action by taking yet another step forward. This is our common understanding of the concept. But there is an added complexity here: When I take that second step, I am not repeating my first step, but the step itself. In order to repeat that initial step, I must retrace my steps, literally, going backward so that I can go forward. Ironic, huh? From this, we acknowledge that repetition, and its opposite, is a form of movement, an action occurring within time; a repeatable moment is one that has a “where” and “when,” a context.


The opposite of repetition, Kierkegaard determined, is recollection. Like with repetition, we know what recollection is: Memory. To recollect something is to dig into the past and pull something back, pulling the past to the present. Something strange becomes evident: “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions,” Kierkegaard wrote, “for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas Unknown-2.jpeggenuine repetition is recollected forward.”[1] As I showed in the step example, we have to go back in order to go forward, and this is both a repetition to the extent that I am reliving this action, and a recollection to the extent that I am going back to, or returning to, my starting place—I am re-realizing it. Immediately, we are already struck by the peculiarity of the idea of repetition. How does it fit into a timeline? And what is its proper relation, fundamentally, to recollection? Repetition is a difficult thing to comprehend, but “if it is possible, [it] makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.”[2] What does Kierkegaard mean by “if it is possible”? This seems to go against everything that has been said so far, for if he is doubting the very integrity of repetition, then how can he make such confident statements about it? This constitutes the paradox of repetition, as we shall see, and it is why Kierkegaard devoted an entire book to the topic. 


Building on the difference between recollection and repetition, Kierkegaard added that, according to the former, “all existence, which is, has been,” whereas in repetition, “actuality, which has been, now comes into existence.”[3] Let us get at the heart of recollection, shall we? To say that “all existence, which is, has been,” signifies that what is happening right now, the present, already occurred, and is, in a sense, already behind us, having been experienced. It makes sense, but not a whole lot.


To connect this, Nick Carraway, at the end of The Great Gatsby, ponders how Gatsby “had come a long way… and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it”; vitally, though, he adds, “He did not know that it was already behind him” images.jpeg(189). Reading this, it sounds as though Gatsby’s tragedy, his “fail[ure] to grasp” his dream, is a direct result of his ignorance of the past, which, we know from Kierkegaard, is also thereby an ignorance of the present. His naïve unawareness that his future is unachievable, in other words, results from his dis-orientation; although it seems Gatsby has figured out his whole life, “dreamed it right through to the end” (97), having accounted for everything, he is lost, truly, and has no sense of when he is, the main problem being, then, that he does not know to which time he belongs, whether the past, present, or future. He lives under the illusion that the future is entirely in his control, that it is not influenced by the past in any way, so he resolves to defy time in (vainly) recollecting the past, mistaking it for repetition.


We see this clearly when Gatsby wants “to save a fragment of the spot that [Daisy] had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he Unknown-3.jpegknew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever” (160-1). Living in the present, Gatsby stubbornly believes he can relive the past, bringing it into the Now, without realizing that it is “lost… forever.” His attempt “to save” this “fragment” of the past is evidence: In saving it, the way a child might “save” a ladybug, for example, Gatsby is trying to preserve the memory, to keep it within himself, protected from the passing of time as in a citadel, his mind a sanctuary in which Daisy, who is no more, who is not so much a “fragment” but a figment, can live on. The Daisy who is married to Tom is, exists in the present, but for Gatsby “has been.” Reality is “going by too fast” for Gatsby; he feels left behind, meaning he needs to catch up—catch up with what, though? If he remains back in the past, then he needs to catch up with “actuality, which is,” not with that “which has been,” the domain in which his Daisy exists.


We are left asking why Gatsby can recollect Daisy yet not repeat her—that is, why can Gatsby, when he reaches for her invisible memory, not have her right then and there? The obvious answer is that she is not really there, and he is “snatch[ing] only a wisp of air” (160) where he imagines her to be. But what is obvious, we know, is not always the end of the discussion. What is really preventing that “which has been” from “now com[ing] into existence,” as Kierkegaard would have it? After all, it is obvious that memory is essentially nonphysical, so its repetition need not be physical in character, but mental.  


Unknown-15To properly explain recollection—so we may understand what repetition is not—we need to look to our old friend Plato. In my last blog, where I discussed Gatsby’s lost love through Plato, I insisted that the main current that runs through both of them is longing—longing for the past. During that discussion, I briefly referenced a concept of Plato’s, anamnesis, from the dialogue The Meno. Anamnesis is a Greek word meaning—ta da!—recollection. Kierkegaard was actually thinking of Plato and anamnesis when he developed Repetition, spending a few pages on it. Briefly, to summarize Plato’s view of recollection: The soul ascends to a Heaven-like realm after death, where it sees the perfect embodiment of every existing thing in our world, when, abruptly, it falls back down to Earth, deprived of its blissful serenity, condemned to living inside a body, instilling a deep yearning within it, which wishes to return to that beautiful place from which it was dragged too early.


Thus, “mov[ing] backward… from loss to recovery,” John D. Caputo observes, Plato’s philosophy “is governed by a dynamics of nostalgia.”[4] Here is this idea of moving backward perfectly encapsulated by Plato’s narrative. Considering the soul is Unknown-4.jpegreincarnated, it means that life hasalready occurred before; existence, “which is, has been,” as Kierkegaard put it. It is for this reason that Plato is the champion of recollection, that backward-looking movement by which we fail to move forward, reversing our progress, and therefore stuck in the past; to recollect is to want to go back, to preserve what has been, for fear of moving on, lest we forget the past. Some of us, like Gatsby, may wholeheartedly reject recollection, and think ourselves fully equipped for the present, yet this would be denial: All of us, no matter how secure we may think ourselves, succumb to recollection, desiring a return to our Halcyon days, the innocence of childhood, or our first experience of love, as in Gatsby’s case.


shutterstock_464865410-1024x681.jpgLife is pervaded by “a dynamics of nostalgia,” a push-and-pull between past and future, and both drives being equally strong, where do we end up? Nowhere. We are frozen as if between two walls. But why does recollection have so strong a hold over us compared to repetition? Kierkegaard proposed, “Recollection has the great advantage that it begins with the loss; the reason it is safe and secure is that it has nothing to lose.”[5] Gatsby’s melancholy is persistent because he can remember the past. Repetition, conversely, is weak insofar as it begins with the gain, which it makes it unsafe and insecure, threatened on all sides by fortune. So had Gatsby ended up with Daisy, and had they gone through with a marriage, Gatsby would be uneasy because, at any moment, she could be taken away, and he would lose her forever; he would be in a precipitous position, where what is dearest to him could be deprived unexpectedly. This is not what happened. Gatsby has to part ways with Daisy, and this leaves him with a memory of her.


