It is a peculiarity of Joan Didion’s work that her most ironic formulations are now read as sincere, and her sincerest provocations taken with a large pinch of salt. Perhaps when your subject is human delusion you end up drawing that quality out of others, even as you seek to define and illuminate it. How else to explain the odd ways we invert her meanings? We tell ourselves stories in order to live. A sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo. The same goes for “magical thinking.” Magical thinking is a disorder of thought. It sees causality where there is none, confuses private emotion with general reality, imposes—as Didion has it, perfectly, in “The White Album”—“a narrative line upon disparate images.” But the extremity of mourning aside, it was not a condition from which she generally suffered. Didion’s watchword was watchword. She was exceptionally alert to the words or phrases we use to express our core aims or beliefs. Alert in the sense of suspicious. Radically upgrading Hemingway’s “bullshit detector,” she probed the public discourse, the better to determine how much truth was in it and how much delusion. She did that with her own sentences, too. Rereading her, you find her astringency relentless, undimmed by age. Maybe this is why it remains easier to look at pictures of Didion than to read her. The look is undoubtedly a vibe. But the reading is a dissection: of our fondest aims and beliefs, of all our watchwords. To put it another way, while everyone else drank the Kool-Aid, she stuck to Coca-Cola and cigarettes:
The above is from her very funny and very inconvenient 1972 essay, “The Women’s Movement.” How bracing to watch her skewer a set of ideological and aesthetical commonplaces that have only hardened in the intervening fifty years! Yet now that these modes of reading are no longer absurd to anyone—indeed, now that they are embedded not only in universities and publishing houses but in our own minds—it becomes very difficult to hear the acid tone of Didion’s original formulations: “To those of us who remained committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism.” What happens to Didion when a narrow and cracked determinism swallows not just the women’s movement but the whole world? We delude ourselves: we remake her in our own image. “It is the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it.” But, of course, this statement, which the young Didion found ironic—a circular attempt to create a politics out of sheer emotion, falling well short of a practical feminism’s Marxist ideals—would now be read not only sincerely but legally.
Whether writing about the invention of “women as a ‘class,’ ” Haight-Ashbury, John Wayne, the death of her family, or her own mental breakdown, Didion’s target was the “psychic hardpan.” This she located just beneath the seemingly rational or ideological topsoil, which she found to be “dense with superstitions and little sophistries, wish fulfillment, self-loathing and bitter fancies.” That she is considered a personal essayist is another one of those literary ironies: even when the subject was Didion, she was still reporting, and no more likely to be sympathetic to her own feelings than to those of Joan Baez, Nancy Reagan, or a kid on acid. She was just another subject among many, prone to the petty delusions of all humans but—crucially—genuinely interested in drilling down into that hardpan, no matter what she might find down there. She wasn’t looking for approval. Would not be bullied by what “everyone” was saying or what “everyone” believed. Abhorred the kind of thought that forecloses thought. In her 2003 essay “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History,” she spies foreclosure everywhere in the American scene. In the willfully unexamined “US relationship with Israel.” In the public condemnation of another tough-minded woman, Susan Sontag, for daring to consider the motivations of Al Qaeda (“Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy.”) That essay concerns the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but to a contemporary reader—assailed by fixed opinions on all sides—the following lines might have a more general application:
With notable exceptions, Didion was a woman who did not so much express opinions, or emotions, as interrogate both. If this still strikes us as unusual, it seemed unprecedented to me, when reading her for the first time in the late eighties. That she was a woman mattered, very much. When women writers of my generation speak in awed tones of Didion’s “style,” I don’t think it’s the shift dresses or the sunglasses, the cigarettes or commas or even the em dashes that we revere, even though all those things were fabulous. It was the authority. The authority of tone. There is much in Didion one might disagree with personally, politically, aesthetically. I will never love the Doors. But I remain grateful for the day I picked up “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and realized that a woman could speak without hedging her bets, without hemming and hawing, without making nice, without poeticisms, without sounding pleasant or sweet, without deference, and even without doubt. It must be hard for a young woman today to imagine the sheer scope of things that women of my generation feared women couldn’t do—but, believe me, writing with authority was one of them. You wanted to believe it. You needed proof. And not Victorian proof. Didion—like her contemporary Toni Morrison—became Exhibit A. Uniquely, she could be kept upon your person, like a flick knife, stuffed in a back pocket, the books being so slim and portable. She gave you confidence. Shored you up. And did so not by rejecting the supposed realm of women, but by drilling down into it: “All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death…”
Yes, once you had shored yourself up with her authority, you could allow yourself to admit there was poetry in Didion, too, and exquisite fictions, shards of novels, sharp as the light rising over the Sacramento Sutter Buttes… You still didn’t have to agree with her. Like that of many literary writers, her seemingly fierce logic, upon inspection, sometimes proved to be merely sparkling rhetoric, and under the influence of precisely the kind of emotional distortion she professed to dislike. So what? Literary essays are about persuasion, above all. As long as it takes to be in a Didion sentence, you have little choice but to submit to it. Boy, didn’t she know it: