Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Restless Eye

"Night Windows"  Edward Hopper, 1928

Staying with the early decades of the 20th century, I am reading The Great Gatsby for maybe the fifth or sixth time and continue to marvel at its linguistic perfection. Here still are the eternal images that define the book – Daisy and Jordan Baker in the windswept drawing room with the billowing curtains, the enormous bespectacled eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg towering over the ash farm by the train tracks, Gatsby stretching out his arms to the light at the end of the dock. But this time I was struck by a passage that I had swept by on my previous readings, a passage that brought to mind the evocative urban paintings of Edward Hopper.
In 1922, Nick Carraway, the narrator, is a young man from the Midwest who is learning the bond business in the “white chasms of lower New York.” In the evenings he would have dinner at the Yale Club and then stroll down Madison Avenue and over 33rd Street to Pennsylvania Station to take a train out to his solitary little house on Long Island.

“I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others – poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner – young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.
Again at eight o’clock, when the dark lanes of the Forties were lined five deep with throbbing taxicabs, bound for the theatre district, I felt a sinking in my heart. Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes made unintelligible circles inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gaiety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.”

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