Infatuation: Scarlett O’Hara vs Jay Gatsby

Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Seeing as how it is Christmas, I am spending some time in front of the piece of furniture I otherwise avoid – the auld telly. One of my favourite films of all time, Gone with the Wind, was on just yesterday.

I must have seen it a hundred times as a child. Those were the days of the Spice Girls and girl power, the economy was only growing and I was full of curiosity as to what it would be like to be an adult. I am not much of a vocal feminist, but Scarlett represented a kind of strong independent woman to me at the time. Naturally, I noticed that she has an unreasonable obsession with Ashley. I thought that that’s what they called love. Yes, Ashley was always a bit of a disappointment, but in my 10 year old mind, it made sense that love is love – and that’s it. Scarlett was obviously far from perfect: s a bit self-centred, a bit impulsive… But, boy, she kicked ass like no one else I’d ever seen before. I felt that the centre-stage relationship was between Ashley and Scarlett – and everyone else was a third-wheel of ill fate, the same kind that brought war and poverty to Scarlett.

infatuation in gone with the wind

Watching it now, it looks so different. Scarlett was an ambitious woman with more than a touch of insecurity and narcissism. There was no relationship. Her supposed love was in reality a crush that managed to solidify through Ashley’s response. Scarlett made the first move. There was a purpose to it, like with everything Scarlett did: she wanted to marry Ashley. Ashley told her he loved her, or rather, denied that he didn’t love her. She continued her infatuation for the rest of the film. It was fuelled by continued scenes where Ashley’s reluctantly reaffirms that he has a soft spot for Scarlett. I guess he didn’t want to hurt her – and he wasn’t lying either. It is obvious that Ashley is not the sort of man that Scarlett would naturally be interested in. There was always something odd about the extent to which she was drawn to him.

Scarlett was interested not in Ashley, but in how it made her feel to know that he loves her. The bitter sweet thought of a man trapped in a marriage to an almost perfect woman nevertheless constantly thinking of her, of Scarlett – that was what was playing on her mind constantly, yielding endless validation.

 I only spotted this now, in my late twenties. The reason I believe it is true is that in the scene where Melanie dies – and lo and behold, Scarlett falls into Ashley’s arms, the following  crucial dialogue unfolds:

Ashley: I can’t live without her, I can’t. Everything I ever had is… is going with her.
Scarlett: Oh, Ashley. You really love her, don’t you?
Ashley: She’s the only dream I ever had that didn’t die in the face of reality.
Scarlett: Dreams! Always dreams with you, never common sense.
[…]
Scarlett: lf you knew what I’ve gone through! Ashley, you should have told me years ago that you loved her and not me and not left me dangling with your talk of honor. But you had to wait till now, now when Melly’s dying to show me that I could never mean any more to you than than this Watling woman does to Rhett. And I’ve loved something that…that doesn’t really exist.

It’s bad enough to be infatuated – like Gatsby was with Daisy. However, it is much worse to be infatuated because of the belief that the subject of one’s infatuation loves them. Of course, there was an element of reciprocity adding fuel to Gatsby’s infatuation, but it wasn’t nearly as strong.

Gatsby was infatuated with Daisy from first principles; Scarlett was infatuated with Ashley as a reaction to what she perceived as his infatuation with her.

infatuation in the great gatsby
Leo never looked as intense as Robert

It makes more sense from an evolutionary point of view for a person to be obsessed with someone who already has a crush them , but it is also kind of… pathetic. It’s like the decision wasn’t even theirs. It is especially pathetic if they don’t have a crush on the infatuated person- and it’s only in their mind.

The dialogue above is so ironic. Ashley, the supposed dreamer, off with the fairies while Scarlett was saving Tara, saving Melanie’s life and just generally solving the most complex of problems, talked about Melanie as the one thing that was real. It finally hit her then that she was the one who was living in a dream. Ashley told her that they would never be happy together because they are so different. He saw reality much more clearly than she did – in this sense. On the other hand, Gatsby never even made it as far as Scarlett. What about Rhett – was he infatuated? I think he was hopeful, but still kept an eye on reality.

It’s tough denouncing Scarlett from her “super-woman who was unlucky with men” status to “needy super-woman who ruined things because she was too silly to see the truth” status. At least now, it makes more sense.

understanding infatuation great gatsby gone with the wind

Words or empathy?

Words. Words can change how we feel in an instant, they can prime us to act in a certain way without us knowing – but they also can completely misfire.

It seems very obvious now, but it took me ages to figure this out: people don’t always mean what they say.It’s not necessarily because they are lying, but a lot of the time it is because they lack insight and communication skills.

What really hammered it home to me was when a consultant psychiatrist was explaining to me how to handle the “admit-me-or-I-will-kill-myself” kind of presentation. He asked me a very simple question: “If you wanted to kill yourself, would you go to a hospital to inform the doctor?” I’ve no intention of trying to simplify the complex issue of suicide, but there is certainly a type of patient who honestly believes they want to kill themselves and come to hospital, still. Why??? Because the words are misfiring. The words they are saying are: “I want to kill myself”. What (some of them) mean is that they are in so much emotional pain that they have no idea how to get out of it, but they would really like help. It can be, strangely, easier to identify the desire for suicide as the problem because it is a bit more external – at least compared to one’s coping skills.

The moral of the story was: people don’t always mean what they say – and they may not even know it.

This disconnect between words and insight is well known among international relations officials. Here what is said is just as important as what it is left unsaid. The people who answer questions at conferences (e.g. press conferences at the White House) aren’t the officials and military generals actually who know the most. The spokespeople are briefed in a very specific way and believe the things they say. It is too difficult to have insight into how you will be understood, so they get people who specifically understand the exact right stuff.

The significance of precise language is well known in Hollywood.

The production team of Gone with the Wind fought long and hard just to be allowed to have Rhett say “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Damn was a vulgar word and the censors weren’t happy. However, “I don’t care” just doesn’t provoke the same emotions. Also, it is often said that the word frankly was an unscripted improvisation by Clark Gable – it wasn’t. It’s just different from the book, but that’s how it was in the script.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said it well here:

when one of these [Salafi] fundamentalists talks to a Christian, he is convinced that the Christian is literal, while the Christian is convinced that the Salafi has the same oft-metaphorical concepts to be taken seriously but not literally –and, often, not very seriously.

empathy and suicide

What got me reminiscing about this was a post by FJ of The Pensives about critical thinking as an antidote to manipulation. FJ identifies reading people (and empathy) as a key part of examining one’s true intentions. FJ’s insight certainly resonates with my own – that there is meaning way beyond words. I think context needs to be examined. Incentives need to be looked at. FJ’s argument is that putting oneself in someone else’s shoes is important. Maybe he is saying the same thing in different words – no pun intended, but there’s also a potential caveat here. It’s best expressed by Nicholas Epley wrote in his fabulous book Mindwise:

Reading body language and trying to take on the other’s perspective doesn’t seem to help to understand the person better. What does help is creating situations where people can openly tell you what they think – and listen carefully.

Obviously, that’s not always possible. However, the point I am trying to make is that while empathy has become an increasingly popular concept, we shouldn’t envisage it as an antidote.

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