Boats Against the Current

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Sometimes – awful times – our stupidity, our misbehavior, our misjudgment goes too far and any available second chance loses patience and stomps off down the road, leaving us stranded in the ditch of our own error. Judas Iscariot ended up in such a hole, realizing too late that he had betrayed the Son of God; or Othello who smothered his beautiful, young wife and discovered her innocence just minutes later; or Charles Dickens’ Pip, who recognized his love for Biddy only after she had married Joe. Sometimes we sleep too long – both personally and nationally.

In 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, one of THE American novels. Gatsby, though a lush and lovely story, is about that horrible moment when we awake and realize it’s all over. Jay Gatsby, the handsome hero, represents us all – the American Dreamers, filled with unbridled optimism as he gazed longingly at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. And Daisy, a “rare and meretricious beauty” whose voice “sounded like money” represents that most exciting of purely human hopes, the American Dream – the anything’s-possible confidence that came with the confluence of a new continent and a new paradigm. All the closed doors were opened and Gatsby could almost touch her just across the bay, Gatsby, who was single-minded, amoral, and certain his powers of imagination were great enough to turn back the calendar. In 1925 Fitzgerald could see the flaws in the Dream. Now, 88 years later, those flaws are killing us. Consider the last page of the book:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning —— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitzgerald understood the power of the American Dream and he understood, because he lived the decadence himself, what damage the prosperity would do to us and how difficult it would be to regain our innocence. Perhaps he was right; like Gatsby we have an almost impossible task. Gatsby wanted Daisy, the American Dream, but she was married to terrible wealth – to Tom Buchannan, a faithless, “brute of a man” who spent his life “playing polo and being rich….” 

The Dream has become like that – a desire, not for success and fulfillment, but for superiority, for always-existing or easily acquired wealth, wealth that’s worth cruelty and the careless, narcissistic use of others. It didn’t start that way, but here we are, almost permanently in the ditch. 

Part of the progressive movement, I believe, is a wild, left-veering  overcorrection from the drunk driving of the Dream, an understandable hatred for the Tom Buchannans of this country, but those yanking the steering wheel leftward are just as ruthless, as deceptive, as arrogant as Tom. That has all who are paying attention grabbing at the wheel to right it.

Can we get back on course? I don’t know. Gatsby had to erase five years of Daisy’s marriage – that didn’t go so well. We have an even bigger task: we have to undo two generations of failing education and thriving propaganda; we have to resuscitate our constitution, and disentangle government from our private and our business lives and resurrect our economy; we have to straighten out our foreign affairs and get control of the Islamists around us; and we must stop flirting with Myrtle Wilson.

We must retrace our moral steps. We cannot continue assuming that we can lie, steal, cheat, and indulge every pleasure center our brain cells have concocted and still keep this car on the road. We cannot continue to ignore the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg who stared down off his tattered billboard onto the sins and corruption of the Jazz Age; “the eyes of God” George Wilson called them. The eyes of God are watching no matter how many lawsuits the atheists file, and pretending otherwise isn’t going help. Gatsby lived a lie – as Owl Eyes (another God-figure) discovered in Gatsby’s priceless library; the books were still uncut, and they didn’t get him Daisy.

It won’t work for us either. We can’t live a lie (as our dear leader is beginning to grasp) – we can’t correct the steering with our eyes closed. Just down the road, beyond that bend to the right, is a new American Dream – an America with a thriving economy, an America that has learned its lesson and is well aware of the steep cliff on the left side of the road. The new America out there is swimming in energy and innovation, able to educate and lead its children to be everything they can be. Up ahead could be an America that straightens out its course and sees clearly the eyes of God watching over us and showing us the way – science is already in the process of undoing the damage its Darwinian errors have cost us. It could happen.

Tomorrow, will we “run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – “

Or are we “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?”