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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

A Closer Look at Joan Didion



BOOK REVIEW OF 'SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM'

Having read six of Joan Didion’s essays in an anthology, four of which I admired, I picked up an early edition of Slouching Towards Bethlehem from a second hand book store. That was over twenty years ago when, on second thought, I threw the copy away without reading it because the title of the book offended my sensitive faith. “How could anyone slouch towards Bethlehem?” I thought at the time, “where the Saviour of the world was born!” Christians ought always to be that sensitive, even if it means missing out. I don’t remember if I noticed that the title was borrowed from a poem by Yeats. But knowing that it came from there would not have lessened the offense.   

The essays in the book are from 1961-1968. The edition that I have this time is from 2008. It will be thrown out as well, only this time I will have read the contents first. Nothing of value would have been missed had I never read this book. Many offensive words and nasty allusions had been avoided (pp. 31, 50, 88, 89, 91, 97, 156), and at least one instance of the Lord’s name taken in vain (p. 224.) What a picky critic am I! Yes, though not picky enough; the main reason for doing this review is to point out that what is hailed as great prose is not only less than great by a great margin, but foul, foolish, and profane. 

After reading each essay, I wrote down my immediate point-form thoughts. I will begin with that. ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’—: About a woman who murders her husband; more eloquent than average, though with some failed attempts; paints the landscape well; finishes well; either the story is uninteresting, or uninterestingly told, perhaps both. ‘John Wayne: A Love Song’—: About a dialogue including John Wayne; you can hear it well; well written; would be hard to get right; pretty uninteresting. ‘Where the Kissing Never Stops’—: Stupid title has nothing to do with the essay; about Joan Baez and the leftist life of neurotic indolence. ‘Comrade Laski’—: About an obscure Communist in the USA; revealing of how radical Didion is. ‘7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38’—: Loosely about Howard Hughes; boring, vague stuff. ‘California Dreaming’—: About a think-tank Center where bad ideas are peddled in exchange for lavish payments. ‘Marrying Absurd’—: About dodging the draft by getting married in Las Vegas. ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’—: About hippies in San Francisco and the stupid things they say while high; no one seems to work, including Didion, who is among them; worthless all the way. ‘On Keeping a Notebook’—: About justifying writing things down in a notebook, which things appear trivial or absurd later; she’s kind of neurotic; she is an habitual observer, though, wondering about people she sees year after year as she goes through the motions of life: the ones she sees but does not know, that is; I do that too; the essay is sparse. ‘On Self-Respect’—: Ambiguous observations on self-respect, which virtue is poorly understood. ‘I Can’t Get that Monster out of my Mind’—: About film production in Hollywood; some okay observations. ‘On Morality’—: A poor essay on how no one has moral authority. ‘On Going Home’—: Quite well considered from a woman in her thirties; nicely nostalgic and thoughtful vis-à-vis going home after some years of being an adult on one’s own. ‘Notes from a Native Daughter’—: About the Sacramento Valley; uninteresting all the way. ‘Letter from Paradise’—: About recent history in Hawaii, circa WW2; some well placed words; very boring. ‘Rock of Ages’—: Not bad; about Alcatraz being an okay island to live on after its closure. ‘The Seacoast of Despair’—: Pretentious anti-industry essay; vague. ‘Guaymas, Sonora’—: A lame essay about a trip that Didion took to Mexico. ‘Los Angeles Notebook’—: Loosely about Santa Ana winds; disconnected piece; could have been written by someone in an asylum. ‘Goodbye to All That’—: Still seems excellent; nostalgic about youth; she reveals more, I think, than she intends.

