In anticipation of Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I, like so many Americans, returned to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first time since high school. Finding myself generally spellbound by Fitzgerald’s elegant, lean prose, the turn of phrase that most stubbornly stuck in my mind occurs upon the dramatic entrance of the man himself, described by the narrator, Nick Carraway:
“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
The power of this passage, I suppose, comes from knowing precisely what Fitzgerald means, yet realizing you had never heard it quite put that way before.
In that way, the effect of this account on the reader mirrors the effect of the very behavior that it describes—sort of like how the backwards narrative in the movie Memento allows the viewer to share its protagonist’s problem with short-term memory loss.
The behavior in this case is nothing less than understanding the nature of empathy between two human beings, and realizing the necessity for it in any meaningful relationship.
We might regard it as ironic that a novel criticized in some quarters as lacking in any real empathy itself would boast a paragraph that seemingly cuts straight to the core of how it feels to be empathized with.
A great friendship, we often say and think, is one in which the two parties know each other so well that they can “finish each other’s sentences.” Each knows what the other is thinking without it actually being said. Good friends practice a form of telepathy that the rest of the world cannot quite grasp, and that is what makes the relationship special. A successful romantic coupling follows essentially this same dynamic, but with more sex.
Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two Americans in Tokyo who connect through their mutual cultural disorientation, continues to mesmerize your humble servant and many others because of the perceptive way it situates its two leads in a time and place in which they understand each other as no one else does—not even their spouses.
Beyond the power of empathy and mutual human understanding that the Gatsby passage evokes, it explores the slightly separate but equally intriguing notion of the idealized self, phrased by Fitzgerald as “the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Certainly there is nothing controversial or unique about this desire on its face. We all wish that everyone could see us at our best at all times. That there is a definitive image of us, capturing our true essence, that we could beam out to the world to stand for all time.
What makes the concept compelling, lending it real force, is to imagine it actually being so.
Publishing his 1993 collection of essays, For the Sake of Argument, Christopher Hitchens explained the volume’s cover—a photograph of himself at a party, cigarette in hand, seated behind a phalanx of empty glasses—by saying that it “captures what I’m like after about 8 o’clock in the evening,” which, as far as Hitchens was concerned, represented him at his finest.
Here is a rainy day project for any of you to undertake: Rummage through all the photographs of yourself from recent years, and figure out which of them presents what you would consider, for better or worse, to be the “real” you. How many such pictures can you find? A small handful? Just one? Perhaps none at all or, conversely, the whole lot?
And who is to say? Are we really the best judges of our own true natures? Or does that burden fall upon everyone else? What good is your own self-rendering if no one else shares it?
Perhaps that is why we need people like Jay Gatsby in the first place—to look upon us as better than we are, in the hope that, in the future, we may try a bit harder to deserve it.