No Direction Home

Continuing the theme of home and homelessness, that borrowed title comes from Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone.” The tone conveys not quite, but almost, an atmosphere of schadenfreude, as the speaker inventories in a kind of letter or rant to a former friend a causal argument of falling, in this case, apparently, falling from a position of false security or privilege, of having a good time home to being alone, friendless, homeless. “I told you so,” is in a sense the message. “How does it feel,” the speaker asks, who knows perfectly well how it feels. The theme is Gatsbyesque, peels away the thin skin covering the old reveling times, exposing the hollowness and emptiness of a gilded life, the phony friends, the gold leaf too thin to sustain any doubt, the common metallic iron at the core showing through, glitter gone down the drain. Dylan’s clown dressed in rags becomes the anti-hero living on the streets, rock and roll bottom, gutter run, where everybody’s stuff gets swept away. The title’s source is cliche proverb: A rolling stone gathers no moss. What is moss? A day in the moss, collecting stuff for winter needs. In Dylan’s song, we assume the moss includes all those hangers-on who did not and could not know the real Gatsby, not the Great Gatsby, but the rolling stone Gatsby, the Gatsby whose funeral almost no one attends. The party’s over, things change, everybody’s moved on. One middle class reading of course might not see it this way, still wanting to rise, move up, get a bigger home, nicer car, fancier clothes, borrow a real necklace to wear to the party, the better to feel fitted in to the in-class. And in that same reading, that the rolling stone individual is not a fallen character, for that would suggest it’s possible for any one of us to fall, at any time, for any reason. No, that middle class reading must place blame on the individual, calling their predicament a choice, wanting to recognize that they didn’t fall, couldn’t fall, because they never actually belonged to begin with, even if their fall was, paradoxically, their choice. Either way, they couldn’t win, born to lose. And the beat response? We all need someone to look down on, and if you want to, you can look down on me.

Global warming in The Great Gatsby

We’ve changed, in the space of a few days, from fleece to cotton, now dragging the hose, straw-hatted, out to the salsa garden, where it suddenly looks like the tomatoes and hot peppers will get a fair chance. And while this weather event of the season was transpiring, we were reading F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The credible and reliable narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story in the space of a summer spent in a “commuting town” on Long Island. Moving to and fro by rail and parallel road from the outlying “eggs” to “town,” by which they mean Manhattan, the characters, rich as they are, lack air conditioning, and the weather heavily influences the events of the summer. Nick shows us the foibles and vicissitudes of simple and complex minds rooted in the land from which is built the simple and complex landscapes of personal economy, family, and, ultimately, personal history, for what any of it is worth.

Simple minds, Carraway explains, are easily confused. It remains somewhat ambiguous who he has in mind when he thinks this, so we’re not sure if he’s thinking of Tom Buchanan when Tom says, drinking a gin rickey one particularly hot, late summer afternoon: “I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year,” said Tom genially. “It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite – the sun’s getting colder every year.” Fitzgerald’s writing is clearly influenced, as the events of the story unfold, by the heat, and it’s equally clear, by the end, that, as Nick says, while the story has taken place in the “East,” it has been “…a story of “the West, after all…”

We grew up on the Pacific coast, close to the beach, and our mental landscape is informed by that simple fact. We still live near the coast, but farther north, and have for some years now experienced both the expansive heat of summer and the shrinking cold of winter. We hold then, with Robert Frost, who said in his little poem “Fire and Ice”: “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire. / But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.”

But The Great Gatsby could not have taken place over the course of three winter months. It had to be summer. Thinking back though to Nick’s opening lines, when he quotes his father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” one wonders what advantages today’s heat is likely to bring home.