When I am asked why I do not find Joan Didion appealing, I am tempted to answer -- not entirely facetiously -- that my charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel, someone who has porcelain elephant end tables, someone who has chosen to burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo; I am disinclined to find endearing a chronicler of the 1960s who is beset by migraines that can be triggered by her decorator's having pleated instead of gathered her new diningroom curtains. These, and other assorted facts -- such as the fact that Didion chose to buy the dress Linda Kasabian wore at the Manson trial at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills -- put me more in mind of a neurasthenic Cher than of a writer who has been called America's finest woman prose stylist. (Thinking of Didion's drapes, it occurred to me that in the worst of all possible worlds, Franny Glass might have grown up to be Maria Wyeth of Play It As It Lays. Her faith in the Jesus Prayer permanently misplaced, and possessed of no secular equivalent to fill the vacuum, in her second incarnation Franny is Maria, a fragile madonna of acedia and anomie. This feeling was confirmed when I reread all of Didion, an activity that, trust me, is roughly akin to spending several days in the company of Job's comforters.)
I chose first, for no particular reason, to read an essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." In this essay, Didion reports, or purports to report, on the murder case of one Lucille Maxwell Miller, who was convicted by the State of California of having killed her husband by dousing him with gasoline and allowing him to burn to death while he slept in a Volkswagen she had been driving.
Until I sat down to write this essay, I could not, in fact, remember whether Lucille Maxwell Miller had been convicted or acquitted. Now, unlike the heroines of Didion's fiction, I do not regard memory as an affliction; I remember. I remember in part because I have no choice, but also in part because (unlike Didion's heroines, whose fate depends less upon memory and volition than upon selective amnesia), I believe that without memory there is no civilization. To complain ("I am so tired of remembering things") of remembering is to express a wish to be dead, to return to some pre-Edenic state in which good and evil, right and wrong, do not exist. It is a wish to erase not only one's personal painful past but our collective past -- which, in turn, is an invitation to believe that we cannot, individually or collectively, affect the present or the future.
I remember; so why didn't I remember what was surely a salient fact to Lucille Maxwell Miller if not to Ms. Didion? The reason -- and I ask you to understand that this is directly related to lavender pillows and matching lavender orchids -- is that Didion was not in truth engaged in reporting about Lucille Maxwell Miller; Didion was reporting on Didion's sensibility, which in this essay, as in all her essays, assumes more importance than, say, the existence of the electric chair. What happens in this essay is that Lucille Maxwell Miller is convicted -- by Didion - - of wearing polyester and Capris, of living in a house with a snack bar and a travertine entry, of speaking in cliches, of having a picture window and a family room and a husband nicknamed Cork, of frequenting the Kapu-Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, and of never having eaten an artichoke. Lucille Maxwell Miller's real sin -- a truly, as it turned out, mortal one -- was to live in a subdivision house in the San Bernardino Valley and to hope to find "the good life" there, instead of in Brentwood Park or Malibu. Unlike those heroines of Didion's novels, Lucille Maxwell Miller never floated camellias in silver bowls to stave off encroaching madness or corruption -- no such exquisite desperation for her; she found a "reasonable little dressmaker" instead. The crime for which Didion indicts Lucille Maxwell Miller is of being tacky -- of not, that is, being Didion. This, you see, is where the lavender pillows come in: the body of Lucille Maxwell Miller's husband -- burned black -- offends Didion less than the fact that Lucille Maxwell Miller wore hair curlers. It isn't Didion's sense of morality that has suffered a blow, it's her sense of style. . . . Which is why, although I have nothing in principle against pretty houses or lavender love seats, Ms. Didion's lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz. What I mean to say is Didion writes about Lucille Maxwell Miller -- and her loyal baby sitter, and her friends, and her admittedly silly lover -- as if they were mutants. No; she writes as if her subject were the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest.
No; in fact, her subject is always herself.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'd like to talk a little about Ms. Didion's highly acclaimed style before I move on to her Politics.
Didion's "style" is a bag of tricks. Some of the effects she produces are quite pretty, even momentarily beautiful. But make no mistake: these are tricks -- techniques -- that can be learned (I don't know why they have evoked so much wonder). If, for example, I put Al Capone and sweet williams in the same sentence, I can be fairly sure that a certain number of readers will be jolted by the juxtaposition -- their eyes will cross, and they will assume that they are in the presence of genius. They will be wrong, of course, because unless I use this technique to draw them into meaning, I will have cheated them: a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat and get away with it; a writer's job is to tell us what the rabbit was doing in the hat in the first place. And, as Didion will gladly acknowledge, she is interested only in the what (the "empirical evidence"), not in the why.
