7. Desire in the Waste Land
The Great Gatsby: Owl-Eyes
To supplement the persuasion of the commodity tropes appearing throughout The Great Gatsby and Tropic of Capricorn, each novel contains a more elaborate commodity analogue of its structure which, mediating between the novel's represented reality and its formal aesthetics, advances the novelist's claim to have written the "true" novel of modern life. The Great Gatsby is tied to its commodity analogue through symbolism--through the "eye" series that begins with the "eyesore" of Nick's West Egg cottage and culminates in with "fresh, green breast of the new world" that "flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes." In between there is, of course, the endlessly remarked upon oculist T.J. Eckleburg, who codifies The Great Gatsby's vision of The Waste Land and is responsible, more than any other aspect of the text, for its New Critical canonization. But for our purposes the more striking analogue for the novel's aesthetic relation to the world of consumer culture is Gatsby's bookcase, as examined by "Owl-Eyes," the "patron of Gatsby's library" who ultimately provides Gatsby's epitaph--"The poor son-of-a-bitch."
"On a chance" Nick discovers the library and Owl-Eyes at the first party he attends:
"What do you think?" he demanded impetuously.
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
"About that. As a matter of fact you needn't bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They're real."
"Absolutely real--have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they're absolutely real. Pages and-- Here! Lemme show you."
Taking our skepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the "Stoddard Lectures."
"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too--didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?"
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.
As Owl-Eyes shuttles back and forth between the library's book-shelves and his guests showing them how to "read" and appreciate Gatsby's authorial creation as he has himself, Fitzgerald, with some self-deprecatory humor, presents an allegory of the relations among writer, critic, and reader instituted by the symbolic structure of the New Critical modern novel. Always attuned to his market, Fitzgerald was anxious about the length of The Great Gatsby, concerned that the reader, not appreciative of the compactness of its style, might feel the novel not worth its "full size" price. The "close reading" Owl-Eyes conducts demonstrates that brevity of realistic detailing is not a short coming, but integral to the design of the whole: "Knew just when to stop--didn't cut the pages." The parts of the library are not present for their content, but to be taken at face value (Stoddardeanism) for their stage effect (Belasco). They are present as signs of the real contributing to the precise structural integrity of the library as a symbol of real knowledge and taste, or at least a laudable aspiration to real knowledge and taste.
Gatsby's library and T. J. Eckleburg's ghostly yellow spectacles overlooking the "waste land" are advertisements, both inducing and offering to fulfill a desire for visionary, symbolic knowledge of reality. Participating in the discourse of the "historical genre," The Great Gatsby promises the reader who learns to decode its structure of desire that, having learned to "read" the novel and "know" its "reality," he will be able to "read" the symbolic import of the larger modern world of which the local history represented in the novel is a part. As analogues of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's library and T. J. Eckleburg do insinuate a lasting uncertainty as to whether the symbolic knowledge offered in The Great Gatsby is blindness or insight, but neither analogue of the novel's structure challenges the appropriateness of commodity-form as a structure for the New Novel. The analogues pose no alternative, no outside, to the symbolic knowledge of The Great Gatsby. Owl-Eye's concludes, "But what do you want? What do you expect?" For all Fitzgerald's self-deprecatory humor, he ultimately and imperiously contends that, if the meaning of the Waste Land is to be "read" at all, it will be through a literary work that derives its aesthetics from the symbolic commodity desire found in advertisements. Fitzgerald was not alone among the modernists in making such a claim:
The critic and the Sales Manager are not ordinarily regarded as of the same craft, nor are the poet and the advertising agent. [....] But the written appeals which have the soundest financial prospects as estimated by the most able American advertisers are such that no critic can safely ignore them. For they do undoubtedly represent the literary ideals, present and future, of the people to whom they are addressed. They are tested in a way which few other forms of literature are tested, their effects are watched by adepts whose livelihood depends upon the accuracy of their judgment, and they are among the best indices available of what is happening to taste. Criticism will justify itself as an applied science when it is able to indicate how an advertisement may be profitable without necessarily being crass.
This is none other than I. A. Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism, teaching the Anglo-American reading public the psychological and social value of good literature and good criticism.