My colleague Jeffrey Carduner wrote this paper for an Aesthetic Realism seminar. It includes a consideration of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Webster’s defines “wow” in two ways. First, it’s an interjection: “an exclamation of surprise, wonder, pleasure: ‘Wow!’” But also, it’s a transitive verb: “To raise great enthusiasm; to please greatly; as in, to wow an audience.”
In my life, I had a terrible time between the first idea of “wow”—to find the world surprising and wonderful; and the second idea—“to raise great enthusiasm” in people—and my making this second thing the main thing, made me dislike myself intensely.
Like many men, I wanted to find love, but I also was driven to make a big impression on a woman. I tried to do it through cars, clothes, talking about what an experienced man of the world I was, telling tales of adventure on the high seas where I’d been close to death facing giant squalls in my sailboat (which wasn’t really mine), or about riding my motorcycle through the Alps, almost going over on the hairpin turns.
When I began to date Miranda Shelby, a pretty young woman from the South, I saw she was intellectual and thoughtful about people, and I set about trying to wow her. Thinking this would do it, I went to a ticket agency and got two very expensive second-row seats for a show that had just won a TONY, without knowing too much what it was about. When I told her, she lit up with pleasure, and I felt I’d made a big hit.
The play was The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, seen as one of the important plays of the 20th century. Sitting in the audience, I soon realized it was something about a Pope and his relation to the Nazis in World War II. I had thought I’d read up about it in the Playbill before it began, but was much more interested in looking at the ads to see what showy place I could take her to afterwards. Meanwhile, I had a very hard time following the plot, and at the restaurant when Miranda began asking me what I felt the meaning of the play was, I went blank. Feeling panicky, I hurriedly excused myself and ran to the men’s room with the Playbill clutched in my hand and tried to read the synopsis very fast, but I was a wreck.
Miranda, I could see, was very disappointed in me, and I knew the date was a disaster. I felt shallow and small, telling myself I was a phony and a show-off, and I hated myself. I swore I’d be different, but I didn’t know how.
I. What’s the crucial difference?
“So much of social life,” writes Ellen Reiss in The Right Of,
consists of people putting on a show of “all’s well”…when they’re really agitated, tremulous, and self-disgusted. One person looks at another and thinks, “I wish I had the self-assurance he has.” Meanwhile, that second person looks at the first and says inwardly, “Look how at ease he seems. Why can’t I feel that way?” Both act confident; both are deeply and mightily unsure.
This is how I felt. I had wanted people to focus exclusively on me; I had thought that was how I’d like myself, but I didn’t like myself, no matter how many people I managed to impress. I was “deeply and mightily unsure.” And the reason was I was going against my deepest desire, to like the world honestly, respect it, be wowed by it. “Wowing” people, I was to learn, was a substitute for liking myself. No amount of swagger, or attention from women, was going to change that until I changed the way I saw the world. Writes Ellen Reiss:
An emotion that’s good…is an emotion that we use to respect the world, have good will for the world….An emotion that’s bad is one we use to have contempt for the world: to aggrandize ourselves through looking down on what’s not us.
II. What was important: having a big effect or being fair?
Have you ever seen a child who has a look of wonder on his face as he sees a very nice and friendly dog? I had that as I watched “Wild Kingdom” on television with my family. Meanwhile, that same family went after impressing people through lavish material possessions. We acted like the Rockefellers of Roslyn, Long Island, but it was mostly show. As a child, I loved reading about history, but I began to love other things more: getting the right English racer, the right car, and looking down on people who didn’t have these things.
But as the years went on, I had the feeling I was slowly eating away at my own hopes, that things “weren’t right” with me; and sometimes I took drugs to try to feel that everything was just fine. “What bothers you most?” Eli Siegel asked me in a class early in my study of Aesthetic Realism.
JC. Why am I so unhappy?
ES. When did that begin?
JC. I don’t know.
When I told Mr. Siegel I thought that my father was the cause of my unhappiness, he asked:
ES. You’re sure he’s the cause? What would be the next?
JC. How I operate in the world.
ES. What do you mean by operate? [A person] can feel that although he’d like to be happy, the thrill of despising something is not to be missed. The source of our happiness is two things: ourselves and the outside world, and the way you see [the world] may not be good enough. Do you give enough meaning to what is not yourself?
JC. I don’t know….
ES. Well, did you ever find yourself not listening to somebody?
JC. All the time.
ES. Does this mean you prefer your own thoughts to what goes on externally? Does it show an insufficient care for the things of the world?