The essay that the collection is named after is not about Bethlehem. But it is, inadvertently perhaps, about slouching. It is an essay about lazy hippies in San Francisco and the ‘hip’ things they say, like, “God died last year and was obited by the press” (p. 104.) It’s about how slouches live, Didion not excluded. “Almost everybody I meet in San Francisco,” she admits, “has to go to court at some point in the middle future” (p. 89.) It’s about the indolence of waiting for something to happen: “Something. Anything” (p. 98.) It’s about pretentious leftists eating what’s ‘macrobiotic’ (pp. 87, 112) and doing ‘blackface’ around ‘Negroes’ (pp. 125, 126.) It’s about aimless teenagers like Jeff who have left home because life at home was so oppressive. “For example I had chores,” he says. “If I didn’t finish ironing my shirts for the week I couldn’t go out for the weekend. It was weird. Wow” (p. 91.) It’s about the idea of a ‘guaranteed annual wage’ (p. 100), which is now, decades later, being called the ‘living wage.’ The lesson here is that bad ideas live on in new forms in the hope that one day they will be imposed. It’s about a five year old being given ‘acid and peyote’ (pp. 127, 128.) How can an author write about something like that without condemning it? How can she be a silent witness to a child that age being high? There is no indication that she called for help, even though she brags about having had, at the time, ‘an unofficial taboo contact with the San Francisco Police Department’ whom she sometimes met on the sly, she would have us believe, as an informer would do (p. 115.) The essay is also about, thankfully, people being ‘unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level’ (p. 113.) I say ‘thankfully’ because that is a good observation. The best example I can think of to corroborate the observation is the unconscious acceptance of abortion turning to conscious revulsion and repudiation once it is understood what abortion involves. This frequently happens, as Lila Rose’s anti-abortion movement has demonstrated. I give the example to make up for Didion’s lack of supply. As poor as this essay is, it is the only one in which can be found a moral analysis. Though she does it in a loose, flaccid way, Didion points to the loss of family connection as the cause of haphazard living among the youth (p. 123.) Her solution for purposelessness, though, is ‘mastery of language.’ Thinking for oneself may depend somewhat on mastery of language, like she says. But what good will language and thinking do without a moral base of beliefs? She was on gin and Dexedrine while writing this essay. Dexedrine may be a cognitive enhancer. But Dexedrine needs more knowledge to work with than what a thirty-something Didion has got. ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ is one of the most boring essays in the collection and one of the most barren that I have ever read; ten out of the twenty are no better; ‘all of them were hard to do’ and ‘papered with false starts’ (p. xiii.) Out of twenty essays, only two are worth reading. The rest are not worth the ink that it took to pen them. And that judgmental sentence is better prose than what 99% of the book contains.

When there is no moral base from which to reason, an author—or any person for that matter—is apt to mess up a good moral point. It is true, for example, that self-respect is not about gaining approval from others; and that a self-respectful person will sacrifice, if need be, his reputation (p. 143.) It is also true that self-respect springs from accepting responsibility (p. 145.) But is it self-respectful to not seek ‘absolution’ from the party that is hurt after adultery has been chosen? (Ibid.) That moral philosophy is poor indeed which calls this kind of behavior self-respectful! Joan Didion is seldom opinionated. When she does opine, she is usually off the mark because she has no declination for her compass. Her thoughts are not oriented to a biblical worldview, which worldview rightly preaches that the good you would have people do for you is the good that you should do for your neighbor. If you do evil to your neighbor instead of good, therefore, you do not love yourself as you should, for you are, by such behavior, inviting the same evil upon yourself. The deduction, then, is to ask forgiveness from the party that you have wronged. This would be more self-respectful than to remain haughtily inconsiderate. There are two possible reasons why Didion seldom judges anything. She does not want to seem traditional and moral, and certainly not Christian; and she does not want to draw ire from the irrationally judgmental left. She seems okay with anything, condemns nothing, and is careful (though not careful enough) to come short of prescribing something.             