Didion uses the Capone-sweet williams trick often, sometimes with dazzling effect:
"In the years after Luis was shot water hyacinths clogged the culverts at Progreso."You see how it works.
"Hear the doomed children celebrate all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small." (Doomed is the trick word here.)
"Look at the slut on Easter morning. Marin had a straw hat one Easter, and a flowered lawn dress." (Slut/flowered lawn: it works.)
"What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask." (What makes those sentences work? I ask. Cadence, I answer. What do those sentences mean? you may ask. Don't.)
From Play It As It Lays: "I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is 'nothing.'" As soon as Maria Wyeth ascertains that the answer is "nothing," she segues to "Damson plums, apricot preserves, Sweet India relish and pickled peaches. Apple chutney. Summer squash succotash." That juxtaposition of nihilism with all the ripeness and plenitude of the physical world -- the emptiness/cornucopia syndrome -- is what passes for style. (Any recital, litany, of fruits, vegetables, and old- fashioned flowers is evocative -- although, with Didion, we are never sure of what; anyone can learn to do it: read a Burpee catalogue.)
"The acrid string of weeds breaking under them...was stronger than all the roses and jasmine gardenias in the whole of Mercy Hospital."
"Alcatraz Island is covered with flowers now: orange and yellow nasturtiums, geraniums, sweet grass, blue iris, blackeyed susans...candy tuft...."
Sometimes it doesn't work.
As in: "Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not have let them put needles there."
Carter is Maria's husband, and, in the real world, he would -- anyone would -- have let "them" put needles in the spine of Maria's retarded child Kate, soft down or no, if he thought the needles would help. I am not being perversely literal-minded. I am concerned here with truth, as well as with fact, and the fact is that Didion is being perversely sentimental, dismissing the truth in order to achieve effect.
(I am also not unaware of the danger of confusing Didion with the narrators of her novels. I am aware of the danger, but I discount it, because the sensibility of her female narrators is indistinguishable from that which informs her essays.)
Her style has been acclaimed as spare, lean. Not so. The emperor is actually wearing more clothes, more finery, than his structure will support. As in (from A Book of Common Prayer):
That was August.
Boca Grande is.
Boca Grande was.
Boca Grande shall be.
That is padding -- elegant padding, if your taste runs to that sort of thing, but padding nonetheless. It sounds good; it doesn't signify. "World without end, Amen" (from the Book of Common Prayer) sounds good -- gorgeous -- too; but it signifies: we know from the context what we are meant to feel and to understand. When Didion pulls one of her Boca Grande tricks, we are not meant to understand anything (except, perhaps, that even white girls have rhythm).
Here is another kind of trick, a trick used to round off a paragraph or an essay that threatens to be going nowhere. From The White Album: "James Jones had known a great simple truth: the Army was nothing more than life itself." Nonsense. Tell it to the Marines. Look hard at that capricious sentence and it wilts -- for the very good reason that there is no truth in it, only contrivance.... Actually, as I think about it, it's worse than that: there is just enough truth in that sentence for it to slip by unnoticed. Sentences that contain half-truths should not be allowed to slip by unnoticed. As Didion herself says, "The consciousness of the human organism is carried in its grammar."
"I never expected you to fall back on style as argument," BZ says to (boring) Maria Wyeth just before he dies his curiously antiseptic sleeping-pill death, a death as cool and clean as Ali McGraw's in Love Story. Vomit, excrement, the mess attendant upon even this least harsh of suicide methods, would have been technically inappropriate for Didion's ending to Play It As It Lays:
I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.
Why, BZ would say.
Why not I say.
One would be hard-pressed to imagine even self-absorbed Maria uttering these words while lying in BZ's mess -- blood on the sheets -- in the bed they share while he ends his purposeless (boring) life.
Didion uses style as argument.
Sometimes her tricks appear to be merely cheap, when in fact they are pernicious: "I live in a house in Hollywood in which, during the late thirties and early fifties, a screenwriters' cell of the Communist party often met." In that house is "a vast Stalinist couch." How does Stalinist deco differ from Trotskyite deco or Leninist deco? one might ask. This is an example of Didion's using style as argument: one cannot imagine her calling attention to a "vast capitalist couch." Style as argument: the house, she says, "suggests the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals." Didion uses the "vast Stalinist couch" to illustrate her dearly held belief in the futility of all human endeavor -- particularly if it originates from the Left.