Paradoxically, if we are thinking from Gatsby’s point of view, this—the loss, rather than the gain, of Daisy—is the better of the two alternatives since it means he can never lose her again. Whereas married he will have to deal with her going out and not seeing her, Gatsby not being in Daisy’s life means he can just think back to his memory of her. Unknown-5.jpegObviously, even if they did marry, Gatsby would have memories of Daisy; however, a present memory is not as strong as an old memory, which is also more inaccurate, adding to its strength. That is, Gatsby is in a good position because Daisy, in his mind, can be what he wants her to be, instead of conforming to how she really is; his imaginative freedom permits him to hold onto Daisy’s form until the day he dies. The reason he is able to derive so much motivation from Daisy is that, having already lost Daisy, he “has nothing to lose.” Kierkegaard’s quote is thus paradoxical in another way: Recollection is both binding and freeing. On the one hand, Gatsby is chained to his past, leading him to create a life that Daisy would like, preventing him from pursuing his own life, making it unlikely he will ever find a new (and perhaps better) girl, his life at a dead-end; while on the other, he can always be comforted by the thought of Daisy, which is at his demand, nourishing him just enough to continue on living. The memory of Daisy, in other words, is what lets Gatsby live; he is bound to the past, unable to escape it, but it also inspires him, pushes him to drive on.


Hence, Kierkegaard declared, “Recollection’s love is the only happy love”—but he quickly followed up by saying that this declaration “expresses the most profound melancholy, so that a deep depression concentrated in one single line could scarcely express it better.”[6] How can recollection be “the only happy love” and simultaneously “express the most profound melancholy”? Is this not a contradiction? Not at all. It is ironic—Kierkegaard’s specialty. As I understand it, the second part of the quote, the caveat, is meant to Unknown-6.jpegundermine the first half, casting doubt on its seriousness. Gatsby convinces himself that he is happy, his being in love with (his memory of) Daisy, yet the very moment he does this, he destroys his happiness. He may think to himself, “Recollection’s love is the only happy love,” but when we say this quote, with what tone do we say it? It does not seem appropriate to exclaim it as though we had won the lottery, but rather to utter it, quietly and sadly, as if at a funeral. It is a sentiment that oozes nostalgia. It is happy because it reminds us of what we love, sad because it reminds us that what we love is what weloved—it is no more. Indeed, the statement “Recollection’s love is the only happy love” is self-deprecating, full of self-doubt, incurring a “deep depression” masked by contentment. What this means is that “recollection’s love,” being “the only happy love,” is also the saddest love.


So we are wrong to think Gatsby is happy—what we have known all along—thus bringing us back to square one. Well, if recollection, in the end, does not bring Gatsby happiness, then what will? After one of his parties, which Daisy attended, Gatsby tells Nick how much he misses his youth with Daisy, to which Nick responds,

‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her… You can’t repeat the past.’

‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!… I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before’ (116-7). 


The question with which we are left, and on which Nick and Gatsby are divided, is the one Kierkegaard asks: Is repetition possible?  

 


[1] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, p. 131
[2] Ibid.
[3] Id., p. 49
[4] Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, p. 14
[5] Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 136
[6] Id., p. 133

 

For further reading: Fear and Trembling/Repetition by Søren Kierkegaard (1983)
Søren Kierkegaard’s Repetition. Existence in Motion
Radical Hermeneutics
by John D. Caputo (1987)

To Repeat or Not to Repeat: That is the Question
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1995)

 

Plato and The Great Gatsby

Unknown.jpegIn addition to being a commentary on the American Dream, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby comes down to us readers in the 21st century as a tale of love—unrequited love, to be exact. More readers, I think, can personally relate to Gatsby the hopeless Romantic than to Gatsby the ambitious businessman. Shocking us with this realistic, tragic romance, Fitzgerald reminds us that love, beneath all the glamor media sell us, can be—and often is—a complex, ugly, and difficult thing to attain. It is revealed throughout the book that Gatsby’s love for Daisy falls apart because it is a different idea kind than we expect, one that seems out of place in 1920s America, with its riotous Jazz Age parties, frequented by scandalous flappers and men dressed to impress, all looking for a way to forget their worries for the night. Gatsby is an oddity who stands out among his peers, Nick observes; he is living in the wrong age—he belongs in 5th century B.C. Athens, when the Greek philosopher Plato wrote about love, giving us that lovely, misunderstood namesake of his: Platonic love. Indeed, Nick is right to be in awe of Gatsby, for he is the most accurate literary embodiment, I find, of the Platonic lover. Thus, in this blog, I want to explore the possibility that Jay Gatsby is neither a German spy nor a murderer but, more shockingly, a Platonist!


This connection is not as arbitrary as you might think: Fitzgerald himself acknowledges Plato when he says, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (104). Here, he appears to be hinting at Plato’s most Unknown-1.jpegnotable theory—that of the Forms. In Plato’s philosophy, there are these things called “Forms,” or “Ideas,” and one exists for every object there is. Living in a constantly changing world, with people growing older, leaves turning colors, and cliffs eroding, it is hard to tell what is real, what remains the same, what identity a thing really has. To solve this, Plato argued that, for every entity, there is a perfect version of it, unchanging and pure. When Gatsby comes up with a “Platonic conception of himself,” he is reinventing himself in the future. The real Gatsby, James Gatz, is imperfect and flawed, a poor farmer, not of the upper class, just an ordinary guy; however, when he sets his imagination loose, he conjures up an ideal image of himself, one where he has everything he wants, be it wealth or property or Daisy. In other words, Jay Gatsby is an abstraction because he does not exist.


Unknown-2.jpegPlato even says that “each… form is a thought, which cannot properly exist anywhere but in a mind.”[1] No matter how hard he tries, James will never really be able to become Gatsby, since it is an impossible goal to reach; the “Idea of Gatsby” he has created is mental, meaning it cannot be grasped physically, as it will stay in the realm of thought, inaccessible to the senses. Gatz cannot wake up as Gatsby because that would mean he has purified himself, has transcended this transitory world of ours—Gatz would have to be perfect, which he neither is nor can be. Fitzgerald thus sets Gatsby up with a vain quest, an absurd one, seeing as it can never be fulfilled. As such, James Gatz lives under an illusion thinking he has attained Jay Gatsby, when, in reality, this “conception” eludes him every time, like a will-o’-the-wisp, attracting him with its brilliant luminosity, but running away as he gets near, taunting him, misleading him, and, ultimately, dooming him. 


