7. Desire in the Waste Land
Oswald Spengler: The Decline of the West
In brief, Spengler's theory of the natural "morphology of forms" envisions the history of every "people" as an inevitable process of growth and decay. Living "Cultures" become dead "Civilizations," and this "macrocosmic" devolution proceeds apace on a "microcosmic" level: organic ideals are transmuted into inorganic laws, race-feeling into abstract intellect, symbolic depth into mathematical extension, and use values into commodity values. Not only did The Decline of the West provide an encyclopedic source of allusion for both The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, it afforded Fitzgerald and Miller an intellectual ground from which to assess the transformation of American life from promise into a meaningless statistical nightmare. Of the "late world-city" Fitzgerald and Miller saw in New York's "teeming multitudes," Spengler wrote:
[T]he resort to statistics shows that the force that [...] tradition regulated and made effective is exhausted. [....] Formulae of life, growth, age, direction and death are crowding up.
Consequently, we find everywhere in these Civilizations that [...] the giant cities [...] at the end of the evolution, stand empty, harbouring in their stone masses a small population of fellaheen who shelter in them as the men of the Stone Age sheltered in caves and pilings.
Life as experienced by primitive and by fellaheen peoples is just the zoological up and down, a planless happening without goal or cadenced march in time, wherein occurrences are many, but in the last analysis, devoid of significance.
It is one thing to conceive the national promise of happiness and freedom as an individual or collective aspiration, but quite another to conceive such a promise made, "en masse," to every lonely, dreaming, uprooted inhabitant of New York City. The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn each criticize American capitalism's culture of consumption, recognizing inequitable distributions of wealth and power along class and racial lines, but the social vision informing each novel is, in the last analysis, not structural but statistical, deriving from Spengler rather than Marx. Depersonalization, not class conflict, hollows out the American dream of opportunity.
Narrating the tale of Gatsby's solitary and obsessive dreams, Nick is haunted by the fear that his own desires are inauthentic, statistical phenomena replicated in every anonymous urban shadow he sees or imagines. In college, among other young men, he discovers that the "secret griefs of wild, unknown men" are "usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions." After participating in the "delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War," he comes to New York to "learn the bond business" because he "supposed it could support one more single man." The bond of secrecy that ties the narrator of The Great Gatsby to Gatsby's dream recalls Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and "The Secret Sharer" or any number of tales of psychic doubles; but, when not recounting the story of James Gatz's rise and fall, Fitzgerald's narrator reveals a more fearful "share of human secrecy"--more fearful because its terror is thoroughly social and anonymous, lacking the intimacy of a psychological doubling. The terrible spectre of statistical anonymity threatens an "inexhaustible" dispersal of the most personal of desires and perceptions among random strangers. It is the City--its parks, its skyline, its streets, its bridges, its masses--and not the Other, that calls forth this fearful, tempting social bond:
I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby's splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all. . . ."
Nick's laugh, like the racism he repudiates in Tom Buchanan, is hysterical. He has shared himself with the most unlikely of strangers, knowing that they have seen what he has just seen: "the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world." The City is never seen alone and never for the first time; always promising every one it promises no one.