Commentary Magazine


The White Album, by Joan Didion

In California

The White Album.
by Joan Didion.
Simon & Schuster. 223 pp. $9.95.

Joan Didion—or rather the reputation of Joan Didion—is a puzzle. Her writing is praised by critics of almost every political hue, by newspapers as different as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, by persons who can agree on scarcely anything else. Her name has become a kind of restful incantation, the invocation of which permits antagonists who are locked in continuous dispute to pause, smile, and say that, of course, she is a splendid writer.

And she is. But talent and accomplishment do not save other writers, or other reputations, from being parceled out into the neat boxes of ideology where they are stored, like munitions, waiting to be picked up by a partisan and hurled at an opponent.

The answer cannot be that Miss Didion shuns political subjects. Her latest collection of essays offers an appreciative look at J. Paul Getty, an affectionate portrayal of water engineers paired with a devastating attack on anti-freeway transportation planners, and a characterization of liberal Hollywood political activism as a “kind of dictatorship of good intentions,” a “peculiar vacant fervor.” And, of course, there is her well-known essay on the women’s movement in which she suggests that there are aspects of feminism that reveal a “narrow and cracked determinism” and numerous feminists who want romance rather than revolution.

Perhaps she is so widely admired because, though she treats of political subjects, she bases her judgments on nonpolitical grounds. Joan Didion is detached from politics and political programs; she is devoted to trying to perfect the “exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities” out of an unsparing analysis of herself and of others. Her interview with Huey Newton recounts her largely unsuccessful effort to discover, behind the rhetoric and the issues, Huey Newton; to discover, that is, a sense of self-doubt. Her criticism of feminism is not that it is a wrong impulse—her admiring account of the tough-minded Georgia O’Keeffe belies that—but that the impulse has become a certainty, borrowing recklessly from Marx and other ideologists in a vain, and unnecessary, effort to conceal the inevitable traces of self-interest in that impulse. Miss Didion views the problem differently: “Madame Bovary told us more about bourgeois life than several generations of Marxists have, but there does not seem much doubt that Flaubert saw it as an artistic problem.”

An artistic problem. At these words, one can barely restrain the urge to proclaim the depoliticization of art, the return to a literary sensibility, the resurrection of those walls that can protect human emotions from having to conform to doctrinal labels. Large and rather vacuous generalizations come readily to mind—“the end of the 1960’s” being the most obvious. Miss Didion would be the first to suggest we pause before making such leaps; though willing to judge, she is reluctant to generalize.

And in fact, the admiring reviewers of the Left and the Right have no intention of abandoning the use of political categories as the first principles of their literary positions. No: what I suspect constitutes the appeal of her writing is not its revelation of a nonpolitical mind, but rather its willingness to surrender to the reader a large and anguished part of the author’s own self.

It is the first and the longest essay in the book—“The White Album”—that has drawn the greatest attention. It is an unsparing but unsentimental account of a woman struggling with a nervous collapse and a bizarre environment in an effort to make sense of a world that seems characterized by “industrious self-delusion.” It is a summary of the late 1960’s: the arrest of Huey Newton, the Manson murder trial, a recording session by a rock group that proclaims its musical interests as “anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, about activity that has no meaning,” and the demonstrations at San Francisco State College. The opportunities for making, out of such materials, a Big Statement are almost irresistible, yet Miss Didion resists. She reports on what she finally calls an “authentically senseless chain of correspondences” and hints that “this may be a parable,” and then stops. She makes her point without stating it: a total preoccupation with self, with sensations, with experiences and “issues” is ultimately as meaningless and as crippling as a disease that systematically destroys the nervous system.

While one can admire “The White Album” for its stark, neurosurgical style, it is not for me the best essay in the book; it seems, instead, to be a clearing out of an intellectual and emotional closet to make way for the brilliant, focused essays in the remainder of the book. But Miss Didion’s critical acclaim seems to rest on this first essay, suggesting that scenes of personal anguish and social disorder exert a romantic magnetism for people who enjoy believing the worst about one another, and see in every individual crisis a sign of the times.

