Friday, May 09, 2008

The Green Light

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful."

~F. Scott Fitzgerald "The Rich Boy" (1926)

If there are any among you who have not read the Great Gatsby then you must. It's not a pedantic request like, say the recommendation to read Ulysses or Crime and Punishment. It's more an invitation to experience art, to appreciate beauty and above all  to be entertained. Shakespeare were he alive today would have been a popular writer.

Step away for a moment to an imaginary barroom where the world's writers are gathered. In walks Shakespeare and the attendant quiet hush.  He walks and surveys the field, he nods toward the greats, Greene and Huxley together looking a little high, Dostoevsky engrossed in a card game that looks as if it will spill over into argument , Marquez and Llosa trying their best to be civil to one another- and not succeeding, Shaw and Wilde and Rushdie taking turns telling stories to a receptive crowd, Naipaul on the very edge of the gathering trying to fit in while checking to see if his glass is clean. He acknowledges them all ,even puts his hand on Auden's shoulder and tells him all is not lost with a look toward Cohen and Neruda. He continues his walk to the other side of the room and notices the air's become more relaxed, he makes his way past Kunzru and Camus both urbane and cool , and takes an appreciative glance toward Martin Cruz Smith, a smile and a nod to Ian Rankin, a thumbs up to Stephen King. Then, on seeing him walking back and forth looking unsure of himself to F.Scott Fitzgerald he reserves a wary expression at the one who showed evidence of being his equal, on the strength of one book that crossed the line between culture and entertainment- perfectly.

The Great Gatsby was Fitzgerald at the height of his powers. The prose at once effortless and beautiful. A story that starts on an ironic note and builds movement by movement. A cipher for a doomed Flapper romance that falls away with further scrutiny to offer a fleeting glimpse of an elusive and at times blinding phenomenon.The American dream caught for a moment at an angle neither glorified nor caricatured, something offered shimmering and alive, the surface of a lake at dusk, filled with possibility and still in the receding light forlorn in some inexpressible way- that faint hope that fades to a line as the night falls on the horizon.

Like someone who looked at the sun and and tried to steal away the memory, Fitzgerald would not see in the same way again. He died young from complications of alcoholism. In his decline he would complain his certainty of purpose was no longer there and unable to tap into that evanescent spirit, the perspective and the literary gift went with it. But he has left us a body of work that includes, The Great Gatsby.

 More than greed drove Gatsby. it's the source of his appeal. He expressed another side to the dream of great wealth.
Thoughts of Gatsby came to me when I read this interview with Shoba De. For all the gorgeous patina and the distinct aura of a sober Patsy Stone ( high society Indian women tend to have more than a trace of Ab Fab to me) she shows herself an insightful commentator on the new rich in India in an interview in Tehelka.

;"But to answer your question, except for politically correct forums, in all these years, I have never heard the uber-rich discuss the have-nots. They are just not interested! They are in denial. It’s not a part of their scripted dream, so why must they have to deal with it? Their conversation is always about making more money and enhancing lifestyle. Clothes, exotic villas, cars, bags, price of diamonds, gizmos. The women’s distress scale is measured by whether they have bought the correct bag or not (the price of just one of these bags could feed ten poor families for a year.) But there is a reason for this. The super-rich in India today are mostly first-generation rich, so their attitude to money is very different. They haven’t quite grown into a full sense of security about it, they are almost overwhelmed by their own capacity to spend.

The lack of precedent and the vulnerability that comes with it is seen in its raw form. It's something not seen, as she says, in the contained knowledge of the old money in the West. What she says is disturbing, how the abundance is disconnected from the ever present poverty. But It's such a new thing that it's hardly consolidated. It's a starting realisation that there are still cycles at play. In the same place where Sanyassis have  rejected the worldly path since before the West recorded its history, where the Buddha discarded a princely life to endure a lifetime of suffering and contemplation there is another cycle at play, an Occidental one of booms and busts. The deficit for much of its modern history is the source of the new hunger. Having been hungry for so long the new wealth in India wants its seat at the banquet table.A new generation in a new land have inherited Gatsby's quest for the Green Light.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby

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