January 5, 2013

"The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing."

The Waste Land... I think of T.S. Eliot's poem, which was published in 1922. Coincidentally, "The Great Gatsby" — the source of the sentence quoted above — is a story that takes place in 1922. F. Scott Fitzgerald began planning "The Great Gatsby" in 1922, and the book was published in 1925. I'm forced to think this sentence is a shout-out to Eliot.

The waste land sits in the middle of a sentence about a building sitting on the edge of that waste land. It's an expansive vista, with one lone building. The building is called a "block," as if it's a child's toy, and it's all alone, because it's the only building in sight. We, the readers, are placed at a vantage point from which we can see this cityscape as a desolate plain, upon which there's that one block. But it's yellow. That's jazzy and hopeful.

What's going on with that building? We're not going to find out in this sentence, and whatever's around it is like a waste land, because we don't talk about the context in this Gatsby project, which is all about taking one sentence out of context, but of course we know there's a great book all around it, and that sentence is not sitting like a yellow block on the edge of a waste land.

I've been ignoring the second half of the sentence for too long. Let's examine the post-waste land segment. Our yellow block is on the edge of a waste land. If it's an edge, could there not be interesting things somewhere else? No. We're told that it's contiguous to absolutely nothing. I'm having a bit of a hard time understanding how the building can be on an edge when everything around it is nothing — absolutely nothing — especially since there's Main Street in the picture too. A sort of compact Main Street ministering to it.

That's a mystery, so I take it we need to get the message: There is a mystery here. Why does a lone yellow-brick building exist in a void and yet receive ministering?

The words building, block, yellow, brick, sitting, edge, waste, sort, compact, main, minister, contiguous, and absolute do not appear in the poem "The Waste Land." Sight and small appear, but not importantly. Land, street, and nothing are all significant:
April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land...
So the poem begins. And very near the end:
I sat upon the shore   
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me   
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?   
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street   
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?   
What shall we ever do?"
“What is that noise?”   
                      The wind under the door.   
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”   
                      Nothing again nothing.    
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember   
        I remember   
                Those are pearls that were his eyes.    
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
I really have no idea if F. Scott Fitzgerald was thinking about T.S. Eliot.

As Bob Dylan says: "You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books/You’re very well read/It’s well known" and "And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot/Fighting in the captain’s tower/While calypso singers laugh at them/And fishermen hold flowers."

But you're probably wondering by now, what about that yellow brick? Maybe Fitzgerald was thinking about the yellow brick road in the "The Wizard of Oz" or that Elton John song.


Insufficiently Sensitive said...

That building with its Main Street, amid endless country, has been replicated many times over in China, where huge new building developments - nearly uninhabited - glitter in the Peoples Happy Future. The photographs are dazzling.


deborah said...

"Construction continues apace. China recently announced that it would build 20 cities a year for the next 20 years."

edutcher said...

Yellow brick is not a very eye-pleasing building material, so Fitz seems to have envisioned wastelands upon wastelands.

wyo sis said...

It evokes emptiness and boredom. That's about all I can get from it.

deborah said...

I've never cared for yellow brick construction.

Another good sentence. So, the building is on the edge of the city, in the run-down part of town?

wyo sis said...

Yellow is one of those colors, like pink, that can be cheerful and clean or disgusting and filthy depending on it's value and tone. I think dirty yellow is the ugliest color there is. Yellow brick is just about the ugliest building material there is.

Ann Althouse said...

"Yellow is one of those colors, like pink, that can be cheerful and clean or disgusting and filthy depending on it's value and tone."

Yeah. Good point. Think: toenails.

Chip Ahoy said...

The yellow block is his real life wife Zelda and the wasteland is their marriage. For I am more cynical than usual today and that's my interpretation.

Terry said...

Don't forget the line that precedes the 'yellow brick building reference':
I followed him over a low white-washed railroad fence and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg's persistent stare.
Eckleberg is a figure on a billboard. The usual interpretation is that Eckleberg's stare represents the gaze of God. The theme is similar to Eliot's 'Wasteland', the explicitly modern quest to find meaning in a land from which God has been banished (or we have chosen to believe has been banished).

David said...

He was thinking of the future of Detroit.

Anonymous said...

I've tried. I have been re-visiting the book, and am greatly enjoying the commentary and tea leave readings, but the book itself: well, I'm trying again, but it just doesn't do it for me. I can't get that 'click'.

