More on Joan Didion
by Justin E. H. Smith
When it comes to texts in foreign languages, I find the closest reading I can give them is by translating them into my native idiom. Texts in English can’t be translated any further, but I can at least transcribe them: already a sort of translatio, a bringing-over from page to screen. There are few authors who inspire me to undertake such a close reading. I’ve acknowledged before that James Agee is one of them. Joan Didion is another.
I’ve also acknowledged before a difficult relationship to my fellow Sacramentan. I want to dissect every sentence, copy it out, parse it, anatomize it, and when I do this what I am left with, on the dissecting table, on my desktop, is a sharp feeling of unreciprocated love. One of Didion’s favorite themes is contempt for the people I happen to identify with most closely: the Central Californians who aspire to live in history-less tract houses. The ones perpetually hovering, classwise, between the meth lab and BestBuy.
Consider Didion’s destruction of Ronald Reagan, not as an aggrieved victim of his far-right, aggressively neoliberal policies (the only kind of attack on Reagan most of us even know), but as an aristocrat repulsed by his yokel tastes, and by the fact that democracy has by now spread so far that even those in power aspire to have nothing more than what the great mass of people have, if slightly more of it. Here she is, in 1977, describing the governor’s mansion that he and Nancy had had designed in Sacramento (a few miles from where I grew up, and the chatter surrounding which I heard incessantly in my childhood; when Didion took her tour of the place, I was five): “In the entire house,” she writes, “there are only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month, plus maybe three Royal Doulton figurines and a back file of Connoisseur, but there is $90,ooo worth of teak cabinetry, including the ‘refreshment center’ in the ‘recreation room’… The place has been called, by Jerry Brown, a ‘Taj Mahal’. It has been called a ‘white elephant’, a ‘resort’, a ‘monument to the colossal ego of our gormer governor’. It is not exactly any of these things. It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently ‘democratic’, flattened out, mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of ‘background music’, decorators, and ‘good taste’… One hears every possible reason for not living in the house except the one that counts: it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room. It is the kind of house that has a refreshment center. It is the kind of hourse in which one does not live, but there is no way to say this without getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class. I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable.”
Or here she is on fundamentalist Christians in the American West: “He seemed to be one of those people, so many of whom gravitate to Pentecostal sects, who move around the West and the South and the Border States forever felling trees in some interior wilderness, secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown. In the social conventions by which we now live there is no category for people like Brother Theobold and his congregation, most of whom are young and white and nominally literate; they are neither the possessors nor the dispossessed… In the interior wilderness no one is bloodied by history, and it is no coincidence that the Pentecostal churches have their strongest hold in places where Western civilization has its most superficial hold. There are more than twice as many Pentecostal as Episcopal churches in Los Angeles.” (I note that since the rise of the Internet the number of such people, who, online, are by definition tapped into the nerve ganglia of the modern information society but nonetheless are as ignorant as medieval peasants, appears to have expanded a hundredfold.)
And here is Didion’s method. On biker films: “I saw nine of them recently, saw the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook.” She is preoccupied with a certain kind of people, and sometimes she speaks of them as existing across a class divide, but what she really means, and sometimes grasps, is that these people move in a different existential mode, one that she can’t experience first-hand, but that she knows to be more truly hers than the rules of conduct at the Bohemian Club, and all those other institutions she takes surprisingly seriously. Here is her summary of that other existential mode: “Quite often during the past several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams, the children burning in the locked car in the supermarket parking lot, the bike boys stripping down stolen cars on the captive cripple’s ranch, the freeway sniper who feels ‘real bad’ about picking off the family of five, the hustlers, the insane, the cunning Okie faces that turn up in military investigations, the sullen lurkers in doorways, the lsost childeren, all the ignorant armies jostling in the night. Acquaintances read The New York Times and try to tell me news of the world. I listen to call-in shows.”
Where I feel like I am in full solidarity with Didion, rather than being the hill-stock object of her fascination and contempt, is with respect to politics. She believes her sensibilities are a product of the 1950s (in general she is too preoccupied with generations and how they forge us; I don’t believe of myself that I was forged by my generation at all), and that having grown up when she did has cut her off from the spontaneous political enthusiasm of the 1960s: “I suppose,” she writes, “I am talking about… the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise… What I have made for myself is personal, but is not exactly peace. Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time… Most of us live less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect 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 wo say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”
I had had these passages from The White Album copied out in my hard drive for some time. I went back to read them recently after happening across a too-sad-to-be-true website (procrastinating, I’d Googled ‘Didion Sacramento’, as, on some other occasion, I might have Googled ‘Fred Friendly’) that declares this woman ‘Sacramento’s 5th Gift to the World‘. The prose screams out the sort of small-time, hometown-girl-makes-good, low-stakes hokiness one might expect to accompany an honorable-mention plaque from the Jaycees Club, or some other such institution that Didion has focused her career on blowing up, just like she blew up Reagan’s mansion.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website