John Green reviews humanity’s capacity for wonder and sunsets.
John Green reviews humanity’s capacity for wonder and sunsets.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing sunsets and humanity’s “capacity for wonder.”.
Toward the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the narrator is sprawled out on a beach at night when he begins thinking about the moment Dutch sailors first saw what is now called New York. Fitzgerald writes, “For a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It’s a hell of a sentence. A lot changed in Gatsby between the first manuscript and the finished book—in 1924, Fitzgerald’s publisher actually had galleys printed of the novel, then called Trimalchio, before Fitzgerald extensively revised the galleys and changed the title to The Great Gatsby. But in all of the editing and cutting and rearranging, that particular sentence never moved and never changed. Well, except in one draft Fitzgerald misspelled the word aesthetic—but who hasn’t?
Gatsby took a circuitous route on its way to being one of the Great American novels. The initial reviews weren’t great, and the book was widely considered to be inferior to Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. In The New York Herald, Isabel Patterson wrote that Gatsby was “a book for the season only.” H. L. Mencken called it “obviously unimportant.” The Dallas Morning News was especially brutal, writing, “One finishes The Great Gatsby with a feeling of regret, not for the fate of the people in the book, but for Mr. Fitzgerald. When This Side of Paradise was published, Mr. Fitzgerald was hailed as a young man of promise … but the promise, like so many, seems likely to go unfulfilled.”
Yikes. The novel sold modestly—not nearly as well as his previous ones--and by the time Fitzgerald died, in 1940 at the age of 44, Gatsby was mostly forgotten. A few years earlier, Fitzgerald wanted to buy a copy of his work for his mistress, Sheilah Graham. He visited a few bookstores, but none carried Gatsby or for that matter any of his books.
But then beginning in 1942, the U.S. Council on Books in Wartime started sending books to American troops fighting in World War II. Over 150,000 copies of the Armed Services Edition of Gatsby were shipped overseas, and the book became a hit at last. Armed Services Editions, or ASEs, were paperback books that fit into a soldier’s pocket; they popularized several novels that are now considered classics, including Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
By 1960, Gatsby was selling 50,000 copies a year; these days it sells over half a million copies a year, not least because it’s difficult to escape high school English in the United States without being assigned the book. It’s short, reasonably accessible, and a genuine masterpiece. And rather than being a book for “one season only,” it has proven to be a book for all seasons.
Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream—the only people who end up rich or successful in the novel are the ones who start out that way; almost everyone else ends up dead or destitute. And it’s a critique of the kind of soulless capitalism that can’t find anything more interesting to do with money than to try to make more of it. The book lays bare the carelessness of the entitled rich—the kind of people who buy puppies but won’t take care of dogs, or who purchase vast libraries of books but never read any of them.
And yet Gatsby is often read as a celebration of the horrifying debauchery of the Anthropocene’s richer realms. Shortly after the book came out, Fitzgerald wrote a friend, “Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.” And that’s still the case. Once, when I was staying at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, I received a free “upgrade” to the Gatsby suite. The room was an explosion of silver and gold. From the sparkling silver wallpaper to the ornate 1920s furniture to the shelves stuffed with bizarre photographs and trophies, it was all a study in visual overstimulation. Eventually, in what may have been the most entitled moment of my life, I called the Plaza’s front desk and requested a room change because the ceaseless tinkling of the Gatsby Suite’s massive crystal chandelier was disturbing my sleep. As I made that call, I could feel the eyes of Fitzgerald staring down on me in watchful vigil.
But Gatsby lends itself to the confusion that Fitzgerald lamented. Yes, it’s unwavering in its condemnation of American excess, but even so, the whole novel pulses with an intoxicatingly rhythmic prose. I mean, just listen to the first sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” You can damn near tap your foot to it. Or take this one: “Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
When words roll like that, it’s hard not to enjoy the party, and for me that’s the real genius of Gatsby. The book makes you feel for the entitled spoiled rich and the poor people living in the Valley of Ashes, and everyone in between. You know the parties are vapid and maybe even evil, but you still want to get invited. And so in bad times, Gatsby feels like a condemnation of the American idea, and in good times it feels like a celebration of that same idea. David Denby has written that the book has “become a kind of national scripture, recited happily or mournfully, as the occasion requires.”
