The Great Gatsby (the book; I haven’t seen the movie yet) describes a particular kind of life that used to be the sole property of well-heeled WASPs. They were the privileged ones who came from all parts of the country to convene on The East—New York, Boston, New Haven. They could afford all the new technologies—the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile—that allowed them to leave the undesirable portions of their past in the past and form new, tenuous connections with the beautiful people in the fabulous places.
And so they lived in a party atmosphere where everyone knew each other but nobody knew each other, where a man could draw a thousand friends to his house but leave no one willing to come to his funeral.
It occurred to me reading it that F. Scott Fitzgerald probably thought he was witnessing an unreal world falling apart and resolving into its final tragic end. How right he was about the tragedy, but how wrong he was about its end.
Along came Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and the party goes on.
Think about what social communication does: It opens big noisy rooms where everyone pretends to know each other but no one really does. None of us were invited—most of us were simply brought along (to borrow a Fitzgerald character’s phrase). We are strangers and friends at the same time. Our conversations are at once too intimate and too superficial; too specific and too random.
“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”
“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
In the Facebook/Gatsby world, life is just something you talk about. It is conversation—or the disconnected one-liners that have taken conversation’s place—that counts. As Gatsby himself puts it: “What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?”
So many details in the novel are reminiscent of social media connections:
- Daisy’s child is a Facebook child who exists to be shown at her best and bragged about.
- Gatsby’s life is an elaborate Facebook stalking scheme, gathering friends so he can get to one woman through them.
- In Tom Buchanan, the novel even has the Political Meme Guy who relishes sharing startlingly dark facts about politicians and extremist conspiracy theories.
And in James Gatz—who renamed himself Jay Gatsby—the novel presents the quintessential Twitter persona: A man with an impressive handle and lots of followers who has carefully selected the information and image he presents to the world.
Gatsby is the mysterious character for whom the novel is named. He is a man with a thousand “friends” but no confidant—8.2K “likes” but no one to love. What people say about Gatsby reveals a lot about themselves. They wonder who he really is, where he is really from, what parts of his persona are true, and what parts he invented. They know to ask, because they work at constructing their personal identities, too.
“That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” says Daisy. The quote is meant ironically, but it could just as well be a Facebook motto.
On Facebook, it’s best not to get too deep. It’s best not to be too real. It’s best to stick to the shimmering surface of life. It’s best to be a beautiful fool.
“Twitter and Facebook can be a godsend, helping us connect and deepen friendships that have been fractured by technology in the first place,” I once posted on Facebook, feeling clever. “Or they could be a tool of the devil turning us all into narcissistic self-promoters shouting out several times a day that we are the center of the universe.”
The writer Ellen Haggerty Rossini corrected my thought in a comment.
“Not narcissistic and ‘center of the universe’ so much as human and in need of others,” she wrote. “It’s a cry of the lonely heart (and we’re all lonely): ‘I am here, I need to give and receive love, to touch others to be real.’ The odd thing about technology is that it seems to deliver social connection exponentially. But people aren’t made that way. One conversation with another person, in their presence, is worth a thousand tweets or posts, or more.”
She is right. The beautiful people chattering at West Egg are looking for love, too. They don’t find it—large parties are not more intimate after all—and then life (and death) rudely bring the party to a crashing halt.
It is hard to know how real life will intrude on our social media party.
“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive,” worried Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 World Communications Address, “it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction.”
We are Catholics so we should know better. We don’t believe in sola scriptura—the doctrine that says that words alone are a sufficient basis for a relationship with Jesus. Neither is the illustrated Bible of Facebook sufficient to know others. But sola scriptura isn’t wrong because it goes too far— it is wrong because it doesn’t go far enough. The words of scripture are necessary, but the sacraments—flesh and blood—need to complete the picture.
Rod Dreher’s new book about his childhood and his sister, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, describes a close-knit southern community the polar opposite of Jay Gatsby’s mansion: St. Francisville, La., population 1,700. People feel alone when they are with others at Gatsby’s; you never feel alone (for better or worse) in a small town. Nobody came to Gatsby’s funeral; Ruthie’s rallies her town.
What does St. Francisville have that West Egg doesn’t?
Part of it has to do with place. The Long Island mansion is filled with people from Louisville, Chicago, and small towns in Wisconsin; but they strive to be from this moment, here and now. The good people of Dreher’s hometown can’t help but be from St. Francisville, from way back.
Part of it has to do with family. In the novel, the characters have all fled their families to discover themselves in New York. Dreher writes of fleeing New York to discover himself in his family.
But, significantly, it also has to do with religion.
A friend of mine whom I have never met, a writer studying philosophy at Boston College, tweeted: “As a South American I once had a taste of the type of community [Dreher talks about], but it no longer exists. I often wonder how I could get something like it back in my life.”
People replied with tweeted suggestions: Move to Italy. Be a monk. Live near monks. In other words: Go to a place the Church built.
In Great Gatsby’s Facebook mansion, we risk becoming rootless disconnected souls carefully revealing and concealing ourselves simultaneously. We too need to go to a place that the Church built.
“I ask you to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives,” wrote Pope Benedict. “Human hearts are yearning for a world where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion.”
The Church will once again become the most relevant institution on earth when we remember how to do that.