16 May 2013

Race and Illicit Desire in The Great Gatsby

I don't much care for the novel The Great Gatsby (the lyricism of the writing gets tiresome, the characters are annoying, and somebody ought to take out that damned green light with a sniper rifle), but one passage has long fascinated me:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we—”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

(Chapter 1)
At its most obvious level, this presents Tom as a racist and elitist, somebody obsessed with power and inheritance. He's a self-satisfied bully. It also hints at the idea that the inherited wealth and power of the "old money" oligarchs may be based on false pretenses — at least for readers now, the reference to eugenics (Tom's words evoke the work and names of Lothrop Stoddard and Henry Goddard) signals that Tom has found a particularly nasty way to justify his wealth and power to himself. A paragraph later, he says, "This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and— [...] And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?"

Nordics. Fitzgerald didn't know it when he wrote Gatsby, but Tom was talking the language of proto-Nazism, and the "science" he referred to was the science that would in the next decade pave the way for the Final Solution.

This is especially interesting in a book where the power behind so much of Gatsby's wealth is Meyer Wolfsheim, a shady, frightening, and clearly Jewish character who embodies all sorts of different stereotypes. In the book, Wolfsheim seems to exist to confirm Tom's fears. (The reader, though, is left to wonder who's worse: Tom or Wolfsheim?) But while Daisy mocks Tom, she doesn't mock him for his beliefs so much as his pretensions. Nor do we have any reason to assume that Nick does not accept the basic tenets of white supremacy, though he is also fascinated by the abomination that is the nonwhite world, as a notorious passage from Chapter 4 shows (just a few sentences before he describes Wolfsheim as "A small, flat-nosed Jew ... with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril"):
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island* a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Which brings us to Baz Luhrman's new movie of Gatsby. I went in with some hope — I loved what Luhrman did with Romeo & Juliet, cutting the play to the bone and filling it with utterly over-the-top adolescent energy, and I hoped he might do something similar with Gatsby. Instead, he went in the opposite direction, adapting the film with dutiful fidelity to its events and language — indeed, it often feels less like a movie than an illustrated audio book read by Tobey Maguire. The imagery is so processed that numerous parts of the movie look animated, an effect that wouldn't be quite so cloying if they hadn't hired the Thomas Kincaid Studio to do the animating. There's plenty of Luhrmanic kitsch, and that's when the film is at its best, becoming a campy parody of the book and itself. (DiCaprio's entrance as Gatsby is hilarious and, for me, the best moment in the film.) But a major problem is Fitzgerald. It's not just that, when spoken, his words reveal their ridiculousness. There's a bigger problem: the book isn't actually very dramatic in its narrative, and so a faithful adaptation is also not particularly dramatic. One of the novel's saving graces is that it is short; the same cannot be said of this film, which at 142 minutes feels about 7 hours longer than it needs to be. (Fast readers can make it through the whole book in less time than it takes to watch the movie.) The last third is especially tedious, and if Luhrman had cut all the Meaningful Looks the actors constantly give each other, the movie might have been less leaden.

An interesting, though not particularly developed, aspect of the film is its use of race as a code for wanton freedom, something rich with both desire and terror. Luhrman heightens the cruelty of Tom's white supremacist ranting by making all the servants in the Buchanans' mansion black, but most of the non-white characters we see in the film are people of an unbridled underworld. The one such actor who actually gets to play a character (rather than a spectacle) is Amitabh Bachchan, cast as Wolfsheim. Because the film is obviously not trying to be a historical documentary, there's no reason to cast an actor who looks like Arnold Rothstein for the role, but the casting of an Indian man for Wolfsheim creates new webs of meaning by the fact that the film then mostly associates him with a club where all the erotics of illicitness are evoked via the bodies of non-white people. Gatsby is more comfortable in this world than Tom, but Tom, too, partakes of it. The pleasures of the rich and powerful come not from the parties they throw for other people, not from any element of their everyday lives, but from the spaces where they are able to indulge in the ambrosia of transgression: for Tom, transgression of class with Myrtle and the apartment; for Gatsby, transgression of race and law with Wolfsheim and the club. The class transgression is present in the novel, but the movie heightens and overtly sexualizes the racial transgressions. By complicating Wolfsheim's ethnicity, the movie also generalizes the novel's racial particulars — in the novel, characters are whites and negroes and Jews, but in the film there are really only two groups, unlabeled but present as images: whites and not-whites.

Tom stands as the virile guardian of white ancestry, white propriety, and white power. Everyone else is seduced by racialized transgression. He alone sees the danger, and then, to some extent at least, the story enacts that very danger: "The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged." Submerged in what? Not just racial impurity, but all that racial impurity implies to racists: disease, licentiousness, insanity, the loss of borders and distinctions, the loss of privilege and power. Ultimately: death.

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

*Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) was known during the Jazz Age as Welfare Island, and, in Michael Pollack's words, "the city operated a prison, a lunatic asylum, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, a workhouse and other Dickensian horrors there." In the 1920s, the city began various reforms, building new hospitals and eventually moving the prison to Riker's Island. Thus, when Fitzgerald wrote about the limousine with the white chauffeur, the island was associated with crime, poverty, and disease, but also, to some extent at least, a movement for reform.