Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why the Disenchanted Enchant

“Fame, romance, success—these things were so precious that no one could be entrusted with their possession for more than a moment.”

-- Budd Schulberg via Manley Halliday

If we are to employ the old standby, “There are two kinds of people in the world…” to Americans, we would say there are winners and losers, but it is not a black & white world of course and there are permutations to the categorization— what about losers who come to win and more spectacularly, winners who come to lose? What is it about déclassé failure that makes us feel better about ourselves? Are Mike Tyson, Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, and Mark McGwire, to name but a few great legends that received their comeuppance, more famous today for their declines than their greatness? Are they not interchangeable? For example, can you talk about Nixon without mentioning Watergate or McGwire without steroids? It’s fascinating that the term for taking pleasure in others’ pain, schadenfreude, is a loanword borrowed from the Germans, since, with all the pleasure we take in our heroes’ downfalls, you would have thought by now we could have come up with our own Americanism for the blissful joys reaped from the public disgrace of others.

One of the greatest novels ever written on the subject is Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted (1950), which is a dramatization of Schulberg’s experience teaming with the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald, who by the time he was hired out to work on an inane studio script was more legendary for his boozing than The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald died before he could finish his comeback novel (from whose notes for The Last Tycoon include the famous, clairvoyant line, “There are no second acts in American lives.”) But Schulberg, most celebrated for his screenwriting credit for On the Waterfront, made the most of this opportunity, developing a story that not only indicts Hollywood, but the Jazz Age itself, the generation that spawned Fitzgerald and the excesses that would create the Great Depression.

Budd Schulberg

In The Disenchanted, art imitates life: it is the winter of 1939, the world is heading towards another war (“how calmly they floated towards the falls”) and Shep Stearns, a lit-grad and idealist leaning towards Marxism, has taken a low-level screenwriting job because he believes movies are “the great new folk art.” Shep is youthful, enthusiastic, and can talk the talk, even though he knows Hollywood-speak is “a world fenced in with exclamation points… a world where hyperbole is the mother tongue.” But he’s accommodating since he desires to marry his sweetheart and avoid a regular job, i.e. inheriting his father’s studio car rental business. So Shep’s written a stinker of a college romance called “Love On Ice,” which he knows bears no relation to realities or art but “is the most convenient of apologetics: the means to an end.”

The studio head, Victor Milgrim, a rags-to-riches nouveaux riches aristocrat emblematic of the early studio founders, sees potential in Shep’s script but wants to polish it so he’s hired Manley Halliday to work on the script. Halliday is a legendary but mostly forgotten Jazz Age novelist. He is also a recovering alcoholic trying to glue himself back together long enough to finish his final literary masterpiece. Milgrim wants them to travel cross-country together to Shep’s alma mater, the fictional Webster College in New Hampshire, to shoot background scenes at the Mardi Gras festival. He believes the adventure will inspire their writing endeavors (though Halliday is sure that Milgrim, an intellectually insecure millionaire, is pushing for an honorary degree and wielding Halliday as bait for the prize). Manley, dependent on his live-in girlfriend, Ann, agrees to go in spite of grave misgivings regarding what might befall him on the journey. His fears are perfectly ground. The great novelist soon falls off the wagon and the consequences are disastrous.

The problem is that screenwriting is all wrong for Halliday, an idiot savant, prolific with the most exquisite prose but incapable of correctly folding his suits. Screenwriting “wasn’t writing; it was diplomacy” and as a younger man, powerful, free and a bit of the snob, “he’d been able to indulge in a lofty contempt for movies.” But Halliday needs quickie cash and lots of it— he’s paying down the debts racked up from the wild living: back taxes, back alimony, back rent, his ex-wife’s analysis, his son’s prep school education. As in the case of Shep, the lure of Hollywood money is more powerful than pride or convictions.

But the young screenwriter turns out to be a tonic to the old artist: Shep has not only read all of Halliday’s books, he quotes liberally from them and whose generation he inexplicably, guiltily, envies and admires. On the flight to New York, Shep shares with Halliday a few bottles of champagne, which is the first burst of the floodgates. The taste of booze is the flavor of memory and once they arrive in New York, Manley operates in a twilight consciousness revolving around a glorious past, a catastrophic decline, and an inebriated, less than elegant present. And rather than writing, Shep is compelled to live up to his name, shepherding Manley safely through numerous crises, mostly of the self-inflicted variety.

Like Fitzgerald suffering his beautiful Zelda, Halliday’s bête noir was a flapper named Jere. Much of the novel’s thick middle is close third person stream of consciousness covering the couple’s witty banter, bad behavior, terrific parties, and wholesale crack-ups not dissimilar to the Fitzgerads’ very own. It’s a life of gay yachting parties on the Riviera and grim sanitariums in Upstate New York. And though we veer from the plot (will Manley get it together and solve the damn cipher of this silly movie?) the digressions provide some of the most exquisite prose in the novel. After falling in love in Paris, Armistice Night, 1918, Jere “made his young manhood a time of bewitchment, when springtime was the only season and the days revolved on a lovers’ spectrum of sunlight, twilight, candlelight and dawn.” As long as Halliday had the Golden Touch they thrived vivaciously: “we weren’t a-Freud of anything.” But neither Manley nor Jere could transition to the austere 1930s, as “the trouble with both of them… was that they thought youth was a career instead of a preparation.”

