Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.

The Reaper Is not Grim

The world-view Fitzgerald paints in The Great Gatsby is bleak.  He describes a billboard with a pair of unseeing eyes overlooking a town covered in ashes:

“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic–their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

These billboard eyes that brood over the dumping ground are a parody of God.  God is supposed to look over the whole created world; God is supposed to know the workings of humanity and to provide for everyone’s salvation.  But God’s divine oversight is translated into a weather-beaten billboard depicting unseeing eyes, in Fitzgerald’s vision of the world.

And with no God in their life, the people in The Great Gatsby flit about their meaningless lives like moths,

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

The Psalmist has an analogous view.  We are as grass or wildflowers, which sprout and die away in a moment.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).

But the Psalmist sees the world much, much differently than Fitzgerald does.  God loves the created world God made, and each one of us.  We are not presided over by an unseeing billboard.  We do not vanish into emptiness after a short meaningless life like moths seem to do.  God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting—it is eternal.  And though our life in the material world seems to be as short as a wildflower, God’s love remains with us forever:

17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.

It is out of fashion to see the world as one created by Love, watched over by a Loving Creator.  And in many ways, it can appear that Fitzgerald’s vision of a world evacuated of God is happening now.  In Fitzgerald’s day, people spoke of God’s all-seeing Providence.  Hence Fitzgerald’s image of the unseeing eyes would have been recognized as a parody of God’s Providence.  Today, I fear, so few people think of God, that the meaning of Fitzgerald’s image would be lost.

Regardless of fashion today, there is a God.  A God whose love is unchanging and from everlasting to everlasting.  Time loses it’s meaning when we think of eternity.  From everlasting to everlasting means eternal.  The from and the to, are awash in the everlasting.

With God, life has more meaning, more glory, more pain, more struggle, more ecstasy than without God.  We are free to believe or ignore.  But our belief or lack thereof doesn’t change the facts of reality.  To invoke the Psalmist, a wildflower alone declares the care, the love, the existence of a Loving Creator.  And though we may be as wildflowers in our short time in the material world, our real relation to life involves a relationship with a loving Creator, awash in the everlasting.