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Nick ironically undercuts the romanticized idealism of Gatsby™s ˜˜life
story,™™ that is, both his actual life and the story he tells about it, he fosters
a sentimental nostalgia for this supposedly empty ideal under cover of
that irony. With the ˜˜intense personal interest™™ (GG, p. ±µ) that
prompts him to take responsibility for Gatsby™s funeral and his legacy,
Nick makes an emotional investment in his narration that short-circuits
any purely ironic reading, either his own or ours.⁴µ If we temporarily
suspend our own tendency to read ironically, suspending not our belief
but our modernist, or postmodern, disbelief, we can see an archetypally
sentimental plot behind this story of failed marriage, banal sexual
infatuation, and grotesque death: the a¬rming death of the innocent.
Like little Eva and little Nell, and also like Ralph Touchett, Gatsby
su¬ers and dies for the moral bene¬t of his earthly survivors, in the text
and beyond. Because Gatsby is too good for this world, his death
potentially redeems those few who devote themselves to his remem-
brance. Of course, the irony of such a debased or parodic recasting of
sentimental su¬ering and death here, as in James™s Portrait, disrupts any
straightforward portrayal, whether in his own telling or in my critical
reading, of Nick as an e¬ective custodian of an authentic cultural ideal.
We feel the tension between authenticity and inauthenticity, between
presence and absence, even between meaning and meaninglessness,
particularly at those moments when the narrator of The Great Gatsby
a¬rms his belief in, and yet disavows the sentimentality of, his hero:

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was re-
minded of something “ an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had
heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in
my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man™s, as though there was more
struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and
what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. (GG, p. ±±)

Nick™s near-return of the repressed signals the uncanny status of his
memory of the past, a past which is itself both heimlich and unheimlich.
This uncanny past is irretrievable, I would argue, because it is associated
with disavowed sentimentality. The ine¬able phrase that rises to Nick™s
°µ
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
lips recalls the ecstatic oral communion in the preceding paragraphs
where he describes Gatsby™s vision of climbing alone to a ˜˜secret place
above the trees™™ to ˜˜suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable
milk of wonder™™ (GG, p. ±±·), a vision that kissing Daisy™s lips ful¬lls and
thus destroys. Nick™s elegiac longing for reunion with Gatsby, like
Gatsby™s nostalgic longing for reunion with Daisy, is not an experience
of mourning but of melancholia. Gatsby™s and Nick™s idealization of
their respective love objects requires them to reject the reality not only
of the present, but also of the past. It requires them imaginatively to
incorporate the other, absent and debased, or perhaps absent and
merely real, as opposed to idealized and imaginary, into themselves and
to attempt to reenvision that internalized other as both exalted and
present. Committing themselves to unrequitable love means commit-
ting themselves to melancholic grief.
The past which Nick sentimentally craves and yet ironically disavows
is ¬gured in his narrative in terms of a pre-Oedipal oneness with the
maternal breast. The melancholic fantasy of oral communion suggested
by the parting of Nick™s lips as ˜˜a phrase tried to take shape in my
mouth™™ and by the sucking of ˜˜the milk of wonder™™ anticipates the
famous imagery of the novel™s penultimate passages in which Nick
imaginatively looks backward to the ˜˜fresh green breast of the new
world™™ whose ˜˜vanished trees . . . had once pandered in whispers to the
last and greatest of all human dreams™™ (GG, p. ±). Yet these images
also forecast Nick™s imagery when he describes Myrtle™s grotesquely
mutilated body after the car accident: ˜˜her left breast was swinging loose
like a ¬‚ap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The
mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had
choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so
long™™ (GG, p. ±µ). If the breast and the mouth, particularly when taken
together, are emblems of physical and emotional ˜˜vitality,™™ then they
are also the material residue, the ˜˜waste™™ of the violent destruction
committed by ˜˜careless people . . . [who] smashed up things and crea-
tures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness
or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up
the mess they had made™™ (GG, pp. ±·“).⁴⁶ The breast/mouth imagery
of these passages reveals a tension between nourishing communion and
alienating separation, a separation that divides individuals from each
other and even tears individuals apart, as, for example, in the sundering
of Myrtle™s body from her spirit. The image of her mouth ˜˜ripped™™ in
˜˜giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long™™ suggests
° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
violent regurgitation, a self-destroying expulsion of the ˜˜milk of won-
der,™™ or even parturition as a shattering of the maternal symbiosis of
pregnancy.
The ˜˜milk of wonder™™ ¬gures within what we might well call a
˜˜spermatic economy™™ as well as within a maternalized domestic econ-
omy. That is to say, the fantasy of sucking the ˜˜milk of wonder,™™ which
signals sentimental longing for pre-Oedipal oneness with the mother
and the ironic disavowal of that longing, also suggests an equally
disavowed subtext of homoerotic communion between men. This ho-
moerotic/homophobic subtext is buoyed up by the dream-like sequence
in which Nick follows Mr. McKee out the door in retreat from the
sordid scene at Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson™s party:

