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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thank you, Sexual Revolution (more on "The Beautiful and Damned")

On March 5th, 1922, Louise Maunsell Field wrote, "It would not be easy to find a more thoroughly depressing book than this new novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned. Not because there is something of tragedy in it -- tragedy may be and often is fine and inspiring -- but because its slow-moving narrative is the record of lives utterly worthless, utterly futile. Not one of the book's many characters, important or unimportant, ever rises to the level of ordinary decent humanity. Not one of them shows a spark of loyalty, of honor, of devotion, of generosity, of real friendship or of real affection." source

I'm afraid I might have to agree with her. What's even worse than just the book itself is that I think I'm correct in imagining that, rather like This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald was writing autobiographically. As I read about the death march of a marriage that Anthony Patch fails in with his wife, Gloria, I keep thinking that this must actually be an account of the deteriorated final stages of Fitzgerald's relationship with his once much-loved wife, Zelda (look at the end of this post for more on that sad story). I'm still not finished with the book, but I have made some headway this week. Anthony Patch is the main character, and he's utterly useless, as far as I can tell. He's a man of great potential, great intellect, who marries the girl of his dreams and then proceeds to squander his abilities, his paltry sums of money, and the very love that he holds most dear. As the "heroine" of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf  has it, "Baby you sure are a flop!" I'll leave it to you to take that where it's going when said between husband and wife. But, I think the male protagonist of Albee's sexually twisted and confused play has more manliness, courage, and good old fashioned guts and decency to him than this sorry excuse for a man that is Anthony Patch.

When Anthony seems to have lost the chance to inherit his rich grandfather's fortune, has quit his short-lived job, and has, after three years of restless marriage, seemingly fallen out of love with his wife (who, by the way, is the incarnation of beauty; I do not exaggerate -- this is her role in the story, as described earlier), the war comes along to save him from his meaningless, solipsistic and discontented existence. He finally does something every day, and is tired at the end of the day, ready and deserving of rest. But, because he's an awful person, even all this good work can't seem to redeem his moral sensibilities; he begins an affair with a young southern woman who lives in the town near where he is first stationed.

Now I come to it. The description of this southern woman, this girl, is heart-rending, pathetic, and so miserably sad. Several weeks ago I was standing in line to pick up a sandwich, and saw a girl a few feet from me. She was dressed as skimpily as could be, in tight little clothes. She was with a young man; both were probably in their late teens. She was literally hanging on him, petting him, stroking him, kissing him, hugging him, desperate for affection, attention, anything to reassure her that she was beautiful and worth something. He could not have appeared more bored, more tired of her, more DONE with her, ready to forget her, and impatient with her attentions.

