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Jane Ahlin, Published June 22 2013

Ahlin: Jay Gatsby’s grand saga still resonates with us

Never – not in my entire life – have I used the word “orgiastic” in a sentence. Not written. Not spoken. Returning to “The Great Gatsby” (the novel) after seeing its latest movie version by director Baz Luhrmann, however, the word jumped out at me from the text of the last page. “[O]rgiastic future” is the full term used, specifically: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Certainly appropriate to the time of the novel, the term resonates in our cultural discomfort today.

Orgiastic carries physical sensations of its meanings: “full of a spirit of wild revelry, showing extravagance or lack of restraint, debauched; riotous.” Say it, and it feels in the mouth and sounds to the ear like the decadent upheaval of the 1920s, the period of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel and a period often represented historically as one of immorality and narcissism destined to plummet into the Great Depression. And yet, beyond the social excesses characterized in “The Great Gatsby” is a specter of overload and greed necessary to our understanding of (what we still call) the American Dream.

In short, Americans want it all. And we always have. If things haven’t gone our way, we want to reclaim the moment when everything held possibility. At the beginning of the novel, Nick, the narrator, describes Jay Gatsby as having “something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as (he had) never found in any other person.”

Gatsby’s romantic hope is for Daisy, his love from years ago who has married another man, a man of “old” money, unlike Gatsby who has reinvented himself with “new” money. When Gatsby stands on the dock in front of his recently constructed, garish mansion and looks across the bay at the green light on Daisy’s dock, he is sure she wants what he wants and they have a future together.

The “green light” for Gatsby is his belief that he can erase the years he and Daisy were apart and begin again where they left off. It’s an all-American trait, a facet of optimism. Like Gatsby, we think that desire is enough to recapture the promise of the past, not realizing that the promise of the past is an idealized notion of time slipped by.

Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is grand, glitzy and frenetic and mostly faithful to the novel – especially the dialogue. Still, some of the changes he makes are off-putting. The narrator, Nick, telling the story from a sanitarium where he’s been sent for alcoholism is an unnecessary plot device, and the musical score by Jay-Z is jazzy hip-hop rather than vintage jazz, which causes jarring moments. Oddly, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is played by the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan, who looks Indian and misplaced in the 1922 setting. But Luhrmann’s focus on the go-go era, its wild world of unbridled wealth and all it could buy rings true. The movie is spectacle – over-the-top and fast-paced. (It can be viewed in 3-D to amplify the exhibitionism.) That said, it’s the power of the dialogue from the novel and the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby that carry the movie.

Viewers of “The Great Gatsby” – and certainly readers of the novel – cannot help but be struck by how many of Fitzgerald’s themes echo today. As a society, we’re like Nick, who was fascinated by wealth and drawn to the world of decadent luxury, even as he despised the shallow rich, such as Daisy and her husband, who “smashed up things … and then retreated back into their money … (letting) other people clean up the mess they had made.” Like Nick, we see the power of romantic optimism but also recognize that it’s doomed if not associated with a worthy goal – something with a moral center, attached to truth. The elusive “green light” and “orgiastic future” remain in sight; we just aren’t sure whether they are ahead of us or behind.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.