While charting my course for this review, my notes began to crowd around the pattern that emerged: the subversive philosophy that we call cultural Marxism. Because of the content, and especially since ‘almost all of the pieces here were written for magazines’ (p. xii), I agree with the people who called Joan Didion a ‘media poisoner’ back in the day (p. 114.) What is cultural Marxism? Cultural Marxism is the philosophy of Marx in a sophisticated, experimental form. It is practiced by those who are always accusing others of being ‘fascists’ (p. 77), and it is what has given rise to Antifa, one of the domestic terrorist groups of our day. Cultural Marxism includes the idea that we ‘deserve better and better’ (p. 76); that is, without working for it. Cultural Marxism is when Joan Baez rears a weird school of ‘Nonviolence’ for Berkeley-type protesters, driving property values down (pp. 42-45, 48.) Joan Baez was, like Greta Thunberg is now, a ‘pawn of the protest movement’ (p. 47.) That is what cultural Marxists do. They pick someone who has talent or who can draw sympathy, and they agitate through her in order to quash liberty and destabilize capitalism. Like Baez says about herself, and like it is for Greta Thunberg, they have it ‘pretty easy’ (p. 58.) They are made comfortable by a capitalist system; but for the sake of Communism they work to destroy it. Even a small ‘shotgun-shell manufacturing business’ is unacceptable (p. 50.) Cultural Marxists are offended by ‘American flags’ (p. 59); with Didion, they sit under ‘the hammer-and-sickle flag and the portraits of Marx, Engels, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, and Stalin’ to discuss revolution (p. 62.) And note that Mao, the deadliest one in the list, is in ‘the favored center position’ (Ibid.) Joan Didion would likely say that hers was a journalistic role, and she would get a pass even if she refused to disavow the radical association. But what happens when Faith Goldy goes on podcast radio merely to interview men who lean white? She is shunned even by most conservatives. Faith Goldy is not a supremacist of any kind, while Joan Didion sits comfortably with a man who wants revolution by violence in order to establish Maoism in the USA! “Michael Laski…believes with Mao that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, a point he insists upon with blazing and self-defeating candor,” she writes (p. 62.) This means that Laski likes the idea of revolution by violence, and wants it to be the way. What does Didion say to that? “As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of the world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments…Michael Laski…did not feel as close to me as I did to him” (pp. 62, 63.) My ellipses do not, I assure you, alter the true sense. Do her words not express true love for the Communist cause? Might there not be a latent desire here, even, for a repeat, if necessary to bring Communism about, of the Maoist nightmare that killed tens of millions of people? She ought to be challenged to do some disavowing. To be comfortable with an avowed Communist is to be comfortable with Communism, is it not? Joan Didion was, I believe, and probably still is, a hard-line Communist, as all cultural Marxists are. Cultural Marxism is just progress toward the iron fisted ideal. She writes in a detached way; but she is not merely an objective observer. Her journalism may be distant and cold; but it is often cozy with the worst aspects of what she reports on. I am judging her as a woman in her thirties, for it was then that she wrote what’s inside this book. But has she ever recanted what she sits comfortable with in these essays? There are many ‘conversations with’ Joan Didion on YouTube. How friendly and informal! She deserves to be interviewed by someone who will ask her some tough questions before she dies. How hard is it to read her book, mark it up, have it ready, and then quote her own words to her before saying, “You were at ease with revolutionary Communists in your thirties. Are you still attracted to them?” Or how about, “Do you disavow the Bolshevik-style revolution that you seem to have endorsed in your essay on Comrade Laski?” Why should it be okay for one person to sit with, and express admiration for, a Communist if it is not okay for the next person to interview a Neo-Nazi? Has Communism not been the avenue to more horror than its socialist cousin? 

I do not believe that cultural Marxists are necessarily aiming for a dreamy kind of Communism. They would settle for something less—something like the Communism of China or even North Korea. They like power and control more than liberty and comfort. They would rather control in slight discomfort than be perfectly comfortable but have no one to control. They always believe that they themselves will be members of the controlling elite. They think this way because they are gullible enough to believe they are the favored persons that their friends assure them they are.      

On the back cover blurb we read that these essays embody ‘the essential portrait of America—particularly California—in the sixties.’ Unless this portrait is how hippie culture merged with cultural Marxism—which connection hit me like the proverbial thunderbolt—the portrait is faint. There are signs of the times in these essays; but few of them are noteworthy. In 1967 ‘the market was steady and the G.N.P. high’ (p. 84.) ‘The Shadow’ is obviously a reference to a radio drama of that day (p. 68.) It was still customary to use the male pronoun when speaking generically (p. xiii.) A ‘traditional straight wedding’ (p. 112) was not in distinction from a gay one. Blacks were called ‘Negroes’ (p. 126.) Natives were called ‘Indians’ (p. 146.) It was not unusual to cinch underwear with safety pins (p. 144.) Surfboarding was relatively new to California, the pastime having come from Hawaii (p. 189.) And, as Didion shockingly found out, some people still considered it indecent to wear a bikini to the market (pp. 222, 223.)