˜˜Come to lunch some day,™™ he suggested as we groaned down in the
elevator.
˜˜Where?™™
˜˜Anywhere.™™
˜˜Keep your hands o¬ the lever,™™ snapped the elevator boy.
˜˜I beg your pardon,™™ said Mr. McKee with dignity. ˜˜I didn™t know I was
touching it.™™
˜˜All right,™™ I agreed, ˜˜I™ll be glad to.™™
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets,
clad in his underwear, and with a great portfolio in his hands.
˜˜Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook™n
Bridge . . .™™
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania
Station, staring at the morning ˜˜Tribune™™ and waiting for the four o™clock
train. (GG, p. )

The unconscious fantasy that breaches the surface of Nick™s narrative
has not just homoerotic connotations but also autoerotic and voyeuristic
ones, all of which are reinforced by Mr. McKee™s inability to ˜˜keep [his]
hands o¬ the lever™™ and his drunken thumbing through (or ¬ngering
of?) his ˜˜great portfolio™™ for his own pleasure and for Nick™s delecta-
tion.⁴· The few other narrative details that Nick gives concerning Mr.
McKee “ he is a ˜˜pale feminine man™™ in the ˜˜artistic game™™ (GG, p. );
he has a spot of dried shaving cream on his cheek that Nick wipes away
when McKee falls asleep (GG, p. ±) “ suggest a certain gendered and/or
sexual ˜˜queerness™™ to this character, or at least to Nick™s thoughts about
him.
The eruption of queer fantasy triggered by Nick™s elevator encounter
with Mr. McKee is also striking for its ambiguous, or mixed, cultural
°·
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
status. Mr. McKee™s ˜˜great portfolio™™ contains works of art whose titles
indicate their conventionality and sentimentality. The only photograph
of Mr. McKee™s that actually appears within the manifest narration “ as
opposed to the titles enumerated in Nick™s unconscious fantasy, dis-
cussed above “ shares those other pictures™ relatively low cultural status.
˜˜The only picture was an over-enlarged photograph, apparently a hen
sitting on a blurred rock. Looked at from a distance however the hen
resolved itself into a bonnet and the countenance of a stout old lady
beamed down into the room™™ (GG, p. ). The subject of the photograph
“ the beaming old lady in a bonnet is Myrtle™s mother “ contributes to
the debased parody of domesticity which occurs in Tom™s and Myrtle™s
hotel room. Although its subject is domestic and its treatment is senti-
mental, the formal aspects of the photograph “ the image is blurred up
close, but resolves when viewed from a distance “ recalls the daubs of
Impressionism and the dots of pointillism, two decidedly highbrow
styles of early modernist painting. Yet the optical irresolution of this
enlarged photograph equally suggests the half-tone method of photo-
graphic reproduction associated with mass-market newspapers and
magazines.⁴⁸ The hybridity of the photograph™s cultural status does not
end here. The photograph seems to verge upon a Surrealist experiment
“ ˜˜I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made the dim
enlargment of Mrs. Wilson™s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm
on the wall™™ (GG, p. ) “ yet the reference to ectoplasm, the supposed
emanation from the body of a spiritualist medium, also places this
photograph within the decidedly popular and commercial tradition of
spirit photography, further compromising the artistic integrity of Mr.
McKee™s work. Like Gatsby™s fundamentally incoherent narrative of his
lifestory, Mr. McKee™s photograph does not fully resolve itself into a
single cultural image. Nick, moreover, ¬nally disdains Mr. McKee™s
artistic endeavors on much the same grounds that he discounts Gatsby
and his story. Mr. McKee™s ˜˜great portfolio™™ and Nick Carraway™s great
Gatsby are both devastatingly, even mortifyingly, sentimental.
Yet, as I have suggested, the sentimental is Nick™s own medium, a
¬‚uid essence much like the ˜˜destructive element™™ to which Stein advises
Marlow to ˜˜submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and
feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.™™ Like Marlow
and Dowell before him, Nick keeps himself up by ˜˜stretch[ing] out [his]
arms,™™ reaching ever backwards toward what Marlow describes as ˜˜the
capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no
hand can grasp.™™ These bachelor narrators are twice-removed from the
° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
sentimental dreams pursued by the other men of their narratives.
Gatsby, like Edward and Jim, is once removed from his dream, a
˜˜dream [that] must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to
grasp it™™ (GG, p. ±). If the other man of each narrative does not know
that his dream ˜˜was already behind him,™™ then the bachelor narrator
who tells his story is painfully aware that this past never really existed,
that it was always just a dream. The bachelor narrator displays a
modernist skepticism about the reality and integrity of this imaginary
past, yet he is unable to divest himself of faith in it. The melancholy
narrator of modernist ¬ction submits himself to this ˜˜last and greatest of
all human dreams,™™ a sentimental bachelor™s reverie of masculine pleni-
tude that can only bear him ˜˜back ceaselessly into the past.™™
As should already be evident, Nick Carraway descends from a long
line of bachelor narrators, a quasi-lineage that is reinforced by Nick™s
disclosure of his identity as a bachelor great-nephew:

