In pursuit of an aesthetic ideal

When I set up this blog and put it online about a week and a half ago, I thought that few people other than my friends and family would see it as I slowly transferred material that I had saved from my old blog to this new one. As #CapForStrat suddenly became a worldwide phenomenon, however, I quickly reached over 100,000 page views in under a week.

I’m now going to start putting up some old material as I had planned to do before all of this happened; it will be rather random and varied, and probably not of interest to most of the people who find their way here after hearing about the Avengers assembling for my dad, but I hope you find some of it interesting. If you want to read posts on a particular theme, you can find some tags at the bottom of the homepage of this blog to help you find what you’re looking for. All of the Avengers posts are grouped under ‘personal’, so just click on that tag to see those.

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In 2012, the film adaptations of two of my favourite books, The Great Gatsby and On The Road, happened to come out within the same year. This coincidence naturally created an interesting parallel between the two heroes, Jay Gatsby and Dean Moriarty, and I wrote a piece comparing them for the journal of the Alliance of Literary Societies in May 2012 (before the films came out). The theme of that issue was ‘fashion and literature’, and writing this piece made me think about how often we separate the natural and unnatural, genuine and inauthentic into totally separate categories, whereas the reality is actually a lot more fluid than that. No matter how little thought we think we give to our ‘personal style’, we are always, to a certain extent choosing how to present ourselves to the world. Which makes me think of this great quote from Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser:

‘I consider it to be absolutely normal to care deeply about what we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion and those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes all that is left in the ruins of a life. So I no longer take seriously those derisory accusations levelled against those who are interested in clothes. You might as well accuse Proust, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot – all of whom wrote about clothes and thought about clothes. I certainly won’t take it from those men who judge and condemn us women for the various failures of our appearance while simultaneously barking that only feeble shallow creatures such as women would pay any attention to how they look.’

But that’s a slight digression from the piece I wrote about Gatsby and Dean. This extract is published with the kind permission of the Alliance of Literary Societies:



There is something very earnest and genuine about both Gatsby and Dean. Both excite a flurry of admirers and critics who gather around them wherever they go; true disciples who watch and listen faithfully, phonies grasping at the indescribable aura of magic that surrounds them, and people who are jealous and say that they’re fakes, or mad.

Gatsby’s ability to put his guests at ease with his smile, which makes you feel as if he understood you ‘just so far as you wanted to be understood’, has the quality of a supernaturally given gift: ‘It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.’ He gives you the impression that he is seeing beyond the material world and into your very soul, like a kind of benign deity who is always on your side. Similarly, Dean is described by Sal as a kind of visionary or mystic: ‘a kind of holy lightning I saw flashing from his excitement and his visions’. (The name for the Beat Generation, in fact, came from Kerouac’s fascination with the theological idea of the Beatific Vision, a mysterious connection with the Divine.)

Style is at the heart of the magnetism of both heroes, although while at first it appears effortless for them, it becomes clear that Gatsby at least has pursued it, working hard to build the magnificent illusion. On the other hand, when Dean’s style is compared with the try-hard, studied ‘cool’ of the wannabes he encounters, it almost seems that his elegance is something accidental. ‘His dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy, as Dean had,’ Sal says.

He goes on later to describe in contrast a ‘horrible sight’ that they see in a bar one night: ‘a white hipster fairy had come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was asking the big drummer if he could sit in.’ He goes about ‘mincing’ when he talks, and ‘swaying his neck with that complacent Reichi-analyzed ecstasy that doesn’t mean anything except too much tea and soft foods and goofy kicks on the cool order.’ He is trying too hard, it is too studied and not genuine enough – his grace hasn’t been earned like Dean’s has, according to Sal.

Perhaps, however, Gatsby’s pursuit of an aesthetic ideal is no more artificial than Dean’s seemingly natural aesthetic. All style, all fashion is inherently a construct with choices and a certain amount of reasoning behind those choices, whether conscious or unconscious. Gatsby’s particular reason for buying his brightly coloured array of magnificent shirts – his desire to impress a woman – simply exposes the fact that there is a certain self-awareness behind even the most natural style icon. After all, Dean ‘digs’ a trumpet player whose lips curl in ‘Billie Holiday’s hip sneer’. What distinguishes him from the ‘hip fairy’ he so despised is that the trumpet player pulls the look off, he has made it his own, he has claimed it and seems to really mean it. Sal describes how Dean’s California is a ‘land where everybody somehow looked like broken down, handsome, decadent movie actors’; seemingly effortlessly cool, perhaps, but still, at the heart of it, players who are putting on an act.

And so the quest continues, Dean’s ‘bug’ for travelling, his never-ending desire to experience ‘It’, Gatsby’s elaborate parties and his gold baths and impeccable manners. Their restless strivings encompass both the holy and the superficial, and they are never quite finished. To finish, even to slow down, is to die. For Gatsby, his journey is about regaining something lost in the past: ‘He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.’ It is never really about Daisy, but as Nick says, rather it is about an unattainable ideal that he feels is connected with her.

Dean’s motivations are similarly ephemeral and difficult to describe: “That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you – that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out, he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock back and forth. Man, he’s the end! You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it,” he says to Sal. When Sal replies: “Get what?” Dean simply says: “IT! IT! I’ll tell you – now no time, we have no time now.”

That ‘It’ that both Dean and Gatsby are chasing, in their own ways, is some kind of high aesthetic ideal. Dean never does explain what ‘It’ means, though; there is never enough time.



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