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Monday, January 30, 2006

"I see it as a night scene by El Greco"

When it came time to write about The Great Gatsby in high school, I wrote a four-page prose poem about Cugat's art deco cover for the novel, H.L. Mencken's "The Libido for the Ugly," the El Greco painting Vista de Toledo, and Michael Stipe's photography for the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album art. The section of the book that (I believed) tied these various pieces of art together was Fitzgerald's commentary about who could adapt to mid-Atlantic and midwestern landscapes best:

"That's my Middle West--not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all--Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were alll Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us all subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

"Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old--even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouched under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely, the men turn in at a house--the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.

"After Gatsby's death, the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction.

I wanted to know what acts of visual "correction" and "distortion" are required for adaptation--not just for viewing the landscape, but for living in the East. I probably should have focused more on Mencken and less on Michael Stipe, but maybe he gets the vision thing just right when he drives up to Mulholland Drive in "Electrolite". The first paragraph of that passage is evocative because the images are instantly recognizable, even in our post-sleighbell culture. The second paragraph is a distorted, even ugly image that doesn't appear in the book (though it's evoked, I argued as a seventeen-year-old, in the similar organizations of sky and landscape in the Cugat and El Greco paintings) and probably doesn't evoke any specific memories for the reader. So what's changed in Nick Carraway's vision in those two paragraphs?

If that sounds esoteric, belabored, and high-minded, recall that I was a junior and high school, I really wanted to be an English professor when I grew up, and I loved REM. I don't pull stunts like that anymore.

But Bernard Henri Lévy does! I kind of want to know what he would do with the night scene by El Greco. Or maybe I don't.

I wanted more from Slate's book club discussion about Bernard Henri Lévy's new collection of essays, American Vertigo. "Don't Go Back to Tocqueville," is an inspired title, but my eyes glazed over at the mention of Francis Fukuyama, if not before. Garrison Keillor's review in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday is fantastic for its clear-headedness about Lévy's work:

Lévy is quite comfortable with phrases like "as always in America." Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance ... so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

My prescription: Just listen to REM.

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