TASTES GREAT, LESS FILLING
Over the past 20 years, two of the most famous sentences in all the world’s literature have troubled me. The first comes from Giuseppe Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard. Trying to explain the Garibaldi uprising of 1860 to the old prince who is the leopard of the novel’s title, his fiery nephew Tancredi tells him, “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come e, bisogna che tutto cambi” (“If we wish everything to remain as it is, everything must change”). It’s a line Lampedusa obviously liked a lot; he goes back to it no less than three times in his great book.
The second is the famous closing sentence of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Change is change
Both these sentences look wonderful on the page: elegant, profound and true.
My problem is that, on the basis of my 75 years’ experience of life and society, they can as easily be read for their error as their insight. One can, I think, argue that in each instance the great writer got it backwards.
Start with the Lampedusa. I suppose one can construe it as a variant on the theme of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, which I have always taken to refer to the repetitive constancy of human nature. I don’t think Lampedusa means to say that. He’s writing of seismic political and economic shifts. Of external institutional and social change. A more cynical soul than I might also argue that Tancredi is trying sell his uncle a bill of goods, that what he means is “Go along with us and you will keep your palaces, lands and social position,” but I can’t buy into that reading. One of the hallmarks of The Leopard is the generosity with which it deals with our existential predicament, of which in my opinion a hallmark is the truth that when enough changes, everything seems to change. “If we wish some things to remain as they are, other things must change” would be more like it, but look at how much is lost in terms of literary effect.
Back to the future
Turn now to Fitzgerald. I don’t know about you, but if there’s any direction in which I feel my frail bark is being (and has been) dragged ceaselessly, it’s forward, into a future of which the more I see, the louder and more plaintive my pleas to whomever is in charge to turn this damn boat around. I think I know what Fitzgerald’s getting at—the tug of memory, mostly, as well as our inability to expunge what we were from what we are—but I don’t think the great determining currents of life flow in that backward, uphill direction—except perhaps in the dementias of old age, when delusions of mind and spirit carry one back to what the poet A.E. Housman called “the land of lost content.” Fitzgerald’s phrasing has terrific literary oomph, though. If he’d said something like “…boats against the stream, borne forward ceaselessly into the future,” he’d have been closer to the facts of the situation but his readers would be more likely to shrug and move on.
There is this to be said about these two great statements, however. If you wish to build a boat capable of fighting Fitzgerald’s backward-flowing torrent, you could do worse than use Lampedusa for your blueprint. That’s the thing about great writers: even when they’re wrong, they bear you ceaselessly along on the irresistible tides of their genius.—MICHAEL M. THOMAS