7. Desire in the Waste Land
A generalized exchange of women
The Great Gatsby contemplates the possibility of a generalized exchange of women (and commodities) which would create metaphoric bonds among its men stronger than the anonymous bonds of secret-sharing Nick encounters in the faces of New York. The novel's "plot" is the threatened realization of such an economy of exchange: Gatsby gets Tom's Daisy, Tom gets George's Myrtle, and George gets Gatsby's car--Tom's mock offer to substitute Gatsby's car for his own rounds the circle. However, such an exchange of women, desirable because they are metaphors for male friendship, is impossible in the world of The Great Gatsby where the symbolic good of sex cannot be shared: to share the promise of absolute fulfillment is to lose it and lose oneself. Gatsby's dream to "suck on the pap of life" is an exclusive dream. It must be "climbed alone":
"Oh, you want too much!" she cried to Gatsby. "I love you now--isn't that enough? I can't help what's past." She began to sob helplessly. "I did love him once--but I loved you too."
Gatsby's eyes opened and closed.
"You loved me too? he repeated.
"Even that's a lie," said Tom savagely. "She didn't even know you were alive. Why--there're things between Daisy and me that you'll never know, things that neither of us can ever forget."
The words seemed to bite physically into Gatsby.
"Gatsby's eyes opened and closed," and the exchange of words touches off the violence that puts to rest forever any possibility of an exchange of women. At the wheel of Gatsby's car Daisy kills Myrtle, and afterwards Tom effectively kills Gatsby and George. The survivors--Tom, Daisy, and witness Nick--are uncannily those who recognized a generalized exchange was in the offing. The dead pursued their individual desires, heedless of the danger. Left in undisputed possession of Daisy, Tom goes off with her in a "vast carelessness" of consumption that resembles an upper class version of the aesthetic of Tropic of Capricorn. Rejecting the Buchanan's aesthetic--"or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made"--Nick carries the dream of symbolic fulfillment to its conclusion, his culminating vision saving Fitzgerald's Modernist novel from the critical embarrassment of having had a "plot." In the course of Nick's New York experience a range of alternative forms of sexual desire are weighed and found wanting: the street level male fantasy of New York's theater district, the substitution of Jordan's proximate face for Daisy's "disembodied face," the possibility of a generalized economy of exchange, and Tom's and Daisy's "vast carelessness." This weighing of conflictual forms of desire lends authority to Nick's ultimate validation of the symbolic sexual desire that helps flesh out the "aesthetic contemplation" of the original American continent awaiting delectation.
In Tropic of Capricorn the exchange of women is frequently discussed, but proposals to base male society upon the exchange of women are met with ridicule and distrust. Far from sealing male friendship, the exchange of women, implied or accomplished, effectuates its breakdown. At a gathering of the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company" men, who seek to "compare notes [...] in the chop suey joint around the corner from the office," Hymie the switchboard operator discovers how insubstantial are of bonds of male friendship founded upon the exchange of women. Protesting a suggestion that his sexual accomplishments are inferior to Curley's, he insists that women have value only as signs of male friendship, maintaining that Curley's many conquests are valueless because selfish:
"Me? Me jealous of him?" And he'd try to smother the idea with a scornful little laugh. It made him wince, a jab like that. "Listen," he would say, turning to me, "did I ever act jealous toward you? Didn't I always turn a girl over to you if you asked me? What about that red-haired girl in SU office . . . you remember . . . the one with the big teats? Wasn't that a nice piece of ass to turn over to a friend? But I did, didn't I? I did it because you said you liked big teats. But I wouldn't do it for Curley. He's a little crook. Let him do his own digging."
Hymie attacks Curley's "morality" and defends his own in terms fundamental to metaphoric sexual desire: women are valuable because they may be given and received as signs of male interdependence. He claims a debt of friendship exists because he has "turned over" "a nice piece of ass" to Miller; in contrast, he will not acknowledge any relation with Curley insofar as he doesn't expect the "little crook" to recognize reciprocal obligations. But since no one at Miller's table takes the logic of exchange seriously, Hymie's claim, rather than Curley's action, sounds narrowly self-serving. Miller's next remark expresses the consensus, endorsing the mode of sexual desire represented by the "little crook": "As a matter of fact, Curley was digging away very industriously."