Tuesday, March 14, 2006

English writing assignment #3: Essay response

This one's long and kind of boring and really only relevant to those who have read the essays I'm responding to, but I'm posting it anyway:

Choices of the Living and the Dead

In “The Handicapped” by Randolph Bourne and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” we are presented with two very different attitudes towards life. While both authors have faced difficulties of varying kinds and degree, the experiences they have had are quite disparate, and the philosophies formed by their life-histories could hardly be farther apart. Bourne, faced with the challenge of being physically impaired, but mentally fit, has embraced a compassionate, life-affirming outlook, while Fitzgerald, beset by a middle-aged disillusionment towards his life, has cast off the shackles of hope and kindness in favor of a philosophy of misanthropic selfishness and despondency. This essay will explore the wide gap between these two perspectives on life and the circumstances that helped create them.

Both Bourne and Fitzgerald have fashioned their modi operandi for living out of their differing life experiences. For Bourne, the foundation of his attitudes is the constant presence of his physical handicap and the hardships that have resulted from it. From forming relationships to merely surviving, nothing has come easily or simply for Bourne. He illustrates the difficulties he faces with an apt metaphor: “The doors of the deformed man are always locked, and the key is on the outside. He may have treasures of charm inside, but they will never be revealed unless the person outside cooperates with him in unlocking the door” (59). Bourne constantly has to contend with the fact that his physical handicap is severe enough to make life difficult, but not severe enough to completely incapacitate him and keep him from having aspirations and ambitions that are nearly impossible for him to fulfill. To continue Bourne’s metaphor, his mind is trapped and struggling to free itself from behind the locked door of his physical reality. These struggles form the basis for the humanistic attitude that he presents later in his essay.

Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is not faced with the same challenges that afflict Bourne. A successful writer and prominent literary figure, he is blessed with a level of prosperity that would be foreign to Bourne. In contrast to Bourne, Fitzgerald does not seem to have much difficulty in making ends meet or achieving his goals. He observes, “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered by both” (139). For him, life was not filled with the constant rejection and disappointment that Bourne knew. Fitzgerald states that he “saw the improbable, the implausible, often the ‘impossible’ come true” (139). Yet, despite his achievements, Fitzgerald seems fundamentally dissatisfied with his life and one cannot help but wonder if his mental state is approaching that of serious depression. It is this mental affliction, rather than his achievements, that seems to be the driving force behind Fitzgerald’s views on life.

Due at least in part to their dissimilar backgrounds, Bourne and Fitzgerald form very different philosophies towards life that can be seen in the rules for living that they present in their essays. For Bourne, one of these rules is the importance of compassion and empathy towards his fellow humans. He knows what it is like to be discounted, rejected and cast out by his peers, and this awareness has provoked a sense of empathy towards those that, like him, are struggling. He explains, “We are perhaps too prone to get our ideas and standards of worth from the successful, without reflecting that the interpretations of life which patriotic legend, copybook philosophy, and the sayings of the wealthy give us are pitifully inadequate for those who fall behind in the race” (63). Here, Bourne is expressing his discomfort with the common social wisdom that we should unquestioningly judge a person by the level of success he has reached. Furthermore, he states that he would much prefer to try to understand rather than judge a person that society has branded a failure: “Instantly I want to know why he has not succeeded, and what have been the forces that have been working against him. He is the truly interesting person, and yet how little our eager-pressing, on-rushing world cares about such aspects of life and how hideously though unconsciously cruel and heartless it usually is” (63). These comments are excellent examples of the compassion that Bourne holds for the underprivileged, but his compassion extends further. He seeks to have a gracious understanding of humanity as a whole—not simply its weakest members—and to see our species engaged together in cooperation. He declares, “Really, to believe in human nature while striving to know the thousand forces that warp it from its ideal development—to call for and expect much from men and women, and not to be disappointed and embittered if they fall short—to try to do good with people rather than to them—this is my religion on its human side” (65). Put simply, his desire is to comprehend our common nature as human beings and, with this knowledge as a starting point, to pursue unified collaboration instead of arrogant condemnation. Bourne has a generous attitude toward humanity, indeed!

Fitzgerald, by contrast, cares nothing for compassion or empathy. He has excised all kindness and generosity from his being and replaced them with an all-encompassing selfishness. He states baldly, “I would cease any attempts to be a person—to be kind, just or generous[. . .]There was to be no more giving of myself—all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste” (149-150). Fitzgerald’s attitude toward humanity is pitiless indifference and he gives a hypothetical example that reveals the disturbing extent of this apathy: “And if you were dying of starvation outside my window, I would go out quickly and give you the smile and the voice (if no longer the hand) and stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would be any copy in it for me” (151). In Fitzgerald’s admission that he would not lift a hand to help a fellow human in need—the voice and smile he refers to are gestures more of self-satisfied mockery than of caring—and would only bother coming to observe the dying person if he thought that the scene would provide useful fodder for his writing, he demonstrates that his attitudes on charity and kindness towards his fellow human being are antithetical to Bourne’s.

