Noble: The Crack Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald published a series of essays in Esquire magazine in 1936 that are collectively known as “The Crack Up.” Decades before YOLO entered the American lexicon, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived the Gatsby life during the Roaring ’20s, when alcohol was illegal and ubiquitous. “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” he wrote in a 1931 essay on the Jazz Age.
Fitzgerald claimed, “Life was something you dominated if you were any good.” It was a macho ethos not restricted to that era, and it conveyed the damning insinuation that if you did not dominate life, you were mediocre, or worse.
Fitzgerald believed he could maintain his debauched lifestyle up to age 49, a nod to the credo, “here for a good time, not a long time.” He wrote, “For a man who’s lived as I have, that’s all you could ask.” Fitzgerald was asking too much. He died in 1940 at the age of 44.
Fitzgerald theorized that a man might crack in one of three ways — loss of mental faculties, infirmity of the body or loss of nerve. Four years before his corporeal death, Fitzgerald experienced the latter — death of the spirit.
He acknowledged squandering the previous decade and indicated that living la vida loca while crafting praiseworthy literature were incompatible pursuits. “I had been calling on resources I did not possess … I had been mortgaging myself mentally and physically up to the hilt.”
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Following publication, some of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries made no effort to conceal their antipathy. John Dos Passos chastised Fitzgerald’s navel-gazing given the gravity of world events — presumably referring to the Great Depression in America and the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in Europe. Despite Fitzgerald’s assistance in his literary start, Ernest Hemingway demonstrated more contempt than empathy for his frenemy, lambasting Fitzgerald’s “shamelessness” and “public whining.”
Nearly a century removed, progress has been made to destigmatize and better address mental health crises. However, as recent events have demonstrated, much ignorance and intolerance remain.
Recently, tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles stepped back from athletic competition to protect their mental health. Right-wing pundits had some thoughts.
“She’s totally a sociopath.” “She’s also very selfish, she’s immature and she’s a shame to the country.” “If she’s got all these mental health problems: don’t show up.” Those remarks came from conservative commentator Charlie Kirk on Biles’ decision to withdraw from Olympic competition due to mental health concerns.
A similarly contemptuous, unsympathetic attitude was echoed by unemployed journalist Megyn Kelly, who harassed Osaka for withdrawing from the French Open over her mental health concerns. Months earlier, Osaka posed for several magazine covers that were released about the time she withdrew from the tournaments. “Poor @naomiosaka blocked me while taking a shot at me (guess she’s only tough on the courts). She is apparently arguing that she shot her many covers b/4 publicly claiming she was too socially anxious to deal w/press. Truth is she just doesn’t like Qs she can’t control. Admit it.”
There is no honor in punching down.
Osaka and Biles proactively protected themselves — before they cracked. Because of their global stature, they could not do so privately. Exhibit A for a mental health meltdown in prime time recalls a shaven, umbrella-wielding Britney Spears fending off paparazzi. Thirteen years later, she is still fighting to regain control over her life, and some of us feel ashamed for watching her private pain unfold publicly.
Biles developed a dangerous loss of orientation known in gymnastics as the “twisties.” It can come on suddenly and take weeks to resolve. Conversely, Fitzgerald ran with the fast crowd for years before acknowledging the toll it took on his vitality and values. By then it was too late.
Fitzgerald and Biles rose to the pinnacle of their chosen endeavors. Fitzgerald wrote “the great American novel” and Biles is the greatest gymnast ever. Fitzgerald’s essays were courageous and are credited for inspiring the surge in memoir writing in the 20th century, but he would spend his remaining years screenwriting in Hollywood, never reaching his previous literary heights.
However, it is Biles who showed extraordinary bravery under unimaginable pressure to perform. After the most overwhelming year in most people’s lifetimes, Biles demonstrated to the world that it is OK to not be OK, and that everyone, including elite athletes, has the right to prioritize their long-term health over momentary performance.
Claire Noble can be found online at Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.