One of the most iconic images in American literature is a man grasping at a distant light. He begs the darkness for something he can never reach, constructing his entire life for the potential of… sight? He just really needs that green light, right? No, I took high school English. I know that the light is love and Daisy and the most American of dreams. In some sense, though, it doesn’t matter what the light is. The point is that Gatsby wants what he can’t have. I’m not sure what makes Gatsby any more American than the Italian Petrarch or the Biblical Eve. Forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter. The difference is that Gatsby seems to think he really can cross bodies of water, ascend social ladders, and recolonize stolen but always “fresh, green” land to get the girl. For me, the saddest moment in the Great Gatsby isn’t when the pool is stained with blood or when Myrtle’s mutilated body lays dead in the street; it’s the description of a raggedy copy of “Hopalong Cassidy,” the book a young Gatsby marks up with his grand plans for self-improvement. His father produces it with tenderness and naivete: in his hand lies what kills Gatsby, the belief that with enough time and resolve he can change others by changing himself.
I get the sense that Gatsby loved Near Year’s Eve. Can’t you imagine the soiree he would have thrown? Maybe it would have resembled Cirque du Soleil or been one massive midnight masquerade. Certainly, the event would be performative and opulent, putting our paper hats and single flutes of champagne to shame. I get the sense that not one expense would have been spared. Why would he? There is no party more Gatsby than one that celebrates the passing of time as if it’s something we can control.
Celebration of the New Year feels to me like Gatsby holding the knocked-over mantlepiece clock “with trembling fingers.” The resolutions that we share at dinner or jot down on bits of paper, too, are no better than the schedule that Gatsby commits himself to on the flyleaf of “Hopalong Cassidy.” But I know what you’re thinking: what is the inherent harm in any of this? Isn’t it healthy, productive even, for people to consider how much time they have to turn themselves into the kind of person they want to be? So much of our lives is spent chasing after better; self-help is a $10 billion industry, after all. But what happens when our time and breath run out? Will we be satisfied with the person we have resolved ourselves to be?
If F. Scott Fitzgerald taught me anything, the answer is no, and I think I have an idea why. I worry that it is surprisingly rare for self-improvement to have anything at all to do with the self. So many of the resolutions I make have nothing to do with own gaze and everything to do with how others see me. And if it isn’t someone I’m reaching for through my own declarations of improvement, then it is certainly something. What makes this whole prospect so tantalizing and exciting is that we don’t have forever to become the kind of athletes who can make the buzzer beating shot. So we celebrate the passing of time, count down from ten, and blow our noise makers as if it will let us hold on to what has already slipped through our trembling fingers. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?
But time doesn’t play by our rules. It passes whether we are having fun or not and no number of “Happy New Year!”s will change that. So much of what we do, celebration of the New Year included, seems to be about turning time into something we can control. It’s no different than Gatsby losing years to feelings of his own inadequacy and tireless striving. The years he spent waiting for Daisy, “five years this November,” meant nothing to him. I’m sure he celebrated each year as the auspicious mile marker on his way to living. I worry that many of us, like Gatsby, treat time as something disposable, something to celebrate with its passing, so as to restrain it. Maybe by controlling time, we think we can control ourselves, and by controlling ourselves perhaps we think we can control others.
What no one told Gatsby is that he would never be enough for her. The gut punch of the whole thing is what happens when you do succeed, check all of your boxes, and start to consider your portfolio of resolutions an antique of a bygone era. Too often we are still left at the edge of the dock, alone, staring at something that only blinks back. If 2020 is our year of vision, I hope we can start to look for answers in the right places.
Ella Attell | firstname.lastname@example.org