Monday, October 21, 2019

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

I really loved this when I read it six years ago, but I didn’t remember it very well. After reading Didion’s excellent novel Play It As It Lays earlier this year, as well as my streak of reading books of essays lately, I wanted to reread it. As with any collection, the pieces are not equally good, but overall this is a great collection. The prose is perfect. As in Play It As It Lays, she takes a dim view of human nature. These pieces are brutal at times. But they are also tinged with a sadness that is part depression and part wistfulness that things don’t have to be the way they are. It never goes saccharine, but if there is an unsentimental version of nostalgia, this approaches it as nearly as any other book I’ve read.

The book is divided into three sections: Lifestyles In The Golden Land consists of pieces about Californians and profiles of some famous people, and closes with the title essay, an account of her journalistic visit to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. This last deserves its reputation as a sort of nail in the coffin of the liberal dream of the sixties. There is a sense, as she frames it, that even the people she talked to seemed to know that the era was flaming out. The other pieces in this section both demonstrate California’s appeal and show its emptiness and venality. Her profile on the reclusive Howard Hughes had some real insight into how we lie to ourselves and especially to others about what we actually want. The gap between self and self perception is well on display here. I’ve heard some people say she takes a condescending view towards her subjects, but I disagree with that assessment. I think she sees them through her bleak (almost nihilistic) worldview. If she finds her subjects suspect, she finds herself equally so.

The second section, called Personals, contained the essays that resonated with me most; On Self Respect and On Morality. I read both several times, and while I’m not entirely sure the extent to which I agree with her, they made me pause and reckon with them. In Self Respect, Didion says that, like Jordan Baker from Great Gatsby, we have to have the courage of our mistakes; that there is a cost to standing up for yourself. I know that my personality is such that I often will not stand up for myself, so this was a bracing, challenging thought. If this sounds like self-help, it’s a bleak form of it, and to paraphrase Sara Gran, you have to take help where you can get it. In On Morality, Didion talks about distrusting the casual use of the word immoral, especially when taken out of a specific context. She never quite says there is no morality, but she does think there is a heavy dose of cant in our discussion of it. People who have done evil things often do them because they were following their consciences, and so we could stand to be at least a little skeptical of our own. I will be returning to these essays often, I think.

In this second section there is also an essay on Hollywood called I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind. She had clearly thought a lot about the “studio system” that gets blamed for so many bad movies, and is very critical of the response to it from the burgeoning New Hollywood and from imported Art House Cinema. It is very easy to laugh along with her assessment of self important message movies, but I think she was maybe a little too harsh. Dr. Strangelove, for instance, wasn’t nearly as empty as she describes it. She was dismissive of Bergman as well. That said, I haven’t seen a lot of the movies she discussed, so I’ll not comment beyond saying that I also get frustrated with message movies, even if I more or less agree with the message.

In the final section she talks about California, and in the final essay about her sojourn in New York. I’ve never been to California or New York, so I can’t confirm her vision of either, but the writing does seem very rooted in those places. Her evocation of Sacramento was particularly good, or at least seemed so to me.

Overall, this is an excellent, bleak collection. She resembles Orwell very little, but she does one thing I do like, that he did as well. As best I can tell she is some stripe of left of center, but she does not let that descend into utopianism. She criticizes where criticism is needed. I appreciate that.

Highly Recommended.

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