Joan Didion is an insightful and skeptical thinker, an astute ironist, and a beautiful prose stylist: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
exemplifies her craft. While all of her essays are exemplary in form, some fall by the wayside of memory, and even only a week removed from my first foray in Didion, only a few remain with me with any moving power. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
skirts the two worlds of my known (intimacy) and my unknown (distance): what it means to be a twentysomething, a skeptic, a thinker, an observational outsider-insider, a reader, and the world of the 1960s: the vestigial mirage of the American dream, and the fairy-dust optimism particular to California (and to drug-addicts).
I had held off reading Didion for a while, because more than I knew about her writing, I knew about her celebrity. The Joan Didion of 2013: the sheepish-looking neuresthenic of the upper-upper crust, with silver tableware and imported china, damask upholstery on ormulu footed furniture, does not invite sympathy nor empathy. She has become her own horror, a self-damaging neuralgia grown completely inward into herself. But the Didion of Slouching Towards Bethlehem
(and, I hope, The White Album
which I plan to read sometime soon) is a different sort of woman: one which balances the Janus faces of reflection: inward as well as outward. Much of this collection is a reflection on external, cultural phenomena: a murder case in Southern California, the alluring celebrity of John Wayne, the apotheosis of marriage in Las Vegas, the drugs and counterculture of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and she develops a personal narrative about it: how she is affected by these phenomena, and what it meant to be exposed to them. Her essays have a literary flair, which court Fitzgerald-esque lyricism and Hemingway-an precision, exactness: her essays are thoroughly American, of an American rhythm and tempo, with a focus on the corroding core of the "American dream."
A particularly resonant essay, "Goodbye to All That" describes Didion's eight-year sojourn in New York City, when she was twenty up through twenty-eight.
one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.
As a twenty-three year old (recently initiated, adieu, twenty-two
) I understand the conviction that what one feels, one is the first to feel, perhaps the only one ever to feel: all emotions feel unique, curried with the salt of freedom. If young childhood is the realm of dominant solipsism, young adult hood is the era of narcissism, egoism. It is necessary, I think, to go through this deeply narcissistic phase: we must, at sometime, be the true heroes of our life stories: alone and valiant like Odysseus. At twenty-something, the consequences of our actions are minor, we are yet-formed, yet-completed, we are free to fall and free to rise, but still free to be forgiven. In this period of our lives we must design and build a genuine ego, to replace the mask of entitlement and privilege of youth. Everything which is new is new only by our point of reference: ourselves, and impossible to conceive the true universality of it in the present. Literature, history, makes us feel often that we are not alone, that what we are feeling is rooted in something which is universal, eternal: but we still believe that we have a unique strain, an undiscovered permutation of the human condition.
Didion's essays On Self-Respect
, On Morality
, On Keeping a Notebook
reveal the narcissistic compulsions of young adulthood: an age wherein we pen (figuratively and sometimes literally for the diary-inclined) the narrative of out life-stories, and also develop the character which we will assume. What draws people to literature, to story-telling, to TV and movies, is our desperate need for linearity in life. We understand the beginning-middle-end mentality, the rhythm of narratives is very comforting to us. We are a profoundly moralizing species, and narratives help us find meaning, even if it is artificial, created, posed: it comforts us to think that every action has an equal and opposite re-action, we are comforted by the abstract concept of justice, and the practice of it when it is in our favor. Didion acknowledges this compulsion:
I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.
As humans, we need some escape, or if not escape overtly, some structure which guards us from the brutal chaos of reality. We conceive of ourselves heroes, we are heroically justified, our self-respect buds, we become a solitary wanderer, discoverer, thinker, inventor: we measure ourselves by our potential, not necessarily by our accomplishments.
To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
Self-respect, according to Didion, is a "moral nerve" - those with self-respect "have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things." It is in the golden era of our lives, our twenties, when we are forced to pay for things: our material needs with money, and our mistakes with our self-respect. There is not currency so valuable as self-respect, and no wealth which is harder to regain when it has been lost.
I was moved, was empathetic, to what Didion has to say about her life, particularly her more personal essays. Her descent into neurotic inwardness is perhaps the extreme condition of her reflexive mastery in her earlier essays and works: for it is this aspect which shines. She is coolly self-aware at the age of thirty-two, where she has become a prisoner of her own privilege and self-communion in her later years.
I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.