The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel. Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby.
One of the most significant fault lines in Western culture opened up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when what we now know as the “modern” world separated itself from the classical and medieval world. The thinking of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Newton, Jefferson, and many others represented a sea change in the way Western people looked at practically everything. In almost every telling of the story, this development is presented as an unmitigated good. I rather emphatically do not subscribe to this interpretation. It would be foolish indeed not to see that tremendous advances, especially in the arenas of science and politics, took place because of the modern turn, but it would be even more foolish to hold that modernity did not represent, in many other ways, a severe declension from what came before. This decline is particularly apparent in the areas of the arts and ethics, and I believe that there is an important similarity in the manner in which those two disciplines went bad in the modern period.
In his classic text After Virtue
, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre lamented, not so much the immorality that runs rampant in our contemporary society, but something more fundamental and in the long run more dangerous; namely, that we are no longer even capable of having a real argument about moral matters. The assumptions that once undergirded any coherent conversation about ethics, he said, are no longer taken for granted or universally shared. The result is that, in regard to questions of what is right and wrong, we simply talk past one another, or more often, scream at each other.
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.”
Just in advance of Christmas, the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
appeared. As I and many other commentators have pointed out, Tolkien’s great story, like its more substantive successor The Lord of the Rings
, is replete with Catholic themes. On Christmas day itself, another film adaptation of a well-known book debuted, namely Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables
. Though Hugo had a less than perfectly benign view of the Catholic Church, his masterpiece is, from beginning to end, conditioned by a profoundly Christian worldview. It is most important that, amidst all of the “Les Miz” hoopla, the spiritual heart of Hugo’s narrative not be lost.