For several years after the release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, I periodically found myself donning a tux to attend another Gatsby-themed party. The dress requirements always went unstated, but it was clear from the invitation’s embossed lettering and gold leaf edging that these nights promised to be filled with Gatsbyesque decadence.
A night to forget one’s own lowly class and crushing economic burdens and pretend, if only temporarily, that we inhabited the world of the super rich – a world in which caviar is generously smeared on those mini-toasts with reckless abandon and Cristal is guzzled like goon. At one of these soirees, fed up with my inability to tie a bowtie and anticipating the dry-cleaning bill I’d be left with after spilling my $12 bottle of cabernet sauvignon down my front, I greased up my hands, donned a pair of overalls and went dressed as George Wilson.
I felt like I was intruding on a collective fantasy – many of the guests seemed to have erased the hapless mechanic from their memory of the book/film. Gatsby, for them, wasn’t about the unjustness and inhumanity of a class-based societies, it was aspirational. In everyday life, almost all the guests were Myrtle Wilson’s – they wanted to inhabit the worlds of East Egg or West Egg and some of the youngish bankers and entrepreneurs probably would someday. But most would likely remain miserable and dejected at never having achieved their dreams,perpetually trapped in the Valley of the Ashes under the constant gaze of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.
For the Wilsons, the distinction between the old money of Tom Buchannan and the new money of Jay Gatsby is irrelevant; both represent a world foreign to theirs. But for Tom, the difference is everything. Class is self-evidently hierarchical, but for Tom, it also speaks to one’s character. Thus, no matter how much money Gatsby makes, he will never be Tom’s equal.
As the Prime Minister exchanged barbs with the Opposition Leader in question time the other day, I couldn’t help but feel I was listening to what amounted to a debate about the respective merits of acquiring real estate in West Egg over East Egg and vice versa.
Malcolm Turnbull, seemingly annoyed with Bill Shorten’s efforts to smear him as ‘Mr. Harbourside Mansion’, responded by calling him ‘a great sycophant of billionaires’ and a ‘parasite’ that aspires to have his own harbourside mansion. While the criticism of Shorten as a union leader who got ahead by selling-out his workers is entirely accurate and should have forestalled his political career long ago, the thrust of Turnbull’s attack was of a different nature – it was more personal.
The accusation was that the Oppositional Leader doesn’t know his place; that he is a ‘social-climbing sycophant’. He, in other words, aspires to be like the very man spluttering the invective. The subtext of this was that Shorten, because of his class background and work as a union organiser, is delusional in the same way that Gatsby is – that it doesn’t matter how high he rises or even if gets his own harbourside mansion, he’ll never be Turnbull’s equal.
For most people – the Wilsons of the world – the speech was more of the same infuriatingly meaningless drivel that’s long characterised question time but that has, in recent years, subsumed politics entirely. They weren’t arguing over any substantive policy issue that promises to make the lives of those trapped in the wasteland between their respective worlds any better. They were arguing, instead, over the sliver of imagined difference within their own political caste. And while this difference may be all consuming for the Tom and Gatsbys of this world, for the Wilsons, drowning in debt and trying to keep their head above water in a world of growing insecurity and precarity, it’s inconsequential.
Yet, these disputes are chronicled, analysed and, based on what was said and how each party responded, predictions are made. These journalists are the Nick Carraways of the world and, tellingly, they are much closer with the Gatsbys and Buchannans than they are with the Wilsons. And that closeness colours their judgments; they’re too involved in this world to see just how morally depraved it is. Nick may question certain things, but he is incapable of seeing that the very foundations on which it’s built are rotten and no amount of manicuring at the edges can redeem the whole decaying project.
This disconnect from reality, the unquestioning acceptance that politics is something confined to the exercise of state power and the received wisdom that the masses ought to simply tolerate whatever self-serving, half-baked policy is implemented on their behalf is what leads to tweets like this, from Patricia Karvelas:
In this conception, class only exists in the abstract and the resultant institutional inequalities and divisions are negligible. In this imagined classless world, one’s wealth or, conversely, one’s poverty or indebtedness is not a mark of one’s privilege, but of one’s character. An attack on a politician’s class is, therefore, too personal. The assumption that underlies this imagined reality is that the rich are, by definition, hard-working, intelligent and resourceful, while the poor are slothful, uncreative idiots.
About an hour after arriving at the Gatsby-themed party, the host – an acquaintance more than a friend – asked if I’d not understood what was expected of me. It was meant to be a black tie function, albeit at a share house in Fitzroy. I had, dressed in my mechanic’s overalls, broken an important social taboo.
It was fine for Tom to have an affair with Myrtle – he was simply exercising his right as a member of a higher class. But it was unconscionable for George to think that he could ever conceive of himself as Tom or Gatsby’s equal; he was consigned to live so they could exploit him. Subconsciously, the Georges of the world know this, but admitting it to oneself can be despair-inducing. So, feeling less like a renegade and more like a pariah, I took my half-drunk bottle of wine and left the Gatsby-themed party, lest the other guests be forced to ask why Georges are never welcome.