The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we™re
descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was
my grand-father™s brother, who came here in ¬fty-one, sent a substitute to the
Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries
on to-day.
I never saw this great-uncle, but I™m supposed to look like him. (GG, p. ·)

While it is unclear whether Nick™s great-uncle is himself a bachelor,
Nick™s resemblance to this ancestor tellingly places him at once within
and beyond a domestic world, a world of the family reenvisioned here as
all-male. Like his uncle before him, Nick de¬nes himself ¬rst in relation
to the world of war and then to the world of business, although Nick™s
war is ˜˜the Great War™™ and his business is ˜˜the bond business.™™ As the
very phrase ˜˜bond business™™ suggests, Nick™s bachelor self-constitution
combines self-made manhood with familial and quasi-familial inherit-
ance, autonomy with a¬liation. These ingredients are not fully compat-
ible. His desire for autonomy “ ˜˜Almost any exhibition of complete self
su¬ciency draws a stunned tribute from me™™ (GG, p. ±) “ con¬‚icts with
the premium he places on sentiment, on the physical and emotional
feelings that locate him in his own body and in relation to others. Nick
may claim to want ˜˜no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses
into the human heart,™™ but the place that he chooses for his retreat from
˜˜the secret griefs of wild, unknown men™™ (GG, p. µ) tellingly confounds
this aim: ˜˜I decided to come back home™™ (GG, p. ±µ). Nick tells his story
after returning to what had once appeared to be ˜˜the warm centre of the
°
Melancholy, manhood, and modernist narrative
world,™™ but which comes to seem ˜˜like the ragged edge of the universe™™
(GG, p. ·). This warm center will not hold, but the melancholy bachelor
narrator of this modernist yet sentimental book of the heart ¬nds himself
˜˜borne back ceaselessly into the past™™ (GG, p. ±).
Dowell shares Nick™s profound sense of alienation from both domes-
tic hearth and masculine fraternity: ˜˜No hearthstone will ever again
witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be
other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths™™
(GS, p. ). Neither hearthstones nor smoke wreaths can mitigate his
melancholic conclusion that ˜˜I know nothing “ nothing in the world “ of
the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone “ horribly alone™™ (GS,
p. ). Yet, in telling the story of his spiritual exile, Dowell envisions for
himself an ideal listener, an auditor to whom he imaginatively addresses
his written text:

So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the ¬replace of a
country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking,
in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black
¬‚ood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go
to the door and look out at the great moon and say: ˜˜Why, it is nearly as bright
as in Provence!™™ And then we shall come back to the ¬reside, with just the touch
of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are
gay. (GS, pp. ±“±)

This listener resembles the ˜˜privileged man™™ to whom Marlow ad-
dresses the last, written installment of Jim™s story, an addressee-in-the-
text whom Marlow describes as living ˜˜in the highest ¬‚at of a lofty
building,™™ and as ˜˜alone hav[ing] showed an interest in [Jim] that
survived the telling of his story™™ (LJ, p. ). Dowell™s imagined auditor
resembles as well the ˜˜silent listener . . . the homo bonae voluntatis “ man of
goodwill™™ that Ford imagined as his own ideal audience in his essay ˜˜On
Impressionism,™™ published while he was completing The Good Soldier.⁴⁹
There is an undeniable irony, or perhaps self-delusion, in Dowell™s
vision of ¬reside communion with a ˜˜sympathetic soul™™ and his nostal-
gic evocation of a place where ˜˜even the saddest stories are gay,™™
especially in a novel which Ford originally entitled The Saddest Story. As
Dowell imagines it, his ˜˜low voice™™ is not exactly drowned out by the
voice of the sea, but it does reverberate with that distant sound, inten-
sifying rather than mitigating the imponderable immensity of ˜˜the great
black ¬‚ood of the wind polish[ing] the bright stars.™™µ° In the presence of
this great black ¬‚ood, Dowell cannot help but feel his isolation even
±° Bachelors, manhood, and the novel
from his imaginary listener, whom he castigates several pages later for
his inscrutable silence: ˜˜You, the listener, sit opposite me. But you are so
silent. You don™t tell me anything™™ (GS, p. ±µ). This listener is thus
another ˜˜lost object™™ whom Dowell melancholically denigrates, a pro-
jection rather than an incorporation of a cipher-like other whom Dowell
takes in and takes on. Yet, Dowell™s fantasized scene of narration
cleaves, however desperately, to the notion of redemptive communion
with this sympathetic soul. If nothing else, they are united in their
common nostalgic melancholy, their sense of bereaved alienation from
an imaginary past in Provence. Both together and apart, teller and
listener are also within and beyond the realm of the domestic. The
bachelor narrator and his imaginary other share a hearth that symbol-
izes a redeeming knowledge of ˜˜the hearts of men™™ (GS, p. ·), however
dark, or empty, or merely banal those hearts may be. Even in the ragged
wastes of the twentieth century, home is where the bachelor™s heart is.
°

Afterword




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