This is a scene from The Wire I constantly return to in my mind for some reason. I mean it might seem obvious given I have a quickly vanishing background in American literature, and I certainly believe that the The Great Gatsby is one of those works that gives you something new and desperate no matter how many times you’ve read it. But I’m not sure that’s it.
Oddly enough, this scene reminds me of a huge, survey lecture of English Literature I took at UCLA with Robert Aguirre in the early 90s. We had just finished reading either James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, I don’t remember which, and his basic wrap for this particular lecture focused on how literature makes the reader somehow different. Which is not an idea I disagree with necessarily at all, but what struck me about his telling was that the difference amounted to feeling somehow different upon your return home after reading these immortal words, as if you couldn’t look at the people, places, and things in your life the same way. I read his suggestion as a kind of imposed alienation and superiority all at once. It infuriated me to no end, and I stood up and said as much when he finished. I’ve always thought that if something as awesome and intensely regenerative as literature is framed as an excuse for invidious distinction, then all is lost for the humanities. Do we study the greatest words to feel better than those who didn’t or couldn’t? Moreover, did those who wrote them imagine them as a wedge rather than a window?
D’Angelo’s reading of Gatsby is such a beautiful antidote to such a worldview of culture. It’s one of the few, and definitely the most powerful, moments in TV or film wherein literature becomes a struggle with life rather than an object of invidious cultural distinction or an allusion to be caught or missed depending upon your cultural literacy. In this scene literature is about the raw act of reading honestly and personally, which has nothing to do with how much you have read, or how much more you know or don’t know than another. Maybe that’s why I can’t shake this scene from my head, I love literature, but not as a cultural trophy, but rather a sincere struggle with all that is human and that haunts us.