Published in the Bluestocking Society Journal, Issue “On Failure”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise features a precocious young writer and fallen aristocrat, Amory Blaine (modeled after Fitzgerald himself), who falls in love with a stunning, wealthy debutante named Rosalind. From the instant of their meeting they share a strong kinship and intimate rapport. They are glib, vain, and instantly entranced by the reflection of those qualities in each other. The scene is written like a script, rooms are clinically described and the various characters’ histories, features and temperaments are rattled off by an omniscient other. For most of the dialogue “Amory” and “Rosalind” are replaced by “HE” and “SHE,” calling each other by name only once their bond has been expressly cemented. This theatrical dialogue renders the scene beautifully surreal, dreamlike, and utterly ambiguous as to its degree of sincerity – both that of the lovers and the author himself. In this moment and each proceeding, they are actors in their own lives, allowing themselves to be swept up in the joys and throes of passion, readily bearing their emotions yet entirely conscious of their theatricality, calculating their dialogue as if finding themselves in the role of a lifetime.ii
Their introduction ends with Amory declaring his love for Rosalind, to which Rosalind replies “I love you – now.” The revelation is double-edged, both a warning and submission. This simple declaration reveals Rosalind’s trepidation about the affair and intuition that this will be a passing romance, despite how intense, passionate, and very real it will be in its time. The pause before “now” tells us that Rosalind knows she will not always feel this way, that the romance is fleeting, yet remains frozen in that ecstatic moment forever as both a curse and keepsake. She also acknowledges a depth of feeling unknown to her before, and is changed by this injection of a new and primordial truth. In the act of her declaration of love she claims a desire to love, to be possessed by love, to experience its grandeur, absurdity, wisdom, and seductive power – aspects now ripe for actualization made possible through the affirmation of an intimate connection and promise of growth with another.
Predictably, Rosalind breaks the engagement. With foresight beyond her years, Rosalind argues that while the idea of creating a life with Amory is romantic, the poverty they will endure supported only by his meager writer’s income will never satisfy her, and would eventually reveal itself as an unbearable rift between them. As he begs for Rosalind to stay, to convince her that things will improve, that their love should overcome any material obstacles, she maintains her position that there are perhaps basic incompatibilities they will never overcome. Amory’s drive to push the romantic experience to its painful and ultimately self-destructive limit would never match Rosalind’s self-proclaimed sentimental determination for stability. Written at a time of economic uncertainty and in an era when it would have been nearly impossible for Rosalind to support herself as a woman, her decision not to marry Amory is as much a product of social and economic influence as her own vanity, if not much more. Having sacrificed the potential of a powerful romance for the prospect of more stable ground, Rosalind’s choice does not make her an enemy or weak willed, rather, she recognized the delicacy of the balancing act ahead. Knowing that they would not be able to meet this challenge, her sacrifice may have been their individual savior.
The final dialogue between the now ex-lovers finishes with Rosalind’s lingering doubt of “what have I done to you?” and is followed by a haunting summation from the omniscient voice “deep under the aching sadness that will pass in time, Rosalind feels that she has lost something, she knows not what, she knows not why.” At the close of the novel, Amory, after a diatribe of newly formed radical politics and overcome with melancholic nostalgia and revitalized convictions, finds himself recalling his time with her. Calling out her name he cries “It’s all a poor substitute at best… I know myself, but that is all – “ The conclusion is left unresolved.
Like the Death card (or the unnamed Arcanum) in the Tarot deck, what is drawn as an image of despair and loss in fact signals an intimate and often painful rupture that ushers in a new present. The counterpart to this card, The Fool, depicts a young man, wide-eyed and carefree, about to step off the edge of a cliff, unaware of what lies before him but unthwarted by the danger in this proposition. The Two of Pentacles, in which a figure holds a mobius strip containing a coin at each end, presents a third aspect and middle ground to these images of the two poles of potentiality. This card presents a fixed balancing act, one requiring constant mediation yet remains within the realm of the tangible so that its handler is always in control. Darting from past to present, fixed and floating, the Two of Pentacles is maintained in suspension between these points.