Her style . . . her eye: about Boca Grande (the inspiration for which is said to be Panama), Grace, the rich narrator, says: "There is poverty here, but it is obdurately indistinguishable from comfort. We all live in cinderblock houses." Oh, no. The eye that sees no difference between the cinderblock houses of the poor and the cinderblock houses of the rich is a cold, voracious one; it is, furthermore, astigmatic. One does not have to have lived in a Central American country (I have), one has only to read Newsweek to understand that there are certain very real differences between the cinderblock houses of the rich and the cinderblock houses of the poor. Earthquakes, for example: the esthetically unpleasing cinderblock houses of the poor collapse during earthquakes; the esthetically unpleasing cinderblock houses of the rich do not. One assumes that that is a matter of some concern to those who live therein. (One might also mention plumbing. Didion does not.) I don't want you to think I am belaboring this; you may argue that Grace/Didion is being ironic when she compares the cinderblock houses of the poor to the cinderblock houses of the rich. That defense won't play: for irony to be effective, it has to start from a definable and recognizable moral base (think for a moment of Evelyn Waugh, and, whether you accept his moral premises or not, you will understand immediately the point I am trying to make); irony lacks pungency as well as passion if it lacks context and does not draw us into meaning.
Didion makes it a point of honor not to struggle for meaning. (I have yet to meet anyone who has offered a satisfactory explanation of the first and last sentences of A Book of Common Prayer: "I will be her witness." "I have not been the witness I wanted to be." Witness to what? one asks. Some ask. I no longer ask.) I do not require that a novelist eradicate all mystery, which is in any case impossible: think of Graham Greene, who tells us everything we need to know about his characters; we are still left with a sense of the ineffable, and no one can quarrel with that or with Greene until and unless God tells us why He permits suffering and evil. Think also of the existentialists, and in particular of Camus, who spent a lifetime exploring the absurdity of the human condition -- and left us with so keen a sense of exhilaration as to amount to hope. Compare the sensibility of the existentialists to that of Didion -- which also stems from the 1950s -- because while Didion chooses to call attention to that which is ludicrous (Huey Newton spouting rhetoric), the existentialists, and Camus in particular, chose to call attention to that which was and is tragically absurd. The difference between the ludicrous and the absurd is the difference between the mirror (Didion) and the void (Camus). Reports from the mirror are likely to be jaundiced, puling, and debilitating; reports from the void can, not so strangely if you think about it long enough, inspire courage and the will to act. You will remember that transcendent moment when Camus's Sisyphus, bound to his absurd fate, poised on top of the mountain, sees his rock, his burden, plummet to the earth; at that moment, lucid and aware, Sisyphus knows that he will once again and forever push the rock, the burden, up the mountain; but in that moment, wrestling with meaning, he becomes truly human. The essence of human dignity resides in that struggle for meaning. (Another point in Sisyphus's favor was that he didn't whine, even though the gods neglected to place a swimming pool on top of the mountain for his refreshment.)
Now listen to Didion:
"I prefer not to know."
"The meaning continues to elude me.'
"Trying to find some order, a pattern, I found none."
"Almost everybody I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why."
"None of it mattered."
Nothing matters, Didion writes. What one hears is, "Only what I have to tell you matters." And, for Didion, only surfaces matter.
Didion is like a latter-day Scarlett O'Hara: she will think about whatever it is she thinks about tomorrow when she dabbles her toes in her pool, all the while calling attention beguilingly to the hairshirt she has fashioned for herself . . . which may explain why so many male critics find her adorable.
"What is, is," Werner Erhard tells his fans. "All connections," Didion tells her fans, are "equally meaningful and equally senseless." It does not say much for us that those are the messages we like to hear. Part of Didion's appeal, I am convinced, lies in her refusal to forge connections (notably between the personal and the political or between the personal and the transcendental). In spite of the sense of dread that suffuses her work, it contains this implied message of (false) comfort: if Didion -- who is so awfully smart -- doesn't trouble to make connections, why should we? "What is, is." In Play It As It Lays we are told: "Everything was happening exactly the way it was supposed to happen." "I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day, but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes me a letter." Few among us would raise three cheers for the mad person who writes us letters (Didion is not alone in preferring frangipane to obscene phone calls), but, leaving that aside, the point to be made is that -- I don't know how else to explain Didion's appeal -- readers find Didion's fatalism and her fashionably apocalyptic outlook comforting. If the plague is indeed coming (I ask you again to think of Camus), what is there to do but wait, curtains drawn and migrainous, contemplating -- if we are lucky enough to have them -- our roses?
