Reading the Great Gatsby During the Age of Trump and the Pandemic

I celebrated the 2001 New Years in New Dehli, India. Some years earlier I read an article in the newspaper about volunteer vacations and I really wanted to try one. I dragged my feet on this for a while, but then early in the year 2000 I started dating someone I felt I would probably end up marrying and I wasn’t sure I’d get this opportunity again because this kind of thing seemed like something best done while single, and so I pulled the trigger. I found an agency that orchestrated such things, picked a part of the world as different from my own as I could imagine, and organized a trip. I chose India.

I was set to spend three and a half weeks doing… something. I was hoping to be able to do a bit of good, but mostly I wanted as much of an immersive experience possible. Living and working, not as a tourist but approximating someone who was planning on staying for a while. I always bring a stack of books, reading has been a life-long endeavor. For reasons I can’t fathom now, I found myself spending my time in India reading Angela’s Ashes.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of the poverty I faced in New Dehli. I know the country has experienced a lot of economic development since I’ve been there, but I know the massive ghettos I experienced first hand still exist. I still remember the existential pain I felt, laying in bed one day in my flat, thinking about all of the poverty immediately around me and how arbitrary it seemed that I was enjoying an extremely privileged middle class life American life, while so many people seemed to be barely surviving. The injustice in that experience remains with me.

Reading Angela’s Ashes while living there was some kind of perverse masochism. That book is a memoir that recounts the author’s life growing up in incredible destitution,  poverty and disease during the Great Depression in Limerick, Ireland. Reading this book in New Dehli was an experience reading about one kind of poverty while experiencing another kind of systemic poverty.

All of this is prequel for my current experience.

I just got through reading The Great Gatsby again, during the time of Trump, a pandemic, and what seems to be massive political dysfunction and general stagnation.

The Great Gatsby takes place in the early 1920’s and is a story of decadence, the way that obscene levels of  wealth can be corrupting. The 1920’s is an interesting time, an era of prosperity, innovation and economic growth that ended up turning into a bubble, sandwiched right after WW1 and the horrifying 1918 pandemic and the Great Depression which led directly into WW2 and all of its horrors.

The book centers on a man, Jay Gatsby, who falls for a rich young woman, Daisy, even though he himself had limited resources about to be shipped off into war. Gatsby recognizing the class barrier between them determines to acquire enough financial resources in order to make a marriage a possibility. Unfortunately, while Gatsby was off to war and wealth building, Daisy ends up marrying Tom Buchanan, a entitled guy born into an obscene amount of wealth. Gatsby does build up wealth from the bootlegging industry, uses that money to buy a giant house across the New York bay from Daisy’s mansion and throws wildly lavish parties, open to all of society’s elites hoping to somehow get Daisy to stop in. Nick, the narrator, a distant cousin of Daisy’s and a college friend of Tom, coincidentally moves in next door to Jay Gatsby. He makes an acquaintance with his neighbor and begins to attend the nightly parties. Daisy however doesn’t ever hear about the parties. Once Jay realizes Nick’s connection to her, uses Nick to setup a meeting.

These parties attract real people with complicated backstories, lives, and emotions, but they are presented in the book as caricatures. The book describes a fantasy world, devoid of life’s rough edges. Even Nick has trouble separating the person from the fantasy. Early in chapter 4, Nick describes some of the people he sees attending these parties and he goes on for several pages:

He starts out this way:

But I can still read the grey names and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.

The list goes on and on, here’s a segment:

And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there,
and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut’) Ferret and the DeJongs and Ernest Lilly—they came to gamble and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably
next day. A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so
long that he became known as ‘the boarder’—I doubt if he had any other home. Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O’Donavan and Lester Meyer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull. Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the
Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square.

Benny McClenahan arrived always with four girls. They were never quite the same ones in physical person but they were so identical one with another that it inevitably seemed they had been there before. I have forgotten their names—Jaqueline, I think, or else Consuela or Gloria or Judy or June, and their last names were either the melodious names of flowers and months or the sterner ones of the great American capitalists whose cousins, if pressed, they
would confess themselves to be. In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O’Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls
and young Brewer who had his nose shot off in the war and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters, and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something whom we called Duke and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.

All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.

None of these people really knew Jay Gatsby, but then neither Nick or Jay really knew these people. He throws in startling tidbits about the people as casually as if he were announcing their current job or pass-time, real tragedies – a divorce, someone getting so drunk someone drove over his hand, another committing suicide by jumping in front of a train, someone who had his nose shot off in the war, and so on.

The context matters here, the subtext is the world war, a devastating pandemic, the utter vulnerability of a human life. But they hoped to escape it, through wealth, connection and enjoyment.

The story itself is tragic. Tom Buchanan keeps a mistress, is friendly with the mistress’s husband, keeps the secret from nobody, and only his wife acts as if she has no idea. As the book begins to climax, Jay, Nick, Daisy, and Tom go off together to New York. Tom’s suspicious about Jay’s intentions to steal his wife, but is not sure. Tom’s mistress’ husband discovers his wife’s infidelity and is planning a move. Tom is about to lose both women. There’s an eventual confrontation, Daisy and Jay speed off together in Jay’s car with Daisy at the wheel. She tragically and accidentally runs over Tom’s mistress, killing her but doesn’t stop. Tom implicates Jay in the hit and run. The mistress’ grief stricken husband kills Jay and then himself. Tom and Daisy escape into their wealth from all responsibility.

