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The 1920′s- The End

My entire 1920′s literary journey can be summed up by a line from Point Counter Point.  Philip Quarles laments the current state of education; how children are taught by art and then expect real life to match- but it never quite lives up to the artistic ideal;

“We’re brought up topsy-turvy, ” Philip went on.  “Art before life; Romeo and Juliet and filthy stories before marriage or its equivalents.  Hence all modern literature is disillusioned.  Inevitably.  In the good old days poets began by losing their virginity; and then, with a complete knowledge of the real thing and just where and how it was unpoetical, deliberately set to work to idealize and beautify it.  We start with the poetical and proceed to the unpoetical.”

This was the 1920′s.  Everyone wanted life to be as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as literature and art, but had found out through bitter experience (usually living through WWI was enough) that this was impossible.  Disillusionment on a national level ensues.  All of the characters in Point Counter Point have their diversions, although most do nothing of significance.  Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise moves from self-absorbed youth to lost-soul wandering the Jazz Age landscape.  In general, people begin to live for the cheaper pleasures that are brought by partying, spending money, and having some intellectualized conversations that they know will come to nothing.

This Side of Paradise- A Romantic View

In the last post I aired my grievances on the character of Amory Blaine (unfortunate man!).  But there is another way of looking at his character- and the book as a whole.  The whole plot of This Side of Paradise is a bildungsroman for the 1920′s- it is the coming of age for both Amory and a new American culture.

flappers

Amory is self-centered and has an inflated sense of entitlement- however he eventually realizes this and tries to grow beyond it.  There are many instances where Amory the person glimmers beneath the superficial surface; whether he finally has emerged by the end of the novel as he claims is less certain (to me at least).

But really- can the reader blame Amory?  He is born into a rich family, his mother Beatrice is indulgent and self-centered to a T and young Amory bases his own behavior and outlook on hers.  Everyone around Amory treats him as special because he is wealthy, charming, and attractive.  This is compounded when he comes of age in the high-flying Roaring 20′s.  In an era where people don’t want to think too deeply, but just want to have fun, Amory is a perfect fit.

An example of how jaded the young of the era are is a quote from a conversation between Amory and a friend at Princeton; “We want to believe.  Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t.  Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism….  For two cents the voter buys his politics, prejudices, and philosophy.”

Amory is not pressured to be anything but superficially charming and entertaining, and it is only his own realization that there must be more to life that makes him eventually want to stretch himself to find it.  The two catalysts for this are a friend’s death in a car accident and the failure of a romance (because although Amory did have money it still wasn’t enough).  Amory expresses his frustration at life not working out exactly as he thinks it should; “There were days when [he] resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes…”

Who has not felt as Amory did?  Fitzgerald captures more than just an era of the remote past, he is talking about every era and everyone’s experience growing up- how we want to be part of the group, but still feel as if we are (secretly of course) the most-est special-est person there.  How we want success, but may not always have the drive to run after it.  How we struggle to connect with others, but so often fail.  How we make up who we are and what we believe in, based on a thousand different ideas, experiences, influences- and how our image of ourselves doesn’t always match reality.  Amory’s frustrations were Fitzgerald’s own, and our own too.

This Side of Paradise – A Cynic’s View

I have always been drawn to This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  By this I mean the concept of it- the Jazz Age, glizty picture one gets of the 1920′s.  The pretty title taken from poetry.  Since I am still sort of on the 1920′s theme it fit right in.  Without knowing anything about the book except its reputation I was willing to be drawn in.

By the writing you can tell it is Fitzgerald- there are glimmers of the style and way of wording every sentence that will very soon make him famous.  There are also some unique add-ins, such as writing a few chapters in play form instead of prose- you can tell he is playing with form and different styles of storytelling.  The synthesis of the “Great American Writer” is occurring- but it is not yet complete in this work.

The work is obviously semi-autobiographical.  Fitzgerald tells his own story of growing up through Amory Blaine.  The problem is this- Amory Blaine is not always interesting and even occasionally annoying.  He is spoiled, lazy, and has an inflated sense of entitlement.  Sometimes when he is confronted by these facts it is amusing, sometimes it is sad, but what is really frustrating is that so often he learns nothing at all from it.  His development (the focus of the entire books) is often thwarted by his own unwillingness.  Fiztgerald spells it out for the reader very early on by describing his hero; “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.  This… was quite characteristic of Amory”

Throughout Amory’s school days he continually takes the path of least resistance.  He is not academically successful, either in prep school or Princeton.  He sees these places as avenues of influence, not education.  He believes he is going to be successful in life simply by attending and meeting others with more ambition or money, not through any work or initiative of his own.  He admires the gifted students, befriends them, and even has surprising profound discussions with them about the world, their generation, the future, etc.  It is clear that Amory has the brains for success and the artistic talent to perhaps be a very good writer/poet one day.  The only thing holding him back is himself; his lack of any ambition, and his feeling that the world will automatically present him with everything he wants on a silver platter just because he is Amory Blaine.

Amory’s romances are usually of a quick and passionate sort; he fairly falls into them and, with the exception of Rosalind, cares very little whether they continue or end, although he feels as if he ought to care.  His affair with Rosalind is only the second time that the universe Amory thought was so rosy and made things happen just for him showed him that it may not be on his side after all (the first instance was a friend’s death in a car accident).  Eventually his own abhorrence of work makes him quit his job and fritter away what little inheritance he has left.  Amory at the end of the novel is searching for that certain something; he knows that his life is vapid and incomplete, but doesn’t have sufficient drive to really knuckle down and start anything.  Amory becomes the ultimate drifter.