While I am sure that Didion would deny that she romanticizes insanity (indeed, she reproaches Doris Lessing for celebrating the logic of the madhouse), her revulsion against the struggle for meaning is so overwhelming that, in the world of her fiction, only the cruel, the blindly sentimental, or the mad are functional and/or attempt to interpret data or analyze facts. "They [the unfeeling keepers of Maria's daughter, Kate] will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here [in the loony bin]." In A Book of Common Prayer Grace says, "Our notoriously frequent revolutions are made not by the guerrilleros but entirely by people we know. This is a hard point for the outsider of romantic sensibility to grasp." Grace -- who owns 59.8 percent of the arable land of Boca Grande "and about the same percentage of the decision- making process in La Republica" -- is drawn to the lonely, witless, wandering American Charlotte because, among other things, Charlotte has no interest in "the reform of the Boca Grande tax structure." In Didion's moral universe, to be interested in tax reform is to be truly crazy. (I would find this point of view funny if I didn't find it dangerous.) Any attempt at political analysis is rendered perversely romantic. Grace stays in Boca Grande (which for all practical purposes she owns) because her days "are too numbered to spend them in New York or Paris or Denver imagining the light in Boca Grande, how flat it is, how harsh and still. How dead white at noon." It ought to be clear from this that it is Didion who is perversely romantic, and it ought to be clear that what she romanticizes is privilege and terminal lassitude. What contempt Didion has for those who "look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson," for those who "interpret what we see"! For Didion, the only appropriate response to suicide, revolution, to all the ills the flesh is heir to, is "vertigo," "nausea." (Of course it huffs to be crazy, but the pain is somewhat assuaged if you own a country; orchids provide some surcease from pain, too.)
Now, Didion tells us, many times, and in many ways, that her mind "veers inflexibly toward the particular."
To what in particular? Here is where we must look hard at Didion's politics. (I see now that I have been writing about politics all alonge "ideas," though Didion professes not to have, and not to wish to have, "ideas"), Didion scores some good acerbic points about a man foolish enough to drive "into the Jordanian desert in a white Ford Cortina rented from Avis with an Avis map and two bottles of CocaCola." Well, of course that's folly. But Didion -- let us at once call her a reactionary -- cannot then refrain from telling us that earlier Pike was in Baltimore for the trial of the Catonsville Nine. I guess nobody's ever told her that an idea -- or a cause -- is not responsible for those who believe in it. By way of demolishing Pike, she manages to reduce the trial of the Catonsville Nine -- an event of some political (and perhaps even spiritual) significance -- to a grotesquerie. Similarly, when she reports -- selectively and superficially -- on the Black Panthers, on campus disorders, she zeroes in on the most foolish of spokespersons, making a mockery of the causes that inspired good men to good action by ridiculing the worst of the best. Children playing odd games, she calls campus protesters, committing a sin of omission: these "children" were playing for their lives (Kent State?); the fact that there were con artists and idiots and tricksters among them does not alter that fact. (Because lerry Rubin is now in love with hot tubs are we to believe that all protest against our criminal engagement in Vietnam was inspired by lunatics?) It is because Didion does not believe that human beings can modify or transform the world that she is obliged to call attention -- in a series of verbal snapshots, like a Diane Arbus of prose -- only to the freaks of the 1960s: In Slouching she writes trenchantly about one Comrade Laski, a self-styled freelance revolutionary with no discernible goals: "I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this 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; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to 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.... You see what the world of Michael Laski is: a minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness." For Didion, all "pain-killers" -- heroin, God, the march on Selma, the gin and hot water and Dexedrine she guzzles to write her deflating essays -- are alike. They are, she tells us, alike, but clearly she finds -- and we are meant to find -- her own pain, and her own methods of alleviating her own pain, far more consequential and lovable than those of others.
Didion turns this dirty trick -- the trick of discrediting a cause by discrediting the advocates of a cause -- against Joan Baez, too ("Where the Kissing Never Stops"): Baez "did not want . . . to entertain; she wanted to move people, to establish with them some communion of emotion. [Of course this might be said of any performer, but never mind.] By the end of 1964 [Baez] had found, in the protest movement, something upon which she could focus the emotion. She went into the South . . . [to] Negro colleges . . . always there where the barricade was. . . . She is the pawn of the protest movement. " Thepawn ? Because Didion seems incapable of believing in, or exercising, volition and free will, she very neatly projects this quality onto Baez, who, admittedly, has been guilty of uttering some mushyminded platitudes in her time (the writing on some of her album covers is quite as adolescent as Didion says it is). Didion is wicked -- okay, brilliant -- when she writes about the "chil- dren" who came to Baez's peace school; they "were not," Didion says, "very much in touch with the larger scene." But what does Didion believe to be "the larger scene," and how does she perceive it? We do not know. More importantly, the fact that Baez has both entertained people and attempted to alleviate human misery counts for nothing in Didion's scheme of things.
