- Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
- By: Joan Didion
- Date: 10.28.2008 (first published in 1968)
- Page #: 256
“Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide.”
Virginia Woolf — “Modern Novels”
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It’s universally acknowledged that the art of essay writing began with Michel de Montaigne in 1571. A short, thickset Gascon nobleman, Montaigne, after he had retired from public life at the age of 38, incarcerated himself in his château on the last day of February of the same year, at the third floor of a cylindrical tower—“the most useless place in the house”—where he kept a library of more than one thousand books. He was planning to write (or rather attempt to write) about the myriad thoughts, philosophies, and events that had occupied his mind up to that point—the morbid intent of which was “to teach us not to be afraid to die”.
Several centuries later, it’s remarkable how the essay itself, as a literary genre, has remained steadfast in its calling with barely minor modifications. No matter what the topic is, good essays are still distinguished by the writer’s constructive skepticism and intellectual reflection—of asserting her existence in the world—which may often seem to the innocent reader, and rightfully so, self-indulgent and myopic, as much as they are, inevitably, boldly illuminating, unafraid to declare, “I am myself the matter of what I write.”
We can discern this self-referentialist echo from the many essay and nonfiction volumes penned by Joan Didion, a modernist “reporter” and essayist whose first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, bestowed her at post-publication with critical praise and literary notoriety for her lack of “empathy” and “human curiosity.”
“I’m not very interested in people,” she told Boris Kachka of New York magazine last year, when her latest essay collection, Blue Nights, was set for release the next month. “I recognize it in myself—there is a basic indifference toward people.”
But there’s a key word in that seemingly wounded confession, isn’t it? That her apathy is essentially “basic”? Because if there’s an undeniable characteristic about Slouching Towards Bethlehem is that it is “surpassingly eclectic” and populated for its size. Written within a span of six years against deadline and for money, for Vogue and Saturday Evening Post, some of Didion’s essays are incisively brief and personal while others are themetized around the social upheavals of the ’60s in California (there is, among others, “an essay on a famous murder, a movie-star profile, several travel pieces, a meditation on the wedding industry, and a description of the emotional complexities that attend a grown woman’s visit to her parents’ home.“)
When it comes to the latter, Didion is occasionally misunderstood for an inveterate social conservative, partially because of her unflattering reportage of the Haight-Ashbury district in the summer of ’67—the title essay in the volume, where her invectives oscillate between lament and nostalgia:
At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing it ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
To my understanding, and based on that essay alone, to denounce Didion as a sentimental traditionalist is a naive attempt to misread her. Indeed, as she writes in the preface of her collection, she cringes at her own inability to capture the kernel of the summer of love in that essay while also bemoaning her critics and their invidious remarks:
I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.
To which I ask: Isn’t rumination an essential tool to the essayist? Isn’t within Didion’s purview to regularly reflect, perhaps worry about something is lost, and ponder whether the younger generation, whose rebellion has dwindled to drugs and poisonous solipsism, has taken some wrong turns in the process of finding it. Is all memory nostalgia? And could our memory sometimes provide the salve for our alienation? When it comes to inquiries of such existential austerity, no one truly has the answers—and Didion certainly doesn’t peg herself as a moral pragmatist—but there is something paradoxical, and cynical, in the idea that for a writer to glance back at the past somewhat amounts to some kind of ideology or conservatism, of the mere fact that the presumption itself is fundamentally ideological and conservative. Didion is no Whig; she doesn’t patently profess whiggish ideals toward civil progress or that the current American dream is based on false de jure. Even her most political pieces (e.g., “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.),” “California Dreaming,” and “On Morality”) are politically lite, for she only laments on the demotion of collective intellectualism—on the constant trivializing of complex matters. Didion clearly refuses simplicities—she’s not asking for a return to simpler times—because the questions she achingly puts forth aren’t simple and, therefore, are often unanswerable (at least to her.)
But does moral ambivalence absolve Didion from literary judgment?
No. Not really. And it’s difficult to imagine any writer who doesn’t commit a cardinal sin not only against her better judgment as a writer, but also against writing as an institution. Here’s Didion’s contemporary, Janet Malcolm, for example, who pushed many buttons at the beginning of her morally polemical book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in 1990:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
This statement harkens back to when Didion wrote, “Writers are always selling somebody out,” in the preface of Slouching Towards Bethlehem twenty-two years ago, a confession that certifiably reads like a warning of a guerrilla-warfare proportion: not an arrogative apologia but an expression of grandiose, even nihilistic ambition. There’s no denying that “Didion The Reporter” can be painfully human—heartsick, susceptible, and conscientious about her fears and that of others—as Jonathan Yardley writes in his column at the Washington Post—“Didion is a cool observer but not a hardhearted one, so she treats these people with the sympathy they deserve, but not a teaspoon more”—But “Didion The Artist” (also: The Woman, The Wife, The Mother) can be wonderfully contemptuous, willing to tear down the veneers of hypocrisy, rectify the egotistical gait of her generation, dispel the shallow romanticism of middle-class aspirations, and dehumanize Hollywood culture as a nugatory art machine.
Ultimately, she’s selling herself out in her rhetorical suicide, but she’s doing it while unfolding the unspoken facts about her society, about the “children without words.” When she goes to San Francisco and gads about its conclaves of drug addicts and runaways, she seems to be struck by the air of somnambulant aimlessness, the strife for individuation that had unexpectedly morphed into misanthropy. Nobody can really tell her what it is they are all after. Is it political change? These people, high as they all are, Didion seems to say, don’t seem able of bringing about any kind of change whatsoever. And she does that through a prose flat of drama; the paragraphs are glowingly self-contained like ambers; the anecdotes fragmentary. She doesn’t ask questions, but we do sense a skeptical afterglow, which is so Didion, at each turn of the phrase. And yes, we also sense her yearn for some kind of an authoritarian order, for sameness, which is phenomenal, and something almost no one at that time, in the thick of it, was sensing.
And yet, this “nostalgia” for totalitarianism, the muttered bitterness toward the political and artistic naiveté of the hippies, the sense that the middle class has gone off the rails, are merely the immediate buoys that she is able to discern afloat her own foggy sea of modern anxiety. She is not extracting solutions from the past, because, to Didion, her past is infurietalungly sketchy and crocked. Even at the last leaf, Didion is searching for something; searching for herself, for her daughter who hasn’t been adopted yet, for some kind of insight as to what those kids are doing by hanging out in Golden Gate Park. She doesn’t seem to care if it made her sound like an old fogy to ask, “What is it you all are after?” An irresistible question that any essayist or reporter cannot help not to ask.