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Floating World

Nick Carraway remarks in a certain American classic:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Although it might never have been the intention, Fitzgerald appears to be referencing what’s known in Japanese culture as the “floating world,” or ukiyo, defined as the ambitions and enjoyments of the emerging middle class during the Edo period. It’s tough to separate the concept from the epicenter of it all, Yoshiwara, the infamous legal pleasure quarters of Edo. Here many months of earnings would be frittered away. As is typical in Japanese, the term ukiyo has another meaning, “sorrowful world.” In Buddhism, it is the world in which the endless cycle of agony and rebirth takes place. For some, the world of Yoshiwara was certainly filled with sorrow.

In The Great Gatsby, the floating sorrowful world is shown in quite clear detail. I need not go into the details of what they did as well as the consequences. What is important is the distinction that the world is “floating.” You could be floating in air or in the water, the commonality being that one is unsupported or disconnected from everything. Yoshiwara lives on in spirit in some other quarters of our world cities and in some popular genres of music and film, living on like the gene of a recessive disease. Unfortunately, it’s often the case where individuals who are spiritually devoid are easily separated from their money to fulfill their base pleasures and then they’re back setting their nose to the grindstone to build up reserves to squander. A vicious cycle of rebirth, indeed.

In my own life it’s been valuable for me to live somewhat near an area like this. For the past few years, I’ve lived in Miami in Coconut Grove. I never involved myself with the typical seedy scene here, watching it from a distance was good enough. Seeing people I know rise and crash so fast due to their irresponsibility steeled me against walking their path. Interestingly, these people often come from places with no trace any rowdy clubbing district. Like the merchants from the villages around Edo, they viewed spending their time and money in places like that as having made it big in the “big city” and it makes them feel more significant.

Ultimately, this situation is comparable to the punishment of Sisyphus.

Huffing and puffing

With the summit in his sight

Again the rock slips.

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