Even to the very end he plays the ultimate arrogant youth and gives a long and awkward diatribe for two older men who were kind enough to pick him up when he is hitch-hiking.  The subject of this lecture?  How his generation is a mess (very true), and then some rabble against “the Man” (I use the term loosely to mean ones in authority), and some speech championing Socialism.  Seriously?  Amory Blane- a product of rich parents, influential prep school, and Princeton who, when he suddenly wakes up to find himself with no job and little money, is so lost as a person his only goal is to sort-of wander back to Princeton (the location of his last successes).  To suddenly grasp at Socialism is just one more way for Amory to be trendy (it was the philosophy du jour among the intellectuals of the day) while not really thinking in depth about anything in his own life- the ultimate lazy cop-out.

As you can tell, Amory frustrated me to no end.  He was charming enough to love, but self-destructive enough to hate.  This is a rather cynical view of his character but, now that I have gotten it off my chest, in the next post I will show the opposite end of the spectrum with a Romantic’s view of This Side of Paradise.

Profundity is the Point

Two of my favorite quotes from Point Counter Point reflect the theme of dichotomy that runs through the entire book.  Huxley continually sets up two, often disparate, ideas and plays one off the other, using his characters as sort of philosophical mouth-pieces.  Discussed are; love vs. singularity, animal passion vs. reasoned thoughts, art vs. life, ideal vs. reality, religion vs. modern philosophy.

As stated previously, much of the novel is conversations between a set of characters.  Obviously, some of these conversations are more profound and meaningful than others.  One of the young dilettante’s, Spendrell (a cynical war vet who seduces women to degrade them- truly the bitterest character in the novel) waxes philosophical on the phases of the night as he convinces his companions to join him in his continued revels;

“Still young,” was Spendrell’s comment on the night.  “Young and rather insipid.  Nights are like human beings- never interesting till they’re grown up.  Round about midnight they reach puberty.  At a little after one they come of age.  Their prime is from two to half past.  An hour later they’re growing rather desperate, like those man-eating women and waning middle-aged me who hop around twice as violently as they ever did in the hope of persuading themselves that they’re not old.  After four they’re in full decay.  And their death is horrible.  Really horrible at sunrise, when the bottles are empty and people look like corpses and desire’s exhausted itself into disgust.  I have rather a weakness for the death-bed scenes, I must confess,” Spendrell added.

Very clever, but not much point other than to convince others to join him in seeing the night “die”.  Contrast with another Spendrell scene- this is one with Philip Quarles (another Huxley avatar)- as they puzzle out the events in a person’s life, how certain things seem like fate while others seem like pure chance (good or bad);

“And that’s the sort of thing one’s life hinges on- some absolutely absurd, million-to-one chance.  An irrelevance, and your life’s altered.”  Philip disseminated more politely.  “But many people can be influenced by the same event in entirely different and characteristic ways.”  “I know, ” Spendrell answered.  “But in some indescribable way the event’s modified, qualitatively modified, so as to suit the character of each person involved in it.”

So- are we all the products of a certain chain of events and chances, or do we encounter certain chances because of who we were to begin with?  Or should we just throw our hands up to the capriciousness of fate?

The Point

I was supposed to write this post much earlier but i distracted myself by baking (and eating) hazelnut brownies.  But onward into the decadent world of post-war Britain!  Don’t look too closely at the gilded fixtures…they are a bit tarnished.

What is the point…of Point Counter Point?  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  However, a reader could really be thinking this at first.  This is not a singular story with a strong plot that moves in a straight line, like Huxley’s Brave New World.  This is a novel about characters, and about a certain time in history.  It is a novel of ideas.

The novel follows a group of characters in 1920′s England.  They are considered the “elite”; they are intellectual, educated, and almost all of them are wealthy.  All of the characters are connected, either through acquaintance or family ties, and much of the story is moved along by long (sometimes drunken) conversations they have on every possible subject that has at least a breath of “intellectual” merit.  Sometimes they remind me a bit of the Schlegel’s in Howards End- there is much talk of social problems but, unlike the Schlegel sisters, the characters in Point Counter Point know that they are only at leisure to discuss these injustices because they have money and education- this makes them bitter and cynical.

The characters have just fought (or have been brought up during) the “Great War” and, now that it s over, they find that their world is changed.  The poverty and injustices that were supposed to be ended are still very present.  Politics is entering a period of flux and fascism is on the rise.  Traditional religion is on the decline and psychoanalysis and more esoteric philosophies have been recently introduced.  Many feel that art and aesthetics have to be changed after seeing so much death.  These characters are supremely disillusioned; they see no point in meaningful pursuits and so spend much of their time at parties, having affairs, talking but not doing.

In a really funny passage Walter, one of our young “heroes” (and one of Huxley’s alter-egos), is working at a literary magazine.  He and one other colleague are responsible for sorting the mountain of writing sent to the magazine by those that consider themselves artists and writers.  His disgust with the current state of literature is clear;

“It was the day of the Shorter Notices.  Between them, on the table, stood the stacks of Tripe.  They helped themselves.  It was a Literary Feast- a feast of offal.  Bad novels and worthless verses, imbecile systems of philosophy and platitudinous moralizings, insignificant biographies and boring books of travel, pietism so nauseating and children’s books so vulgar and silly that to read them was to be ashamed of the whole human race- the pile was high, and every week it grew higher.  The ant-like industry of Beatrice, Walter’s quick discernment and facility were utterly inadequate to stem the rising flood.  They settled down for their work “like vultures”, said Walter, “in the Towers of Silence.”  What he wrote this morning was particularly pungent.”