How not to read a story
So the other day, I was in my car for an hour long drive, and I started skimming through radio stations. I should never do this. First of all, if I hear a song I do like, the radio immediately develops static and I just get annoyed. Secondly, if I hear something irritating, I can't just change the station like a normal person would. No...I listen to every train wreck of a program that I hear and argue with the radio. It has the advantage of keeping me awake, I suppose.
Today, I would like to discuss just such a train wreck. I was listening to a Christian book club review of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. You may here point out to me that since this is the religion that I claim to follow, I should be happy to hear such a thing. That is the very thing you should enjoy, you might be saying to yourself. You would be wrong and I will be happy to explain why. You may also say to yourself....what a silly thing to care about. What difference can it possibly make how someone reads a story? Well, I would like to take little time today discuss why I think reading and understanding stories is important and how I think it has to be done if we would like to be good human beings who understand and get along with others. And not only that, it is important to how we see and understand ourselves.
First of all, let's think about why stories are important. Why does a story matter, and I mean either a "true" story of someone's life or a fictional story? Stories matter because stories are how humans experience sequential time. They matter because the content that we choose to remember and reinforce and the context with which we surround those sequential facts makes us who we are, whether we are experiencing the present or re-experiencing that content and context through memory. What happens to you and how you interpret it are the basis of your experience of yourself and others as human beings. Stories make us people. They can explain why we are Christian people, or Agnostic people, or Hindu people. Stories make us seem like nice people or evil people or funny people or sad people. A story can explain why one person might become a clown and another person becomes an accountant. And the delightful humanizing factor of storytelling and narrative is that it can contain many of these things at once. People can be all of these things in the same story if only it is long enough. (You should hear my stories about clown school someday. Actually, I made those up, but even that says something about me...don't you think?)
Read the life of Martin Luther for instance. He was a Catholic and then a Protestant. He wanted freedom and condoned oppression. Here was a man by turns brave, and insolent, and crazy, and good, and mean---like most of us only probably a little bit more of all of those things. And furthermore, take note of the context of his life. There are some things that Martin Luther said that might very well land you in jail or a psychiatric hospital if you said them now--or at least make others give you a wide berth at cocktail parties. (This is not to excuse him for being dreadful sometimes....please note...but placing him in the context of 16th Century Germany tends to make him more understandable. His actions have some sort of rational and emotional basis, which they would not have in a different context.) Stories like his are important because the series of intersecting facts and events that shape us make us understandable and human to others and to ourselves.
So first of all, stories are important. Stories are foundational to all self-knowledge and relationships. If stories are so important, then it follows that it is important how we read them.
And now we come to the book club discussion in question. Give me a moment to shake my head in mild horror...wait a minute...I have to perform a quick face palm...and now we are ready to go on.
The book that our church ladies were reviewing was The Great Gatsby. If you haven't read it - what the heck is wrong with you? Go read it. It's the Great American Novel. It's a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a self-made man named Gatsby who has a deep and misplaced love for Daisy Buchanan, a super rich woman married to a super rich man both of whom come from super rich families, sort of American aristocracy. Gatsby has had to make his living by working very hard, albeit on things that are not necessarily legal, and he does it all to win Daisy's love.
Daisy and Tom Buchanan have so much money that they don't appear to ever even think about it, other than how to spend it, and they lead aimless and dissolute lives. The whole story is narrated by a guy from the Midwest named Nick, a distant cousin of Daisy's; Nick is not fabulously wealthy, he comes from upper middle class people who understand hard work and business. While Nick is involved with Gatsby and Tom and Daisy, he has a sort mild flirtation or affair with a woman named Jordan, another one of the dissolute rich. Tom is dating a poor woman named Myrtle on the side whose husband, George Wilson, runs a gas station in a desolate area called the Valley of Ashes. The Valley of Ashes is home to the very poor who crawl around in a cloud of ash, inhuman and obscured from the sight of the rich.
This book has spawned endless other books that discuss all of the many and various understandings you can have based on the story contained within its pages. It is about the ephemeral nature of the good time twenties and the idea that the jazz age could go on forever. It's about the reckless way that the the ultra rich treat everyone else and the consequences of their inability to see people lower on the social scale (or often even each other) as fully human. It's about misdirecting your love and passions to objects unworthy of them. It's about understanding that your past can neither be revisited nor totally left behind. It's about what happens when you use other people as means to your own ends. It's about the difference between the poor and the rich and the middle class. It's about accidentally becoming entangled in the misdirected passions of others. And that...that is the tip of the iceberg with this story guys.
For such a short book, it has an amazing depth and a beautiful circular structure. Fitzgerald's use of Nick as a narrator who participates in the story, but functions much more as an observer, is beautifully thought out. Nick is sort of a moral center (not a morally ideal character, but one through whom the reader can have an outsider's understanding of the other characters' values and philosophies.) Whew! It's quite a book.
So what did our lunchtime book review club crew discover in this gem of an American tragedy? They discover that Daisy is shallow and she commits adultery and therefore...ugh...Daisy is bad. Don't be like Daisy. Nick knows that Tom, and then Daisy and Gatsby, are committing adultery, but doesn't tell them to stop and therefore Nick is bad. Don't be like Nick. He is shallow and immoral. They also determine that Tom, who simply uses people and then discards them, breaking the arm of one chambermaid that he is dating and the nose of his mistress, is no worse than Gatsby whose whole life revolves around loving Daisy and trying to make her love him, misplaced as that love might be. Why? Because they both commit adultery. They are frustrated that George Wilson does not appear to have a church when he is asked about it. This, they determine is the reason he shoots Gatsby and then himself. They are upset that God seems to be Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Book. The long and the short of the book review seemed to be that this book is full of people who are breaking moral rules about going to church and committing adultery.
However, they do recommend that you allow your children to read it because all of the people who break moral rules in this story end up either unhappy or dead, thus at least coming to somewhat just ends. They feel that your children should see and understand that people who go to wild parties and commit adultery and who don't have a church to attend are going to end up unhappy or dead. In the long run, this means that the book does have some redeeming value.
During this book club discussion, not one word was ever mentioned about the difference between the rich and the poor. Not one word was mentioned about the great spiritual impoverishment of "the American dream," a dream that seems to be as much about acquiring wealth and power as anything else, a theme upon which Fitzgerald so poignantly dwells in this story, which would seem to be right up their alley, theologically speaking. None of the great depths of the human soul that are so magnified in this book can even be seen by these ladies. Why not?
Because these ladies cannot listen to other people. They cannot hear Gatsby's need and his misplaced hope. They cannot understand Myrtle's inability to live a life of dust and dryness. They cannot understand that Daisy and Tom have deeper problems than simply looking for love outside of marriage.
You do not have to condone anything that these characters did to understand them, to listen to them, to let them tell their stories. And this skill is important in life as well. If one of your friends is troubled do you simply give her a list of two rules, shake your head and walk away? Or can you listen to the story? Can you look at your own story and see your own flaws, flaws more likely than not unshaken and undeterred by the fact that you don't go to wild parties or commit adultery (or maybe you do...I can't know)? Can you see that the tragedy goes deeper than your small box framed with things you are probably not tempted to do? Can you understand that even if you lived within the framework of a few rules regarding your own personal virtue that you could still commit unspeakable sin? Can you understand that under different circumstances your own rules might be much harder to keep, that what looks like terrible failure from the outside might be the result of a valiant struggle inside? If you can't listen to anyone else's story then your answer to all of these questions will have to be no. And if you can't listen to people, you cannot love them, you cannot help them....you cannot even properly judge them.
As a literature teacher, I think I would have those ladies tear up their drafts and try again.
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