The Forms themselves, though, are not what are most important in relating to Gatsby; it is the narrative Plato tells about the Forms that interests us. Plato’s dialogue The Phædrus deals with the topic of love. To explain how love comes about, he must explore how it is Unknown-3.jpegimpacted by beauty, which has its own Form, and further, how we ourselves can comprehend the Form of Beauty. Part of Plato’s system is the belief that the soul is immortal and that, when the body dies, it transmigrates, or transfers to, another body; however, before the reincarnation is complete, there is a middle stage, when the soul, after leaving the body, ascends to the world of the Forms: “There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colorless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to the mind, the pilot of the soul,” which, after “feasting upon [the Forms]… returns home.”[2] That final phrase, “returns home,” is crucial because the original Greek from which it comes is close to nostos (νόστος), the root of our English word “nostalgia.” Nostos, meaning “home-coming,” and algos (ἄλγος), “pain,” when put together, equal “the pain of returning home.” This, then, is the essence not just of Plato’s philosophy, but of Gatsby’s life: A nostalgic longing for something in the past.


For Plato, the soul finally gets a chance to take in the fullness of the Forms, “feasting upon them”—enjoying and delighting itself as much as possible in their presence, greedily because it has been starved of them—only to fall back down to Earth, stripped of the only thing that brought it happiness, forever divorced from the Forms, from perfection, for which it hungers until its next reincarnation. Likewise, Gatsby lays his Unknown-4.jpegyouthful eyes on Daisy, “the first ‘nice’ girl he had ever known” (155), of whom he cannot get enough, desiring her and her alone, “[taking] what he could get, ravenously” (156), just as the soul “feast[ed] upon” the Forms. The two spend their evenings together talking and holding each other, falling in love, until Gatsby ships off to war, his lack of inheritance preventing Daisy, who is prohibited by her parents never to talk to him again, from seeing him off. When Gatsby returns from the war, and when he learns Daisy has married another man, he is empty, so he commits himself to getting her back, whatever it takes, amassing a fortune and buying a mansion across from Daisy. Thus, both the soul and Gatsby experience nostalgia, the pain of returning home, for they lose something dear to them, both hoping for the day to reunite with them.


Yet I have left out an important part of the story, one that, if neglected, prevents Gatsby’s love from being Platonic in nature: Gatsby, at one specific point, abandons his love for Daisy in place of his love for the Form of the Good and the Beautiful. In reality, the soul and Gatsby are not two different characters, they are one and the same. The restless Unknown-5.jpegyearning of the soul is Gatsby’s restless yearning, and vice versa. This baffling moment happens when Gatsby and Daisy are walking together one night and Gatsby, absorbed in Daisy’s beauty, realizes that “when he kissed this girl and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (117). Recall that Plato contrasted our physical world, with all its impermanence and imperfections, against the world of the Forms, with its permanence and perfection. In this moment, which fundamentally alters the course of his life, Gatsby panics, as if realizing it too late—in fact, he “knew,” Fitzgerald wrote—that the Daisy before him, Daisy who is trapped in a physical body, will never be the Daisy he has in mind, just like the persona of Jay Gatsby, a Form so perfect that it is impossible to actualize, or bring into existence.


Hence, I must revise what I said earlier: Gatsby’s nostalgia is not for Daisy at all—he does not find her then lose her, stuck with trying to return to her—but for her Beauty, her Goodness—he starts with her Form, loses it, and is stuck with Daisy! Fitzgerald’s poetry is therefore more telling than previously supposed: In “wed[ing] his unutterable visions to her perishable breath,” Gatsby is falling down to Earth, because Plato earlier described the Forms as “colorless, formless, intangible essence[s], visible only to the mind”; Daisy contradicts this because she is sensory. Gatsby sees, touches, smells Daisy—she is everything her Form is not. The Daisy with whom he is stuck is flawed. Her personality, for example, troubles readers who cannot understand why Gatsby would lover her. Well, the reason becomes clear now, as Gatsby does not love this Daisy; his love goes “beyond her” (101), to her Essence.


Unknown-6.jpegGatsby’s “visions” are “unutterable” given that he cannot express them in words, the Forms being ineffable. And even if he were to somehow put them into words, Daisy would not understand them, for his ascent to the Forms remains only in the memory of his individual soul. In comparison, Daisy’s “breath” is “perishable.” The use of “breath” is perfect because it represents the impermanent; it is a metaphor for Daisy herself. It would be ridiculous to imagine the Form of Breath because something like the breath does not belong in the world of Forms, where things do not change. What this moment in The Great Gatsby tells us is that the basic conflict is not Gatsby’s trying to win back Daisy from her husband Tom but, ironically, his trying to move on from Daisy. Gatsby does not miss Daisy: He is nostalgic for his memory of her Idea’s perfection. 


This is elaborated later on when Gatsby, reunited with Daisy at their mutual friend—and the narrator—Nick’s house for the first time since Gatsby’s departure, shows off his mansion to impress her. Nick, observing their interactions, comments, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby’s] dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything” (101). As a side note, the fact that Gatsby is not wholly content during their reunion—he was “running down like an overwound clock” (97)—proves he did not miss her, per se, but someone, or rather something, else; otherwise, his being with her again would have raised his spirits, and his mission would be complete.


physical_platonic.gifLike I mentioned earlier, Gatsby’s vision goes “beyond” Daisy, in fact, “beyond everything,” considering anything in the realm of the Forms transcends the objects of our world. Even Gatsby’s mansion, his piano, his myriad shirts—they each have an equivalent in the world of Forms, their perfect counterparts, yet they are “visible only to the mind.” When Gatsby dies, his soul will return to the transcendent world, and there he will see the Forms of Daisy, his mansion, his piano, and his myriad shirts, all as they could be in their perfection, rather than as they are, spoiled and marred by natural processes. For example, Daisy ages, so her beauty will fade, its being a temporary quality; his piano may look good from afar, but maybe some of the paint is chipped, or a key is faulty; one of his shirts, buried beneath the others, may have a stain—the fact is, these entities are real, they are actual, they belong on Earth, subject to change, whereas their respective Forms are ideal and mental, immune to alteration.


