History & Nostalgia

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the oracle of the Jazz Age and our age too.

There’s a wonderful Sarah Churchwell essay in the New York Review of Books called “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, local boy made good from St. Paul, Minnesota (where my wife and I lived 16 years). The essay explores a facet of Fitzgerald’s work on the so-called “Jazz Age” (a sobriquet he took credit for) that is not much remarked on, the connection between the horrors of WW I, just completed, and the ebullience and drunkenness of the ’20s.

The essay ends in a summary warning at this political and cultural junction:

Fitzgerald became America’s poet laureate of nostalgia because he understood its perils as well as its allure: nostalgia wants to falsify the past, whereas history tries to clarify it. Gatsby, the emblematic American, is destroyed by nostalgia, his dreams of reclaiming paradise shattered by the “hard malice” of Tom Buchanan’s plutocratic power. Gatsby’s incurable faith in the false promise of renewal—“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”—is America’s. Like Gatsby, we want to recover some idea of ourselves that we’ve lost, to return to the past and find there, intact, our own innocence. Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” is our own—and ensures we keep willfully forgetting that his great aspirations ended dead in the water.

We’ve all read The Great Gatsby, haven’t we? And I hope we continue to read it in high schools and colleges through the nation. Now, almost 100 years after its publication, it sounds the same alarm about plutocracy and democracy. Do we fight, in wars, in elections, merely to keep the rich in place, atop the pile, piling on, adding to their advantage? Or do we demand a little room to breathe for fellow citizens (like George Floyd) and ourselves?

The air may be rare up there, where even the toilets are gold plated, but down here on the ground, in the trenches, “the mud of Gallipoli,” as T. S. Eliot put it, remembering a friend’s death in WW I, we need to sweat and bleed in the common way to make any progress at all.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, British poet and soldier. He died at age 25 one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Or course, conservatives constantly prattle about “the city on the hill,” “American exceptionalism,” “Make America Great Again,” and, most facile of all, “patriotism” — the patriotism of the great dead white men and of course the live ones, most of whom didn’t and wouldn’t go to war themselves (can anyone say “bone spurs”?) but would be glad to send the deplorables and the inexorables to the mud for the sake of the country, sure, and the munitions manufacturers.

They haven’t read (what’s reading?) or haven’t heeded the warning of Wilfred Owen’s poem (what’s poetry?) about the Great War, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends in exhortation of those who have not been to war:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Patriotic bullshit. Toxic nostalgia. It’s not sweet, nor is it just, to die for the country. Don’t let ’em tell you that it is. Don’t let ’em wave their flag in your face. Read your history, fight your own fights, and the hell with filial or final piety.

(For an analysis of a more recent misadventure in patriotism and American arms, see Frederic Wehrey’s “This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie,” also in the Review of Books.)

Politics

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)