While in Seattle a while ago, I wandered into the Elliot Bay bookstore and, unsurprisingly, left with a stack of books. In that stack was The Great Gatsby, which I hadn't yet read. So tell me why, when I decided to read a Fitzgerald book, I would start with this book, The Beautiful and Damned? I mean, I can't even blame BookRiot for this one.
I picked it up, however, and started reading. The book is about Anthony Patch, a social parasite, and his marriage to his wife, Gloria. Okay, no, it isn't a abook about Patch, who is the grandson of a wealthy tycoon from the late 1800s, and a moocher of said tycoon's wealth. Patch doesn't actually work, he lives off an allowance from his grandfather, and hopes for the man's death throughout the book.
Except the book isn't about Anthony. Rather, it is a social commentary on the worthlessness of the non-working financially elite who don't actually do anything for society except spout non-sense about intellectuals, non-intellectuals, the meaning of life, the lack of meaning in life, and a billion things they actually know nothing about. Unironically, said people continue to exist today.
That the main characters are pretty awful, shallow people, I can't say I was ever on their side. When Anthony's grandfather interrupted a particular rowdy party during Prohibition, I cheered for Anthony's disinheritance. Fitzgerald's characters in this book are unlovable, disgusting, mooching parasites of the world. Which, well, the describing of such was likely the point of the book.
I'm glad I read it. I look forward to reading the Great Gatsby.
It had irritated him to wait for Anthony. He was under the delusion not only that in his youth he had handled his practical affairs with the utmost scrupulousness, even to keeping every engagement on the dot, but also that this was the direct and primary cause of his success.
During the year that had passed since then, he had made several lists of authorities, he had even experimented with chapter titles and the division of his work into periods, but not one line of actual writing existed at present, or seemed likely ever to exist.
Oh, look, the people who read about things, plan about things, and never actually DO the things? They existed long before today.
MAURY: No, sir! I believe that every one in America but a selected thousand should be compelled to accept a very rigid system of morals — Roman Catholicism, for instance. I don’t complain of conventional morality. I complain rather of the mediocre heretics who seize upon the findings of sophistication and adopt the pose of a moral freedom to which they are by no means entitled by their intelligences.
Because in this commentary, the characters believe money equals intelligence. We know better. They knew better, but is human nature to want to feel superior.
Fifteen years of yes’s had beaten Mrs. Gilbert. Fifteen further years of that incessant unaffirmative affirmative, accompanied by the perpetual flicking of ash-mushrooms from thirty-two thousand cigars, had broken her.
To this husband of hers she made the last concession of married life, which is more complete, more irrevocable, than the first — she listened to him. She told herself that the years had brought her tolerance — actually they had slain what measure she had ever possessed of moral courage.
This is all over the place in the book. It's the belief we are reincarnated.
He found in himself a growing horror and loneliness. The idea of eating alone frightened him; in preference he dined often with men he detested.
Anthony Patch with no record of achievement, without courage, without strength to be satisfied with truth when it was given him. Oh, he was a pretentious fool, making careers out of cocktails and meanwhile regretting, weakly and secretly, the collapse of an insufficient and wretched idealism.
... and wove along with faintly upturning, half-humorous intonations for sentence ends — as though defying interruption — and intervals of shadowy laughter.
Perhaps the sentence-ending uplift isn't new, either?
She talked always about herself as a very charming child might talk, and her comments on her tastes and distastes were unaffected and spontaneous.
Her beautiful eyes and lips were very grave as she made her choice, and Anthony thought again how naïve was her every gesture; she took all the things of life for hers to choose from and apportion, as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter.
There was one of his lonelinesses coming, one of those times when he walked the streets or sat, aimless and depressed, biting a pencil at his desk. It was a self-absorption with no comfort, a demand for expression with no outlet, a sense of time rushing by, ceaselessly and wastefully — assuaged only by that conviction that there was nothing to waste, because all efforts and attainments were equally valueless.
The growth of intimacy is like that. First one gives off his best picture, the bright and finished product mended with bluff and falsehood and humor. Then more details are required and one paints a second portrait, and a third — before long the best lines cancel out — and the secret is exposed at last; the planes of the pictures have intermingled and given us away, and though we paint and paint we can no longer sell a picture. We must be satisfied with hoping that such fatuous accounts of ourselves as we make to our wives and children and business associates are accepted as true.