A picture tells a thousand words but must Fitzgerald use all one thousand words to describe every picture?

Glorified soap opera swathed in pretty, pretty words set languidly against other pretty, pretty words. Pretty words everywhere, a room full of elaborate spider webs and people eating cotton candy that you have to pass through, everything sticking to you arms as you futilely try to clear a path.

For me, Fitzgerald reads like an overblown 80s music video looks: all drapes and dresses are chiffon billowing from unseen industrial fans in dramatic lighting that serves no purpose other than to create dramatic shadows. Could one ever read a book in such lighting? Thread a needle? Anything other than pose? Sticky, again: everything feels lightly glazed in caramel.

A small yellow block is the only building in sight but - hey - there is a Main Street ministering to it that somehow we see even though its visual presence has already been negated at the beginning of the sentence? A Main Street that must have no buildings since we can see it ministering to the only building in sight? We can tell the building is constructed of brick yet not see anything else? Is the great and wonderful Oz telling our story from behind the green curtain? I can understand evoking a feeling, but this becomes a search for meaning in spite of the words. Spiderwebs, everywhere...

Putting Eliot's words against them only makes Fitzgerald's frustrate me more.

"I sat upon the shore   
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me   
Shall I at least set my lands in order?"

For me this captures an inner and outer world in a few perfectly placed brushstrokes. The "arid plain behind me" makes me feel the sun on the back of my neck more than any hundred words of Fitzgerald's ever could. Fitzgerald attempts insightfulness by ladling marshmallow and filigree: against those of Eliot, Fitzgerald's words summon the image of a drag queen in exquisite gown and lacquered face, supine on a tasteful velvet settee, tastefully masturbating.

I'll gladly take the following:

What do you think you'll do then
I bet that'll shoot down your plane
It'll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again

Maybe you'll get a replacement
There's plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain't got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground

Which - for me - brings the question: if a picture is worth a thousand words how much is a beautiful melody worth?

Travis Fisher said...

I like the use of the phrase "sort of" to describe the Main Street, inferring that it's ersatz, false, not real. The word "ministering" stands out as well. The etymology of the root means "to serve" or "to render aid." Since it's "contiguous to absolutely nothing," there's nothing to serve or aid the building (or the inhabitants thereof). The color yellow, especially a dingy yellow as we'd expect to see in a waste land, represents caution, decay, sickness, and jealousy (see: Color Wheel Pro).

Travis Fisher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Then again, the yellow building could be a Wal-Mart.

Anonymous said...

David Foster Wallace:
"Mr.Z usually refers to himself as either "Zig" or the "the Zigmeister," and has made an effort to get everyone at KFI to call him Zig, with only limited success so far."

Should Gatz have been "The Great Gatzmeister?"

sydney said...

It makes me think of rural Texas for some reason.

traditionalguy said...

Could be rural Texas, or more likely a Nebraska crossroads.

From Kansas City across Nebraska there is little but farms and abandoned Missile silos on the edge of nowhere.

traditionalguy said...

Or could Dylan's Highway 61 refer the well read Mr Jones from Cape Giradeau?

That would be a twofer for this blog.

Penny said...

" There is a mystery here. Why does a lone yellow-brick building exist in a void and yet receive ministering?"

Maybe the lone yellow brick building is a storefront ministry on the edge of what are now bulldozed city blocks of blight.

So what's next? Gentrification of the old neighborhood, or more of the same?

Since the little yellow brick building still stands, I suspect there will be a flurry of construction - newer ragtag ghetto housing. And once again the preacher can minister to his flock, perhaps flush with extra bills from some construction jobs. Surely Sunday's collection plate will fill again, as the wheel of renewal and destruction goes round and round.

Anga2010 said...

When I first read that sentance,(1981... I was 15) I imagined that the yellow building was the sun
and that the so-called "Main Street" was the horizon, albeit somewhat limited due to circumstance.
I envisioned that the new dawn would bring a great day for the denizen (Gatsby) of the wasteland.
I read that whole book as a desire to make something huge from nothing and that Daisy was worth the effort.
Then I got to the end.

Anonymous said...

Sinclair Lewis's Main Street was published in 1920, and a film version (silent) was released in 1923, apparently. I would think Fitzgerald would have to have read it.