Given how vocal we Americans tend to be about our freedom and individuality, it is hard not to notice all the fuss about where we originally came from. It is also very hard not to notice the nostalgia attached to going home again, or returning to one’s roots.
How does this have anything to do with a good, dandy sense of mental health, the hyper-individualized and freedom-loving reader might be asking themselves. Read on.
America has been described as the country where immigrants can come and forget their troubled past and begin working for that great American dream. For some, it is about healing old wounds and starting fresh in a different place, and, sometimes, with a different name. It is a very romantic and very naive idea. Reality is nothing like little 7 year-old Vito Corleone quarantined at Ellis Island singing a bittersweet little tune.
Our past is only ever a single thought away.
How many movies and books came out just this year where the character goes looking for his or her past for reasons that are more or less therapeutic? Summer blockbusters have the formula down where the origin of the hero must be told, and then the ultimate conflict in the final act is when the hero has to return home and discovers nothing is the same and that nothing is safe there anymore.
It has been almost ninety years since F Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby and he beautifully showed how the myth of the American past, of Jay Gatsby desperately trying to replace his own past, had terrible and tragic consequences.
One of the enduring strengths of that book is how it holds a mirror up to the face of our nation, a nation obsessed with celebrity, obsessed with surface level change, obsessed with fast acting solutions for deep rooted problems.
And yet, things are worse than they ever were during Fitzgerald’s time.
What does it all mean?
It is very hard to fix something you don’t understand. It is even harder to fix something that isn’t actually true. Friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers that you pass by everyday are burdened by the chains of their past. They are burdened because they refuse or misunderstand how their past can predict their future.
What I am saying is that what Jay Gatsby really needed was a good therapist. Who doesn’t?