Hello, let me introduce you to my representative. (Hi, BenK!)
And there used to be dignified occupations for a gentleman who had leisure, things a little more constructive than filling up the landscape with smoke or juggling some one else’s money.
“Aren’t you interested in anything except yourself?”
This sums up much of the book.
“A woman should be able to kiss a man beautifully and romantically without any desire to be either his wife or his mistress.”
Instead of seizing the girl and holding her by sheer strength until she became passive to his desire, instead of beating down her will by the force of his own, he had walked, defeated and powerless, from her door, with the corners of his mouth drooping and what force there might have been in his grief and rage hidden behind the manner of a whipped schoolboy.
Okay, so, instead of beating or raping a woman for her saying no, he respects her decision. Society is seriously messed up when accepting another person's autonomy is considered being beaten.
Happiness, remarked Maury Noble one day, is only the first hour after the alleviation of some especially intense misery.
The girl was proudly incapable of jealousy and, because he was extremely jealous, this virtue piqued him. He told her recondite incidents of his own life on purpose to arouse some spark of it, but to no avail. She possessed him now — nor did she desire the dead years.
... in crowded rooms they would form words with their lips for each other’s eyes — not knowing that they were but following in the footsteps of dusty generations but comprehending dimly that if truth is the end of life happiness is a mode of it, to be cherished in its brief and tremulous moment.
One of those personalities who, in spite of all their words, are inarticulate, he seemed to have inherited only the vast tradition of human failure — that, and the sense of death.
“I reached maturity under the impression that I was gathering the experience to order my life for happiness. Indeed, I accomplished the not unusual feat of solving each question in my mind long before it presented itself to me in life — and of being beaten and bewildered just the same. “But after a few tastes of this latter dish I had had enough. Here! I said, Experience is not worth the getting. It’s not a thing that happens pleasantly to a passive you — it’s a wall that an active you runs up against. So I wrapped myself in what I thought was my invulnerable scepticism and decided that my education was complete. But it was too late. Protect myself as I might by making no new ties with tragic and predestined humanity, I was lost with the rest. I had traded the fight against love for the fight against loneliness, the fight against life for the fight against death.”
“There’s only one lesson to be learned from life, anyway,” interrupted Gloria, not in contradiction but in a sort of melancholy agreement.
“What’s that?” demanded Maury sharply.
“That there’s no lesson to be learned from life.”
“What a feeble thing intelligence is, with its short steps, its waverings, its pacings back and forth, its disastrous retreats! Intelligence is a mere instrument of circumstances. There are people who say that intelligence must have built the universe — why, intelligence never built a steam engine! Circumstances built a steam engine. Intelligence is little more than a short foot-rule by which we measure the infinite achievements of Circumstances."
MAURY: What is a gentleman, anyway?
ANTHONY: A man who never has pins under his coat lapel.
MAURY: Nonsense! A man’s social rank is determined by the amount of bread he eats in a sandwich.
DICK: He’s a man who prefers the first edition of a book to the last edition of a newspaper.
RACHAEL: A man who never gives an impersonation of a dope-fiend.
MAURY: An American who can fool an English butler into thinking he’s one.
MURIEL: A man who comes from a good family and went to Yale or Harvard or Princeton, and has money and dances well, and all that.
MAURY: At last — the perfect definition! Cardinal Newman’s is now a back number.
Gloria would be twenty-six in May. There was nothing, she had said, that she wanted, except to be young and beautiful for a long time, to be gay and happy, and to have money and love. She wanted what most women want, but she wanted it much more fiercely and passionately.
Oh, she wanted it MORE. Because wanting something MORE means you should get it. (Sarcasm, in case that was lost in the written word.)
After the sureties of youth there sets in a period of intense and intolerable complexity. With the soda-jerker this period is so short as to be almost negligible. Men higher in the scale hold out longer in the attempt to preserve the ultimate niceties of relationship, to retain “impractical” ideas of integrity. But by the late twenties the business has grown too intricate, and what has hitherto been imminent and confusing has become gradually remote and dim. Routine comes down like twilight on a harsh landscape, softening it until it is tolerable. The complexity is too subtle, too varied; the values are changing utterly with each lesion of vitality; it has begun to appear that we can learn nothing from the past with which to face the future — so we cease to be impulsive, convincible men, interested in what is ethically true by fine margins, we substitute rules of conduct for ideas of integrity, we value safety above romance, we become, quite unconsciously, pragmatic. It is left to the few to be persistently concerned with the nuances of relationships — and even this few only in certain hours especially set aside for the task.