JC. I guess it does!
ES. Every person has two tendencies: an unlimited desire to be affected by all things, and an unlimited desire to be affected only by oneself.
This was such an accurate description of me that I had a feeling of relief. I began to learn how, in trying to wow people, I’d wanted to be superior and have contempt, and so I couldn’t be affected by the depths of people or see their value.
This discussion made for a big change in me. One night, as my roommate’s girlfriend was at our apartment, instead of trying to show off, as I had done in the past, I began to ask her questions about her life with a real desire to know. She told me about her childhood in Peru; that she had a large feeling about the theatre and wanted to study acting. As I listened, I was surprised that I felt good about myself; I liked myself this way. I began to try to see other people more deeply, including my mother, whom I’d mainly seen as living to take care of me. Recently at a high school reunion, an old friend said he remembered me as having been “completely self-serving,” and commented on how much I’d changed. I told him it’s because of my Aesthetic Realism education these years.
Mr. Siegel said to me: “The one way we can like ourselves is to be a representative of justice to the world, which includes people.”
I’ve tested this in my own life, and in the lives of men of all ages whom we teach in consultations, and seen it is true. And my education in how to like myself through liking how I see the world continues!
III. He tried to wow people and it made for tragedy
I speak now about aspects of the life and work of the important American writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived from 1896 to 1940. Studying what is written about him and what he himself wrote has affected me very much. There was a terrific fight in him between wanting to be honest and to see people deeply, and a drive to impress, to shine, and to look down, in a way that made him untrue to the best thing in him. I will be using a biography by Andrew Turnbull, which is in the Eli Siegel Collection, and is annotated by Mr. Siegel.
In his 44 years, Fitzgerald wrote five novels and many short stories, and was a critic of the uncaring, unfeeling life led by wealthy persons. For example, at the end of The Great Gatsby, which I believe is his best work, talking about two of the characters, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, he wrote:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness,…and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Yet, the tragedy of Fitzgerald’s life was that he desperately wanted to be like the careless and selfish men and women he wrote about, and to be in a position where he could look down on and despise the whole world. He had these two ways steeply from early in his life, and describes them in his first novel, This Side of Paradise, which was published when he was 24, and is seen as semi-autobiographical. Writing self-critically about his days at Princeton, he tells about his snobbishness and his desire to shine, to impress, to “pose”:
With a dread of being alone, he attached a few friends, but since they were not among the elite of the school, he used them simply as mirrors of himself, audiences before which he might do that posing absolutely essential to him.
Turning on all the lights, he looked at himself in the mirror….Silently he admired himself….How well a dinner coat became him.
But then he writes: “He was unbearably lonely, desperately unhappy.”
The book was a huge success and catapulted Fitzgerald into prominence. The Saturday Evening Post wrote of the book:
There are clever things, keen and searching things, amusingly young and mistaken things, beautiful things and truly inspired and elevated things…in This Side of Paradise…, working out through a well-furnished intellect of unusual critical force.
Meanwhile, along with the accurate praise he received, wealthy people flattered and fawned over him, invited him to parties and to stay at their magnificent estates. Fitzgerald went for it, going away from that in him which was serious and thoughtful, and he began to drink more and more heavily, which hurt him tremendously. He became known for his wild behavior, including with his wife, Zelda. She wrote in 1927: “There is scarcely a Pullman on the NY Central in which we have not been taken drunk.”
Fitzgerald was in a tremendous fight between two things. Mr. Siegel explained in a class as he spoke to me:
The whole purpose of life is to place that aspect of self which can be called the owning- the-world self, with seeing what the world is. [There is] the “owning the world but quick,” the spoiled brat, the feeling that we should tell truth what to do.
That purpose in Fitzgerald, to wow, to impress, to get approval—rather than to go after truth–affected him badly. I believe he drank more and more as he disliked himself more and more. He said later in his life:
I can’t reduce our scale of living….There’s no point in trying to be an artist if you can’t do your best. I had my chance back in 1920 to start my life on a sensible scale, and I lost it. So I’ll have to pay the penalty.”
In the 1920s, Eli Siegel was working and writing and being true to himself. His poem “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” won the Nation poetry prize, which I’m sure Scott Fitzgerald knew about. But Mr. Siegel made a choice: he didn’t go after schmooze, flattery, impressing people. Scott Fitzgerald bought a fancy estate, cars, and, I believe, sold himself out. Mr. Siegel saw the first thing as respecting reality, and that was how he saw a person would really like himself. In an important discussion of Fitzgerald in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ms. Reiss said, “Fitzgerald wanted to explode the myth of wealth and show that it was empty, but he didn’t feel there was anything honest that could replace it.”
“And then,” said writer, critic, and Aesthetic Realism consultant Sheldon Kranz, ” there was the serious Scott Fitzgerald.” In The Great Gatsby of 1925, Fitzgerald’s purpose was not to wow through showing off or looking down: it was to see, and to have people be critical of the arrogant superiority of the wealthy. There is this description of Tom Buchanan:
He was a sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. …It was a cruel body.
Gatsby is a complex mingling of two things. He is trying to wow Daisy, who left him because he didn’t have any money, and married Tom Buchanan. But Gatsby also has something else very likable in him, and kind. There is this description of Gatsby, by the narrator Nick Carraway: “There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life….It was an extraordinary gift for hope.” When Nick meets Gatsby at one of his opulent parties, Nick says of Gatsby:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it….It…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.
I think these sentences indicate what Fitzgerald was desperate for: someone who saw him not just as wanting to wow people insincerely, but at his very best. It was Aesthetic Realism he was yearning for.
IV. Whom really are we really trying to wow?
A large matter in the life of a man came up in a consultation of Richard Snyder, whom we have respected for his desire to know himself. Men have wanted to wow people wrongly by showing off, even buying things to impress people when they know deep down they really can’t afford them. The question is, Does it have a man like himself, and does his trying to impress people have him see them deeply enough? Is the size of a diamond engagement ring really what other people are most interested in? Mr. Snyder is a computer programmer who told us very excitedly that he’d asked Mary Gold to marry him and she’d said yes. They were in the middle of planning the wedding and big things had come up which he wanted to talk about: “Weddings are a big thing in my community—people are coming from everywhere, even from overseas, to be at this wedding.” He said, “There are the hall, the food, the ring—everything—my head is spinning and so is Ms. Gold’s.”
Consultants. It’s hard to be sensible about weddings. If you are 10% sensible it will be very good.
RS. The engagement ring—it’s very important! It has to be a certain size. Giving a smaller diamond—people will look down on that. But I have large student loans. I’ll have to work overtime the whole summer.
Cons. What size of ring are we talking about? Is it the Hope diamond? The Star of India?
RS. Not quite that large, but Ms. Gold doesn’t think the ring so important. It’s a matter of how it’s seen–by everyone: the family, friends, business, everyone! The right amount is $2000—anything less would be no good. That’s what I feel.
Cons. But you have debts to pay—people know that. They know you’re just starting out. What is Aunt Ida going to say: “What kind of ring did he get? His cousin Larry bought Eve a four-carat ring!”
RS. Yes, this is the feeling I have.
Cons. They’ll say “There’s no ring here! I can’t see it!”
Mr. Snyder was laughing, beginning to see that he was thinking inaccurately of people.
Cons. Does a ring have to be at one with a beautiful purpose? Is it a symbol of something large?
RS. I can’t tell you how much this has bothered me.
Cons. A ring shouldn’t interfere with your perception. The criterion for every emotion is: would it be good for her, for the world, for people as such, and for you? What is the beginning thing—to impress other people or to be in better relation to the world?
RS. I think I’ve felt it was to impress.
Mr. Siegel said to me once about this very point: “The message of Emerson is the liking of the world is enough work in the life of man. You don’t have to get trinkets with your name on them.”
Cons. We’re saying that your desire to be impressive is the reason you feel driven by this and not at ease. You can’t like yourself with this purpose: “how will I be seen”? Would you have respect for people who would be wowed by a large ring, who feel this is the important thing—judging a person by the size of a ring?
RS. I thought they’d say he loves her so much.
Cons. Are you sure that’s how you will be seen? Do you patronize people? You say I have to give this because this is what they want. It’s contempt for them. Mr. Siegel said that the definition of an idiot is a person who wants to be liked by everyone. We think this more has to do with how you see. You want to make the big impression.
RS. I think this is true—I’m unkind to them.
Cons. Is the ring a symbol of how I can wow the world and be superior to it or is it a symbol of your joining closely with a representative of the world, and liking the world? We ask you to think about this. Although we spoke today about a specific thing, this is about how you see as such: whether you want to be impressive in a false way or be impressed by the world as such.
RS. I feel like a weight has been taken off me. Thank you.
I thank Aesthetic Realism for making this important subject so clear to men, so that we can honestly like ourselves, wow ourselves.