January 11, 2013

"Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees..."

"... he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder."

This is some crazy surrealism, in our Gatsby sentence today. (In the Gatsby project, we look, each day, at a single isolated sentence from "The Great Gatsby.") But let's settle down and understand what we are looking at. It's Gatsby's visual perspective. "Out of the corner of his eye" cues us that it's subjective and distorted. He's looking at the sidewalk and the perception is that it looks like a ladder. We're told that it really is a ladder, but we know that's not true. It really is a sidewalk, but to Gatsby subjectively, it's a ladder. Gatsby imagines himself climbing somewhere. Mounting. It's a secret place.

"... he could climb to it, if he climbed alone..." — I want to say that the illusion only remains intact if Gatsby is alone. And the vision, if he can hold himself within it, is of climbing that ladder up through the trees and then finally coming alive.

It's a vision of being born, just by walking down that sidewalk. And then he could be alive. He'd suck on the maternal breast, the pap of life. He wants to gulp it down — that incomparable milk of wonder.

He's just a man on a sidewalk. There's no ladder. He's already born and living in real life. But somehow it seems that real life is out there, unreachable. But if only you could get there, above the trees, you would drink it down. Incomparable! Wonderful!

Everybody's looking 4 the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
ADDED: I can see in the comments that some readers really do have trouble mentally picturing a sidewalk looking like a ladder. I don't want to get too laborious and pedantic with these Gatsby posts, but the lines on the sidewalk correspond to the rungs of a ladder. The path stretched out ahead, even when it's flat, seems to go upward. Look at a photograph of a sidewalk. Further down the road is higher in the picture. If trees line the sidewalk, then the "ladder" appears to climb up into the trees as it disappears behind the foliage. I called the sentence "crazy surrealism," but Gatsby isn't hallucinating. He's seeing an optical illusion.


edutcher said...

Sounds like he wants to have sex with his mother.

Or maybe just hit the maternity ward around 5.

Jacob's Ladder to mother's womb.

He's got it bad.

chickelit said...

God, what a mess, on the ladder of success...where you take one step and miss the whole first rung. ~Paul Westerberg

Lem said...

Its interesting how the public staircase artist, in an earlier post, climbing it for his last time... intersects here with another ladder... more like a staircase... I mean I can see a sidewalk looking more like a staircase than a ladder.

Unknown said...

I got nuthin'.

Lem said...

I'm looking at Architectural Graphics Standards for stairs... waiting for something to pop up.

Lem said...

I got a stairlift.

rcommal said...

Perfect sentence, perfect post as the setting for:

Wishing you a very Happy Birthday, Althouse.

All best to you on this day and for the coming year, and I hope for you many more years of doing whatever you want to do, and of happiness.

Warmest Regards,


rcommal said...

Also, in advance: Happy Anniversary to you and your blog a couple of days hence. It's been one heck of a 9 years since/of "marginalia" and then/also so much more!

Carry on. Above all, carry on.

Congratulations and best wishes, Ann.

mccullough said...

It's about staying in a state of possibility like an eternal newborn. You can only have that sense of wonder until your abstract visions actually become concrete reality.

Is he going to climb up that ladder (walk away) and stay in perpetual wonder/possibility or is he going to stay on the sidewalk, i.e the concrete?

coketown said...

Dictionary.com. Look up "pap." I think either definition is fitting for this Gatsby endeavor.

It needed to be said.

coketown said...

Here they are for the lazy, or those who don't want to see OB/GYN advertisements when looking up "pap":

1. soft food for infants or invalids, as bread soaked in water or milk.
2. an idea, talk, book, or the like, lacking substance or real value.

rcommal said...


Regarding "pap," you forgot, for example, "nipple of a woman's breast" and "older man" as possibilities.

Or maybe not "forgot": Perhaps, in your haste to be scathing, you weren't interested in semi comprehensive. Or something.

Chip Ahoy said...

Gatsby noticed the expansion cracks were regular and his regular footsteps caused the motion to appear as a conveyor belt so that it then had his attention and he saw that one foot appeared then disappeared then the other foot appeared then disappeared and this appearing and disappearing of his own shoe tips, they were wingtip shoes with the little holes in them, caused him to become mesmerized and then hypnotized by the clockwork motion of his own feet coming into view for Gatsby was fairly weak of mind and easily hypnotized but that reverie was broken by a scent of kneaded eraser, a putty rubber artists tool that he used to sniff as a kindergartner and that triggered the memory of the childhood refrain,

Step on a crack break your mother's back

and he found himself strangely smashing his feet on all the cracks BLAM BLAM BLAM he realized he looked idiotic BLAM smashing the cracks like that BLAM and it wasn't just the cracks that fell naturally either BLAM it was every single crack like it became BLAM a psychosis or a compulsion to smash every single crack. He lost track of where he was going and never did make it Daisy's treehouse. Which was a bummer because she was a rich kid and had the best treehouse of all, it was prefab, just lifted right in. The tree is like a Disney World tree. Fuck'n ace, even Michael Jackson drooled, and Gatsby forgot all about it because he was smashing cracks. This is one of the ways we began sensing Gatsby might be a freak.

Lem said...

Chip saves the day.

Leslie Graves said...

What a perfect description of a stage in (some) adolescent minds when something quite random will trigger a sequence of intensely ambitious self-glorifying fantasies which, however leave one alone.

Do you want to enjoy your self-glorifying ambitions that come from a place that feels as primal as the hunger for mother's milk and be alone? Or do you want to be in community with other people and have to give all that up?

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

The most interesting thing to me is that he glimpses "out of the corner of his eye." Why doesn't he turn and look squarely?

Maybe it's because that peripheral glance allows the visual distortion.

Regardless, he turns his full attention to his narcissistic fantasy. It's a path to his secret place that will only open up if he comes alone. A place where he will be totally protected because no one can find him, but he can see what's going on below him, like a God, and he will live forever in Kubla Khan.

jungatheart said...

Remember when the narrator said he thought Gatsby had to readjust his vision of the perfect Daisy of his imagination, to the real Daisy? When it sunk in that he'd lost Daisy to Tom, he was complacent enough about it to go swimming, rather than let the servant empty the pool.

Also, he was a continual passenger; in that man's yacht, in the car with Daisy.

jungatheart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sydney said...

So that's where the sidewalk ends.

Dante said...

Now that makes a bit of sense. Isn't everyone thinking real life is just out of reach? Like in "Look Homeward Angle" by Thomas Wolfe, "A stone, a leaf, a door," something that once turned over will help us to understand life, that missing element that will give raise our consciousness. To Gatsby, it simply seems like a way to get above the masses, whereas to Wolfe it was some introspective thing. But it's the same stuff, really. Probably how cults are started.

Anyway, I still think this book is more like club liberal than anything else. I recall my High School English Teacher reveling in his superiority over us dumb kids. You had to WANT to join club liberal.

In any event, the sentences to me remind me of "Hope and Change," which is to say they mean something to everyone, but really nothing at all.

I'm sure I'm wrong about this.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I'm stuck on "gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder."

What man hasn't used that line on a woman at some point?

Smilin' Jack said...

But let's settle down and understand what we are looking at. It's Gatsby's visual perspective. "Out of the corner of his eye" cues us that it's subjective and distorted. He's looking at the sidewalk and the perception is that it looks like a ladder. We're told that it really is a ladder, but we know that's not true. It really is a sidewalk, but to Gatsby subjectively, it's a ladder....

....I don't want to get too laborious and pedantic with these Gatsby posts....

No comment necessary. Except that sometimes we murder to dissect.