January 30, 2013

"Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart."

Oh! For a minute there, I saw "nimble," and I was flummoxed. But nibble.... I can picture that. Nibble at the edge... The "stale ideas" seem to be a wafer cookie with a thin edge, suitable for nibbling.

This is our sentence for the day, taken out of context from "The Great Gatsby," in our "Gatsby" project.

So here's a man, nibbling at the edge of the stale-idea cookie because something was making him. He feels forced to eat stale ideas, but he's resisting, because he's only nibbling... and only around the edge. We see this nibbling, and it gives us the impression that he's hungry, he's lacking nourishment. And what is this nourishment he's missing, that which propels him into edge-of-stale-ideas nibbling? It is something that existed in the past, but no longer. It was his sturdy physical egotism. And the part of him that needs nourishment, that pursues stale ideas in this pathetic edge-nibbling, was his peremptory heart.

Now that we've stabilized ourselves within the structure of the sentence, let's focus on 3 adjectives: sturdy, physical, and peremptory. The man's egotism — the erstwhile food for the heart — was sturdy and physical, and his heart — which craved sustenance — was peremptory. It seems that sturdy and physical are opposed to peremptory. His egotism can't feed his heart because it's not the right kind of food. It's sturdy and physical. But the heart is peremptory. Peremptory means absolute, decisive, resolute, imperious.

There's a similarity between this heart and this ego. Why can't the ego feed the heart? The heart demands more than the sturdy physical egotism. The heart is set on something more subtle and spiritual. He'd like to devour a casserole of profound philosophy, but here are these brittle little idea crackers for noshing.

27 comments:

Balfegor said...

This series is absolutely destroying my image of Fitzgerald as a writer. It's just phrase after phrase of deepening purple.

That said, even "sturdy physical egotism" (SPE) doesn't really make sense. I suppose it's an egotism built up on his sturdy physical prowess, or his perception thereof? But adjectives in English don't work that way.

And it's not that this SPE can't nourish the heart, it's just "as if". There's "something" driving him to fiddle with these "stale" ideas and it's kind of like SPE isn't nourishing his heart (though evidently that used to be enough), but really it could be something completely different. Who knows what that something is?

Lacan knows. It is a penis.

traditionalguy said...

Being Flummoxed is a word study in itself. It is the opposite of a display of a peremptory heart.

Sturdy physical egotism is a valuable attribute for a man to have, but adding to it a peremptory heart makes that man into an inherently good lawyer, only needing to be taught some humility skills.

So was that about line written about Tom or Jay? They both fit the description.

Ann Althouse said...

"And it's not that this SPE can't nourish the heart, it's just "as if". There's "something" driving him to fiddle with these "stale" ideas and it's kind of like SPE isn't nourishing his heart (though evidently that used to be enough), but really it could be something completely different. Who knows what that something is?"

I was going to go into the "as if" point. What I'm getting is that the writer is the observer who doesn't really know what's going on internally. He's viewing the exterior and noting a certain attitude, which he imagines is this ego/heart hunger issue. It's like the narrator is nibbling too. The narrator won't say he ate with appetite. He'll be very fussy about what he knows and say he ate as if he had an appetite.

Ann Althouse said...

"Lacan knows. It is a penis."

But the author is dissing the sturdily physical upon which these men without ideas build their egos. It seems more like the SPE is the penis, and the penis isn't what the heart needs. The heart is empty and cannot be satisfied.

wyo sis said...

Egotism doesn't do the trick anymore, but these stale ideas are supposed to take its place. Stale ideas are not sturdy. The heart wants what it wants. It wants sturdy.

edutcher said...

"sturdy physical egotism"?

And this means exactly, what?

Mr Macho? Duke Wayne kicking doors open, throwing stuff out of the way?

He could no longer find answers in life punching a hole in a wall?

And what, dare I ask, is a peremptory heart?

Scotty is talking nonsense here. This is why I like Steinbeck -if you have something to say, spit it out.

Balfegor said...

