Posts Tagged ‘fitzgerald’

The subject of mental dysfunction and depression is addressed by Joan Didion in “The White Album” and F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up”. Their treatment of this subject is similar and distinctive in several ways. Fitzgerald and Didion both reflect back to the time when they first realized that something was going awry in their minds, but Fitzgerald writes in a more straightforward and analytical manner about himself. He uses metaphor and humor more often, and Didion uses more physical description of objects and people to depict what is going on inside her mind.

In Fitzgerald’s essay, he writes about a nervous breakdown with an expository style, comparing his mental state to a broken plate. He tells the reader with startling honesty: “-And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked” (140). Then he gradually reveals the details of his mental state:

I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking. I saw that even my love for those closest to me was only an attempt to love….in the same month, I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in magazines, the screech of tracks, the dead silence of the country…hating the night when I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went toward night. (142)

He looks back at the warning signs that he did not recognize at the time, very clearly portraying the torments that he was experiencing, with such clarity that it almost makes the reader want to draw back, and examine whether they are familiar with such feelings. Then he describes how he began to feel a sense of worthlessness, and again uses the plate metaphor in a poignant fashion:

Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under leftovers. (144)

He is amazingly artful in his use of a common household object to depict himself as feeling inadequate for everyday purposes and ambitions, and it makes the reader feel sadness for the broken plate. The plate becomes almost a Disney animated character with feelings similar to “The Brave Little Toaster.”

Fitzgerald describes the middle of the night anxieties that are common to most humans when he writes “But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance of the death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work- and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day” (144). This passage actually has shock effect, because the reader is brought to the horrible realization that some people experience the three o’clock a.m. agonies throughout every day. In the same expository style, he informs the reader that “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement- discouragement has a germ of its own, as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint” (146). He clarifies his own condition so well, making it evident that this species of discouragement is totally irrational and based on anxieties that have no rational basis. Then he says in a humorous tone, “I have the sense of lecturing now, looking at a watch on the desk before me and seeing how many more minutes-” (147). This humor is much needed at this point in his essay, because by now the reader is feeling very labored and distressed, and needs a bit of lightness. The watch also seems to connote an attempt to regain some control of his environment by measuring the time.

Joan Didion also writes as one looking back upon the years when her mental struggles began to manifest themselves. She said that it all started with her beginning to question all of the things that she had held true:

I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling. I suppose this period began around 1966 and continued until 1971. During those five years, I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another… (421)

The vagueness of her sentences creates a feeling that truth was becoming blurry to her, that nothing is really clear any more. She visits a psychiatrist and supplies the reader with his findings:

Patient’s thematic productions on the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. (423)

She is expository in a way that is similar to Fitzgerald, but she describes her depression and anxiety without the metaphor or humor. However, she later uses language to present her confusion and growing paranoia in a fashion that engages the reader with dislocated scenes and events. In this segment, she describes a night when The Doors came to her house to practice before cutting an album:

There were three of the Four Doors. There was the bass player borrowed from the Clear Light. There were the producer and engineer and the road manager and a couple of girls and a Siberian husky named Nikki with one gray eye and one gold. There were paper bags half filled with hard-boiled eggs and chicken livers and cheeseburgers and empty bottles of apple juice and California rosé. There was everything and everybody The Doors needed to cut the rest of this third album except one thing, the fourth Door…(428)

The reader is entangled in this twisted collage of mismatched people and foods and the sense of disorder. The two colors of the eyes of the husky, the empty bottles, and the half-filled bags all seem to connote the growing vacuum of confusion and tension in the mind of the author. It also creates a strong sense of the time period and a subliminal feeling of being on mind-altering drugs.

As a reporter, Didion often had to prepare for travel on the spur of the moment. She describes a travel list that she kept on hand during this time, a list of things to collect before she departed on her frequent trips:

It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative. There is on this list one significant omission, one article I needed and never had: a watch….I didn’t know what time it was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself. (438)

Here again is the watch, the symbol of control over one’s environment. This passage bears a resemblance to Fitzgerald, in that it depicts that the author is slipping into instability and a terrifying loss of control. The missing watch is an effective metaphor to recount a restless and chaotic time, and the author’s feeling that she was a victim of this time period in many ways.

The styles of both Didion and Fitzgerald allow the reader to go inside their minds and feel their pain and hopelessness. While Didion writes with an unpredictable style that creates a colorful collage of experiences, Fitzgerald is more analytical and stays on a set course in his writing.

Works Cited

The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: