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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Reserving Judgment–A Matter Of Fundamental Decency

Nick Carroway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a man of honesty and fairness – even when it came to Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

I couldn't forgive Tom or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

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He saw Tom and Daisy as the inevitable products of the society that bred and raised them, and thus although he never forgives them for their indifference and careless damage to others because they were bound and determined by it, he grants Tom some moral latitude because of his ignorance.  Tom’s arrogance, presumptuousness, and entitlement led him to lie in vindictive, irresponsible, and unrighteous anger.  He condemned a good man, Gatsby, to an unceremonious and unnecessary death at the hands of Wilson, his mistress’ husband.

For Gatsby, despite increasingly convincing evidence that he was indeed the disreputable and dishonest character that he was rumored to be, considered himself to be a good, honest, and fundamentally moral man.  His decency had more to do with chivalry than morality.  He was willing to take them blame for a lethal traffic accident caused by Daisy not because it was the right thing to do, but because his moral code denied logical and legal judgment.  He, like Tom, had his own set of moral rules; but unlike Tom, had a code of honor.

“I'm inclined to reserve all judgments”, Nick says, “ a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth”; and because of this reservation was able to include both Gatsby and Tom within his moral frame of reference.

Shortly before Gatsby’s death, when his carefully constructed but largely fictitious life begins to unravel, Nick never abandons him.

But all this part of it seemed remote and unessential. I found myself on Gatsby's side, and alone. From the moment I telephoned news of the catastrophe to West Egg village, every surmise about him, and every practical question, was referred to me. At first I was surprised and confused; then, as he lay in his house and didn't move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested--interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end.

For Nick conclusions about discrete parts of one’s life mean nothing.  It is only the whole that matters, the sum of a man; and even then judgment on worth, value, or rightness must be withheld and is always and forever a personal matter. 

During the time that Nick renewed his friendship with Daisy, his cousin, and her husband, Tom, he remained uncritical and removed.  He could never approve of Tom’s infidelity or his cavalier disregard for his wife; nor his abusive, arrogant treatment of his lover’s husband.  Worse, while he found Daisy’s abandonment of Gatsby, Wilson, and himself unconscionable, he laid it only to her ‘carelessness’.

In an age of censure and quick, summary judgment, it is hard to imagine a character of such principled distance as Nick Carroway.  Principle implies action, commitment, and duty to one’s moral cause. Understanding and the patient resolve it takes to fully appreciate the nature and meaning of others’ actions is dilatory.  Causes cannot wait for the unfolding of character, purpose, or reason.  Facts are important only as corroborating evidence of one’s conclusions, not as essential prerequisites to judgment.

Judgment is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of human nature.  Rushing to judgment has always been an essential element of survival.  Innocence has no value because it must always be suspect.  The assumption of guilt or threat in violent times precludes rational conclusions.  Even in less violent times, it is always better to assume bad intentions to better prepare for them.

Selective criticism – focusing on that which serves to confirm principle – rather than place individual events, traits, or statements within a larger moral context, is common.  Worse, if only one aspect of a man’s life is selected arbitrarily as the most telling aspect of it and that which must necessarily color all others, he is damned by myopia.

Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites, but their work was notable.  Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”

George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
Are we to burn their books? Consign them to the trash heaps of literary history?

What about the ‘disqualification clause’? Should one cut off communication with a friend because his political views are radically different? Perhaps such difference is not just a matter of political opinion, but one of morals and ethics.  One’s political philosophy, according to this view, is a defining personal characteristic.  A conservative is not simply one who believes in small government and individual enterprise but someone who has a cribbed and narrow view of life, lacks generosity and compassion, and is cynical about human potential.

Yet, despite political differences, if two friends have known each other since childhood and have always liked each other for reasons discovered at age 12 – energy, enthusiasm, brains, allure, adventure - why should one thing – political philosophy – get in the way of love, passion, and insight?

One issue morality like single-issue politics is never good, for it  ignores complexity, the ability to hold conflicting views, to be inconsistent, and to be ignorant and brilliant at the same time.

Nick’s temperate reserve of final judgment and his insistence on treating people fairly were indeed part of the God-given decency he mentions; and yet he was far from truly objective.  His sense of fairness regarding Gatsby was a result of Gatsby’s complexity – it took months of patient acquaintance to let him disaggregate his character, to distinguish fact from fiction, to find the kernel of truth at the bottom of his fantasy.  After many years absence from Daisy, he had to wait to find out what she, beneath the charm, the warmth, and the grace, was really like.  Nick, however, knew that Tom Buchanan was an uneducated, morally ignorant boor from the very first.  There was no way that Nick reserved judgment.  Although he could not have predicted how base were Tom’s instincts and so lacking in any sense of decency were his morals, Nick knew that Tom was a dangerously entitled, protected, and arrogant man capable of anything.

Nick was initially open to Tom.  He made no a priori judgments based on his prior life, education, or social milieu – all of which were of the same privileged sort as his – and waited only to see how Tom acted with others.  His boorishness, indifference, and disregard were quickly evident.

He did not rush to judgment regarding Tom.  It was just that patience and reserve were never required.

Gatsby’s death is sad.  It was the result of Tom’s unnecessary and erroneous implication of Gatsby as the driver of the car that killed Wilson’s life; the refusal of Daisy to come forward; and the jealous rage of a mentally imbalanced, suicidal, cuckolded husband. It needn’t have happened.

As sadly, only his parents, Nick, and one random friend came to his funeral.  The thousands who took from him, ate at his buffet, danced to his music, and took advantage of his generosity, showy and self-serving though it was, stayed away.  In the end they believed the rumors and innuendos.  Like Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business partner and  ‘the man who fixed the 1919 World Series’, they wanted no further part of him.

Only Nick Carroway stood by him, and after all was revealed – his dishonesty, fabrications, and financial complicity – he still admired him for his chivalry, his love for Daisy, his ambition, and his Americanness.  He loved the whole man.

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