It ends with Nick’s commentary and the whole lot of them:

I couldn’t forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures 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….

I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child. Then he went into the jewelry store to buy a pearl necklace—or perhaps only a pair of cuff buttons—rid of my provincial squeamishness forever.

Reading this in the time of Trump I cannot help but see parallels. Blind partisanship trumps an actual reckoning with the real challenges plaguing our country. We’re living in a time of  deep decadence and stagnation but are now staring down a pandemic, and many parts of our society still refuse to come to terms with it. American society has severe problems but not the heart to really do anything significant about it. We want to live lives free of consequence. A man-child leads us, but we all kind of want to be children ourselves. Nobody wants to grow up and truly deal with the rough edges of actual life.

We’re sucking the life out of the accumulated accomplishments of our ancestors and are threatening to have nothing left for our children.

There’s nothing more decadent as a hit-and-run and the ability to flee into one’s wealth to avoid the consequences of careless action. We have to start taking responsibility.

The world is hard. We need to be willing to admit that, all of us, at all levels. We’re in this together, or we should be.

Why do I need to learn this crap anyway?

My daughter was stuck on a particularly challenge mathematical proof. She felt like she was close, but couldn’t quite push it further to resolution. The problem was to show that:

(1+cot^2y)(cos(2y) + 1) = 2cot^2y

She had a sheet of identities she could use as reference. Not really knowing how to get there from here, she played around with identities that seemed like steps in the right direction only to hit a roadblock. Stooping over her shoulder, I tried to play around with it and struggled.

I finally had to get my own sheet of paper so I could play around with it on my terms – my mind just works better with pen on paper. I love problems like this.

Not that there’s any immediate application for it in my life currently. At one point I worked on developing software for modems in military radios and there is, believe it or not, application for this in the real world. Cosines and sines are ways to model waves mathematically. Waves are all over the natural world – oscillating impulses of energy propagating through space. It all begins with a unit circle – a circle with a radius equal to one. To represent a position on that circle in terms of the angle, cosine represents the value of the x position,  sine gives the y-position. Rotating around the circle at a certain speed, the x and y position oscillates between one and negative one in a periodic fashion that looks a wave.  The frequency of the wave is the speed of the rotation. The mathematics is deeply embedded in my brain from years of calculus starting in high school extending deep into an Electrical Engineering undergraduate degree and as I said, practical application when I coded modem software for military radios not too long after graduation.

Anyway, it turns out the solution to the proof is fairly straightforward but requires a bit of pattern recognition, searching for steps that get you ever closer to the goal, the steps are as follows:

Step 1: (1+cot^2)(2-2sin^y) => using the idenity cos2y = 1-2sin^y, and then adding the 1’s together.

Step 2: 2-2sin^2y + 2cot^2y – 2sin^2ycot^2 => multiplying everything out.

Step 3: 2-2sin^2y -2sin^2(cos^2y/sin^2y) + 2cot^2y => convert cot^2y to cos^2y/sin^2y

Step 4: 2-2(sin^2y + cos^2y) + 2cot^2y => cancel out the sin^2y and factor out the 2.

Step 5: 2-2 + 2cot^2y => sin^2y + cos^2y = 1, pythagorean theorem,

Proof: 2cot^2y = 2cot^2

There’s a certain amount of endorphin kick solving this, but it’s also frustrating to get stuck on it. Frustrating and demoralizing. My daughter gets stuck on these problems, more often than not. And I know having your parent help you sucks for teenagers. Everyone’s brains are wired differently. Training has something to do with it as well – nature vs. nurture.

During the pandemic, with schools basically closed, I’m trying to get my son to take a music theory course with me on coursera. The video we watched today, we had to recognize chords and identify whether they were tonic or dominant. I got the basic idea, but I had trouble recognizing them by ear. My son could hear it far better than me – he’s better trained musically. Or maybe he has musical genes (from my wife) I just don’t have.

I don’t know.

Showing my daughter the proof she screamed, “why do I have to know this stuff anyway”. I don’t have good answers for it. It’s a basic existential question on the utility of school generally. Everyone understands the basic utility of math through algebra, the basic utility of reading comprehension and the importance of learning to write well. But school, especially a college prep school, pushes students far past this – reading books not especially enjoyable to read, especially for a young person without life experience, then being forced to write something enlightening about this book they could barely get through. Why do we teach writing in this precise way?

The problem with these question though is I have no idea. She’s 17. Nobody really knows what knowledge will end up being useful for her down the line. Most of it will largely not be. But I think there’s something essential about learning as much of the world as we possibly can, so we can make sense of it, recognize our place in it, and then perhaps have a shot to make some small contribution within it.

Steve Jobs took calligraphy in school for the fun of it. He then later revolutionized fonts on apple computers, largely because of this training he happened upon. Likely nothing that extraordinary will come out of any of this. Sometimes it’s just fun to use our brains – or not.

I don’t know.