But the author is dissing the sturdily physical upon which these men without ideas build their egos. It seems more like the SPE is the penis, and the penis isn't what the heart needs. The heart is empty and cannot be satisfied.

Ah, but what if it were an . . . imaginary penis?!

All mockery of Lacanian phallocentrism aside, I don't think it's clear from the sentence, taken in isolation, that what is driving the nibbling has anything to do with hearts at all. As you say, the narrator is simply imagining what the "something" that is impelling him to nibble could be -- it might simply be something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses
.

creeley23 said...

This series is absolutely destroying my image of Fitzgerald as a writer.

Likewise. I thought I'd made peace with Fitzgerald on my last run through Gatsby, Tender and some of the short stories. But either Althouse is picking really klunky sentences or I don't notice the problems in context, in the flow of the writing.

Examining his sentences close-up as we are doing here reminds me so much of my first encounters with Fitzgerald when I couldn't hear his music and his writing just seemed overworked and clumsy, like a writing student trying too hard to be smart.

creeley23 said...

Just to remind myself and perhaps others here of what Fitzgerald can do when he is not overreaching, here's the ending of a short story he wrote a few years before starting Gatsby:

The wealth of golden sunlight poured a quite enervating yet oddly comforting heat over the house where day long it faced the dusty stretch of road. Two birds were making a great to-do in a cool spot found among the branches of a tree next door, and down the street a colored woman was announcing herself melodiously as a purveyor of strawberries. It was April afternoon.

Sally Carrol Happer, resting her chin on her arm, and her arm on an old window-seat, gazed sleepily down over the spangled dust whence the heat waves were rising for the first time this spring. She was watching a very ancient Ford turn a perilous corner and rattle and groan to a jolting stop at the end of the walls. She made no sound, and in a minute a strident familiar whistle rent the air. Sally Carrol smiled and blinked.

"Good mawnin'."

A head appeared tortuously from under the cartop below.

"'Tain't mawnin'."

"Sure enough!" she said in affected surprise. "I guess maybe not."

"What you doin'?"

"Eatin' green peach. 'Spect to die any minute."

Clark twisted himself a last impossible notch to get a view of her face.

"Water's warm as a kettla steam, Sally Carrol. Wanta go swimmin'?"

"Hate to move," sighed Sally Carrol lazily, "but I reckon so."

betamax3000 said...

Re:"Oh! For a minute there, I saw "nimble," and I was flummoxed. "

I like nibble better. Not just because it makes me think of squirrels nibbling on a nosh. I often find myself nibbling at the edge of stale ideas. Of course, it is easier to nibble at the edges when the stale idea is square-shaped, like a behind-the-sofa-cushion Cheez-It: there are corners. Corners are the perfect nibble starters. Plus, Cheez-Its -- and the non-square Cheeto, for that matter -- leave your fingers orangey, like all the best ideas, stale or not.

So one morning when the sun was warm
I rambled out of New York town
Pulled my cap down over my eyes
And headed out for the western skies
So long New York
Howdy, East Orange*.

(*"Even when the East excited me most with sprawling, swollen orange fingers: you're gonna have to take notes faster, friends)

Which brings us back to a point: Naked Dylan Robot would love to hear Fitzgerald try to sing some of Fitzgerald's sentences. Naked Dylan Robot would laugh and laugh.

"Everybody's sturdy physical egotism must get stoned."

"When the winds of changes shift
May your malnourished peremptory heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever slightly worn, young man, with shell-rimmed glasses and scanty blond hair."

For a writer whose rep is based in large part on making words sing his words just don't... sing. Maybe Naked Albanian Phonetical Dylan Robot could give a try, but I don't think it would get there. Nor Naked Phoenician Dylan Robot, for that matter*.

(*this is -- of course -- self-contradictory: per Wikipedia "in Phoenician writing, unlike that of most later abjads such as those of Aramaic, Biblical Hebrew and Arabic, even long vowels remained generally unexpressed, and that regardless of their origin". No Naked Dylan Robot of any proud heritage could forsake the long vowels: exps: oooohhhhhmaaa-ma is this reaaaaaaally the eeeeend, etc etc).