And so it is with that line at the end: “For a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
It’s easy to take that line at face value, and maybe it was meant that way, but then here we are at the end of a novel in which everyone is trying to return to a past that never really existed, and our narrator is suddenly trying to return to a past that never really existed.
I mean, the line feels wrong now in a few ways—most glaringly, it implies the false notion that America was somehow empty before Europeans arrived. But maybe the novel knows this even if Fitzgerald didn’t—maybe the novel knows that any attempt to hearken back to a Golden Age is doomed, and yet we go on hearkening anyway.
Of course, the best observations in literature are at once beautiful and accurate. "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board," Zora Neale Hurston wrote. Or Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
But even when a great line doesn't prove to be a great truth, considering why it’s not true can point toward something important, I think. It turned out, of course, that the sight of New York to European eyes was not the last time in history humans would come face to face with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder. Within a few decades of The Great Gatsby, humans would step foot on the moon. We’d glimpse what the universe looked like just after the Big Bang by gazing upon light that is billions of years old.
But really, we are never far from wonders.
Like, I remember when my son was about two, we were walking in the woods one November morning. We were along a ridge, looking down at a forest in the valley below, where a cold haze seemed to hug the forest floor. And I kept trying to get my oblivious two-year-old to appreciate this extraordinary landscape. At one point I picked him up and pointed out toward the horizon and said "Look at that, Henry, just look at it!" And he said, "Leaf!" I said, "What?" And again he said, "Leaf," and then reached out and grabbed a single brown oak leaf from the little tree next to us.
I wanted to explain to him that you can see a brown oak leaf literally anywhere in the Eastern United States in November, that nothing in the forest was less interesting. But after watching him look at it, I began to look as well, and soon I realized it wasn't just a brown leaf. Its veins spidered out red and orange and yellow in a pattern too complex for my brain to synthesize, and the more I looked at the leaf with Henry the more I knew I was face to face with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder.
The magnificence of that leaf astonished me, and I was reminded that aesthetic beauty is as much about how and whether you look as what you see. From the quark to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It is our attentiveness that is in short supply, our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.
Still, I’m quite fond of our capacity for wonder. I give it four stars.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to sunsets, but first . . .
What are we to do about the cliched beauty of a really phenomenal sunset? Like, whenever I see the sun sink below a distant horizon as the yellows and oranges and pinks flood the sky, I inevitably think, This looks like a picture that has been extensively photoshopped. When I see the natural world at its most spectacular, my general impression is that more than anything, it looks fake.
I’m reminded that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tourists would travel around with hand-held, slightly convex mirrors called Claude Glass. If you turned yourself away from a beautiful landscape and looked instead at the landscape’s reflection in the Claude Glass, it was said to look more beautiful, like a painting. Thomas Gray wrote that only through the Claude Glass could he “see the sun set in all its glory."
The thing about the sun, of course, is that you can’t look directly at it—not when you’re outside and not when you’re trying to describe its beauty. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes, “We have really only that one light, one source for all power, and yet we must turn away from it by universal decree. Nobody here on the planet seems aware of this strange, powerful taboo, that we all walk around carefully averting our faces this way and that, lest our eyes be blasted forever.”
In all those senses, the sun is kind of like a god—as T.S. Eliot put it, light is the visible reminder of the Invisible Light. Like a god, the sun has fearsome and wondrous power. And like a god, the sun is difficult or even dangerous to look at. In the Book of Exodus, God says, “You cannot see my face, for Man shall not see me and live.”
No wonder that Christian writers have for centuries been punning on Jesus as being both kinds of Son. The Gospel according to John refers to Jesus as “the Light” so many times that it starts to get annoying. And there are gods of sunlight wherever there are gods, from the Egyptian Ra to the Greek Helios to the Aztec Nanauatzin, who sacrificed himself by leaping into a bonfire so that he could become the shining sun.
And it makes a kind of sense—I don’t just need the light of that star to survive; I am in many ways a product of its light, which is basically how I feel about God.
People ask me all the time if I believe in God. I tell them that I’m a Christian, that I go to church, but they don’t care about any of that; they just want to know if I believe in God, and I can’t answer them, because I don’t know how to deal with that question’s in. Do I believe in God? I believe around God. But all I really believe in is sunlight.