Didion turns her gift for mockery against the poor old Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, too. She is wonderfully witty about the center's "ectoplasmic generality"; and one must concede that there is something inherently ludicrous in Dinah Shore's earnestly discussing civil rights with Bayard Rustin.
(There's something inherently ludicrous about the Jaycees, too: they wear funny hats. I'm the first one to laugh at a good joke; but I don't see that their funny hats give us the right to laugh at their avowed desire to "open our neighborhoods to those of all colors," and I don't find their concern with youth centers and public health clinics corny -- and even if I did, I wouldn't find integrated neighborhoods and youth centers and public health clinics corny.)
Didion, who lives somewhere in Ayn Rand country, makes fun (in Run River) of the character who "stood up for the little fellow and for his Human Right to a Place in the Sun"; she makes no apology for the character whom she quite truthfully describes as a "robber land baron."
How come, I'd like to know, her art of deflation is never put to use against those in power? When Didion deigns to mention the ruling class, she puts ruling class in quotes -- which ought to tell us something about the woman who voted for Goldwater.
To assert that there was much about the 1960s that was bizarre, ludicrous, hedonistic, and muddle-headed is like coming out in favor of white wine in carafes and fresh daisies -- most of us recognize the obvious when we see it. Many of Didion's observations about the self-serving "children" of the 1960s are dead accurate; but that doesn't give her the right to fiddle while Watts burns. In "Los Angeles Notebook" Didion writes, "At the time of the 1965 Watts riots, what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires.... The wind [that damned Santa Ana that blows through her novels and her essays] shows us how close to the edge we are." To the edge of what? What is the apocalypse? And who, or what, has brought us to this place? Do not look to Didion for answers.
"Of course," Didion says, pandering to our worst instincts, our careless and selfish desires for political quietude, "we would all like to 'believe' in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves." The essay in which that sentence appears was written in 1965: Vietnam. In 1965 Didion told us that "all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times . . . do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue." Well, whoever said they did? Believing as I do in original sin, I am not so crazed or so simple-minded as to believe that human nature can be redeemed by an act of Congress; but I also believe that the consequences of not acting are as drastic as the consequences of acting: one marched because it was right and fitting to do so, and one allowed Providence to handle the rest. One acted upon the principle -- the principle being in this case that the war in Vietnam was atrocious, as was the bombing of children in Alabama -- and allowed the consequences to take care of themselves.
What Didion does in her essays she does also in her novels: in A Book of Common Prayer she parodies a Kunstler- like political being who defends the "Alameda Three" and the "Tacoma Eleven," who has an Andy Warhol silk print of Mao and who makes of having cocaine a civil libertarian issue. I think it's fine and dandy to poke fun at radical chic -- I rather like it when someone like John Simon does it, because, say what you will about Simon, he operates from a moral base, however eccentric, and he includes the words right and wrong in his vocabulary. But Didion is incapable of divorcing radical from chic; she hangs out with a sorry crowd.
It's true that Didion occasionally ridicules the rich; it ought not to follow that this gives her the right to express contempt for the poor. In A Book of Common Prayer Charlotte (whose daughter Marin is another empty-headed "revolutionary," Patty Hearst-style) conceives an idea for a boutique in Boca Grande: "Needlepoint canvases of her own design and Porthault linens, the market for which would have seemed limited to Elena, Bianca, Isabel, and me [La Republica's oligarchy]." "Think," Charlotte says, "of a lath-house crossed with a Givenchy perfume box . . . gardenias." All very well; but then we are treated to this: Didion's narrator has "no patience with the fact that almost no one in Boca Grande would cross the street to be inoculated. They were all fatalistas about cholera. Cholera was an opportunity for God to prove His love." If you are a Didion fan, you may be inclined to see this as Scathing Honesty ("Didion writes so tightly it cuts the flesh": Vogue); I see it as myopia. Didion does not see very clearly from the vantage point of whatever luxury hotel she happens to be staying in. I have seen people lining up for cholera shots, and I have seen people die of cholera, and I am here to tell you that Didion is lying.
While I'm on the subject of cholera, I'd like to make two more points, one of them obvious. Didion sees the death of one damaged child as infinitely moving: "They put shoes on her feet. Red shoes." She sees the decimation of an entire populace by cholera as a matter for scorn. I call that writing sentimental; I call that sensibility nasty. The second point: Charlotte is capable of performing noble, self-sacrificing deeds: she helps to inoculate the fatalistas against cholera, risking her own life to do so. Admirable in truth. However, what we get with this is Didion's insistent, insidious -- and aristocratic -- perception that the only good deeds are those so private as to escape the general notice. All virtue resides in acts so private that only the participants can understand their significance. Read A Book of Common Prayer again, and you will see that what is implied is that having politics paralyzes the potential for performing good deeds: to swallow Didion it is necessary to swallow the notion that all acts of virtue are -- must be -- divorced from politics.... I wonder if Didion is acquainted with the Manichaean heresy.