As a result, it is inevitable that Daisy should “tumble short of his dreams”; however, as it is pointed out, this is “not through her own fault,” but the “colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s love. When he looks at Daisy, Gatsby sees something missing, although he cannot quite put his finger on just what it is. Daisy is right there, all of her, yet something important is missing, something without which she is not herself, and as such, something invisible—her essence. The “vitality” of Gatsby’s love is so immense that it is not content with just Daisy; it is something more. For this reason, even if Gatsby were to marry Daisy, he would not be content, because he would still not “have” her. The fact that her essence is intangible means he can never have Daisy except in his mind. Either way, with or without her, he is left in a constant state of wistfulness. Gatsby is a nostalgic character. 


All who read Fitzgerald comment on how beautiful his prose is, how it sounds like poetry, the way his sentences flow into each other, their concision and masterful word choice creating a vivid movie for the reader, effecting beautiful, emotional imagery in our minds—but the same can be said of Plato in his dialogues when, occasionally, he will pexels-photo-2043837.jpegbreak out into the most eloquent, impassioned descriptions, such as his observation of the lover “who, when he sees the beauty of the earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad.”[3] Plato, in this excerpt, is writing about what happens after the soul returns from seeing the Forms and, newly incarnated, catches a glimpse of them, albeit a weak, fleeting one, by which it reawakens the sublime sensation it felt upon perceiving them the first time; in other words, this is the closest the soul ever gets to the Forms in its lifetime as a body, so it is understandably an emotional event. Another of Plato’s dialogue, The Meno, calls this process “anamnesis,” meaning recollection: The soul remembers a brief fragment of its sojourn up to the realm of the Forms, a fragment to which it holds on dearly and cherishes, almost like a souvenir of sorts.


When Nick sees Gatsby in person for the first time outside his mansion, he considers introducing himself, “But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, pexels-photo-1654698.jpegand far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling” (25-6). Another time, recalling his return to Louisville, riding on a train, Gatsby “stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever” (160-1). The Platonic lover is “thought to be mad” because, upon recognizing the Form in something, he feels himself transported, elevated, time and space melting away, leaving him and the Form alone for a blissful second, while, to everyone else around him, he seems to be dissociated from reality, just some guy having a psychotic episode, under possession of some force.


We can imagine the confusion Nick must have felt, for instance, seeing his neighbor out late at night, reaching for the bay, shaking, his eyes transfixed meditatively on a green light in the distance, as if caught in a revery, having an out-of-body experience, perhaps Unknown-10.jpegthe light exercising a magical property on him. And Gatsby says that he passed a trolley full of people during his train ride—who knows what they or his fellow passengers thought of this madman trying “to snatch… a wisp of air.” It is not just other people in the book, but us readers, too, who are perplexed by Gatsby’s “extra” behavior, his over-the-top devotion to Daisy, his crazy parties, his Quixotic chivalry in the face of Tom Buchanan. We are fond of saying of someone in love that they are “possessed by” it, implying that they have no control over it. Gatsby is a man in the throes of Platonic love. Every time he sees Daisy, or even imagines her, he finds himself enthralled. Like I said, though, it is not Daisy who excites him, but what he envisions in her—Gatsby, having once seen the Forms of Beauty and the Good, remembers them through Daisy; she is the flint to his steel.


Gatsby is so overcome emotionally in his recollection of Beauty, that it manifests itself physically in his “stretch[ing]” for Daisy. This act of “stretch[ing]” is obviously a reaching—that much is evident by its definition—but, importantly, this implies that whatever he is reaching for cannot be attained; it is a vain reaching, just as someone stretches to Unknown-8.jpegreach their keys that have fallen down the side of the seat, too far down so as to be irretrievable. Similarly, Gatsby tries to hold the green light, which is famous as a symbol for Gatsby’s ambitions, only to find that it cannot be grasped at all; the Form of Goodness that inheres in Daisy, I have stressed, is literally out of this world. We feel pity for Gatsby, who tries “desperately… to save a fragment” of the Forms as expressed in Daisy, yet he fails, because they come only in intimations, in small bursts, teasing him, persuading him, deceptively, that his goal is within reach when it is really not. These tragic images of Gatsby make me think of a widower who looks over, hoping to see his wife, only to see an empty seat; Gatsby experiences an extreme form of nostalgia, having lost the most important thing to him, but glimpses it every now and then, convinced that it is out there, somewhere.


Unknown-11.jpegAs if foreshadowing, Plato includes that the lover “look[s] upward…[,] careless of the world below,” indicating the lover’s transcendental propensity—his tendency to look above and beyond this world. This “careless[ness]” suggests a degree of indifference toward our world, and, indeed, Plato did feel disdain for the material world. Gatsby, we cannot help but think, is not really satisfied with all his worldly success, despite his committing his entire life to it, for it is still incomplete: He lacks Daisy. We get the impression that Gatsby would happily give away all his money and property if it meant getting Daisy back; unfortunately, he has wasted his adult life pursuing the wrong thing. What all this foreshadows, I would argue, is the necessity of Gatsby’s death. It is only if he dies that Gatsby can truly be reunited with the Idea of Daisy to which he is bound. This might be a stretch, but this could explain why Nick thinks “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” (6): Gatsby’s death liberates him from this world, from his endless striving and suffering, allowing him, finally, to return to the Forms, to what he has been seeking all along, putting his restless soul to rest. 


Plato also writes that, in our initial visit to the world of Forms, “we behold the beatific vision…, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come”; and nostalgically, beautifully, he concludes, “Let me linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away.”[4] A key theme is the contrast between past and present, or as poet William Blake put it, Innocence and Experience. Platonic love, love of the Forms, is pure and heavenly, perfect and peaceful; our love, love in the real world, love of real people, is nothing like this for the most part: It is complicated, anxious, ugly, warlike at times, and, above all, imperfect. We all long for Platonic love, yet we are stuck with the love we are given.


Unknown-12.jpegAs youths, our idea of love is kind of similar to Plato’s in the sense that it is ideal in every way, with a happy ending, the kind found in fairytales, and Gatsby is youthful in this respect, but also naïve—we and Nick root for Gatsby the whole way (although both Nick and we shake our heads occasionally) because he represents purity, youthfulness, a sense of innocence fighting against the corruption of his day; he is the White Knight who stands against Tom’s infidelity; Gatsby is the underdog because he embodies the belief that, no, love does not have to be spoiled, love can be as we always wanted it to be—ideal and perfect. Of course, we know how the story ends, and we leave with the disappointing conclusion that, yes, maybe love does have to be spoiled—but its Gatsby’s determination, his youthful rigor that wins us over.