I doubt that Joan Didion realizes, even after five decades of dissemination, what these essays reveal. Not only are they a primer on cultural Marxism, they are a self-revelation of Joan Didion. Miss Baez, she says, is better looking ‘than her photographs suggest, since the camera seems to emphasize an Indian cast to her features’ (p. 44.) The ‘New Left’ (p. 62) would have to call her a racist for that comment. “Men paid for Newport,” she says, “and granted to women the privilege of living in it” (p. 211.) The New Left would have to call her a misogynist. She wrote the word ‘fag’ in her book (p. 223.) The New Left would have to call her homophobic and would have to ban her book. It was by virtue of getting married that she acquired furniture and a rescue from despair (pp. 232, 237.) The New Left should not be impressed by such a reliance on patriarchy. So Joan Didion had her needs met by a man, without whom she might have been swallowed up by destitution and depression in New York City. “I would sit in the apartment on Seventy-fifth Street paralyzed until my husband would call from his office and say gently that I did not have to get dinner” (p. 237.) That is not the woman we see on the cover of this book though! No, on the cover of this book is the picture of a self-made woman with trendy sunglasses on—a bold woman looking forward with a clenched jaw—a strong woman who must have needed no man to save her from anything! Maybe her depression in New York City had something to do with the base people that she had for friends. “It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised ‘new faces,’ there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him….” (p. 228.)       

William Smart, as the editor of Eight Modern Essayists, calls Didion’s style economical and elliptical. This is his way of finding something good to say about a style that is dull and disjointed. She has better than average moments, however. ‘Because I had been tired too long and quarrelsome too much and too often frightened’ (p. 187) is a smashing start for a sentence. Her repeated allusion to Robert Frost’s most famous poem is suitably applied to her life (pp. 230, 233.) Sailors on their way to war being ‘no longer in Des Moines and not yet in Danang’ (p. 195) is a poignant way of saying it. When one of her essays animates the reader—at least this reader—it is not so much in how she says something as in what she says. This is why I enjoyed ‘On Going Home’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’ both times I read them, over twenty years apart. Both essays are insightful and nostalgic from the perspective of a decade into adulthood. They are about the realization that youth and time do not stand still after all. “You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months….” (p. 230.) That’s life in one’s twenties. The novelty that I appreciated concerns vocabulary. These are the words that the essays introduced me to: sotto voce (under the breath), bonhomie, bouvardia, curlicue, anomie, atavistic, factitious, arriviste, ineluctably, and plash (pp. 21, 75, 82, 110, 154, 160, 162, 203, 211.) 

On the final page of one of the essays, I wrote: Obviously the essays that I liked years ago must have been selected from a lot of trash; there is no good reason for most of these essays to have been written. She admits, at least, that they ‘took more time than perhaps they were worth’ (p. xiii.) There is a very good reason, though, which I did not at first perceive, for reading and reviewing this book. That reason is to highlight who Joan Didion is and what cultural Marxism is. Because she and her writings are celebrated, their maleficent character should be exposed as much as they are espoused. It may be that Joan Didion has written essays to rival the few good ones of hers that I have read. But I will not, I’m pretty sure, be looking for them. 

How do essays of this character and merit go from being in magazines to being in a book? For whatever reason—probably a legal one—it is confessed in the Acknowledgments that much renaming has occurred since the essays appeared in magazines. Is it not likely that renaming some of the articles is a tactic to get readers to buy what they’ve already read? Why, for example, would an essay called ‘Just Folks at a School for Non-Violence’ be changed to ‘Where the Kissing Never Stops’? The original title tells us what to expect; the new one not only has nothing to do with what’s inside, but gives the reader no idea that he might have already read the piece. If an essay is not presented with its original title, should we not suspect that the reason might be a monetary one? If an admirer of Joan Didion looks over the contents page, is he not more likely to buy the book upon seeing that six of the essays must be new ones? If this bit of speculation is not wholly on the mark, neither is the speculation idle. Based on having read little more of Joan Didion than these twenty essays, I boldly surmise that had Didion remained ‘paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act’ (p. xi), the world of literature, as well as the readers of it, would not have suffered much from the omission.

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