Didion -- reporting from what she calls "the quintessential intersection of nothing . . . the hard white core of the world" (her vanity table) -- is obsessed with the child trapped in the fridge, the "children burning in the locked car in the supermarket lot," the honeymooners kited in their thermal blanket by a coral snake. Yes; this is the stuff of nightmare. How meanspirited would it be to point out that this is also the stuff that calls attention to Didion's Exquisite Sensibility? It's hard to fault people for their obsessions, but Didion's proclivity for
"aimless revelation" does tell us something: to attach oneself only to the unanalyzable incident (especially when one's subject matter intersects with the political passions of our times) is to prefer to love one's pain; it is to caress and nourish one's pain, to find it of infinitely more value than the pain of "acquaintances [who] read The New York Times and try to tell me the news of the world."
"The notion of general devastation had for Maria a certain sedative effect. The rattlesnake in the playpen, that was different, that was particular, that was punitive." No. For the enthralled reader, I think, it works the other way around: the reader can enter into Maria's obsession with the rattlesnake in the playpen -- which after all he never really expects to see except in his dreams -- and, thus sedated, dismiss the "general devastation" as irrelevant to his life. The reader derives a certain masturbatory pleasure from contemplating events over which he has no control, and which he cannot be expected to analyze rationally.
Didion is the lyricist of the irrational. Some people find that charming. I do not.
So far I have spoken of the obvious. Now I want to move on to Didion's more subtle and covertly political messages, to a place where Ayn Rand's characters Howard Roark and John Galt -- both rugged individualists whose religion is laissez-faire capitalism -- would find themselves at home. In a nicely written and apparently harmless essay, "Many Mansions,' Didion expounds (and she does it well) on the sterility of the Governor's mansion in California -- an enlarged version of a tract house that Jerry Brown, with a rare show of good sense, has chosen not to inhabit. Didion expresses a preference for the old deserted Victorian mansion in Sacramento, with its secret rooms and hiding places, its gingerbread and grace. And its marble pastry table. Didion, if we are to believe her, alone among all the visitors to the Sacramento mansion understands about marble pastry tables: "There is no way to say this without getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class." Oh, come on! Does one have to be upper class to understand about marble pastry tables? My grandmother, who came from Calabria, understood about marble pastry tables; so do I, and I live in Brooklyn in a cosmetically renovated tenement. Julia Child talks about marble pastry tables in McCall's, for heaven's sake. Is Didion the only classy lady around? Why does she ruin a perfectly good essay with a gratuitous comment on class and the philistinism of the bourgeoisie?
She is tricky. In her essay on the Getty museum she exalts the Little Man -- at the expense of egalitarianism. First she says, and she is right, "The Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it. Ancient marbles were not always attractively faded and worn. Ancient marbles once appeared just as they appear here: as strident, opulent evidence of imperial power and acquisition. Ancient marbles were not always bleached and mellow and 'tasteful.' Ancient marbles once looked as they do here: as if dreamed by a Mafia don...." Then she spoils it: "The Getty advises us that not much changes. The Getty tells us that we were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were and in so doing makes a profoundly unpopular political statement." What a quirky moral to draw. "The Getty," she says, is "a museum built not for those elitist critics but for 'the public.' Here was a museum that . . . need never depend on any city or state or federal funding, a place forever 'open to the public and free of all charges.' On the whole, 'the critics' distrust great wealth, but 'the public' does not. On the whole, 'the critics' subscribe to the romantic view of man's possibilities, but 'the public' does not . . . the Getty [is] a palpable contract between the very rich and the people who distrust them least." My dear, tell it to the taxi driver who can't get gasoline for his cab. (And now think of The Fountainhead and of Howard Roark's reasons for blowing up a public housing project -- and of the poor who approve, in this cloud- cuckoo world, of his blowing up the housing project designed to benefit them, the rich and the poor acting in collusion against the "liberal critics" -- and you will see that we are dealing with kindred, so to speak, "minds.")
And, not so incidentally, Didion indicts the dreamers of "the American Dream" for "F.H.A. housing" and "the acquisition of major appliances...." How can one tell such a woman that she is confusing necessity with greed, treating them as if they were the same?