_____________

 

The core of the book is a series of essays about California and trips to and from California, written by a person who was born there and came of age in the 1950’s. These few facts, filtered through the comforting prejudices that most Easterners bring to the subject, will be enough to convince many persons that Miss Didion’s nonpolitical perspective is to be explained by her being a product of the “Silent Generation” raised in “Lotusland.” Her essays, fairly read, should destroy that bit of silliness forever. (They won’t be, and thus it won’t be.)

The central passage is one in which she observes of her generation that it was the last to identify with adults. An adult view of the world was that it is imperfect owing less to an error in social organization than to a defect in man’s nature. The “silence” of the 1950’s reflected neither self-congratulation nor fear of repression, but a suspicion of political action as a tranquilizer that temporarily masks personal inadequacies. The world of adults was ambiguous: one had to make commitments, but of necessity they would be partial ones. There was a distinctive process called Growing Up; no one supposed, save the Beatniks, that one could or should forever remain an adolescent. But to grow up meant surrendering some measure of sincerity for some measure of accomplishment. In the 1960’s, one rejected the adult world, denied that growing up was either desirable or necessary, clung to sincerity (renamed “authenticity”) and chose to be young, which is to say self-indulgent, forever.

The adult world of California can be divided into two broad groups: those who try to control nature for the benefit of man and those who try to control man for the benefit of nature. The first group created the freeway system, the public beaches and their superbly trained lifeguards, and the extraordinary California water system. Miss Didion gives us admiring accounts of all these in which she shows herself instinctively drawn to their creators. The second group has tried to destroy the freeway system by such absurd experiments as the Diamond Lane, a device for discouraging persons from driving on the freeways by reserving the fast inside lanes for vehicles carrying three or more persons. People did not want to drive in car pools, and as a result 25 per cent of the freeway surface was reserved for 3 per cent of the cars, all at the price of a sharp increase in auto accidents. Neither the unpopularity nor the danger of the Diamond Lane experiment discouraged its proponents, for the ultimate purpose was not to make driving easier or safer, but to produce less driving. The object was “to pry John Q. Public out of his car,” to eliminate individual mobility. The methods were, to Miss Didion, a “foray into bureaucratic terrorism.”

Beneath these rival adult camps are various kinds of children who have either denied the need to choose sides or who missed their opportunity to do so. James A. Pike, late Episcopal bishop of California, rambled “through every charlatan thicket in American life, from the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions to the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies” before dying in the Jordanian desert. He thought of himself as a Westerner, but was not; what he was, was a spoiled child who acquired a knack for personal public relations. He brought self-indulgence to its pinnacle; in short, he failed to grow more spectacularly than almost anyone else of his generation.

Less celebrated and less self-centered are those members of religious cults that predict the end of the world and speak in tongues. They, too, missed out, but try to cope by inventing a more satisfactory world. On a subject ripe for heavy-handed irony or sociology, Miss Didion supplies delicate, touching imagery:

We might have been talking in different languages, Brother Theobald and I; it was as if I knew all the words, but lacked the grammar, and so kept questioning him on points that seemed to him ineluctably clear. He seemed to be one of those people . . . forever felling trees in some interior wilderness. . . .

Others who cannot make a connection with the adult world fell trees—and people—in an exterior, and very real, wilderness. They are found in the Hell’s Angels and exploited in the steady stream of biker movies. “To watch a bike movie,” Miss Didion writes, “is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a ‘right.’ Kill, maim, rape—the reason is always the same: somebody is ‘hassling’ me.”

I admire Miss Didion enormously, all the more because she has managed to retain clarity and sensitivity while living in that part of California—a very small and unrepresentative part, but, alas, a well-known part—in which so many people are devoted to perpetual childishness. It is a world of fads, drugs, and personality, where no one ever finally graduates from Hollywood High. Of all the reactions to it one might choose, she has chosen the most difficult and the most impressive—to be in it but not of it, and to use the experience to sharpen her perceptions of the larger world without ever pretending that those perceptions are the world:

I could indulge here in a little idle generalization, could lay off my own state of profound emotional shock on the larger cultural breakdown, could talk fast about convulsions in the society, and alienation and anomie and maybe even assassination, but that would be just one more stylish shell game. I am not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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