Thursday, January 15, 2009


"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

F. Scott Fitzgerald

"The Crack-Up"

That quote came to mind yesterday when I was thinking about the paradoxes of psychiatry (the medication is making me sick but seems to be helping; I must accept myself yet learn how to change myself; I have lost control over my drinking but must stop drinking). I hadn't read Fitzgerald's great essay "The Crack-Up" in some years; rereading it, I see how poignantly it chronicles a classic mid-life crisis and depressive episode.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) had some contacts with psychiatry, not only through his own severe alcoholism, but more extensively through his wife Zelda's descent into diagnosed schizophrenia beginning in the late 1920's. The Fitzgeralds were a hard-partying literary glamour couple in the decade of the novelist's acclaimed success with This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Great Gatsby (1925).

Around 1930 things started to go sour all around for them: the era of good feelings gave way to the Great Depression, Zelda began to go in and out of sanatoria, and Scott's writing came less easily. Tender is the Night (1934) is considered strong in retrospect, but at the time it garnered critical disappointment, something the author was not at all used to. The story of an ambitious young psychiatrist's ill-fated marriage to one of his patients (we avoid that for good reason), the book was well-known to draw upon real-life marital details. In 1936 Zelda entered Highlands Hospital in Asheville, just a few hours down the road from here, where she remained until 1948, when she and eight other patients were tragically killed in a fire.

So when Fitzgerald published "The Crack-Up" in 1936, things were not going at all well, and overall it is a striking account of personal disintegration. The ever macho Ernest Hemingway (who would of course later receive ECT and eventually suicide) was said to be appalled by the vulnerability on display. The essay is substantial and is written in a puzzlingly (or not) elliptical style, but it certainly merits reading in its entirety. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack four years later. That was tragedy enough, but to my mind it begat an even greater one when Nathanael West was killed in an auto accident on his way home from a trip to Fitzgerald's funeral service.

"The Crack-Up" is filled with arresting images of emotional struggle and disappointment. Fitzgerald is remarkably vague about the specific causes of the breakdown, although he claims early on to have been sober for six months when it happened. But he alludes cryptically to "drawing on resources that I did not possess...mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt." His own model for it seems to be a process of depleted energies more than of psychological conflict; if anything, then, his view is more allied to today's depression than to the psychoanalytic paradigms of his time.

More than any DSM checklist, he depicts the withdrawal, the self-isolation, and the fading of general passions that depression entails. Once routine undertakings become herculean challenges, and the range of interests narrows. He writes, "All rather inhuman and undernourished, isn't it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up." When a friend tries to boost his spirits, he counters that "of all the natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one" (so the deeply depressed view the "power of positive thinking" with incomprehension).

One gets the sense that early success may have come to him too completely and with too little effort. Life beyond early adulthood can only be a relative disappointment compared to this:

"My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away to quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distil into little lines in books."

I thought of Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode" ("But yet I know, where'er I go/ That there hath past away a glory from the earth"). The joys of mid-life and later are not lesser necessarily, but they may be more subtle, and may require more conscious labor in their attainment.

Fascinatingly in view of recent concerns about video and the decline of reading, Fitzgerald mourns the ascent of movies:

"It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures."

This was in 1936, in an era which, compared to today, is held to have been a veritable Golden Age of American literature!

"The Crack-Up" does not end with any great affirmation, whether reassuring or corny. On the contrary: "This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a 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 -- that end that comes to our youth and hope."

While he lived four more years in physical form, it is tempting to see a moral and psychological death here, the fall of an idealist. He had written, of an early life disappointment, "A man does not recover from such jolts -- he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about." If he's lucky, which in the end, perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was not. Or perhaps we should say: call no man unlucky who wrote, in The Great Gatsby, what many deemed "the perfect novel."


Anonymous said...

I don't know if he could be considered a wreck in his final years. He was working on his magnum opus "The Last Tycoon", he was in a happy relationship with Sheila Graham, and he was world renowned for his writing. Perhaps the only tragedy is that he died too soon.

Retriever said...

Nancy Milford's biography of "Zelda" is terrific.

Novalis said...

Frankly, I have read only Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and a few stories, and those works I find easier to respect than to love. But that is a matter of taste, and "The Crack-Up" is compelling reading which is why I focused on it. Maybe I should read The Last Tycoon.

So I am no Fitzgerald expert, but I recall reading in the past that in his last few years he somewhat resignedly considered himself a Hollywood hack and a critical failure (and was of course estranged from institutionalized Zelda, even if consoled by another relationship). But there's always more to the story, and as you say if he had lived another two or three decades anything could have happened.

Retriever said...

Scott and Zelda's lives and relationships were more interesting than either of their books which merely looted them for material. That whole doomed generation with its cultural hypomania giving way to despair as the clouds of depression and war gathered. Riotous debauch and crash. Living parallel to Bill Wilson. I grew up on stories of grandparents who lived like that (rich literary Americans living in Europe) but were not derailed by alcoholism and madness,even tho the main reason they went. To Europe was to drink brcaue of US Prohibition. It was a bizarre time all the same. Particularly considering the Great Depression beginning while they all, like Marie Antoinette, frivolled.

Anonymous said...

A hopeless situation has its own gravitational field that sucks the life out of any conception of possible otherwiseness which, in comparison, is only a fragile filament that flickers and fizzles like a bad idea. The mind does not tolerate unfair battles.

Anonymous said...

Dear Novalis,

I have recently discovered your site, courtesy of "shrink rap". In your own words "nuff said"

It is a treasure trove full of pearls to be read and thought over.

I am a medical specialist but not a psychiatrist. My reading beyond the basic sciences has been, to my great shame, non-existent. I have recently embarked on self improvement task to read the classics. The "Great Gatsby" and "Tender is the night" were among the first few books that I have read and your post has struck a chord with me.

There is much to be learned about suffering and the human condition from these books. They should be compulsory med school reading. Pain can be expressed in many ways....

I am really enjoying your posts. Thank you for sharing with the less eloquent amongst us. (I hope my spelling has been OK)

With very best wishes

MBBS FRCPA Sydney Aust.

Novalis said...

Well, glad you like it and thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

I have read everything by F.S. Fitzgerald and my preference goes to his first works, the stories about the enchantement and the freshness of youth.