Unknown-13.jpegJust as the settlers found America in pristine condition, so Gatsby, “for a transitory enchanted moment,” was “compelled into an æsthetic contemplation” regarding the Forms, comprehending them in their awesome plenitude. Little did the settlers know that, over two centuries later, their land of opportunity would become so corrupted, their original vision of what America could be ruined by human instinct. Gatsby’s naïveté prevents him from realizing his love is “already behind him” (189); Platonic love is nostalgic insofar as it longs for a return to the Forms. Gatsby’s early love for Daisy takes place “before [he] ha[s] any experience of evils to come,” namely, his consciousness of class, wealth, and men like Tom, all of which contradict Gatsby’s ideals.


Additionally, Nick believes, based on Gatsby’s references to the past, that “he wanted to recover something… that had gone into loving Daisy” (117). Again, the use of “recover” evokes the nostalgic mood of Plato. The Form for which Gatsby seeks, be it Beauty or the Unknown-14.jpegGood, is found within Daisy, the highest expression of them. We might add that Gatsby is also attributing his own self-idealization to her: As James Gatz created Jay Gatsby, so Gatsby has created Daisy in his mind, an abstraction of her individual, concrete, and substantial person. Accordingly, we might reason that he feels a kinship with her because his two creations are so alike in essence. The same idealization that went into creating who he wanted to be went into creating whom he wanted to be with. However, he is left with only “memor[ies]” of these “beatific vision[s],” and is powerless to do anything more. He is optionless, as the capacity to “recover” his “state of innocence” transcends his human abilities; as a mortal, Gatsby, Plato would say, is trapped in his body, unable to go beyond himself. Nostalgia, then, is necessarily tragic in that it denies the possibility of retrieving the past. 


images.jpegA question arises, though: If the truth is that Gatsby does not love Daisy but the Forms she embodies—in other words, if Daisy herself, her “outside,” does not matter, but her “inside,” her essence, her Idea, does—then how come he persists in trying to get her? Why does he insist on having her? Why not Jordan? Why not “some unbelievable guest…, a person infinitely rare and to be marvelled at, some authentically radiant girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion” (115)—why Daisy Fay/Buchanan? The reason, I think, is an important part of Platonic love: The soulmate. “Out of the corner of his eye,” on the very night he decided he would try, in vain, to love the physical Daisy because he could not love the abstract Daisy, Gatsby “saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb it, if he climbed alone” (117).


Sections 210-12 of Plato’s The Symposium summarize what he called the “ladder of love,” which is the series of steps taken by the lover in order to reach the object of his love, the Forms. The lover, he says, starts with an individual person, finds what is good/beautiful about them, moves to people in general, proceeds to objects, advances to ideas in general, and then arrives at the Forms when he is mature enough. Connecting these two strands, we can determine that Gatsby, if “alone,” can “climb” Plato’s ladder of love, Daisy being the first step. This agrees with what has been said thus far, mainly, that Daisy is not the real end of Gatsby’s love, but only the beginning. Because it has to be done “alone,” it means it is a private process, personal to Gatsby, a purely mental act. So to what extent does Daisy really matter? Well, she is really just a “stepping stone” for Gatsby, a starting point, which would suggest that she is substitutable and, therefore, not unique to Gatsby. Any other girl could replace Daisy, theoretically; regardless, Gatsby cares more for what she will lead to than what she is in herself.


pexels-photo-1024984.jpegYet this interpretation seems contrived when we consider the sheer amount of work Gatsby puts into chasing Daisy without his ever moving past her. If he were really following Plato’s ladder, then he would have surely discarded Daisy long ago. Does Gatsby have real feelings for Daisy, then? Otherwise, why remain with her physical form so long? This is hard to answer. My only explanation would be that Daisy is, in some function, Gatsby’s soulmate. Our modern-day understanding of the soulmate, believe it or not, actually comes from Plato’s Symposium! Through the character of Aristophanes the comedian, Plato recounts a mythological story about how humans were originally born in pairs, but Zeus, fearing them, split them up, causing them to search for their lost counterpart to reunite with them, to become whole again. Perhaps Gatsby’s and Daisy’s souls were at one point related in some way? And along the way, as they passed from body to body, they became separated, until one lifetime when they became Gatsby and Daisy as we know them today?


pexels-photo-1820567.jpegIf we proceed with this interpretation, then this would mean that Gatsby’s soul, before entering him, as it saw the Forms of the Beautiful and Good, also saw Daisy’s soul, and thus wants to recover both. Daisy, then, plays a more important role than formerly thought, to the extent that she has to be the “one” through which Gatsby reaches the Forms. It is in this “communion only,”—that of the intertwining of the souls—”beholding beauty with the eye of the mind,” Plato writes, that “he [Gatsby] will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities.”[5] In other words, Gatsby’s rigid fixation on Daisy is the means by which he will be allowed to see the Forms of Beauty and the Good—because she becomes their mediator; it is through Daisy, through the mere sight of her, that Gatsby will envisage the Forms, reuniting, if only mediately, with them. So maybe Gatsby and Daisy were meant to be, forever and always…


In conclusion, Nick is right in seeing in Gatsby “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as [has] never been found in any other person” (6). Jay Gatsby is a unique literary character in several respects, among which is the fact that he does not exist—he is an abstraction of James Gatz—and that he views love in a peculiar way, peculiar, at least, to us modern readers, who expect the beloved to be loved for who they Unknown-15.jpegare, imperfect though they be. Instead, Gatsby’s distinctive Platonic love clings to Daisy’s possibilities, Daisy as a perfect individual, the physical embodiment of the qualities of Beauty and Goodness. In contrast to Tom’s natural view of love, Gatsby’s is spiritual in nature. We can thus understand Gatsby better, not as a dramatic, lowkey-stalkerish guy who cannot move on from a girl, but a Romantic dreamer in the purest sense, someone who, when he sees Daisy, truly sees the Beauty inside her. Gatsby is a rare breed of man. He is a lost soul who, after reaching the highest point, loses the light of his life, condemned to trying to recover something irrecoverable, destined to long for what cannot be brought back. As such, both Plato’s and Gatsby’s stories are suffused with a tragic sense of nostalgia, a theme that will play a bigger role in my next blog on the philosophy of The Great Gatsby

 

 


[1] Parmenides, 132b
[2] Phædrus, 247c-e
[3] Id., 249e
[4] Id., 250c-d
[5] Symposium, 212a

 

For further reading: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1995)
The Symposium by Plato (1973)
The Phædrus by Plato (1973)

Huxley on Idealized Love

Screen Shot 2019-09-19 at 6.01.29 PM.pngWe’re brought up topsy-turvy… Art before life; Romeo and Juliet and filthy stores before marriage or its equivalents. Hence all the young modern literature is disillusioned… [W]ith a complete knowledge of the real thing and just where and how it was unpoetical, [poets] deliberately set to work to idealize and beautify it. We start with the poetical and proceed to the unpoetical.

