Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 47, Number 3, Autumn 1991
pp. 17-70 | 10.1353/arq.1991.0014
MITCHELL BREITWIESER The Great Gatsby: Grief, Jazz and the Eye-Witness When it was over Mr. Gatz knelt suddenly on the wet ground. "Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on," he cried.1 Jay gatsby is dead; the narrative is the black fruit of Nick Carraway 's tacit pledge to remember: "I don't like casualness, I don't like waters that close over your head without a bubble or a ripple when you go. The feeling that they shouldn't became a sort of obsession, then finally a horror to me, that Autumn on Long Island. . . ."2 But is such remembrance necessarily a kind of mourning? My answer is no, because Nick writes in order to preserve rather than to relinquish the dead, to protect a hallucinatory simulation of the shelter that the dead had supplied rather than to acknowledge, not only the fact of the corpse that the rain falls on, but also the anomaly, the startling and repellent presence, of a soggy new world. By no means an occasion for euphoria, a truly new world, and not really new either, but, as is always the case, only staved off until now, newly apprehended when shelter fails. If the mourning is strong, then the dead was an intrinsic part of a system for creating and maintaining sense; that system decapitated, its elements remain, but as gargoyles that no longer express the moral or imaginative meanings that had been assigned to them during the course of life with what is now the dead. Going into a café to meet Pierre, only to find that Pierre has missed the appointment, to reprise a famous anecdote from Being and Nothingness, transforms the cafe phenomenologically into absence-ofArizuna Quarterly Volume 47 Number 3, Autumn 1991 Copyright © 1991 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004- 1610 Mitchell Breitwieser of-Pierre;1 but not therefore into a vacuum, rather into a profuse aggregate of not-Pierre-ness, of Pierre-lacking things, afflicting strangers rather than compliant elements of a general gestalt upheld by Pierre. Mourning is not simply a matter of sealing off the question of what is gone, but also of recognizing the question of the remainder or residue, the swarming unaware blasphemous stuff that lacks the grace, decency and fidelity to follow value off the stage, to leave a respectful zero. But this remainder is not merely something that is suddenly seen: rather, these unattended elements of a formerly uniform background hatch; we suddenly see that they see us, exploiting the opportunity of love's death to look at the helpless corpse and at the grieving self's nakedness with an abstract repellent gaze that is a stain spread across the world. —The figure of the stain comes from Lacan: There is no need for us to refer to some supposition of the existence of a universal seer. If the function of the stain is recognized in its autonomy and identified with that of the gaze, we can see its track, its thread, its trace, at every stage of the constitution of the world, in the scopic field. We will then realize that the function of the stain and of the gaze is both that which governs the gaze most secretly and that which always escapes from the grasp of that form of vision that is satisfied with itself in imagining itself as consciousness.4 The stain is a deliberately inadequate or catachrestic figure because the gaze cannot be figured, strictly speaking: the creator of a figure ¡s a gaze and the figured is an object of that gaze: the object of a gaze, therefore, cannot figure what gazes at it. The relation can, in certain circumstances, at least seem to have been reversed, but the resulting figure will not be a figuration of a gaze, but rather of what was once a gaze but is now an object. That said, though, objects with undefined borders—stain, ash, snow, the soot that comes off wallpaper onto your fingers—are more apt as figures than are objects with defined borders, though the fundamental mismatch cannot be eluded. Cf. Melville, near the end of "The Whiteness of the Whale": "Is it that...