In addition to his desire to have a more empathic attitude toward humanity, Bourne believes in the need for social progress and justice. He holds with religious fervor that the prime directive for our species should be a constant striving to improve the lot of every individual. He boldly proclaims, “For this is the faith that I believe we need today, all of us—a truly religious belief in human progress, a thorough social consciousness, an eager delight in every sign of promise of social improvement, and best of all, a new spirit of courage that will dare” (64). Bourne idealistically states that social progress is the “first right and permanent interest for every thinking and truehearted man or woman” (64). In saying this, he makes clear that progress is not just a good idea, but that it is a (possibly the) goal that we should all be working to achieve. In effect, Bourne is issuing a “call to arms” in which he invites every member of the human species to participate in his grand pursuit of social amelioration.

Based upon his earlier show of apathy, it comes as no surprise that Fitzgerald lends no support to the idea that all people should work for the improvement of society. In a poignant and revealing passage he repudiates the need for social progress:
Let the good people function as such—let the overworked doctors die in harness, with one week’s ‘vacation’ a year that they can devote to straightening out their family affairs, and let the underworked doctors scramble for cases at one dollar a throw; let the soldiers be killed and enter immediately into the Valhalla of their profession. That is their contract with the gods. A writer need have no such ideals unless he makes them for himself, and this one has quit (151).

Fitzgerald sees himself simply as a writer, not a social activist, and he finds absolutely no reason to trouble himself over the suffering of others. As he readily admits, he has no use for the ideals that lead people like Bourne to pursue changes for the betterment of society. Instead, as Fitzgerald demonstrates in the above passage, he is content to allow those around him to live or die—and for him, life seems to resemble a Hobbesian existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”—as is their fate.

Another aspect of Bourne’s approach to life is a hope that, despite the hardships he has endured, his existence can have some sense of meaning. He is cautiously optimistic that his fate entails more than just pain and suffering and that his limited capability will not keep him from accomplishing something of value, especially in the realm of the arts. Bourne’s hope is palpable to the reader when he compares his abilities to that of a stronger, more attractive person and finds no reason for sorrow: “I at least can occupy the far richer kingdom of mental effort and artistic appreciation[. . .]Indeed, as one gets older, the fact of one’s disabilities fades dimmer and dimmer away from consciousness” (67). Here, as he begins to fashion a niche in which he may find success, it is clear that Bourne’s picture of reality is beginning to be shaped less by his debilities and more by abilities. As he concludes his essay, the contrast in tone from his opening statements is remarkable. A recognition of his limitations is still present, but genuine confidence and belief in his abilities are what shine through as he inspiringly pronounces, “But if I am not out of the wilderness, at least I think I see the way to happiness. With health and a modicum of achievement, I shall not see my lot as unenviable” (70). These are not the words of a person who has been defeated by the challenges of existence; on the contrary, Bourne has used his hardships to make himself a better man.

In light of Bourne’s belief in his own future, Fitzgerald’s pessimism is all the more striking. He seems to have taken Dante’s advice to “abandon all hope” and embraced his own misery. Fitzgerald’s rejection of happiness as a viable state of existence is absolute: “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, ‘a constant striving’ (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end—the end that comes to our youth and hope” (151). The implications of Fitzgerald’s thinking are clear: the end of hope and happiness is as inevitable as the end of youth, and any attempts to fight the onset of despair only increase a person’s grief, so why fight at all? If Fitzgerald truly believes this—and he gives every indication that he does—it is no wonder that he has chosen to reject so many of the things that give meaning to the lives of people like Bourne. What solace is hope when one believes that all hope is false? Fitzgerald’s renunciation of happiness is most evident in his final, disquietingly tragic statement: “I will try to be a correct animal though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand” (152). If Bourne has made himself a better person, Fitzgerald has, at least in a metaphorical sense, shed his humanity.

In their respective essays, Randolph Bourne and F. Scott Fitzgerald present drastically differing views of life. So different are these two that the only thing they seem to have in common is the trivial fact that they both have rules for living. Bourne has chosen to walk a path of compassion, idealist social development and hope. Painting a stark contrast to this view, Fitzgerald has chosen to espouse a philosophy of self-centered apathy and remediless despair. Both men have undoubtedly had their views shaped by their experiences, and whether these experiences or something else altogether are the final causes for the theories on living they uphold, the distinction between the two is clear. Bourne has joined the ranks of those who celebrate the joys of living while Fitzgerald has already placed one foot out the door into the bleak night of inevitable death.

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