But now we’re already swimming in sentimental waters; I’ve metaphorized the sunset. First, it seemed photoshopped. Now, it seems godly. And neither of these ways of looking at a sunset will suffice. e.e. cummings has a famous sunset poem which goes, “who are you, little I, five or six years old, peering from some high window at the gold of November sunset and feeling that if day has to become night, this is a beautiful way.” It’s a good poem, but it only works because cummings situates the observation in childhood, when one is presumably too innocent to have yet realized how lame it is to write about sunsets.
And yet, a good sunset is beautiful, and better still, universally so. Like, our distant ancestors didn’t eat like us or travel like us. Their relationship to ideas as fundamental as time was very different from ours; they measured time not primarily in hours or seconds but mostly in relationship to solar cycles—how close it was to sunset, or to daybreak, or to midwinter. But every human who has lived for more than a few years on this planet has seen a beautiful sunset and paused to spend one of the last moments of the day grateful for, and overwhelmed by, the light.
So how might we approach a sunset without being mawkish or saccharine? Maybe state it in cold facts. Here’s what happens: Before a beam of sunlight gets to your eyes, it has many, many interactions with molecules that cause the so-called scattering of light. Different wavelengths are sent off in different directions when interacting with, say, oxygen or nitrogen in the atmosphere. But at sunset, the light travels through the atmosphere longer before it reaches our eyes, so that much of the blue and purple has been scattered away before it reaches us, leaving the sky to our eyes rich in reds and pinks and oranges. As Tacita Dean put it, “Color is a fiction of light.”
I think it's helpful to know how sunsets work and I've never bought the romantic notion that scientific understanding somehow robs the universe of its beauty, but it still doesn't communicate much about how breathtakingly beautiful sunsets are—not breathtakingly, actually, but breath-givingly beautiful.
All I can say is that sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness, and you’d think that would be sad, but it isn’t. It only makes me grateful. Toni Morrison once wrote that "at some point in life, the world's beauty becomes enough. You don't need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough."
So what can we say about the clichéd beauty of sunsets? Perhaps only that they are enough.
My dog died last year, but one of my great memories of him is playing in the front yard of our first house at dusk. He was a puppy then, and in the early evenings he would always come down with a case of the zoomies. He’d run in delighted circles around us, yipping and jumping at nothing in particular, and then after a while, he’d get tired, and he’d run over to me, and he’d lie down. And then he would do something absolutely extraordinary—he would roll over onto his back, and present his soft belly. I always marveled at the courage of that, his ability to be so absolutely vulnerable to us, to offer us the place that ribs don’t protect, and trust that we weren’t going to bite or stab him. It’s hard to trust the world like that, to show it your belly.
I don’t know exactly how to describe this, but there’s something deep within me, something intensely fragile, that is terrified of turning itself to the world. Maybe it feels like loving the beauty that surrounds us somehow disrespects the many horrors that also surround us. Or maybe I’m just scared that if I show the world my belly, it will devour me. And so I wear the armor of cynicism, and hide behind the great walls of irony, and only glimpse beauty with my back turned to it, through the Claude Glass.
But I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing. The photographer Alec Soth has said, “To me, the most beautiful thing is vulnerability,” and I would go a step further and argue that you cannot see the beauty which is enough unless you make yourself vulnerable to it.
And so I try to turn toward that scattered light, belly out, and I tell myself: This doesn’t look like a picture. And it doesn’t look like a God. It is a sunset, and it is wildly beautiful, and this whole thing you’ve been doing where almost nothing gets five stars because almost nothing is perfect? That’s b.s. So much is perfect. Starting with this.
I give sunsets five stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas, Tony Phillips, and Jenny Lawton. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown makes the music. Today’s reviews were both expansions of essays originally written for vlogbrothers, the YouTube channel I share with my brother, so I suppose I should thank my brother Hank for thirteen years of joyfully getting to make stuff together. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you like the podcast, please take a moment to rate and review it on your local podcast app. It really helps. Lastly, today’s episode is dedicated to some late, great dogs. My dog, Fireball Wilson Roberts Green, who we miss very much, and our editor Stan and his wife Sarah’s three dogs, all of whom died this year after long and wonderful lives: Oskar, and Sophie, and Wendy.