Philip Roth to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Why We Will Never be Happy

by Mark P. Smith

Reading the work of the popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, has made it all too apparent to me that we will all be unhappy until the day we die. And, indeed, that disappointment is the one inevitable fact of our existence due to the way the process of longing is hard wired into our psyche. In his debut book, ‘Essays in Love,’ which he wrote at the age of twenty-three, De Botton talks about our tendency to live in the future perfect tense. He illustrates the point through the story of Chloe and our narrator, two people who meet, go out and break-up in the course of the narrative. At the apex of their relationship, the couple visits the village of Aras de Alpuente, a beautiful area of Spain, on holiday. De Botton makes it clear that all the socially conditioned components of happiness have fallen into place for the couple: Romantic love, an idyllic setting and relief from the stresses of working life.

Yet, at the moment when she should be happiest, Chloe experiences an immobilizing headache. When she calls a local doctor, he tells her that this is a common reaction to the idyllic surroundings of the Spanish countryside. De Botton goes on to say that, ‘with the sudden realization that earthly happiness might be in their grasp,’ people fall ‘prey to a violent psychological reaction designed to counteract such a daunting possibility.’ The terror lies in having to acknowledge that a situation is bringing immense satisfaction to our lives, feeling the burden of drawing appropriate value out of the moment and knowing that it will inevitably end and enter the distant past. It is much safer to live in the future perfect tense, holding up an ideal of the future that contrasts with the inadequacies of the present. The idea of living in future perfect tense (concentrating on what will have happened) is common to many religions, in which life on earth anticipates a heavenly existence.

Philip Roth explores desire in the second half of ‘The Human Stain’ in a remarkably similar way to Alain De Botton. ‘The Human Stain’ relates the story of Coleman Silk, a Classics Professor who falls in love with an illiterate woman, Faunia, which, in part contributes to his dismissal from his post at an American university. Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring character in Roth’s novels, narrators the story, and, indeed, the book is acutely concerned with how he chooses to relate the events.

Towards the end of the narrative, Nathan tries to catch a glimpse of Coleman and Faunia at a Classical music concert in Tanglewood. He explains that it was:

‘a lovely day, a perfect day lacking nothing in a Massachusetts vacation spot that is itself as harmless and pretty as any on earth.’

Yet, Zukerman, our narrator, is feeling at odds with the situation. Hardly one to look on the bright side of life, he gets taken aback by the feeling of the ‘stupendous decimation that is death sweeping us all away.’ How can such a perfect, and apparently tranquil scene, akin to the one presented by Botton in Essays on Love, generate such morbid reflections?

Amy Hungerford, an English professor at Yale, argues in a lecture on Roth that it all comes to down to the nature of desire. She points out that ‘many psychological theories of desire agree on one thing, and that is that desire is reaching towards a lack.’ This definition contains a rather depressing Catch-22, which underpins everything we do. Desire disappears when we are in possession of the thing we once wanted. Yet, prior to this, we are caught up in an intense state of longing. In this way, disappointment is hard-wired into our psyches. In talking about the idyllic scene at the Classical music concert in he Human Stain Amy Hungerford suggests that ‘it is precisely that lacking nothing that makes it deathly because, if you lack nothing, there is no desire.’ The novel is trying to say that, paradoxically, we don’t attain happiness from finding some sort of Eden on earth.

If not, where does it suggest we find meaning in our lives?

For this we need to return again to the music concert in The Human Stain, a scene lauded for its exceptional portrait of artistic creation. Once the classical pianist takes the stage, all thoughts of the end are banished from the mind of our narrator, Nathan. The musician ‘crushes’ the piano, refusing to let it ‘conceal a thing,’ making life seem ‘inextinguishable’, in contrast to the idyllic sunny day, which Nathan thought so deathly before. From the performance, he takes pleasure in telling himself: ‘Nobody is dying, nobody – not if Bronfman (the pianist) has anything to say about it.’ It is the act of struggling, and catapulting the audience into a more exciting present, which defines Bronfman’s performance.

For Roth, life is lived most exuberantly in the act of desiring, of ‘reaching towards a lack,’ as Hungerford would define it. He seems to suggest that value is found in the process of struggling to augment reality, rather than in the stasis of discovering some earthly paradise. Similarly, most Western religions place paradise outside our earthly capacities. Heaven, a place people go after they die, is associated with death and permanence. This is the ultimate in living in the future perfect tense: because of the way in which desire works, we have to take solace in an imagined afterlife; one that is vague, metaphorical and other-worldly because it sits so uneasily with the way our desires are structured in real life. The idea of someone ‘resting in peace,’ is about as far as you can get from the vivacious struggle that defines the classical musician Bronfman in his piano performance.

But, if an act of imagination and creativity can bridge the gap between what we desire and the objective conditions of our existence, it can also sow the seeds of our disappointment towards the world. As well as being a transcendental force, the imaginative temperament of a Romantic can, in real life, seem like a curse.

Wordsworth, a Romantic poet from nineteenth century England, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a 20th century American modernist, offer similar insights into how the imagination manages to transcend reality by existing in the same future perfect tense talked about by Alan De Botton. The Prelude is, essentially, an autobiography of Wordsworth as a young poet, told in the form of an Epic narrative. Wordsworth singles himself out as a poet from the beginning, tutored by the creative forces of nature to produce great art. Nevertheless, when he finally encounters the Alps, a mountain range of which he has dreamt for so long, he does not find the earthly paradise of his expectations. Instead, the young poet describes only feelings of deflation. He writes:

‘Beheld the summit of Mount Blanc, and griev’d to have a soulless image on the eye which had usurped upon a living thought that never more could be.’

Wordsworth makes it clear that the young poet’s imagination had so enlarged the scene in his mind’s eye, that the objective conditions were only met with ambivalence.

Like Wordsworth, Fitzgerald squares the blame for our tendency to live in the future perfect tense at our imaginative capabilities. In The Great Gatsby, Nick frequently speculates on Gatbsy’s tendency to over dream his lover Daisy. Nick sounds every bit like Wordsworth in The Prelude, when he says ‘a faint doubt’ seems to have taken hold of Gatsby ‘as to the quality of his present happiness….not through his own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.’ Nick is sure that Daisy has ‘tumbled short of Gatsby’s dreams.’

From a cursory glance at the texts discussed, an obvious fact emerges: reality often falls short of our expectations. But from the psychology of desire, it becomes apparent that this is in some senses inevitable. If desire is simply our tendency to reach towards what we lack, it seems that disappointment is inherent in its very nature. Depressing and pretentious as this may sound, it helps us understand a character like Gatsby, who encapsulates the process of living for an imagined future. Certainly, the Great Gatsby is a novel bound up in what it means to be fall short of the American dream, but the figure of Jay Gatz, pining after the green light at the end of the dock, also presents a universal image of longing.

Nevertheless, whether it be through the pianist in The Human Stain or through the young Wordsworth imagining the Alps for the first time, the imagination fills the gulf between reality and expectation. Our creative sensibilities do battle with our tendency to accept thing as they are, and find stasis and death. For me, this is what Fitzgerald is trying to portray when Gatsby pauses before he kisses Daisy, aware that, when he finally kisses her, he must in some senses leave his picture of her behind, knowing that ‘his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.’

One Response to “Philip Roth to F. Scott Fitzgerald: Why We Will Never be Happy”
  1. matteo says:

    that’s a banging article but i think we need to stop thinking about desire negatively, as a response to a lack. it is a constructive process by which we recognise the object as desirable

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