Jazz Age Sutra

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.

2 thoughts on “Jazz Age Sutra

  1. Thank you Tracy, what a great post. I love that line, “literature is my religion,” although I would add music, photography, painting…all the arts in general. In my opinion, great art has the power of suspending my deep seated conditioning. When the impression of something, whether it be art or just something from daily life, enters this vehicle I call “myself,” and for some reason or other, I am able to actually receive it, there’s a stop. It’s almost like the sun comes out from around a cloud. Suddenly, there is something here, deeply wondrous and mysterious. In other words, “i” am put into question.

    Your post reminded me of the writer Haruki Murakami where he describes jazz and his creative process to “The New York Times”:

    Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

    Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model…

    — an extract from Haruki Murakami’s article for The New York Times here: http://nyti.ms/cGsin

    My favorite line form this is: “Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. “

    1. Thank you, Luke. I LOVE this post. I read that article when it appeared and I’m going to read it again. It makes me want to learn more about music, and especially jazz.

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