Thursday, April 12, 2018

Quote of the Day (F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the Consequences of Not Thinking for Yourself)

“Either you think—or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.”— American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Tender is the Night (1934)

I came upon this quote accidentally, but with a thrill of re-discovery. A quotation from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, much like a lyric from a Stephen Sondheim musical, may convey one quality in isolation—wittiness, say, or gracefulness—and quite another in its original context, where layers of irony and reverberations against the larger work matter.

So it happens with this passage late in Tender is the Night. By themselves, this sentence might simply read like the author’s general warning to the reader. But within the context of the novel—the devolution of a love story, amid what Fitzgerald called, as the title of one of his short stories, “emotional bankruptcy” —it is the interior monologue of a sexual-abuse victim and mental-health patient moving toward autonomy. Yet that personal freedom comes at the expense of a husband whose energy and skills atrophy as he cares for his wife’s psychological needs.

As a child, Nicole Warren was molested by her father Devereaux Warren, a rich industrialist. The family makes it possible for Dick Diver, a scholarship student in college, to own his own clinic, facilitating, despite his intention to stay financially independent, his ability to wed Nicole.

Over a decade, a transfer of vitality takes place, with Nicole growing stronger and Dick more fragile. Following Dick’s affair with a Hollywood starlet that the Divers met on the Riviera and alcoholism increasingly consuming him, Nicole is ready to move the marriage further toward its dissolution, as she contemplates her own affair.

The verbs that Nicole summons—“discipline,” “pervert,” “sterilize” and “civilize”—were part and parcel of the growing interest in psychiatry that many Americans (including Fitzgerald) were developing in the Twenties and Thirties. 

“Pervert” signals sexual corruption—not just Nicole’s father but also, it grows on the reader gradually, Dick, whose interest in young teenage girls—starting with his patient Nicole, then proceeding in turn to actress Rosemary Hoyt, a patient at his Swiss clinic, and, in the novel’s conclusion, a young woman he seduces in upstate New York--becomes more and more obvious and dismaying.

“Discipline” implies punishment intended to correct misbehavior and instill adherence to rules of order. But that is not the case with Devereaux Warren, who had hoped that he could make Nicole yield to his wanton impulses, not to curb hers.

This passage takes on added meaning because of its relationship to Fitzgerald’s life. To the extent that he could enter into a feminine consciousness at all, it was due in no small part to his heavy use of his wife Zelda’s thoughts expressed through her journal and letters.

But it was not simply a matter of appropriating her phrases that Fitzgerald was up to. Just as Nicole was trying to carve a life apart from Dick, Zelda was trying to do so professionally from Scott—first disastrously through ballet dancing, then (equally so, in terms of her relationship with Scott) as a writer, then at last, fleetingly, as a painter, the medium in which she was neither too old to begin nor in direct competition with her husband.

Nicole is about to leave behind the two father figures who have directed her life to date—not just Devereaux Warren but also Dick Diver. Dick had assumed the paternalistic role that Mr. Warren forfeited as soon as he exploited Nicole. But safeguarding her health has become all too entangled with his occupation, as indicated by two verbs in the above paragraph, “sterilize” and “civilize.”

Nicole’s molestation requires Dick to somehow clean her psychic wounds—an effort rendered difficult, even exhausting, because of her periodic breakdowns. Moreover, Dr. Diver would have to recognize this as a problem that the new “science” of psychoanalysis was only discovering, as indicated by Sigmund Freud major title of the time, Civilization and Its Discontents.

But Dick’s stewardship has come at the price of repressing her natural strength. For as long as he is viewed as sober and responsible, Nicole must accede to his wishes.

But a drunken spree leading to Dick’s arrest and beating by Italian police upends the couple’s parent-child relationship. Nicole’s multiple resentments over the years—over yielding to his wishes and, more recently, over his affair with Rosemary—now lead her to embark on an affair with the aviator Tommy Barban (whose name strongly suggests “barbarian,” an emblem of the natural state that Dick can no longer prevent her from reaching toward).

Tender is the Night does not have the soaring magic of The Great Gatsby. But it has so many subtle and graceful passages such as today’s quote that it repays periodic rereading.

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