There was, first of all, the sense of waste, always dormant in his heart, now awakened by the circumstances of his position. In his moments of insecurity he was haunted by the suggestion that life might be, after all, significant.
“I can just see you,” she stormed, “letting him back you down!”
“What could I say?”
“You could have told him what he was. I wouldn’t have stood it. No other man in the world would have stood it! You just let people order you around and cheat you and bully you and take advantage of you as if you were a silly little boy. It’s absurd!”
Again, allowing other people to be autonomous apparently means you need to beat them up.
"A person like you oughtn’t to accept anything unless it’s decently demonstrable.”
“I don’t care about truth. I want some happiness.”
“Well, if you’ve got a decent mind the second has got to be qualified by the first. Any simple soul can delude himself with mental garbage.”
West Pointers began to be noticed for the first time in years, and the general impression was that everything was glorious, but not half so glorious as it was going to be pretty soon, and that everybody was a fine fellow, and every race a great race — always excepting the Germans — and in every strata of society outcasts and scapegoats had but to appear in uniform to be forgiven, cheered, and wept over by relatives, ex-friends, and utter strangers.
Anthony’s affair with Dorothy Raycroft was an inevitable result of his increasing carelessness about himself. He did not go to her desiring to possess the desirable, nor did he fall before a personality more vital, more compelling than his own, as he had done with Gloria four years before. He merely slid into the matter through his inability to make definite judgments. He could say “No!” neither to man nor woman; borrower and temptress alike found him tender-minded and pliable. Indeed he seldom made decisions at all, and when he did they were but half-hysterical resolves formed in the panic of some aghast and irreparable awakening.
As a rule things happened to Dot. She was not weak, because there was nothing in her to tell her she was being weak. She was not strong, because she never knew that some of the things she did were brave. She neither defied nor conformed nor compromised.
He was going to be able to shout the technical phrase, “Follow me!” to seven other frightened men.
I laughed at this one. Anthony was promoted to Corporal, which gave him little power, except this.
At the inspections one did not dress up to look well, one dressed up to keep from looking badly.
As Mr. Carleton piled assertion upon assertion Anthony began to feel a sort of disgusted confidence in him. The man appeared to know what he was talking about. Obviously prosperous, he had risen to the position of instructing others. It did not occur to Anthony that the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and, as in his grandfather’s case, when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.
“But brilliant people don’t settle down in business — or do they? Or what do they do? Or what becomes of everybody you used to know and have so much in common with?”
“You drift apart,” suggested Muriel with the appropriate dreamy look.
“They change,” said Gloria.
“All the qualities that they don’t use in their daily lives get cobwebbed up.”
“The last thing he said to me,” recollected Anthony, “was that he was going to work so as to forget that there was nothing worth working for.”
She turned a page and learned that a candidate for Congress was being accused of atheism by an opponent.
She wondered if they were tears of self-pity, and tried resolutely not to cry, but this existence without hope, without happiness, oppressed her, and she kept shaking her head from side to side, her mouth drawn down tremulously in the corners, as though she were denying an assertion made by some one, somewhere.
But he hated to be sober. It made him conscious of the people around him, of that air of struggle, of greedy ambition, of hope more sordid than despair, of incessant passage up or down, which in every metropolis is most in evidence through the unstable middle class. Unable to live with the rich he thought that his next choice would have been to live with the very poor. Anything was better than this cup of perspiration and tears.
… The fruit of youth or of the grape, the transitory magic of the brief passage from darkness to darkness — the old illusion that truth and beauty were in some way entwined.
There was nothing, it seemed, that grew stale so soon as pleasure.
“It does to me. There’s nothing I’d violate certain principles for.”
“But how do you know when you’re violating them? You have to guess at things just like most people do. You have to apportion the values when you look back. You finish up the portrait then — paint in the details and shadows.”
“Same old futile cynic,” he said. “It’s just a mode of being sorry for yourself. You don’t do anything — so nothing matters.”
“You say — at least you used to — that happiness is the only thing worth while in life. Do you think you’re any happier for being a pessimist?”