Writing on “Failure as a Form of Art”ivHans-Joachim Muller invokes Ovid’s myth of Daedalus and Icarus to present the opposing characters as embodying figures of modern art. One “directs his entire intellectual capacity at trying to transcend the limitations of physics and demonstrate the triumph of the mind over gravity…” while the latter “focuses all his fantasies on the sensual abundance promised by failure.” Once Icarus abandoned the predictable and safe course given to him, he was able to transcend mind, body, and the physical world – an outcome much different than that of the engineering Daedalus. According to Muller, the myth is “not about something having to fail simply because its failure was foreseeable. It is about the experience of wonder that someone strives for, and ultimately finds, in the very act of failure.”
Throughout mythology, temptation does not serve as a lesson in morality, but as about our inability to control that which lies before us. Going against the logic of hypotheses and falsification, Icarus’ choice of enacting the impossible course, despite its deadly outcome, flies in the face of expectation. He succeeds not in his predetermined goal, but in his death drive claim for an ultimate, romantic autonomy. Where Daedalus fails in the act of guidance and teaching along a systematically charted course with a predictable conclusion, Icarus fails “because he has chosen the experience of failure.” In this framing of the results of each action, Daedalus in fact is the one who has “failed” by his very quest for a quantifiable, formulaic and virtuous success.
This resulting loss of faith in legitimacy and sense of constant crises echoes the inner-conflict of modernity, according to Jan Verwoert.vCiting Adorno’s introduction to Aesthetic Theory, where he writes “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist,” Verwoert twists this pessimism and instead makes a case for Adorno’s constant state of re-evaluation as a mode of claiming agency via potentiality, instead of a search for legitimization. Proposing that art is essentially a process of decision-making through endless trial, error and contemplation over what is the right thing to do, art is maintained as an ambiguous space of simultaneous “making and breaking of the law.” Verwoert asks “could we not understand it as our vocation to build a pandemonium, a house of demon gods or ghosts? As with inspiration, you are not in charge, these things find you, they haunt you… the fantasy that we control these things is a heroic fiction, as if we had a choice.” Here, the only self-evident fact remains that we are helpless before our sources of influence, our muses, who, along with the fates, have the greatest power above all of the gods.
In love, as with our muses, the objects of our affection and attention find us. In the case of Amory and Rosalind their surreal and ecstatic meeting seemed pre-destined, an act of another force greater than we can conceive. When placed upon the stage, faced with a scenario we feel (we know) is more than we can articulate, how can we tell which is the “right” way forward? Do we follow the course, or drive off the cliff? How can we be sure of what words to speak, or how to resolve the perpetually undefined “I love you – now” when the options on either side of its tipping point are equally valid, and even codependent? If we are to accept Lacan’s assessment that “the essence of the (desired) object is failure,”vi we must take this persistent failure as inspiration in a search for other options.
In love one must speak one’s need, and lovers must speak it to each other. There are two languages in love; the spoken and the shared. Before both is the surface, a desire trapped in suspense, revolving in a locked groove, a desiring of the object of your desire to desire you as its subject. Meeting this desire is not fulfillment, but consumption in. Once the desired object is attained it will never match the void that is our desire as such. It remains a constant, for it is never the object that we actually yearn for.
The shared is what we see in the other that we know to be true but cannot articulate, a bind we feel, sometimes known at first glance. If the subject of our desire is never developed as a subject in itself, then our constant desiring will remain unfulfilled because it cannot be fulfilled by one who is not regarded as an autonomous subject. Here, desiring is a destructive force, where pursuing the desired subject is nothing short of a pursuit of a false dream until the very end, wherever that may lead, even directly into the heat of the sun.
The spoken is what lies beyond; it is a creative force for it depends on determination, receptiveness and recognition. Here the subject of our desire is elevated as not merely a speaking and communicating subject, but is recognized as a subject independent of our desiring drive. Rosalind and Amory were doomed from the moment they agreed “We’re you – not me,”vii erasing themselves in favor of a unity meant to be of the two, and not in place of the two. A spoken love is built upon a platform of exchange that may tip as a scale but remains as two points on a plane. One does not feed on or because of the other. It is a balancing act in partnership, uncharted and open-ended, and a difficult choice to make.