A modern Prospero

“Art is the expression of feeling. The artist is distinguished from the non-artist by the fact that he can also express what he feels. He can do so in a variety of forms. Some by images; others by sound; still others by marble—or also in historical forms. The statesman is an artist, too. The people are for him what stone is for the sculptor. Leader and masses are as little of a problem to each other as color is a problem for the painter. Politics are the plastic arts of the state as painting is the plastic art of color. Therefore politics without the people or against the people are nonsense. To transform a mass into a people and a people into a state—that has always been the deepest sense of a genuine political task.”

This quotation from Joseph Goebbels’ novel Michael is yet another example of the modern technological mindset. In a time when progress is valued over tradition, the purpose of technological work is advancement, transformation. Goebbels, not surprisingly, explains how such a mindset can apply to very many things, not just objects; or, to be more precise, objects are not limited to the inanimate. Human beings, too, can become someone else’s tools or materials, primarily (Goebbels argues) that of politicians. This passage should bring to mind a somewhat similar figure: Shakespeare’s Prospero. For him, too (ex-statesman that he was), people were malleable material. Prospero worked for what he believed would be positive change, granted (I do not know enough about Goebbels to specify whether he believed the same), but he believed that it was within his rights and power to proceed as he did. It is also important to remember that Prospero’s magic was called his “art,” and Goebbels compares the art of politics to that of traditional types (painting, musicmaking, sculpting).

The case of Jay Gatsby is similar but slightly more complicated. Gatsby, too, is certain that he has the right to manipulate the people around him to achieve his own ends, sometimes noxiously so (as evidenced by Nick Farraday’s initial unwillingness to do Gatsby an unspecified, mysterious favor). Through his hard work he will take Daisy away from her husband Tom and, he expects, be happy. Likewise, Prospero works his art to regain his lost position (which desire is foremost: the moral aspects of his work are necessarily part of the plan, but essentially secondary), and Goebbels too writes that art, be it of politics or anything else, “is the expression of feeling” and elevates the artist above others “by the fact that he can also express what he feels.”

What makes Jay Gatsby different, however, is that he does not quite strike one as having a character like Prospero’s or Goebbels’; despite his idiosyncrasies, he is more sensitive than either of them. He has been deluded into self-righteous conviction by the atmosphere of the society in which he has lived. For it, too, far louder than any individual could, cries of unlimited progress and bountiful happiness ever ahead—ever ahead and yet accessible. This ideology is communicated also through technology. We have already discussed in class the shift in thought from the guiding metaphor of the clock to that of the train; in Fitzgerald’s novel we have an example of the technologically-based spread of ideology in action:

“Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air” (95).

Although compelling on its own, it is especially telling that this passage occurs at the end of Chapter V, when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited and it appears to Gatsby that his future—his happiness—is made. The fulfillment of his desire is inextricably tied to the technology around him. The machines and lights encourage the belief that the same power and force of forward motion can be harnessed in our human lives as well; but, of course, this is not the end to Gatsby’s story, and what takes place later shows that man and machine are not, after all, one and the same, and Gatsby has been merely blind.

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