In Gatsby, North Dakotan James “Jimmy” Gatz transformed himself via his tutelage by shady Marvin Wolfsheim into the nefariously nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. So deft was Fitzgerald's hand, Gatsby's exodus from the Midwest to a near proximity to the aristocratically wealthy in West Egg, Long Island, plays out musically - in the end, like a funeral dirge. Through narrator Nick Carroway, another, but far more innocent, Midwesterner gone east, we see the age writ large. We learn late that the larger than life "Gatsby" was James Gatz transformed; we learn the price he paid for that transformation. Most importantly, we feel his animating energy - not a thirst for wealth, but for wealth in service to his romantic love of one Daisy Buchanan, who lived ostentatiously just across the bay from Gatsby's unctuous mansion in East Egg: "His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it."
But he did fail mightily, and - if he had only known beforehand – his failure was predictable. As narrator Nick Carroway observed, Gatsby's dream "was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." Jimmy Gatz was a tragic combination of innocent pretension, uninformed naiveté - romanticism unbound, a heart filled with belief in the purported American dream of self-invention. Many have noted that Daisy Buchanan, the object of Gatsby's dreams was beneath him, too corrupt and careless in all ways to match his careful planning, his energized romanticism. His innocent faith that one can literally purchase his way into the heart of old wealth – and, more importantly, into Daisy's heart - was illusory, a secret held from his view. His faith in the American dream, his nefarious par excellance in its pursuit and his ultimate failure is the tragedy of Gatsby, the great American Novel.
To say the entire age was populated with innocent Jay Gatsbys pursuing wealth and becoming corrupted by it oversimplifies Fitzgerald's message. His was a deeper one: the collapse of the values that Fitzgerald believed infused this nation's beginning and their replacement by the excesses of the craven. In one of the more wondrous passages in our literature, Fitzgerald writes of Nick Carroway's thoughts as he prepares to leave the east and head home to the Midwest after Gatsby's fate has played out:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.Forward in the Rear View Mirror. Why is it that, like Jimmy Gatz, we try to move forward but are often simply pushed back into and onto the past? How do we stay so long stuck, even after older ideas lose all credibility, or ought to lose credibility due to their fundamental failures? Like Gatsby trying to break through the front door of West Egg's elites, we are always fighting the uphill battle against the hidebound, the entrenched. In our own age of financial excess, over the years of their ascendancy, individuals responsible and ideas discredited have established positions within the elite purveyors of their wares: the established investment houses, the news outlets, commentators, and publishers of contemporary wisdom; the "Academy," that provides tenure and suppresses innovation; and the wealthy who, like the East Eggers, have been around long enough to be likened to an American aristocracy. All these provide the essential backbone for a system that ensures the continuing, and often counterproductive, relevance of the past, despite manifest failures that cry out for change. The persistence of memory. . .
These days we read with some frequency of past true believers in market-oriented, laissez faire economics reevaluating their core beliefs. Most famously – thus far – was the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's admission that he'd been deeply moved by the collapse of the financial system. It was not the way he'd for decades believed that markets acted. The invisible hand of self-regulated markets had this time become quite visible, and had delivered his beliefs a mighty uppercut. Lately, another believer in the efficiency and efficacy of unfettered markets, Judge Richard Posner, has also taken it on the chin. The inexorably prolific Posner is now on record as having been KO'd by recent market gyrations. A NYT reviewer, Jonathan Rauch, recently wrote of Posner's counter punch to his previously impervious beliefs: "It comes as something of a surprise that Posner, a doyen of the market-oriented law-and-economics movement, should deliver a roundhouse punch to the proposition that markets are self-correcting. . .”
Yet, far more commonly than reevaluations of past beliefs by free marketeers, we hear and read of retrenchment, particularly among libertarians, GOP and Blue Dog Democratic legislators who believe that the “so-called failures” of the free market were simply the result of not enough deregulation, not enough freedom. Rumors of the death of laissez faire are, of course, premature. It's on the mat, but it'll fight again.
Why Do Wrong Things Happen to Right People?
That's the question asked by the eminent economic historian, author William Greider, in response to the NYT's Mr. Rauch and his review of Posner's new book.
To the Editor:My guess on Mr. Greider's criticism, and others who were “right” whilst others, like Posner, were “wrong” about this financial crisis we're mired in, is that they too are “borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Yes, they were correct in many ways in their analyzes of the dramatic flaws in the previous economic belief system that captured our national imagination since Reagan. “Recaptured” is actually the better word. This belief in unfettered capitalism has always been a part of the American argument. Those who were “right” this time take their honored positions among many others upon whose shoulders they stand.
Your reviewer, Jonathan Rauch, applauds the brilliance of Richard A. Posner’s intellectual back flip. After many years of leading cheers for the market ideology, Posner has discovered that unfettered market capitalism leads to instability and worse, a national catastrophe. Yet nobody is to blame, he explains, because people were acting “rationally” by following “market signals.” Rauch chortles at how capitalism’s critics will be deeply angered by Posner’s book.
Yes, I am. I was one of the guys who got the story right over the last 25 years, warning in my books and articles that governing elites were sowing economic disaster for the country. Now that it has occurred, I have a new book out myself — Come Home, America — that offers a very different understanding of what went wrong and suggests very different remedies for healing the economy and society. Posner pretends to intellectual conversation, but he is really feeding a self-serving monologue among established thought leaders, who promoted the narrow-minded dogma that still dominates mainstream media. “Mistakes” were made, but let’s move on since nobody is at fault. Americans cannot change the things that need to be changed if people hear only one point of view. [Emphasis added]
My point goes a bit beyond that commonplace observation about American history and our on again off again love affair with free markets and deregulation. My point here is to warn that despite Mr. Greider's and others' EC (“economic correctness”), we must not reflexively accept that simply because they were correct about the recent past that they too will be correct about the near future. Their belief systems, as much as the free market philosophies of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, and – indeed – Ron Paul, are hidebound, ingrained, and subject to the same dangerous inertia that infused those economic theories they criticize. The times have changed dramatically for both schools of thought. The minds that produce the new economics that will propel us out and beyond our present crises are likely relative unknowns at the present time, caught somewhere in the middle of a hierarchy of entrenched economics faculties, think tanks, government agencies, investment houses, and perhaps, efficiency apartments. In fact, I'd guess they are considered cranks by their more entrenched colleagues.
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home. [Nick Carroway]
We are all caught in crosscurrents, driven by experience equally divided between the “winners” and the “losers.” We are today. So, don't expect immediate solutions, and – especially – expect them to arrive out of left field, so to speak – out of some obscure spot in the world, from some relatively, or completely, unknown and unexpected sources. Someone I believe Simone Weil, once said:
Keep on Rowing. We have no choice. What I've described above is an historical imperative. We live, we learn. Sometimes. Clarence Darrow once said, “History repeats itself, and that's what's wrong with history.” I've tried to show that we are held in place equally by those who where wrong and by those who were right.
In closing, here's the powerful closing passage of ;">The Great Gatsby:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.In all the thousands of words economic spun out in our recent past and those coming in our near future let's consider, "What is the true tragedy of the economic collapse of the early 21st century?" Is it a failure of markets; a carelessness of regulation; a love of excess; a collapse of meaning and the concept of "truth"; a simply cyclical business cycle writ large? Or is it another example of being caught in the past, of remaining hidebound to proud economists, both “right” ones and “wrong” ones. Can we ever escape this? Yes. For I too “believe in the green light,” but hope for a happier ending for us all.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.