Posts Tagged ‘This Side of Paradise

The Splendor and Sadness of the World

» October 2nd, 2012


“Amory Blaine,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald about the protagonist of This Side of Paradise, “was an open subject.” He was also an open wound. F. Scott’s first novel (published in 1920 when he was 23), follows Amory’s quest to define his amorphous identity in a world shaken by modernism and stirred by technophilia. Through his experiences with women, literature, and the question of class in America, Amory the open wound gradually scars over into a self-aware “personage” who is as unsure of himself as when he began his quest for self-actualization, but—in a case of dubious redemption—at ease with his unease. This is not a romanic novel.

Not unlike The Catcher in the Rye, This Side of Paradise offers an elite white male look at an elite white male coming-of-age experience. Notably, though, it does so in a way that transcends whiteness, maleness, elitism, and age. We all seek, from time to time, no matter what our age, gender, race, or class identity, to situate our place in a shifting world, to decide how to avoid being, as Fitzgerald put it, “sewed up in some bag” for the rest of our lives. Thus this novel, one that I haven’t read since high school, had the ring of universal appeal, and managed to seem as relevant to me at forty-three as it did when I was eighteen. (Interestingly, I re-read the exact same volume that I had read in high school (see pic), and laughed several times at how powerfully, judging by my aggressive marginal notations, I identified with the themes of youth so beautifully expressed by Fitzgerald).

Amory Blaine couldn’t be more self-absorbed. He lacks empathy. Completely. Somehow, though, he’s likable, or at least appealing. He wears doubt and insecurity on his sleeve and, slowly, these qualities, in the unmitigated honesty of their expression, become affecting. I felt for this precocious teenager when, as he rode a train from Princeton to his home in Minnesota, “he thought about himself for thirty-six hours.” Eventually, this incessant interiority elicits our empathy. You come to care about Amory Blaine even though Amory Blaine only cares about himself. What saves him is that he’s at least aware that he only cares about himself. He’s no sociopath.

To the contrary, what Amory finds through all his self-absorbed soul searching is of immense worth. If his meandering but persistent narcissism boils down to a single useful self-referential notion, it is this: “He had realized that his best interests were bound up with those of a certain variant, changing person, whose label, in order than his past might always be identified with him, was Amory Blaine.” Hence we meet the young Amory. He is “a label” attached to a person.  He’s a personality rather than a personage. His experiences are disconnected and collectively undefined. Amory is a sprawling mess of psychic fragmentation. He is, alas, a teenager.

To use to a more aesthetically pleasing metaphor than the one with which I opened this essay  (an open wound), Amory is, at the novel’s start, a mosaic, chipped and tarnished, but a mosaic, beautiful and almost whole nonetheless. One way to conceptualize this novel is to imagine what it might take to unite the tiles of this individual mosaic into a unified image delivering a clear message in a world marked by turmoil (World War One), denial (Prohibition), and, penultimately, a journey without destination (the book ends with a penniless Amory walking from New York City to Princeton, New Jersey).

Princeton— “the pleasantest country club in America—is not only the end of the novel. It’s the beginning as well. Indeed, Princeton initiates this process of finding personal cohesion in a shattered world. It was there where, during Amory’s first two years, the “joy of life crystallized into a thousand ambitions.”  Princeton was an experienced marked by a variety of pivotal experiences, alternatively violent, reflective, humorous, and awkward.

With its stifling pretensions and traditions, the school introduced Amory to “that breathless social system,” an introduction that led Amory to recognize and resent the fact that “social barriers are artificial distinctions made by the strong to bolster up their weak and keep out the almost strong.” This realization would etch itself deeply into Amory’s identity, first as an abstraction, and then as an excruciatingly painful reality when Rolsalind, the love of his life, later leaves him for a man of greater social prominence and professional stability. There are few scenes in literature where I’ve felt so keenly the rawness of a young man’s suffering.

At the same time, though, Princeton landed Amory in an “orgy of sociability,” one that produced conversations, ambitions, and friendships that would make the first two years of college, as we’re told it should be, “the happiest time of his life.” Amory was doing exactly what he wanted to do: “drift and dream and enjoy a dozen new found friendships through the April afternoons.” His ideas, writes Fitzgerald, “were in tune with life as he found it.” Amory excelled, aware that “he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again.” Everything,” we learn, “was hallowed by the haze of his own youth.”

This “crest of his young egotism,” of course, would crash. The turmoil caused by the start of World War I presaged Amory’s abrupt dislocation to the other side of paradise, a dark place of shifting sands where a woman named Isabelle rejects him (“your always talking about yourself; I used to like it; now I don’t”), social striving makes him feel as if he were “a prized potato being fattened for a vegetable show,” and the “scrambling quality of people” loses its charm.  Amory drifts and dreams his way into more toxic territory, succumbing to cynicism and ennui while melodramatically declaring to a priest he knows and trusts: “I’ve lost half my personality in a year.” It would easy to laugh at this outburst. But then again, you have to remember that the kid is nineteen years old, and he’s terrified about abandoning “the whole heritage of youth.” Who isn’t?

The priest to whom Amory spoke, Monsignor Darcy, plays a quietly critical, almost heroic, role in the novel. Upon Amory’s outburst over his personality implosion, Darcy—who “seemed to guess Amory’s thoughts before they were clear in his own head”—delivers a shot of straight dope—the kind that makes literature matter. He reminds Amory that personality is by nature ephemeral. It’s not to be worried much about.  It’s Personage that matters. “Personality,” explains Darcy, “is what you thought you were,” but it is “a physical matter almost entirely.”  A personage, by contrast, “gathers.” A personage “is never thought of apart from what he’s done.” A personage “is a bar on which a thousand things have been hung.” It is this distinction that leads Amory to start filling in the mosaic of youth with the complex daubing of adulthood.

This is an inherently bizarre stage of life for anyone and Fitzgerald, who was in his early twenties when he wrote the novel, captures Amory’s transition to young adulthood with brilliant and unsentimental sensitivity. Amory, it turns out, listened to Darcy. Due also to the influence of a fellow student, Burne Holiday, Amory delved into reading “things that make me think,” forgoing social ambitions, seeking out what another girlfriend Clara called the “lazy sweetness in your heart,” and accepting—even reveling in—the splendor and sadness of the world.”  And indeed, it is splendor and sadness, these defining aspects of a life fully lived, that mark Amory’s ongoing transition. “There are deep things in us,” writes Darcy to Amory, “and you know what they are as well as I do.” Those things comprise “the education of a personage.” That education comprises the last section of the novel.

Amory falls in love, really falls hard, and is rejected (Rosalind). He takes a job at an advertising agency writing copy and soon quits. He meets a truly authentic and delightfully eccentric young women inside a haystack on a Maryland farm (“she was a feast and a folly and he wished it had been his destiny to sit forever on a haystack and see life through her green eyes”). But Eleanor isn’t his destiny. Splendor and sadness; sadness and splendor. “Dimly,” writes Fitzgerald, Amory “promised himself a time where all should be welded together.”

And it is. The novel ends with Amory leaping into the “labyrinth.” And it is there, in the book’s stunning final moments, where Fitzgerald explains that Amory’s “ideas were still in riot,” that the “waters of dissolution had left a deposit on his soul,” that he continued to suffer “the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams,” and that he had “regret for his lost youth.” Despite all these longings—no, because of all these longings—we know that Amory, who still seems to care for nobody but himself, had at least fulfilled his own promise. He had found the right side of paradise, and it was as splendorous as it was sad.