Here is another Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged epiphany: Didion is at the Hoover Dam. She thinks about water a lot. Not about the politics of water, she is quick to point out (maybe she never saw Chinatown ), just about . . . water: "I just stood there with my hands on the turbine.... It was a peculiar moment, but so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself. . . . That was the image I had always seen, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is." Well, if she chooses to regard a turbine with awe commensurate with that usually reserved for the contemplation of the ark of the covenant, that's her business. But why are critics so eager to celebrate a writer who celebrates a world "free of man"? I am defeated by my own question.
She tells us ("On the Morning After the Sixties"), "If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect a man's fate in the slightest, I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending." If you can believe that, you'll believe anything. The only happy ending for Didion is an unhappy ending. There's a lot I could say about barricades (as opposed to swimming pools), but I am now sick of Didion's paeans to the futility of human endeavor, her elevation of pain to a sacrament, and, in any case, I doubt that Didion's myopia would permit her to see a barricade if it were put up smack in the middle of her lavender sitting room. (What I would like to see is an essay by her that begins, On the morning after the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto . . . )
I suppose something should be said about Didion's essay on the women's movement, but not by me. What interests me more than her trivial and trivializing essay on women's liberation is that she sometimes expresses notions that would not be at all alien to the staunchest of feminists: "Women don't ever win.... Because winners have to believe they can affect the dice." If that is not a tacit admission that women are relatively powerless, what is? Of course, her female characters are all "strikingly frail" (emeralds complement their fragility beautifully), their eyes are too large for their faces, and, honey, they cry a bucket. Delicate pieces of machinery, humor is alien to them. And look closely and you'll see that none of her female characters has any female friends ("There existed between [Lily] and other women a vacuum in which overtures faded out, voices became inaudible, connections broke"). And Didion weeps for them, weeps for them. Which is probably why I love one sentence in Run River in which Didion allows herself to see some humor in their general incompetence: "Somebody holds the door open for Lily in a hardware store, and she thinks she has a very complex situation on her hands"; in a novel that closely resembles a gothic, that is a truly funny line.
"She had always smiled that way at men she did not know . . . wanting them to want her, recognize her as the princess in the tower." Alix Shulman might have written that sentence.
There is an essay about Georgia O'Keeffe that I find wonderful, an essay that is as "feminist" as anything in Ms.: "Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O'Keeffe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.... At the Art Students League in New York one of her fellow students advised her that, since he would be a great painter and she would end up teaching painting in a girls' school, any work of hers was less important than modeling for him." Could one ask for a better denunciation of cultural oppression than that?
(I can't resist quoting something Gloria Steinem once called out to a journalist on her way to interview Didion: "Ask her how come, if she spends all her time crying and swimming and struggling to open a car door, she finds the energy to write so much?")
"Things said out loud for her had an aura of danger so volatile that it could be controlled only in the dark province by those who share beds." I know few women for whom this sentence would not resonate; it speaks to a particular truth of women's condition, it is all too true. As is Didion's description of Maria's abortion and her subsequent horror at the waste, the fetus in the pail. (If I have seemed, up to now, to be unfair to Didion, if I have neglected to say that her conservatism can sometimes be a refreshing antidote to doctrinaire radicalism-by-rote, to the shiny new baubles of current public opinion . . . if I have not acknowledged that some of her sentences leap off the page and find their way to the heart, in which her sentiments have already, inarticulated, been lodged, it is because that is a path well worn: when a writer has been so much overpraised, it is difficult, if not pointless, to join the chorus.)
Didion writes about Newport: "The very houses are men's houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways, shot through with plumbing to collect salt water, tanks to store it, devices to collect rainwater, vaults for table silver, equipment, inventories of china and crystal and 'Tray cloths- fine' and 'Tray cloths-ordinary.' " That is, again, a "feminist" construct; and it reminds us that feminism, at its most useful and least cranky, is synonymous with good sense and clear vision, with sanity.
Still, for Didion to have any sympathy with anyone who aligns herself with any cause, any movement, is too much to hope for. She informs us balefully that she feels "radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people." Like Grace in A Book of Common Prayer, she is de afuera -- the outsider: "I have been de afuera all my life." I think she wears that singularity like a badge. "I am different" translates into "I am superior." (When I came of age in the 1950s, everyone one knew was an Outsider, and proud of it; and every Outsider belonged to a privileged Inner Circle of Outsiders, and then we grew up.)
That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion. To delight in her sensibility is to say, "I'm different, too -- better than other people. I see that she sees what I see."