The Good Old Days:
Two Flappers and a Gentleman

Failure has embittered Halliday, who can’t help but loathe the new generation. Jealous of the youthful love between Shep and his girl, he comforts himself with the knowledge that “the happiest of people were machines running down.” Pressured by Milgrim and Shep to produce something usable pronto, Halliday fortifies his incapacity to create with his condescending view of writers that churn out material by demand: “Writing comes easy… when you’re a natural hack an’ haven’t got any self to express.”

Nevertheless, Halliday sees himself as a professional. When it’s sink or swim, Manley can riff on the plot, adding poetry and dimension to the staid college romance formula. Shep’s impressed, but dubious, for “it was much too good for what they needed. But for what they needed, not good enough.” Unfortunately for them (but felicity for the schadenfreude-happy reader) when they finally reach Webster, Halliday is “too stupefied to tell day from night, gin from vodka, love from hate.” When the great writer humiliates himself at a college mixer to the delight of colleagues and students, Shep is furious: “Manley was drunk and he was a spectacle. But they seemed glad this had happened to him. That is what galled.” It’s that damn devil, envy, working itself into a fit again, expressed in shits and giggles. Halliday knows the source of their spiteful laughter all too well, as from a time when he nearly conquered his own demons through self-reflection:

“Ruthlessly he made a list of all his faults and found them all to be the same fault, an over-supply of vanity, an over-developed concern to hear his name at the end of the cheers. The wish to be publicly admired. To be a Success. Like the others he had sneered at the Babbitts with their ordinary business success, their abysmal bourgeois ignorance that passed for ‘being a smart operator’ and yet inadvertently he had allowed himself to be caught in the great American net.” 

Thus written is the central dilemma of living in a consumerist society: this is the mother of our disenchantment and our insatiable appetite for the new and the next. It may even be defined by that vague catchall word, “cool.” We have an unfortunate tendency to compare our fortunes to those of others, whether it be money, knowledge, gadgets, or style. When we fall short, for we inevitably do because there is always someone better, faster, cooler, loathing is the default emotional reaction. There is only one great truth to salve such insecure feelings, true then, now, and forever and for a moment, Halliday nearly grasped it:

“Men as far apart as the Bible poets, the Elizabethans and the French symbolists all seemed to agree that if there was a single wisdom it was simply To thine own self be true… All he had to do now was decide what was his own self.”

Manley Halliday only seemed to really understand Manley Halliday in the process of writing, in great confessional prose that excoriated his blunders and romanticized the things that were worth making beautiful. In a difficult culture where morals are compromised and pride despised, art is the single greatest outlet afforded the honest man. In Halliday’s own intoxicated language, “No good work of art I mean there’s no good work worthwhile work of art without the artist exposing himself.”

The Great F. Scott, circa 1938

In the end, Halliday has exposed too much in real life and it destroys him. When he is dying in a hospital at the end of the story, Shep, in spite of the promise of his hero’s unfinished manuscript, believes that only in death will his friend reach immortality: “Let him be lowered into his grave so that disciples may begin to worship, so that readers may savor the pleasure of rediscovery. Let us bury the remains. Let the Halliday revival begin.”

Sometimes life follows the inspirations of art. F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the young age of forty-four. Posthumously, he has become a larger-than-life success, The Great Gatsby being quite possibly the most beloved book of our culture, the so-called Great American Novel. Death, it seems, can save a reputation. Schadenfreude has only so much emotional reach before sentimentality overwhelms it and we Americans are more famous for being maudlin anyway.

Unfortunately, forgiveness comes too late but at least it does arrive in time for posterity.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing that the Germans have a word for something so typically American, but then again, it seems they have actually taken the time to think about things, whereas we are overly concerned with being up to the minute, even if the minute is not worth being up to. But if 24-hour news modernity is not all it's cracked up to be, then what are our gadgets really worth? The jobs the various industries supply? The more and more over-processed, under-nourishing food put on our China-made Walmart-sold tables coming from what unexportable jobs are still left? Do jobs matter that much? Apparently so - ask the Gulf of Mexico. No matter the anecdotes stemming from embarrassing cocktail parties, no matter the debt, no matter the cost, we need the whistleblowers and the soothsayers, the seers and mystics, for without the artist we are some just pre-Apocalyptic Orwellian vision of mechanical horror. Look at the "cool" Budd Schulberg, he knows it, but who cares when you have a look like that. Hell, he could conquer Hollywood (at least as an over the hill drunken scriptwriter) now with that beard.