Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.
Human beings, with their curious capacity for abstractions, teeter on the brink of two worlds. The first is taken seriously, discussed thoroughly, and called “reality.” The second, “fantasy,” is neglected.
Schoolchildren, for instance, while encouraged to dream (by which we mean “have aspirations”), are told that daydreaming is a waste of time. But the distinction is a false one. Disingenuous, too. For doesn’t the teacher also habitually retreat to her private, untouchable sphere where she’s praised and admired by others? And don’t her daydreams, in some mysterious fashion, also inform her actions? As she slogs through daily drudgery, her fantasies (being “the best teacher” or perhaps something else entirely) might prompt her to try harder or not at all. Likewise, it’s just possible that the teenage boy, sitting at the back of the class, daydreaming of importance, will one day obtain a semiautomatic and murder half the class.
But I digress. There’s no mass murder in The Great Gatsby.
These days, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, first published almost 100 years ago, is most commonly read as social critique of the “American dream” (you know, that vague cliché concerning equality of opportunity, bound up in that other vague cliché of American exceptionalism). If someone had put this interpretation of Gatsby to Fitzgerald, he may have been disappointed. Fitzgerald outlined his ambitions for the book explicitly. “The whole burden of this novel,” he wrote “[is] the loss of those illusions which give such color to the world that you don’t take care whether these things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” The source of Gatsby’s tragedy (captured in the moment he “stretched out his arms toward the dark water” at the “single green light, minute and far away”) was his genius. He is not a mere symbol of collective disappointment, but a highly sophisticated fantasist with a highly specific wish-list.
This theme was to gain pertinence in the 1930s. Four years after the publication of Gatsby — which was not an immediate success, incidentally — came the 1929 Wall Street crisis, the largest stock market crash in American history. That was followed by the Great Depression, a decade marked by mass unemployment, Nazism, and cabbage soup. On March 18, 1939 — six months before Germany invaded Poland — the New Yorker published an exuberant short story by journalist James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Then a week later, on March 25, 1939, a German newspaper published a provocative essay by the novelist Thomas Mann, “Bruder Hitler” (Brother Hitler).
Taken together, these works provide startling insight into the mind of a fantasist and the circumstances in which he thrives.
Walter Mitty, Thurber’s indistinct and ineffective protagonist, has a “secret life,” a life of fantasies. The story begins with Mitty driving his wife to her hair appointment in Waterbury, Conn. The sound of the car engine sparks the first of five spectacular daydreams in which Mitty imagines himself as a Navy pilot, guiding his team through “the worst storm in twenty years.” He’s reluctantly dragged out of this fantasy by his wife, who tells him “you’re driving too fast.” Mitty finds his wife’s presence to be “grossly unfamiliar,” an indication of how much time he spends wallowing in unreality.
Next, the combination of his driving gloves and the sight of a nearby hospital prompts him to imagine that he is a top surgeon undertaking rare and specialized surgery. This time he’s interrupted by a parking-lot attendant who informs him that he’s absent-mindedly driving into the wrong lane. Evidently, this awakening is a humiliating experience. After wondering briefly if his life might be easier if he had a disability, so as to attract pity instead of contempt, Mitty has another daydream episode. He envisions himself as a masterful villain in a courtroom drama. After that, he’s transported into the war, where he enjoys the excitement of “the rat-tat-tatting of machine guns,” and “the menacing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the new flame-thrower.” Meanwhile, in the world of reality, his wife wonders whether his continually distracted state means that he’s unwell and ought to see a doctor. But Mitty assures her that he’s simply “thinking.” As he waits for his wife to go back into the drugstore, he stands in the rain, facing an imaginary firing squad, “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful . . . inscrutable to the last.”
So, there we have him: Walter Mitty, dissatisfied with reality, playing fantasy upon fantasy in his head; daring boldly, reconciling with evil, war, and even death — so long as he’s the hero. Many have speculated as to whether Thurber saw something of himself in Mitty. Certainly, in his controversial essay, “Brother Hitler,” Thomas Mann was “mortified” to see something of himself in the German dictator.
Mann noted that Hitler possessed “[the] fundamental arrogance which thinks itself too good for any sensible and honorable activity, on the ground of its vague intuition that it is reserved for something else.” But as one who possessed this peculiar flaw, Mann also realized that it oughtn’t to be underestimated. In The Great Gatsby, our narrator, Nick Carraway, ventriloquized by Fitzgerald, makes a similar point. He describes Gatsby as having “nothing do to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the ‘creative temperament’,” but rather “an extraordinary hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.” Of course, there’s a flip side to this. Per “Brother Hitler”:
There is also present the insatiable craving for compensation, the urge to self-glorification, the restless dissatisfaction, the forgetfulness of past achievements, the swift abandonment of the prize once grasped, the emptiness and tedium, the sense of worthlessness so soon as there is nothing to do to take the world’s breath away; the sleepless compulsion to make one’s mark on something.
Historians have long pondered how it is that Hitler, a man of next to no achievements, managed, through the singular talent of oratory, to persuade the German people, down on their luck, to trade in their civil liberties for a better tomorrow. The mystery? He sold fellow fantasists his fantasy. That, said Mann, was evidence of “madness tempered by discretion” — or, in an uncomfortable word, “genius.”