Tuesday, August 19, 2014

First-rate intelligence

Today's David Brooks is written for some reason by Mr. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, no relation, I believe, who doesn't do it quite as well, but stands in a similar position, urging American conservatives to adopt an innovative "compassionate" conservatism (Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!) with fresh ideas like offering more tax breaks for poor people (look at all tax breaks have done for the rich!) and the inevitable Scott Fitzgerald quote:
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
I can't understand why people think Fitzgerald's Law means if you want to show a first-rate intelligence you must hold opposed ideas in your mind at all times. That's not first-rate, it's irrational.

What Fitzgerald was talking about in The Crack-Up was a serious crisis in his own life that hit him in the early 1930s, a moral-emotional collapse that hollowed him out and left him in despair. The "test" was not to spend the rest of his life living in contradiction but to live through it to some kind of resolution. You have to at least look at the next sentence:

One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. 
I've never actually read The Crack-Up before, and I don't think I like it much, to tell the truth, a feeling expressed by a lot of his friends, as Patricia Hampl has noted:
John Dos Passos was particularly exercised. “Christ, man,” he wrote to Fitzgerald in October 1936. “How do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” The “general conflagration,” presumably, was the Great Depression, but also National Socialism and fascism in Germany and Italy, and the Spanish Civil War, which had ignited in July. “We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history,” Dos Passos steams on. “If you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely OK but I think you ought to write a first-rate novel about it (and you probably will) instead of spilling it in little pieces for Arnold Gingrich,” the editor of Esquire...
What I really don't like about it (beyond the casual abuse of "pansies" and "Negroes", the latter getting really bad just at the end) is a kind of coyness about the facts of his despair—the autobiographical details, and especially what he referred to (in private, not here) as the "whoring" he endured to pay Zelda's hospital bills and Scottie's school fees, putting off novel writing in favor of neatly twisted short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, at which he only hints:
I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.
The Esquire essays, it seems to me, are more whoring in their own right, with their charming superficial detail and skirting of the issues, an emotional striptease that titillates the readers while leaving the brutal truth unrevealed—and doing it, too, for a quick buck. Then again, I guess he was inventing the genre himself; and if we've learned anything from the history of the celebrity breakdown memoir since then, it's that those grimy details don't make it any more honest, just more porn and less burlesque. And then there are bits of authentic Fitzgerald finesse that are worth the whole package, like the most famous:
at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work -- and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.
The really startling thing, though, that I think doesn't get discussed much at all, is the bitterness that he ends with, concluding, perhaps, that his own mind isn't first-rate at all and he can't effectively hold those two dialectical poles together; can't, in fact, continue to be both a writer and a man:
since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years? I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person -- to be kind, just, or generous. There were plenty of counterfeit coins around that would pass instead of these and I knew where I could get them at a nickel on the dollar.
That sounds showoffy and self-dramatizing, and yet: only a few months later he was off to Hollywood himself, selling himself to the despised Darryl F. Zanuck. Why be a whore when you can be a call girl?

The Republican party under the advice of Mr. Arthur Brooks will be coming to pretty much the same conclusion, announcing its commitment (Rubio, Ryan) to being nice; it's their oldest profession, going back long before Jack Kemp to Herbert Hoover, and there's no reason to think it's ever been sincere.

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