Perhaps Naked Dylan Fitzgerald Cow could make a go of the following:

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word "MOO
And you say, "For what reason ?"
And he says, "Hoo?"
And you say, "What does this mean ?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home".

-- but Naked Dylan Fitzgerald Cow is a Talent. And not afraid to nibble, stale or no. Someone should make a Snow Globe for Naked Dylan Fitzgerald Cow: Ann could put it next to her Robot on her desk and take a picture. I would call in sick to work the next day.

deborah said...

Peremptory; not open to challenge or debate.

I assume this is about Tom and his ego being tied up in his manliness. He wears the pants in the family, he is a physically robust man of appetites, and Daisy will just have to accept that he sleeps with other women. That Daisy could be attracted to another man caused him to question his assumptions.

betamax3000 said...

Finally: Flummoxism is different than Flummoxicllin.

betamax3000 said...

Back to today's sentence.

Naked Dylan Fitzgerald Cow says:

"I have four stomachs and I still cannot digest this.

If I had four brains it would still be a cow pattie."

betamax3000 said...

I, of course, loved Ann's Robot-and-Snow-Globe photo today. Message understood. Waiting for further instructions. Add Cow to desk.

betamax3000 said...

Please note that -- as of this evening -- the top three Google Search replies for "Althouse Snow Globe Theory" refer to Gatsby posts SPECIFICALLY discussing Althouse Snow Globe Theory. Not coincidence: scholarship.

Ann will soon have to take notice of this burgeoning field.

betamax3000 said...

Anti-Psychotic drugs often make one feel like a Robot.

Do not pay attention, Those Who Listen In the Walls.

mccullough said...

Everybody's got a hungry heart.

creeley23 said...

Hmm...rereading the first ten pages of Gatsby I see that Ann is picking klunky, atypical sentences out of the text.

Terry said...

But what does it mean that he believes that, if his physical egotism isn't enough to feed his peremptory heart, ideas can do the job?
It is a mystery!

Lem said...

The "something" is the FED.

ddh said...

For a minute there, I was uncertain whether the post was about Barack Obama or Al Gore.

a SWVA liz said...

Ann Althouse is doing a magnificent job of pulling these sentences out of context. They are beyond belief. Totally destructive of the writer. Can you destroy all writings in this manner. I am becoming totally intimidated about any writing. I keep thinking about the letter to his daughter advising her that writing was such hard work. He worked at these phrases? He seems to give new meaning to the word oxymoron. I fear to put pen to paper.

Leslie Graves said...

Would it be fair to interpret "peremptory heart" as the part of you that lays underneath even your ego that is willful and demanding and insistent with urges such as wanting to be what Tom Wolfe called a Master of the Universe?

If you were young and strong and manly and athletic, your perception of yourself as being those things could satisfy your deeper demand that you be a Master of the Universe...for awhile. But not forever?

One interesting thing here is the notion that if your studly self can no longer nourish your heart's requirement that you be The Supremo...how is it that you would turn to some connection to ideas to fulfill what you are now missing?

sydney said...

He's a man who never had to bother with ideas before. His ego was everything, and based only on his physical strength and appearance. But that wasn't enough any longer, so he had to turn to ideas to keep his spirits up. Even then, he was such a man that only old, stale ideas were what he turned to, and then not even wholeheartedly or with any intellectual vigor. He only nibbled.

Leslie Graves said...

If your physicality is no longer enough, why would you turn to ideas? A lot of people might turn to...alcohol, women, sports, or some other distraction.

The sentence isn't saying that everyone does turn to ideas when your body isn't meeting the demands of your peremptory heart, but the subject of this sentence does. Why?

traditionalguy said...

But a peremtory heart is not interested in thinking at all. It is a fickle heart that sees and takes what it wants.

Thoughts only flummox such a heart into thinking of justifications and of dangers which can make one nibble instead of take a big bite.

sydney said...

For a minute there, I was uncertain whether the post was about Barack Obama or Al Gore.

Ha! That is exactly the kind of guy he's writing about.