 

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), British writer and intellectual, known for Brave New World. This quote comes from his other novel, Point Counter Point, pp. 338-9.

Mumford on Scientific Time

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 2.26.12 PM.pngThe conception of time as the flux of organic continuity, experienced as duration, as memory, as recorded history, as potentiality and prospective achievement, stands in frontal opposition to the mechanistic notion of time simply as a function of the motion of bodies in space—along with its spurious imperative of “saving time” by accelerating motion, and of making such acceleration in every possible department the highest triumph of the power complex.

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), American sociologist, author of The Pentagon of Power. Quote taken from page 391.

Understanding 9/11

I was born after 2001, so I did not get to experience 9/11. Unlike so many Americans, I cannot recall what I was doing at the moment. But I know what happened. My schoolmates and I have learned over the years.


Unknown.jpegOn September 1st, 2001, a Tuesday, at 8:45 a.m., a hijacked plane struck one of the Twin Towers in New York City, setting it ablaze. About a quarter of an hour later, another one flew into the second tower. An agonizing hour passed before the World Trade Center dramatically collapsed. During that time, two other planes had crashed, one into the Pentagon in Virginia, the other in Pennsylvania, having been taken over by the passengers who fought against the terrorists onboard, sacrificing themselves, thereby saving many lives. In the end, almost 3,000 people lost their lives. The Twin Towers, located in southern Manhattan, with 110 stories, were engulfed in flames, causing some to desperately throw themselves out the building in an attempt to escape, while emergency responders, including firefighters and police, tried their best to rescue people still inside, aided by strangers on the street who, despite their fear and confusion, ran in to help, successfully leading out around 12,000 people, people whose lives, had anything been different, would have surely been lost as well. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration was in a flurry, ordering all planes to land to prevent further attacks. The FBI was also engaged in this process. The attacks were attributed to al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization in the Middle East, which had been Unknown.pngharassing the U.S. since the 1990s, meaning this was not their first offense, and which was headed by Osama bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist who had contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Without delay, the Bush administration declared its infamous “War on Terror,” creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, whose weight we still feel today. We thus got ourselves tangled up in some unwise wars in the Middle East. The events of 9/11 inspired patriotism: American flags were raised all around the world, monuments were erected, memories were shared, and slogans and anthems like “United We Stand” were everywhere. From the crisis, we emerged with solidarity—one nation, indivisible. 


I know what happened on 9/11…

But just because I know what happened, does not mean I understand what happened—and for a long time, I did not understand what had happened that fateful day.


Unknown-1.jpegSee, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) believed that, when it came to history, you had to study it differently than you studied science, the two disciplines being polar opposites. In science, you study the laws of nature, deducing patterns from the observable world, which is taken to be fixed and unchanging, replicable, reliable. It is the study of atoms—literally and figuratively, in the sense of studying inert things. However, history looks at humans and how they interact with one another, forming societies and so on. Unlike the subjects of science, humans are immensely complex; they are variables that can never quite be understood, so diverse and multi-sided are they. It is true that the human body is physical and therefore affected by laws, yet humans are much more than their bodies, possessing freedom, consciousness, feelings—all things that cannot be reduced to mechanisms. Weber reacted against the scientific approach of his day, positivism, which studied only observable facts. What was needed, was an account of the unobservable, the interior of man. To capture this, Weber used a concept called verstehen, a German word translated as “understanding.” The term did not originate with Weber; two other Germans, Johann Droysen the historian and Wilhelm Dilthey the philosopher, used it in their works, and it is the latter, Dilthey, whose use of verstehen was most similar: Dilthey applied hermeneutics, the interpretation of written works, a recent development in the 1800s, to history, studying it as would a student reading a piece of literature today, looking for the history-world-map.jpg“deeper meaning” behind it, trying to determine the author’s intent in writing this way and not some other. This type of analysis was his vision of verstehen, understanding. Hence, to understand something is to see it from the author’s—or agent’s—perspective, getting at their “why.” For Dilthey, then, history was a subjective discipline, one that relied on the historian’s feelings, which he introjected into the historical subjects. But Weber was no philosopher; above all, Weber remained a scientist, albeit one who studied society—a sociologist. Accordingly, Weber insisted that understanding was a scientific tool. Verstehen was more than just subjective, arbitrary judgments made by the historian; instead, it is built on research, usually comparative, drawing upon historical sources, putting them together, and extrapolating from them a theoretical perspective, a sort of framework through which to interpret the historical event. For example, to understand why someone did something, you must first know about the age in which they were living, as this shapes what they think and feel; then, you can look at their action on its own, and interpret its motive. Unknown-2.jpegThis is the hermeneutic circle, where an interpreter looks at the whole and its parts in reference to each other. In this way, Weber’s theory of verstehen was both individual and collective, micro and macro, working on the level of a single person alongside the culture they inhabited with others. It involves empathizing (Einfühlung) and living-back (Nacherleben), what we might call “reconstructing the past.” Weber did not stop there, as Dilthey had, but qualified verstehen further in the scientific direction by seeing it as a means of arriving at causality. By understanding an agent’s actions, we can learn about cause and effect. Weber, through his method of verstehen, offers us a new and, in my opinion, more immersive, comprehensive way of studying—and, more importantly, relating to—history.


