Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion. They are split up into three parts; essays about California, memoir-ish personal essays, and essays about other places. The Californian section has both the best essays (the title essay, in particular, is excellent) and several short newspaper pieces. Didion’s writing on the paragraph- and sentence-level is spectacular, but many of the shorter pieces are somewhat unsatisfying.
Perhaps my favourite thing about her writing is her faculty with making her feelings about a topic leap off the page without ever directly copping to them. She will arrange short, factual sentences and remarks in such a way that you feel her contempt radiating towards its target, but without being able to point at any one particular source. It’s very fun to read and also technically impressive – I sure as hell can’t write like that.
Some selections follow.
a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed
What was most startling about the case that the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.
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.
Fun fact: after reading this essay, I went to look up its subject because I didn’t know anything about him; the second paragraph of his Wikipedia page reads “Laski is perhaps most famous for being the subject of an essay by Joan Didion”
Jane says maybe I should talk to Chester Anderson. She will not give me his number.
Whenever I hear about the woman’s trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin’-says-lovin’-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level, but I do not mention this to Barbara.
Of course the activists — not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic — had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts: Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words — words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips — their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.
I would like to believe that my dread then was for the human condition, but of course it was for me, because I wanted a baby and did not have one and because I wanted to own the house that cost $1,000 a month to rent and because I had a hangover.
(You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.)
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.
If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us.
I have never heard a Hawaiian word, including and perhaps most particularly aloha, which accurately expressed anything I had to say.
In fact they contrive to leave an indistinct impression that it was in 1945, or perhaps ’46, that they last got down to Waikiki. “I suppose the Royal hasn’t changed,” one Honolulan who lives within eight minutes of the Royal remarked to me.
“Don’t read me wrong, I think Santa Barbara’s one of the most — Christ, the most beautiful places in the world, but it’s a beautiful place that contains a … putrescence. They just live on their putrescent millions.”
“So give me putrescent.”
“No, no,” the writer says. “I just happen to think millionaires have some sort of lacking in their … in their elasticity.”