Recently, I heard someone say that great literature was their religion. I know what they mean. There can be poetry and prose that capture states of being so transparently and unforgettably that any added theology or philosophy could only detract. Take The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Often, when I contemplate what the Buddhists call “dhukkha,” the Pali word for the suffering or, better, that unsatisfactory, incomplete, pining quality that is built in to existence, I think of that great self-made, driven American character Jay Gatsby, looking across Long Island Sound, at the green light on dock of his beautiful love, Daisy Buchanan. No matter what Gatsby has achieved or will ever achieve–and he has amassed great riches by hook or by crook–Daisy will always be unattainable. Poor Gatsby can’t ever see through the gorgeous veil of illusion. The Great Gatsby has been called The Great American Novel. I think of it as the Great American Sutta (in Pali, sutra in Sanskrit) on the suffering that comes from craving.
Here is the narrator Nick returning home from dinner at the Buchanan’s grand L.I. house on summer night, observing Gatsby and his great unquenchable longing for the first time:
“The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone–fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion [Gatsby’s house] and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone–he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, as far as I was from him, I could have sword he was trembling. Involuntarily, I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone in the unquiet darkness.”
Ahhhhhh, bittersweet summer.