Unknown-1.pngToday in my psychology class, we were looking at flashbulb memories, particularly strong recollections formed during important events in our lives that we keep long-term. An impactful event like 9/11, for example, strikes us so powerfully, eliciting robust emotions, that the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for registering a lot of our emotional responses, focuses on the stimulus, fixing it into our memories, and attaching to it whatever emotions we were feeling, giving it its significance, its ability, upon recall, to evoke the exact feeling we had at the time, as if we were reliving it. My teacher had us watch this video. It is about the great “boatlift of 9/11,” an operation in which all the boats of New York, piloted by everyday people, rushed to the scene and helped evacuate half a million people off the island of Manhattan in a few hours. It is a typical video you would see in school, or if you are bored while searching through YouTube and are interested in a little-known part of September 11. A lot of my classmates treated it as such, much like I did at the beginning. Just another 9/11 video. But this video, this specific video, more than any other I had watched, impacted me. More than any other video, this one made me understand September 11. During the video, I could feel myself tearing up, Unknown-3.jpegmy heart sinking as I listened to the urgency in the peoples’ voices, their sense of duty, their courage that seemed to issue spontaneously, urged forth by their consciences, their love of their fellow man, and the images of people running through the streets, disoriented, terrified, covered in dust and ash, crowding at the harbors, huddled together, no longer differentiated by class or race or sex, but united, helping one another, all of them moved not just by self-preservation, but altruism—a truly beautiful, awesome, and uplifting scene. Questions were racing through my mind, I was enraptured, I could feel what they felt, I wanted to do something, I was rooting for them. Until today, I had never understood what this day meant. Because it does not matter if you know what happened on this day. Year after year, teacher after teacher, we were told how traumatic, how critical, how scary that day was, how it was ingrained in their memories. We watched video after video showing the towers as they fell, the fire and smoke rising up. But none of that helped us to understand what happened. They could have given us all the facts, every single one, from the number of casualties to the weather to the names of the victims. It would not matter. In psychology, there is a thing called “psychic numbing.” This is what happens when we are confronted with large numbers, numbers that are supposed to be significant because, behind them, there are people. We read that almost 3,000 people Unknown-4.jpegdied. 3,000—what does that look like? We hardly know 100 people, so how are we supposed to imagine 3,000? Who were these people? If they were just ordinary people, and if we do not know them, then why should it matter? Psychic numbing causes indifference, insensitivity. Not because we are heartless, but because certain stimuli, such as numbers, are too much to comprehend; they defy understanding. A similar phenomenon, the so-called “identifiable victim effect,” refers to our willingness to empathize with a singular person rather than a collective. When we come to know someone, when we connect to them, feel some sort of intimacy with them, when they “let us in,” we are more likely to react to the misfortune that befalls them. Some random stranger on the street affects me in no way; his fate is negligible. But a best friend, a parent, a relative—they mean something to me. I care about what happens to them. 3,000 people—what are they to me? It is but a wisp, a cloud, that number, 3,000. What does it signify? 


Unknown-6.jpegOf course, back in Weber’s time, immersive interpretation was much more difficult to achieve. In the 1800s, scholars’ only primary sources were written records, accounts written by the people who experienced something and happened to write it down. They were lucky such records existed. Today, it is much easier. Not only do we have written sources like journal entries, but we have newspapers in the public domain, accessible through the Internet; live video footage from all kinds of perspectives; countless photographs taken; interviews with people who lived through it. It is one thing to read about what happened, another to see, another to hear, and yet another altogether to have them all. We are fortunate enough to have such a comprehensive account of September 11. We students get to watch what happened as it happened, to hear the voices as they spoke that day. What a wondrous thing! To hear the despair, the hurt, the pride in those voices, trembling, weak, unreplicable. It is the real thing. To understand what happened this day 11 years ago, to engage in verstehen, is to discover the very experience of 9/11. To live it. Verstehen is empathetic. As understanding, it is “insight,” literally seeing-into the past, living through it, standing in others’ shoes, invoking the subjective qualia of the event—its sounds, smells, colors, tastes, etc. Weber’s method was, in Bendix’s words, “a kind of ‘existential psychology,’”¹ that is, a phenomenology, a study of experience, of intentional consciousness. Understanding is grasping the intentions and motives of a person in history. Because of that video in psych, I could finally understand the importance of this Unknown-9.jpegday, something no teacher or textbook can teach. It is not enough merely to know what occurred. Sitting there, looking up at the screen, I found myself moved; it was an internal movement, effected through my interpretation of the video, my insight into the past. Weber, when he conducted his studies, would make “judgments involv[ing] an intuitive grasp of what certain conditions of existence impl[ied]” and “combine such judgments with a comparative historical check on this validity,”² wrote Bendix. That is, Weber looked at the context of an event, its historical circumstances, what was going on at the time, and from there inferred the motives of historical agents, trying to see as they saw, feel as they felt, live as they lived, experience as they experienced, backed up by evidence, so as not to fall victim to idle speculation, freely made-up assumptions on his part. Why were the New Yorkers trying to get off the island? I tried to imagine myself as a New Yorker, minding my own business on a seemingly regular Tuesday, just going about my day. I imagined how bizarre it was to see a plane flying so low, as if it were not supposed to be there, heading straight toward the North Tower, only for it to, a few seconds later, collide with it, shaking the city. I imagined my incredulity, how it would make me drop my suitcase and stare up in awe, speechless, unable to express myself. I imagined the dread, the fear, clutching me—what was happening? What was going on? Unknown-8.jpegBecause “most of the people thought that the first crash was a bizarre accident.” And then I imagined watching the second plane hit the South Tower, for “[t]hen came the second crash, and everyone knew that America was under attack… The first emotion was disbelief and even denial. Then came shock and horror.”³ I imagined the exact fear that I would have felt, a mixture of anxiety and paranoia, resulting in uncertainty, panic. How was I to know whether there was more? There was no way to know if this was the end of the attack. What else was coming? I had to get out of there ASAP. For many, boats became the best bet. But did they really just flee the island like that? Sure, for who had the time to do anything else? When the whole world was collapsing around you, who had time to remember if they locked the door to their home, if they left their favorite coffee mug in their cubicle? None of that mattered. What mattered, I imagined, was getting out of there alive—then, when it was over, I could restart. Losing a pair of shoes, a car, a home—that is something with which one can cope. But to lose one’s life? Unknown-10.jpegUntil watching that video, I knew how much patriotism meant, but I did not understand. To see the flag waving atop a flag pole, or painted across a home; to sit beside a stranger on a boat as you drove away from the place you called home, not knowing how long you would be away, not knowing what came next, sharing memories with someone you would never notice and acknowledging their humanity; visiting a memorial and seeing all the names; running into a burning building despite the risks, putting your life on the line so as to save someone else—I now understood these things. I imagined what it felt like to live in fear. To live in uncertainty. To worry over my civil liberties, and how many I got to keep. These were ordinary people, after all. “Not all heroes wear capes,” we are fond of saying. Today, I understood that. 


