Joan Didion

I’ve been revisiting Joan Didion lately—as have a lot of people, I guess. At first I didn’t understand why, and I’m still not completely sure. I’d read her early work back in the day, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (essays) and Play it as it Lays (novel) and The White Album (more essays). I was impressed by her writing and fascinated by the stories she told, but wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

There is a resurgence of interest in her now, a new book (haven’t read it yet) and a documentary on Netflix (not great, but pretty good). I guess what caught my eye this time was one of her famous quotes being endlessly repeated: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I believe that more and more, and yet less and less do I think it is a good way to live—since it also seems true to me that we tell ourselves stories to distract ourselves from what’s actually going on, and if that’s what it takes to live, well, that’s a pretty dismal view of life.

So I started re-reading the early essays, and the writing is more astonishing than I remembered—and the message more obscure as well. Pellucid, jarring, elegantly crafted descriptions that leave me more baffled than ever about what I was just looking at.

So why is it somehow important to me to keep going back to her, rather than putting her on the shelf and moving on? Today someone quoted a bit of “The White Album” (the essay) and now maybe I get it.

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Aha. This is the trap that mindfulness meditation is trying to escape, to set aside the narratives and see things as they actually are. No surprise that what you end up seeing is unrecognizable, and baffling. But keep looking.

This is a pretty good take on what Didion may be trying to do in her writing. And the Netflix documentary is worth 90 minutes of your time, if for no other reason that the filmmaker was family (nephew Griffin Dunne) and she is way more comfortable and frank with him than in the usual interview. Also—and this may sound weird—Didion is a remarkable physical specimen, fascinating to watch. She is in her early 80s, weighs almost nothing, veins bulging on nearly fleshless arms. Still sharp as a tack. Hands gesturing in the air as she talks, but with no relationship I could discern to the words she is saying. Absolutely without pretense. Not at all the sort of weird I expected—but still weird, just a very different sort.

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3 thoughts on “Joan Didion

  1. I thought that essay was good, too. Although – I don’t think that telling stories is inherently bad. The Bible is also a story we repeat to ourselves. Or the Torah. I’m also increasingly convinced by Didion as a model for writing, and there’s a really good book that I just enjoyed that connects her to Hannah Arendt as a model of the attempt to be clear-eyed. (Arendt is someone else I strongly admire as a writer and in other regards.)

    Perhaps of tangential interest to you, re other topics:

    https://tif.ssrc.org/2017/11/22/the-stakes-of-attention/
    http://fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/2017/11/would-you-like-to-learn-to-pray-like.html

  2. I thought that essay was good, too. Although – I don’t think that telling stories is inherently bad. The Bible is also a story we repeat to ourselves. Or the Torah.

    Servetus,

    Not bad, but perhaps inherently dangerous. Stories (good ones, anyway) can help us to see things as they really are by turning our attention to things we’ve previously missed, and giving us a deeper understanding of the things we’ve previously seen. But they also tempt us to mistake the story for the reality, and to think that by reading between the lines of the story we can discover truths about reality. I constantly remind myself that the map is not the territory, the finger is not the moon, and so on.

    I’m also increasingly convinced by Didion as a model for writing, and there’s a really good book that I just enjoyed that connects her to Hannah Arendt as a model of the attempt to be clear-eyed. (Arendt is someone else I strongly admire as a writer and in other regards.)

    I agree about Arendt. I’ve only read Between Past and Future, but it was excellent. I have other books by her in the queue … but the queue is very long …

    Perhaps of tangential interest to you, re other topics:

    Thanks for the links. I’ll definitely take a close look at the first. The second I’m less sure about—Marian devotion gives me the willies—but since you recommend it I’ll follow the chain a bit. (I definitely like the idea of recovering a medieval mindset toward prayer.)

  3. dangerous: I agree. You have to pick the morally right / most accurate / most useful story. But then what story you end up picking ends up relating to what you already knew before embracing the story. This whole “the map is not reality” is a hard lesson for a lot of people. It’s one of the big points I try to make when I’m talking about European expansion — a pre-expansion map of Europe is not a “bad map,” it is a map for a different purpose.

    Arendt: I’d read Eichmann in Jerusalem and just skim the chapters where she describes the events of the Holocaust. She’s got an interesting take on modern life that mirrors what you’re suggesting (that people sort of lazily subscribe to particular narratives — and that this process affects perpetrators as well as victims). I also think Origins of Totalitarianism is masterful but it’s a big slog. I’d put the explicitly philosophical stuff on the backburner.

    Or read this (this is the book that I’m reading that draws the connection between them and others): http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/T/bo25956860.html

    re: Marian devotion — that author is IMO politically questionable, as well, having apparently put herself in the middle of an academic firestorm involving Milo Yiannopolis. That said, I think the whole question of how is as important as the object of the meditation. I understand the reservations toward Marian devotion (I was raised with them, too), but it’s a fascinating subject.

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