I was reminded of this girl by the following passage. Before we see the affair actually happen between Anthony and Dorothy Raycroft (Dot), though at a point that we know it to be imminent, we receive a little background sketch of Dot's character. In this sketch, we see all of her wounds, her hurts and vulnerabilities, and why she is such open and eager prey to Anthony's selfish and despicable philandering. In case you think I'm overreacting: "The particular weakness he indulged on this occasion was his need of excitement and stimulus from without. He felt that for the first time in four years he could express and interpret himself anew. He had become a coward in earnest" (Barnes and Noble Classics, 262). In more colloquial terms, he's a complete and utter toolbag. Now, let's see what Fitzgerald has to say about Dot (as usual, I've cut out a few bits). I know this is a lengthy quotation, but it's worth the read:
Dorothy Raycroft was nineteen. At high school she had enjoyed a rather unsavory reputation. As a matter of fact her behavior at the class picnic, where the rumors started, had been merely indiscreet -- she had retained her technical purity until over a year later, The boy had been a clerk in a store on Jackson street, and on the day after the incident he departed unexpectedly to New York. He had been intending to leave for some time, but had tarried for the consummation of his amorous enterprise.
She had no definite intentions -- sometimes she regretted vaguely that her reputation precluded what chance she had ever had for security. There had been no open discovery, but some of the boys she had known in high school now looked the other way when they were walking with "nice girls," and these incidents hurt her feelings. When they occurred she went home and cried.
Besides the Jackson Street clerk there had been two other men, of whom the first was a naval officer, who passed through town during the early days of the war. He had stayed over night to make a connection, and was leaning idly against one of the pillars of the Stonewall Hotel when she passed by. He remained in town four days. She though she loved him -- lavished on him that first hysteria of passion that would have gone to the pusillanimous clerk. The naval officer's uniform -- there were few of them in those days -- had made the magic. He left with vague promises on his lips, and, once on the train, rejoiced that he had not told her his real name. 
Her resultant depression had thrown her into the arms of Cyrus Fielding, the son of a local clothier, who had hailed her from his roadster one day as she passed along the sidewalk. She had always known him by name. Had she been born to a higher stratum he would have known her before. She had descended a little lower -- so he met her after all. After a month he had gone away to training camp, a little afraid of the intimacy; a little relieved in perceiving that she had not cared deeply for him, and that she was not the sort who would ever make trouble. Dot romanticized this affair and conceded to her vanity that the war had taken these men away from her. She told herself that she could have married the naval officer. Nevertheless, it worried her that within eight months there had been three men in her life.
For a while she attempted to be more careful. She let men "pick her up"; she let them kiss her, and even allowed certain other liberties to be forced upon her, but she did not add to her trio. After several months the strength of her resolution -- or rather the poignant expediency of her fears -- was worn away. And then she met Anthony. (263-265)
How does that happen? It happens when women hold themselves cheaply, and when they allow men to hold them and treat them cheaply. It happens when experience takes advantage of innocence, when insecurity is compounded by misguided pleas for reassurance and affection. I think that it is generally true that a woman needs to be the strong one; she needs to be the moral compass. As some of you have heard me say in quoting a much esteemed and dearly loved professor of mine, it is the duty of the man to keep the serpent out of the garden and the duty of the woman to keep the serpent out of the man's heart. If a woman is ready to let down her moral boundaries, to let things slide for a bit, there will always be a "man" out there who is ready to accompany her on the downward journey and leave her to fend for herself when he's had what he wanted.
Of course, the sexual revolution as referenced in the title of this post happened decades after Fitzgerald was writing, but it seems that the '60s were to the '40s and '50s what the Jazz Age and the Roaring '20s were to the Victorian Age. One of the many causes of the Great Depression was the failure of textile mills; people started wearing such a comparatively small amount of clothing that a bulwark of the economy collapsed. (If you think of the Industrial Revolution, you think of textile mills, right? Maybe that's just me.) People react to extremes and unhappiness by looking as far as they can in the other direction; obviously, as we see in Dot's case, that doesn't work so well. Not only does such a reaction undermine the dignity of the women who are hurt and lonely enough to let themselves be used, but it compromises the manliness and strength of men by giving them an easy opportunity to practice being predators rather than a protectors, to be selfish rather than sacrificial. It tells women that vulnerability is undesirable, not precious, and tells men that they don't have to consider women's vulnerability because she should tough it out and be a man about it. And that, friends, is what came with sexual freedom. Do you feel liberated?

3 comments:

  1. By the way, I've done a little more background reading and Fitzgerald wrote this in his 20's. It was, then, more strangely prophetic than autobiographical.

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  2. The Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf quote was taken out of context. Martha said this to Nick (who is not her husband) not to George (who is her husband) and I am pretty sure you wrere trying to make a point about George (who is her husband). Nick is Honey's husband. But she was drunk the whole time and didn't really care that Martha and Nick were having promiscuous relations in the kitchen and then the bedroom. In fact, she was passed out on the floor. Because she was drunk. Trust me, I'm in AP English.

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  3. Sorry if I seemed a tad critical. I actually really like your essay. Especially the point you were making at end. To answer your rhetorical question, yes I do feel liberated. Otherwise, I would not be able to say nice things about your blog on the internet. It seems like you spent a lot of time on this and I just wanted to offer my expertise on your use of my favorite play. Sometimes I get a little overexcited about this play, just like Martha gets about men.

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