When I say this will be “The Culturist Review” of the Great Gatsby (2013), I should write “The Culturist’s” review. The first person to earn the label “culturist” was Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888). And, he would have quite a lot to say about the recent remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book. Thus this review – packed with spoilers as it is – will feature the views of the culturist, Arnold.
Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) searches for something true throughout the film. He thinks he has found it in the form of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). But, she cannot love him because he is not of the aristocratic “Old Money,” crowd.
Rather, Gatsby he crawled up from poverty. He can only live in their lavish neighborhood and throw ridiculously crass parties because of profits from bootlegging and worse. But this crass display of conspicuous consumption does not impress his betters; Gastby is lowbrow in blood and taste.
Matthew Arnold lived during the peak of the industrial revolution. He recoiled at the proliferation of many Gatsbys equating money and values. And the glamorization of this class, led the middle class to also only worship money, and money only. “Where might cultural leadership come from?” He wondered.
Just prior to Arnold’s day, the aristocratic class – the House of Lords and such – had modeled breeding and morals for the populace. But in Arnolds time, they had assimilated downwards towards shallowness. And, here Arnold’s disillusionment parallels Gatsby’s. Daisy Buchannan chooses class over love. Her husband, with all his “Old Money,” plays polo, cheats on his wife with a gas station girl, and parties just as desperately as Mr. Gatsby’s guests.
Gatsby’s main meditation concerns the past – I think this is why he’s called “Great.” When he ran away from his poverty he made up an aristocratic past. Gatsby met Daisy in a small town before her marriage. When discussing his obsessive love for her, he always couples his love with desires to return to the past. He repeats, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.”
The Aristocratic class being permanently materialized, Arnold hoped public education would allow the middle class to become the new standard bearers for cultivation. This would come via connection with the past and the best that had been thought and said in history. Without the standards culture provided, the culturist Arnold opined, crassness would simply feed upon itself in a vicious cycle of dissatisfaction.
Ever the culturist, Arnold also argued that the West could find guidance in his new secular, literary reading of the Bible. Religion provides values that compete with money and materialism; rather than wealthy, it tells people to be spiritual.
While killing Gatsby – because he thinks him a sinful murderer – the murderer repeats “God sees everything.” And the eyes of God watch over the poor section of town. God likely appears in the poor area of town as the rich are too full of spectacle to see him. The moral act by Gatsby’s murderer also illustrates Arnold’s hope of values coming via infusing the masses with religion.
Arnold foresaw the emptiness of the lavish hedonism director Baz Luhrmann captures so well. But audiences, ironically, go to this film to enjoy this very hollow spectacle. Thus today’s audiences too partake in the shallowness of modernism; they too worship this very “eye of a needle” behavior that keeps the wealthy out of heaven.
Gatsby cannot go back to the past. The aristocrats that used to provide some connection with the West’s grandeur provide no road map. The film and book hint at his being Jewish, but Gatsby has severed ties with religion. As long as we do not get values from the past, religion, or some other source – as Arnold would tell us – the West will continue to slide into the decadence typified in Gatby’s long self-destructive vacuous hedonistic parties.