The speech died in 2022. Any semblance of nuance or context is nullified by an insatiable propensity for ideology. Good faith arguments are hard to come by. Morality is imposed on every work of art and every consumer of art either through those who disseminate the discourse around it, or increasingly (and disturbingly) by those who make the art. . In a world where everything seems subsumed by controversy, the writing of Joan Didion, in his refusal to tell people What think, but rather tell them How? ‘Or’ What to think about, feels like a relic of happier days.
Perhaps ironically, given the leagues of modern journalists who cite her as an influence, Didion’s scientific approach to cultural commentary is fundamentally incompatible with the Age of Reflection. Didion’s occasional branding as a curator is itself a product of the vise of the party line she sought to criticize. If anything, she is, in form, a skeptic, perpetually wise in relaying the artifices that form a patina obscuring our myriad crises, stagnations and disappointments.
Writing on second wave feminism, Didion is wary of the mainstream women’s movement’s attempt to position women as a class. The idea seemed particularly ludicrous considering how the movement was run and prioritized the needs (or perhaps the delusions) of affluent white women – who share almost no interests (class or otherwise) with the majority of women. American. She saw the movement as based on an opportunistic lie shrouded in the slippery folds of dogma. “The idea that fiction has some irreducible ambiguities never seemed to occur to these women,” she wrote, “and it shouldn’t have been, for most fiction is. cases hostile to ideology ”.
Notable for her rejection of binaries, her writing is intensely concerned with the distinction between personal and societal ills and how the invocation of illusory narratives blurs their boundaries and obscures the truth. Writing on the Central Park Five case, Didion explains how narratives twist “to veil a real conflict”; the way of tackling crime was positioned as a panacea for the city’s much more insidious crisis of a fragmented community inchoately stitched together.
The titular “sentimental journeys” are fabricated by a distorted retelling of history, or in some cases, an elision of it. The omission of context is a familiar trap in digital age thinking – and a Didion sounded the alarm decades ago. In the case of New York (and arguably the United States more broadly), this breeds “empathy without political compassion”. If moralism and sentimentality have poisoned the discourse, the intrepid demystification of “magical thinking” by Didion is the antidote.
Didion’s spirit, much like the Californian landscapes she writes about, is not an easily negotiable place. The psychological horror of the existence that she lived at certain points in her life was brought about by her profound ability to probe the various crises embedded in the mundane, this being the result of an attention to the specific and tangible realities of her life. ‘a culturally and spiritually sterile world – at the center which notoriously did not hold.
Unsurprisingly, today’s focus is no more structurally sound than in the post-Manson Murders, the Haight-Ashbury counterculture milieu in which Didion began writing. In its conception, the “center” is not a singular Jenga block which, when pulled, precipitates the collapse of the whole structure; it is a center that has been deliberately and systematically hollowed out, altered both by the downward forces and, as she inconveniently asserts, by the additional corrosive forces of self-delusion.
As Zadie Smith notes in a recent New Yorker article on Didion’s legacy, it is unfortunate that much of what Didion saw as dialectical failure (the ‘We tell ourselves stories to live’ ethic) has been taken as a serious claim, even by some of its most ardent fans (the Millennial Squad wearing Lithub tote bags and liberal arts graduates).
Yet it remains difficult to blame too much the mistaken interpreters of Didion; after all, we are a culture reluctant to think critically – a failure at both the individual and institutional level. About our shared messy thought process, Didion’s most important legacy will not be his cigarette and Coca-Cola chic or his Californian gothic twist, but his unwavering realism and conviction to dig it.
For Didion, “Style is character”: that is, language betrays character. As such, the act of writing, distilling the complexities into language, also deserves a prioritization of reasonableness and accuracy, because it’s so easy to go the other way: easy to “reduce human suffering.” what atomized individuals endure, ”easy to give up nuance for convenience, easy to twist the truth into a lie. Didion taught us that thinking is an act that must take effort – more effort than we often are used to.
Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].