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The Transformative Capacity of Exquisite Death

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No modern American writer has been more consumed with the tragedy of inevitable loss than Fitzgerald. Describing the septuagenarian body of another protagonist’s grandfather, he dwells almost cruelly on the visible wastes of time: “It had tyrannously demanded his teeth, one by one, suspended his small eyes in dark-bluish sacks, tweeked out his hairs, changed him from gray to white in some places, from pink to yellow in others–callously transposing his colors like a child trying over a paintbox.” Through Fitzgerald’s eyes, old age is a remote and repulsive distortion of our natural condition of youth. This fear of the archaic might be attributed, however, as much to his apprehension of the impending death of literature as to that of his own physical demise. 


Fitzgerald contended, during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, with the sneaking suspicion that he had edged into artistic extinction. In his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up”, he reflected that a writer was “not ever going to be as famous as a movie star,” and indeed, that the threat of literary obsolescence posed by “the talkies” was a source of “rankling indignity.” This indignity was further confirmed during three separate Hollywood residencies (1927, 1931, and 1937-1940) during which he unhappily and mostly unsuccessfully attempted to write for the movies. 


There may be good reason for his failure in this commercial sphere. Despite his popular alignment with the youth culture of his era, his aesthetic sensibility was always backward looking, less attuned to Modernism, and certainly to Hollywood, than to the Romantic mode best embodied by his idol, John Keats, himself a tubercular young corpse a century earlier.


Despite its obvious textual biases, even the ascension to literary immortality is powerfully visual, as the frequent reproductions of Fitzgerald’s many youthful photographs – like Shakespeare’s few portraits – reveal. Given Fitzgerald’s desultory end in West Hollywood (on Sunset Boulevard, no less), it may seem a cruel fate that his most celebrated novel will live on for many in the 21st century’s generic multiplexes.The Great Gatsby, with its characteristic mix of Jazz Age glamour and tragedy, will see the release of its sixth film adaptation in 2013, this time under the frenetic directorship of Baz Luhrmann. 




In the eyes of his critics, Fitzgerald was more celebrity than artist, an assertion given further credence by Tom Hiddleston’s buffoon-like portrayal in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a characterization certainly inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s ungenerous recollections in A Moveable Feast.  It may be appropriate, then, that Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Gatsby seems bound to become, at least for one impressionable generation, Fitzgerald’s pop culture surrogate, as an only vaguely similar figure: a calamitous misguided Romantic dressed in dapper period clothes. (Robert Redford once fulfilled the same function; more surprisingly, Gregory Peck portrayed Fitzgerald himself in Beloved Infidel.)


F. Scott Fitzgerald was no stranger to modernity as we recognize it: he loved football; he dabbled in songwriting; he drank too much while listening to popular music in clubs.  He was, in other ways, the aesthetic and emotional captive of an earlier century. As such, he represents a bridge between past and present cultural modes. He arrived too soon for Hollywood, where, he told Zelda three months before his death, he would achieve his true if secret ambition only by becoming a director himself: “If I had that chance, I would attain my real goal in coming here in the first place.” He may have arrived in the nick of time, however, to fulfill the role of the mournful poet, a figure since diluted and absorbed into the spectrum of pop music.


”The victor belongs to the spoils.”
—Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned


Despite the excesses of his poetry, shamanistic and otherwise, Jim Morrison may best exemplify pop music’s assimilation of the prior mode. Interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery alongside the likes of Molière, Chopin, Proust, Wilde, and Apollinaire, all earlier breeds of pop star or poet, Morrison stands astride the Parisian necropolis like an American Alexander the Great, attracting flower-and-candle-bearing bards and guitar strummers from every nation, State, and generation, illustrating the superior pull of pop culture even in the very home of the classical arts.


While Fitzgerald’s words above stress death’s inevitable, “Ozymandias”-like negation of any earthly triumph, they scarcely address the transformative capacity of exquisite death. (In his famous poem, Shelley showed the passage of time laying waste even to monuments of once-incontestable power in a sort of Egyptological prefiguring of the closing scene of Planet of the Apes.) More often than with such admonishments to ambition, the litany of dead rock stars is recounted alongside clichés about the “27 Club” or it being “better to burn out than to fade away”, the latter not from Morrison but from Neil Young, one of rock’s current megalosaurs.  The lyric, from 1979’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, appeared near the end of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide note.  It would also be quoted in a memorably profane scene in Highlander, probably one of the strangest pop culture meditations on mortality in recent decades.





Not long before his own violent death in 1980, John Lennon would claim of Young’s lyric, “I hate it […] No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”  Despite Lennon himself professing logic that would dignify the recent career of Paul McCartney, the spirit and celebration of hedonism survives among rock ‘n’ roll evangelists. And indeed, not all dead musicians or their discographies are as melancholy to contemplate as, say, Nick Drake’s. The familiar roll call of the genre’s early corpses – Buddy Holly, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious – consists mostly of boy kings forgiven for their tyranny and petulance for having served us with their dying (and living) theatrics. As rapper Danny Brown’s 2011 track “Die Like a Rockstar” confirms, this brand of pop-culture-death-by-excess has become its own self-perpetuating meme, a public narrative lending often simplistic unity to a continually enlarging constellation of individual tragedies.





“There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses–bound for dust–mortal–”
—Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned


As well as through the combat of sports, death and youth are linked in popular culture through the cycles of nostalgia that dominate our consumer patterns. Not all pop culture products duplicate the knowing sentimentality of a Wes Anderson film, but it can be argued that the content of any product is nostalgic – if it isn’t now, then it will be. Like Gatsby, we each have our Daisy Buchanan. Consumer patterns dictate that our deepest loyalties are typically reserved for figures and products associated with our own idealized youth – the period of our indoctrination in the culture of disposability. Perhaps inevitably, if perversely, dead celebrities are often understood as emblems of our own coming of age, our loss of innocence, our coming to grips with a sense of pop culture’s paradox of consisting both in execrable shallowness and unfathomable depth.


Graeme Abernethy is a writer from Vancouver, British Columbia. His book, The Iconography of Malcolm X, is forthcoming in The University Press of Kansas


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