Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
This book had been collecting dust at the bottom of my bookshelf for some years now, left by a friend who used to live in Madrid, until I decided to pick it up a couple weeks ago in my attempt to read all the books I own. The older I get, the more I savor prose, essays, and journalistic reporting — non-fiction in general. I think it’s because the mature reader, having come a long way from the “what happened next” of childhood fairytales, searches relentlessly for form, holding up a magnifying glass to how something is being told.
Anyone can tell a story or report an incident. But what I love about a good essay or magazine article is how intimate it can be, how much you can gather about the author and his tastes and ideology and expertise, as opposed to a novel or a short story. I could never write straight fiction because I feel as if that kind of writing, when I try my hand at it, is so distant from me, so alien and rootless, and therefore extremely difficult. I think part of it is because when I write I can’t get out of my own head. It takes a whole other kind of talent, a different kind of writer, to imagine the world from another person’s eyes.
Proving a point, explaining a theory, or describing a trip or experience, with personality, flow, and concision, is also difficult. But the starting point is you — what you think, how you feel, what your impressions were. I remember when we were in grade school how we were told to cut out “I think” from our expository writing, as it proved to be obvious and redundant. Now I realize how necessary it is sometimes, to remind the reader that the writer isn’t this all-knowing, invisible narrative power, but a person just the same, of flesh and bone and a singular perspective.
Joan Didion, in the essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” says it elegantly: “But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’…We are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” And that is what I love about her prose, the transparency and earnestness of finely chosen words that are not simply strung together, but which seem to be rather the clear manifestation of a writer’s observational brain, of that side which is in the dark, from where that extra string dangles.
I think what Joan Didion does so well in this collection of essays is slip the reader doses of universal truths, packaged in this amazing lyricism, and bound in intimate experiences of place, in particular, California. She transmits so well the feeling that a place creates, not upon first sight or on a physical level, but the spirit that it fosters after having nourished generations of sedentary families, fortune seekers, and restless youths. The title essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which comes from W.B. Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming,” is the centerpiece of the collection and focuses on the counterculture of the 1960’s in San Francisco, where her encounter with the lost generation of revolutionaries and drug addicts gives evidence to the slipping center of American society.
I especially liked “The Los Angeles Notebook,” in which she talks about the Santa Ana, a mythical wind that blows 20 days out of the year in Los Angeles, causing forest fires, headaches, and murders, and creating the chaotic, rootless sense of place which defines life in that city:
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliability of the long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.
The restlessness of life in California, the sense of “running out of continent,” is also reflected in the lives of the people, famous or infamous, that Didion writes about. Her portraits of the different “dreamers of the golden dream” in the first part of the book, “Lifestyles in the Golden Land,” capture her talent for sketching out the bare essentials of what a character was like, Joan Baez or John Wayne, in a few terse pages. She describes Comrade Laski’s political compulsion in a way that is intelligent, relatable, and true:
As it happens 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.
As I mentioned, what I love is how personal her writing is, and how she manages to say so much, so eloquently, with so few words. Even when she is talking about a wholly different time, a public figure, or a universal tendency, she also seems to be reflecting on herself as a writer: as someone who has lived a history converging with that of the topic at hand, and who is putting up a powerful magnifying glass to it. On the nature of humanity, she is compelling and wise; that is why her biographical sketches read more like philosophical character studies.
In her essay, “On Self-Respect,” she reflects on the definition of that word and probes into what it is we lose when we lose respect for ourselves, how our understanding of it develops parallel to our misguided judgment of ourselves as we grow:
To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
Like in other essays, “On Morality” and “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion’s power of reflection on the life of things and human behavior comes from an intense inward gaze. She writes about the slipping of memory, the revisiting of a younger, different self, the deceptiveness of personal conscience, the head-on collision with one’s past on returning home.
Finally, in the essay which ends the collection, “Goodbye to All That,” Didion nostalgically remembers her years spent in New York City as a naive twenty-some year-old, and how her relationship with the city ran its course after the mirage faded, after she realized it was a city full of unkept promises only for the young. Her descriptions of a moment she remembers while standing on Lexington Avenue eating a peach, experiencing the smells of the city and the hot air blowing from the subway grate, really resonated with me because, as she says, everyone can remember being young and in New York. As a 25-year-old I still have that undying ambition to return and to relive such cinematic moments, to “stay up all night, and make mistakes” that still won’t count. I’d like to re-read this essay years down the line, when I can look back at those times with a different lens made more precise, and at the same time more out of focus, by an aging memory.