Didion, who can manage, maddeningly, to sound smug and remorseful at the same time, tells us that she has no opinions: "In New York [on a book tour] the air was charged and crackling and shorting out with opinion, and we [she and Quintana Roo] pretended we had some. Everyone in New York had opinions." To pretend to carry no mental baggage at all makes one a voyeur at the party, a detached onlooker at the execution. There is a precariously thin line between voyeurism and decadence; and I am bound also to conclude that Didion, the participant-observer -- at Hollywood parties, at the Manson trial, etc., etc. -- titillates her readers with faint whiffs of decadence that emanate not only from the observed but from the observer -- a poseur who does indeed have consistent opinions, although they are disguised as instinctual, idiosyncratic reactions to ephemeral phenomena, and thereby rendered less threatening and more winsome.
The reason I don't love Didion, after all is said and done is that I need to be told forthrightly what a writer loves, or more precisely, what she values. I don't like to be seduced by indirection.
We know she loves -- or is obsessed by -- water. (There is not a day, she says, that she does not think of lifesavers "and what they are doing, what situations they face, what green- glass water."(She also -- wouldn't you know it? -- gets seasick.) There is in addition not a day that she doesn't think of the Hoover Dam and of the Quail Reservoir in Los Angeles County: "I knew I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself." (Delirious overstatement; but then again, one of the things Didion can be said to love is delirium.) She loves swimming pools -- which, she would have us believe, are "a symbol not of affluence, but of order, of control over the uncontrollable." And she loves orchids and greenhouses (all her life she has "craved the light and silence of greenhouses . . . all my life I had been trying to spend time in one greenhouse or another"). That's nice. She has been enamored of "yellow theatrical silk" curtains, too. That's nice. And she loves Cohn Wayne and she loves Rhett Butler.
Like all writers with an apocalyptic turn of mind, she, like Lily in Run River, values a golden past never precisely defined; she has nostalgia for "a place of infinite possibilities for faith and honor and the grace of commonplace pleasures"; and she has dreamed of an unattainable "just-around-the-corner country where the green grass grew."
In an essay called "Self-Respect," she lets us know that she abhors "sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness." These are pretty sentiments, prettily expressed; but her sense of tragic regret rings hollow to me; it is as nonspecific as her proposed remedy: "The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs."
"Except on that most primitive level -- our loyalties to those we love -- what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?" Then to what does she give primacy? If not to personal conscience, to authority? To a "social code," she answers: "I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing -- beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code -- what is 'right' and what is 'wrong,' what is 'Good' and what 'Evil.' " But to what social code? Framed when, and by whom? for whom? How can I trust her when I do not know the answers to those questions? When she and her family talk about "sale-lease- backs and right-of-way condemnations, we are talking in code about the things we like best," she says -- "the yellow fields and the cottonwoods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in." I can't trust that. I can't trust her because when she talks about "the long golden afternoons that [are] no more" in her native Sacramento, her language is suffused with that peculiar sentimentality one associates with an Englishman who once enjoyed the glories and the privilege of the Raj -- an imperialist mentality is at work here, a gentlemanly, aristocratic sensibility that obdurately ignores the realities of class and economics and remembers only the long shadows on the green grass on a summer afternoon. Both are real -- the golden afternoons and the sale-lease-backs (the money); Didion dismisses half the equation.
Her idea of peace, or of salvation, is to retreat to a place like Guyamas or Alcatraz, where there is no "vanity" -- which is to say, a place where there is "no trace of human endeavor."
(Then what is she doing at those Hollywood parties with "gangsters" and "fags"?)
Tell me how I can love a woman for whom New York in the 1950s -- the city of "the shining and perishable dream" -- was F.A.O. Schwarz and Best's and dancing to the music of Lester Lanin and crying at Toots Shor's and Sardi's East.
She has trouble, she says, "maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point." What was she taught? For what, exactly, does she repine? What are those "extreme and doomed commitments" for which she professes love? From what magic kingdom is she in exile?
In the 1960s, she says, "no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring." But to what is she moored?
What she is moored to, of course, is her angst. And her angst is not the still point of the turning world.
Anyone whose love is reserved almost entirely for the past can have only disdain for the present. And can consequently not be trusted to tell us the truth.
Make no mistake: I too am interested in visits to the interior. I know that what happens in the recesses of the human heart is at least as interesting as what happens at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Yes, everything begins in the human heart. But the human heart is not vacuum-packed. The pulsebeat from any breast, however armored, is felt, not just in private contracts -- "doomed commitments" -- between private persons, but in Selma, in Haight-Ashbury, in Vietnam, in South Africa, in East New York. Reports from those locations are also reports from the heart. And Didion's heart is cold.
Well, I have spent a long time now in Didion's world. "The baby frets, the maid sulks [or would, if I had one]. I . . . lie lown "