The Curious Case of Benjamin Plato

The web is abuzz with, ahem, mixed reactions to Baz Luhrmann’s latest motion picture extravaganza — the $127m 3D film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and so I’ll duly refrain from passing judgement.

I can’t help thinking, however, how the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, says (famously though rather cryptically) that

Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself […] “he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

In other words, as Bryant Magnum writes, Gatsby ‘creates “the Great Gatsby” from the raw material of his early self, James Gatz, and from a boundless imagination, an embodied spirit capable of anything it chooses to do.’

Plato

“Hey, Scott: thanks for listening!”

F. Scott Fitzgerald as a latter-day Platonist? Hmmm. Still, FSF was undoubtedly a reader of Plato: in a letter dated 21 February 1940, he comments on books sent him by Robert Bennett of Holmes Book Co., including an edition of Plato. I’m not sure what can be made of Jay Gatsby’s Platonic conception of anything, but there is another F.Scott Fitzgerald text-turned-movie, in which Platonic reminiscences seem to have had a formative influence.

The text is, of course, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, a short story that was first published in Colliers (27 May 1922) and commonly published together with his ‘Jazz Age’ stories.

The_Curious_Case_of_Benjamin_Button_and_Other_Jazz_Age_Stories_cover

Pram and Proper: Benjamin Button on his way back to the cradle

The plot-line is too familiar to require any sort of lengthy exposé. As a newborn baby, Benjamin Button looks like a seventy-year old man, though it soon becomes apparent that he gradually ages backwards, thus turning into a middle-aged man, then into a youth, and finally into a baby, after which (we assume) he goes back into pre-natal nothingness.

A curious case, indeed — but one for which there is a memorable early parallel in (you’ve guessed it) Plato. In Politicus, a dialogue that is little-known today outside of the charmed circle of Plato specialists, the philosopher indulges in his favourite past-time of inventing philosophical myths. According to this particular tale, there are periods in the history of the universe, in which the hand of god sets the world in motion by making it swirl as if it were a ball hanging from an invisible cord. As a result of the god’s intervention, several good things happen, including a reversal of the process of ageing:

And all things mortal stopped reaching the features of old age; on the contrary, they switched into reverse motion, and became somewhat younger and softer. Older people had their white hair gradually turn black; those who had facial hair saw their cheeks becoming smooth again, bringing each of them back to their past youth; young people saw their bodies getting smoother and smaller every day and night, and ended up returning to the state of newborn babies, assimilated to them both in body and in mind; in the next stage, their bodies withered away and vanished utterly and completely (270 d-e).

There may be something of the folk-tale here, since a similar story is to be found in the historian Theopompus, a contemporary of Plato’s, except that his tale is masked as history. Theopompus gives a description of the ‘Continent’ supposedly lying beyond Oceanus, the circular river that encloses the inhabited earth. In the outermost areas of this Continent lies a place called Anostos, ‘Point-of-No-Return’, a Hades-like landscape complete with two rivers, the ‘River of Pleasure’ and the ‘River of Grief’, and fruit-bearing trees. Those who eat the fruits of the tree that is watered by the River of Pleasure experience gradual rejuvenation:

… he becomes younger little by little, and reverts to his previous stages in life, and to those already elapsed. That is to say, having shed off old age, he reverts to his prime, and then he proceeds back to being a lad, then becomes a child, then a baby, and finally he disappears completely (FGrHist 115 F 75 = Aelian, Varia Historia 3.18)

I find it unlikely that F. Scott Fitzgerald had even heard of the obscure Theopompus. But it is a tempting thought that his inspiration for “Benjamin Button” came from the curious little story in Plato’s Politicus. If this is so, then Platonic influence on FSF may well extend beyond Gatsby’s ‘Platonic conception of himself’ (whatever that means).

Greek antiquity lurks in the most unlikely places: it is, indeed, just behind you!

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2 Responses to The Curious Case of Benjamin Plato

  1. Nadia says:

    Hey, you forgot the movie Cocoon (although the rejuvenation is partial and it involves aliens so probably lacks literal value)
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088933/

  2. vayosliapis says:

    True. Although in “Cocoon”, I think, people are rejuvenated rather than ageing backwards as in Plato and FSF.

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