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In which John discusses the deified eyes of T. J. Eckleburg, other facets of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the unfathomably horrible earthquake in Haiti, theology, the liberal arts, and a few other things. Oh, and he takes on the froghopper.


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A Bunny
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Good morning, Hank. It’s Wednesday. I really liked your ecosystem services video on Monday and I learned a lot, but at one point in attempting to gently rib me you experienced what I believe sociologists refer to as “epic fail.” Let’s go to the tape.

“You, on the other hand, have some sort of froufy Bachelor of Arts degree. I don’t even know what it’s in.”

“Froufy?” Hank, what’s “froufy?”

By the way, I’m on my way to pick up my friend Chris so I can go to X-Scape and get on the Frog Hopper.

“Froufy,” I regret to inform you, is not a word. I think you might’ve meant “frou-frou,” a French word meaning frilly ornamentation, something you might’ve learned if you’d taken more fine arts classes.

Anyway, later in that same video you jokingly said “You can teach me that the big billboard in the Great Gatsby was like God or something.”

DUNDUNDUNNNNNNN. Now Hank, unfortunately you can’t actually hear anything that happened in X-scape because along with the sound of my girlish screaming there was the mellifluous tones of Lady Gaga, and Lady Gaga loves her copyright.

But about that billboard, Hank, it isn’t actually the billboard that’s a metaphor for God. Okay, hold on. Just a little bit of girlish screaming. [Screaming] The metaphor for God is the disembodied bespectacled eyes depicted on that billboard.

Hank, as I mentioned last week, when I was growing up I felt that mathematics was just this arbitrary set of rules that had been created for the express purpose of hurting my feelings, and when a lot of people read literature critically they feel similarly. They think, “Why are we even talking about this?” “Who knows if the author intended it?” “All you’re doing is wasting our time.” I would argue that the study of English literature is not near so boring and inconsequential as masters of science like you would have us believe.

Oh, God, it felt so good to get off that Frog Hopper. By the way, the girl operating the Frog Hopper said that I was the biggest guy she’d ever seen on it. Thanks?

Anyway, what’s interesting about the metaphor of the huge eyes is not the metaphor itself but its implications. So, in The Great Gatsby a number of very important plot elements happen directly beneath the gaze of these gigantic bespectacled eyes. Also, at the end of the book, the only person who’s there for Gatsby other than Nick and Gatsby’s father is Owl Eyes, a character we know nothing about except that he has big eyes and glasses. Also, he is God.

Hank, I’m happy to acknowledge that none of that is inherently interesting. But it is interesting to think about justice and fairness and the way that socioeconomic class shape our understandings of justice. And it’s interesting to think of God as two huge disembodied eyes with glasses. Because what do eyes do? They see. Good job, smarty pants. What else do they do? Mmm… they blink? Not when they’re making videos, they don’t. Yeah, I guess eyes don’t really do much other than… see.

And that, in the broader context of the novel, is very interesting. No spoilers here, but if you’ve read The Great Gatsby and possibly even if you haven’t, you might’ve noticed that life isn’t always fair and sometimes bad people don’t get what’s coming to them. And that, in fact, wealth and social standing can significantly improve your chances of not getting what’s coming to you. And it’s a huge challenge to live in this unjust world without, to borrow a line from Nick, “closing out your interest in the aborted sorrows and the short-winded elations of men.”

Hank, I think in those disembodied eyes Fitzgerald is arguing that God is in the seeing business, but he’s not in the doing business. I think the question of to what extent the universe or God is aware of, and interested in, the aborted sorrows and short-winded elations of man is a very interesting question.

And we see people who haven’t read The Great Gatsby closely doing a poor job of thinking about this stuff all the time. Like, for instance, just today the televangelist Pat Robertson was trying to make sense of why a God who is active in the world would allow the worst possible earthquake in the worst possible place on Earth. And he said that a while ago, Haitians made a deal with the Devil, and now they were gettin’ their payback. Well, obviously that’s stupid, Hank.

But I would argue that stupidity is born out of bad reading, bad teaching, and bad thinking. And what I think a liberal arts education does well is it teaches you what to think about. What I love most about reading critically is the same thing I love most about math. It helps me to learn what’s interesting. And it forces me to grapple seriously and complexly with a world that is not as it should be.

In short, Hank, I would argue that it’s because I have a liberal arts education and because I’ve spent time thinking about the eyes on that billboard that I’m able to listen to you talk for four minutes about something I don’t understand yet. Also, I get to know the meaning of the word frou-frou.

I’ll see you on Friday.