7. Desire in the Waste Land

Daisy, her actual and astounding presence

The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn are complicit in the culture of consumption from which they draw forms of commodity desire as tropes for their own aesthetic structures, but this complicity requires careful delineation. Clearly, it does not preclude a great deal of moral and social criticism of the "empty" pursuit of material happiness. Both novels may be read as detailed, sophisticated, and damning critiques of the destructive tendencies of American capitalism and consumer culture. Indeed, such a critique is necessary to the art of these novels. Illuminating the limitations of the culture of consumption supports a particular claim for the novel as art--as that which can transmute and redeem desires stimulated but unsatisfied by the twentieth-century Waste Land. Fitzgerald's and Miller's distinctively novelistic complicity in commodification is exposed at precisely that moment when the purchased object is shown to betray the commodity's promise, for it is then that the purely tropological form of the commodity--its "pointing beyond"--sheds its materiality, becoming a free, aestheticized structure applicable to any desire, specifically the novelist's desire to write "something really NEW in form, idea, and structure--the model for the age."[29] Realizing an aesthetic polemic in commodity-form, Fitzgerald and Miller each contend that his aesthetics represents the only "really" desirable modern novel: in this sense their art transpires wholly within the culture of consumption they criticize.

The aesthetic significance of Gatsby's symbolic possessions emerges when, in the fifth and center chapter of The Great Gatsby, he uses them to "get" Daisy:

He hadn't once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. Once he nearly toppled down a flight of stairs.[30]

Prior to Daisy's arrival, Gatsby's house is a symbolic whole thoroughly organized by her absence: its contents, its grounds, its parties, its neighborhood (Nick's lawn), and its view of the green light of Daisy's dock all have a commodity value. Gatsby amasses these "goods" as a means to an end: in part and in whole they point beyond themselves toward Daisy. With Daisy's arrival, however, the order of the house is thrown into confusion, for everything must be revalued if what was once a synecdoche for her absence is to become a synecdoche for her "actual and astounding presence." But when Daisy herself can stand for Gatsby's longing, there appears no cause for further commodification of desire. In the confusion, Gatsby's possessions lose their significance. Along with the green light, they become again mere things, toppling, in effect, "down the stairs" of Gatsby's desire:

Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.[31]

As Gatsby's "count of enchanted objects" begins to diminish, as he teeters, so to speak, on the stairs of his desire, Nick intervenes. All along, the narrator's speculative interpolations--"I think he revalued," "he stared [...] as though," "Possibly it occurred to him"--have indicated the presence of a third pair of eyes revaluing Gatsby's house. With Gatsby's impending fall, Nick's voice becomes emphatic, interjecting conclusive "musts" to save man's "capacity for wonder":

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams--not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.[32]

In Nick's eyes, his cousin Daisy is no more "commensurate to" the symbolic desire Gatsby has embodied in his house than the house itself: "It had gone beyond her, beyond everything." Daisy possessed is merely another thing. The most Nick will grant is that she was once a synecdoche for the grander dream of "Jay Gatsby" that began in earnest the day James Gatz rowed up alongside Cody's yacht. That grander dream, as Nick later explains, merely found contingent expression through Daisy:

Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees--he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.[33]

Listening to Gatsby's "appalling sentimentality," Nick "gathered that he"--Gatsby, or is it Nick?--"wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy."[34] Nick asserts this interpretation late in his narrative, but from the mid-point when Gatsby "nearly toppled down a flight of stairs" it is clear that Nick is no disinterested spectator. It is Nick who "gathers" his own disparate meanings, mounting the stairs, the ladder, of symbolic desire, knowing this must be done "alone." Indeed, by the last lines of his narrative, he has "toppled down," not only Daisy, but the James Gatz who descends to lying to protect the "actual" Daisy from the consequences of her "vast carelessness."

For the author of The Great Gatsby, the confusion of Daisy's reunion with Gatsby in the middle of the novel signals the beginning of a process of sublimation whereby synecdoche, the trope of desire that first invests Gatsby's possessions with meaning as commodities, is abstracted and preserved in ascending steps of revaluation that discover Gatsby's possessions, Gatsby's "actual and astounding" Daisy, and James Gatz himself to be less "real" than man's "capacity for wonder"--less "real" than the symbolic vision with which Fitzgerald invests The Great Gatsby as "the model for the age," the modern representation and embodiment of the dream that made America. In the end, even the figure of Jay Gatsby is not "commensurate to" the symbolizing vision of The Great Gatsby: it is not the future that is "orgiastic," as Jay Gatsby believes, but the American past consumed in The Great Gatsby.

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