images.jpegI experienced something I had never experienced before today. For once, I finally felt the importance of 9/11. This occurrence that happened before I was born, nearly two decades ago, something historical—I understood it. I could empathize with the people who had been there. I understood how terrifying it was, how indelible its influence was. It did not matter how much I knew about the day, which is all I had ever been taught. What mattered most, was experiencing the day, interpreting it. Of course, it is impossible for me to literally experience September 11, 2001, because I was not in existence then. And yet, I understood it. To confine 9/11 to a textbook or a classroom lecture is exactly that against which Weber protested about a century ago. He did not see history as something dead, but something very much alive, something that we had to live in order Unknown-2.pngto understand; history is about empathizing, for it requires us to think as others did, that we may gain insight into why they did what they did, why they felt the way they felt. It is only by comparing such records, listening to first-person reports and seeing it through our own eyes, that we can understand history. As an American, the legacy of 9/11 should matter to me. Obviously, on a shallow level, it had for much of my life. But now, having understood it, having gotten past merely knowing it as a scientist knows the atomic mass of oxygen, I can intuit its significance, what it means to be an American, to live with freedom, liberty, and dignity. From today on, I will Never Forget. 

 

 


¹ Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, p. 270
² Id., pp. 271-2
³ Fischer, Liberty and Freedom, p. 707

 

Sources: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDOrzF7B2Kg
America: A Narrative History 8th ed. by George Brown Tindall (2010)
Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait
by Reinhard Bendix (1977)

Masters of Sociological Thought by Lewis A. Coser (1971)
Liberty, Equality, Power
6th ed. by John M. Murrin (2012)
Freedom and Liberty
by David Hackett Fischer (2005)

Sociological Theory 5th ed. by George Ritzer (2000)

“The Mango”: A Poem Analysis

Unknown.jpegThe poem “The Mango,” by Mary Oliver, examines the complex problems associated with the seemingly innocent experience of eating fruit, over which the hidden consequences are glossed. By highlighting the privileged and underprivileged, and by drawing attention to the blatant disparity between the two through contrast and tone, Oliver reflects on the moral ambiguity of an otherwise ordinary occurrence. As a result, she gains a new awareness, which causes her to reconsider her situation. 


Unknown-6.jpegOliver uses comparison in order to comment upon the injustice of her eating a mango. Beginning as a regular narrative, the poem takes a turn midway through as she begins eating a mango when, all of sudden, “things happen,” and the author finds herself transported to an entirely different scene from that in which the poem begins. In stark contrast to the “rich” and “clever” “house,” Oliver paints a gritty picture, one in which there is “death,” with “children… work[ing] in the fields,” along with “guns.” Thus, she sets up a comparison between an environment that is wealthy and luxurious as juxtaposed to a more violent, realistic one; where one group of people is enjoying themselves without care, another toiling away, unable to appreciate the fruits of their own labor. In the house, the author and her companions are sitting down at a table, eating a nice meal in blissful ignorance, whereas in another part of the world, a place totally outside of their concern, there are inhumane conditions going on, conditions that Unknown-5.jpegare utterly foreign to them. This difference is made more clear when Oliver writes of “torn-out tongues / embedded in the honeyed centers.” Her description of the mangoes can be interpreted as a metaphor for her circumstances at large: Within the sweet, pleasant exterior of the kitchen, there lies a sinister, unpleasant truth in the interior. Just as the mango’s structure demonstrates deception, so the author’s dining demonstrates deception. Unbeknownst to the guests, they are eating something whose value they do not know, taking it for granted. Through her use of contrast, Oliver questions her actions, bringing focus to what she has, versus what others do not.


Unknown-1.jpegThroughout the poem, the author criticizes, or at least wonders about, how she and others live their lives, and how her way of living is unconscientious. The scene of the poem is telling, as it is a dinner party, a social gathering where lots of talk is happening between people, talk about “family news” and “where to travel” and “where to buy… anything”—casual small talk, as is customary. Oliver is accustomed to this convention, yet she seems to reevaluate it when she snaps back to reality, having come out of her mental trip to “another country.” Her statement, “They were talking amongst themselves —,” does not follow the preceding line, relating to the mangoes, showing this interruption, this grounding back into reality. Having thought about where the mangoes came from, how people elsewhere live, Oliver sees her own life through a new lens, evident by her listing of the small talk, with its repetition of the “w” sound, especially in the word “where”; this repetition not only suggests that she is tired of hearing it, but also “w” has the effect of drawing out sound, making it longer, creating the sensation of weariness, heaviness, drag. Her writing here appears to be judgmental, her way of expressing annoyance at her friends’ triviality, their obsession with “brandy,” travelling, and consumer objects—empty, materialistic things, a departure Unknown-3.jpegfrom “the mango, / a sharp gravel in the flesh,” which is a harsh, painful image, invoking outrage and irritation. It is as if she is mad that there is talk of such petty things; meanwhile, children are “in the fields.” These people live “the way they always do”—a phrase getting at the everyday, the routine, the bland—which is unlike the mango, described as “cubist,” referencing the perspectival approach of painters like Picasso, who tried to show a scene from multiple perspectives, not just one; Oliver is saying that the mango shows her the complexities of life, whereas her friends merely talk about their own lives, neglecting other matters. At the end of the night, she writes that she and her friends “said goodbye / and kissed, on the black lawn, like strangers.” This last line, separated by a stanza break, a deviation from the rest of the poem, is abrupt and seems out of place, almost blunt, as though Oliver, fed up with her comfortable life, feels she no longer knows these people, who have become “like strangers” to her, so divorced are they from reality, uncritical and self-centered. Using tone and diction, Oliver issues a critique of her and her friends’ easy, carefree, and unassuming lives. 


In conclusion, Oliver’s “The Mango” closely analyzes the eating of a mango, showing how it is a sort of betrayal, a morally questionable event. In imagining what work went into providing her dinner, and in seeing how divergent it is from her own way of living, Oliver arrives at a condemnation of everyday life, where people do things unthinkingly, not considering the trouble and effort put into making life possible in the first place.