“Of course, all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”
The end of the year and winter sometimes puts people into a kind of depression. When I was on the winter break of my high school senior year, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” essays that were published in Esquire magazine in early 1936. It was a “deep and dark December,” as Paul Simon described it for me.
I AM A ROCK
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship,
friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
I was in my room with my books and poetry, Friendships had caused me pain and I felt that being alone would be safer.
Fitzgerald wrote: “I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” He’d “cracked like an old plate.”
He had a bad decade with his wife, Zelda, suffering her first breakdown and hospitalization, and he found himself in his mid-30s deep in debt and broken. He went to Hollywood to work on movie scripts because it paid well. He drank a lot. He worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon.
In the second part of his essay, “Pasting It Together,” he went into the third person and said “This writer told about his realization that what he had before him was not the dish that he had ordered for his forties. In fact—since he and the dish were one, he described himself as a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving. ”
I identified with that kind of wondering about whether it was worth repairing and preserving that “plate.”
Ernest Hemingway was a friend to Scott – but not a good friend. It was a friendship that caused pain. They were so very different in life and in print and Hemingway said some unkind things about Fitzgerlad. That bothered me because I liked both of them as writers.
Hemingway wrote and seemed to believe that “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
I think I believed in a kind of optimism that I would be “strong at the broken places.” I believed that I could come back from these depressive periods stronger.
I don’t believe that anymore. I reread “The Crack-Up” this past week and I am closer to Fitzgerald who wrote that “A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.”
I have come back from several depressive periods. Fitzgerald did not. He wrote in 1940 to his daughter Scottie that he had “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”
That mixed message seems to be where he was in his life when on December 21 1940 F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.
I am glad that I haven’t arrived at the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway were at the end of their lives.
Fitzgerald wrote that “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.” There is no hope there, and he continued “I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain that you are… only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope.”
I have hope, and part of that hope is that you also have hope and do not find yourself in the state of Fitzgerald at the end. It was difficult for my high school self to get out of that room and be with old or new friends, but those two things were so important to my “pasting it together.”
I came to agree more with the line of poet John Donne that Paul Simon was rejecting in his song: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”
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