Mar 03., 2019 / From the Blogs
Self-respect is a concept discreetly lurking in the background of our subconscious, but it moves to the forefront when we realize that we’ve sacrificed it in favor of something else we thought we required to be happy. At that moment, self-respect becomes as basic and central to happiness as love—because it’s about loving ourselves, is it not?
For Joan Didion, the realization that she’d outgrown her childhood ability to attract all that she needed for happiness in life brought into focus the harsh reality that she alone is the architect of her own self-respect, but first, she had to face her own self-deception. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she writes,
Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of self-respect.
In thinking back on the weeks we’ve spent in assaying the essay as a literary form, I realize that it is incomplete without a review of Joan Didion’s oeuvre. There is much to assimilate and digest in Didion’s writing and as I read the first essay, I was reminded of a recent discussion about “persona” as it pertains to the essay. This quote from Nicole Wallack’s, Crafting Presence immediately came to mind:
No matter how revealing, confessional, narrative, or self-reflexive writers decide to be, no matter how completely writers rely on autobiography as the source of inspiration and evidence, and no matter how visibly and often writers figure their presence in the first-person singular, essays are not “personal.”
In “On Self-Respect,” a title that naturally made me think of Montaigne, Didion displays the “fierce attachment to an idea” that Nicole Wallack writes about later in her book. Didion’s idea is the complication between innocence and self-respect and self-worth. She begins her essay by telling us,
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. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made a painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.
She is recalling a time when she was “unnerved” by disappointment and speaks of it in terms of losing her innocence, as if some delusion has been shattered. She portrays her loss of childhood naïveté starkly in this passage:
I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kapp keys but happiness, honor, … and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.” (143)
But it is her raw and unapologetic honesty in examining inescapable, human imperfection that captured my attention. She goes on to explain:
“…self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards…” (143)
This passage is representative of the way Didion smashes through the mirror of persona and yet retains her own mask by writing of this imperfection in the third person. And it’s effective. It pulls us in and then shatters our delusions about ourselves, forcing us to awaken to the fallout from our own unpleasant faults. She moves on to identify self-respect as “…a discipline, a habit of mind,” impossible to “fake” and something that can be “developed, trained, coaxed forth” simultaneously imbuing us with hope—the hope that one feels when realizing it’s not too late to address and correct self-destructive behavior (146). She continues to remove the mask as she repeatedly reveals intimate pieces of herself. She speaks of being told to try sticking her head in a paper bag “…as an antidote to crying” (146). There’s no indication as to who told her this, what it was in response to, or at what point in her life it occurred, though she was twenty-seven when she wrote the piece. I’ve grown up in a world that considers crying a healthy form of expression and can’t help but wonder why someone would suggest she stop? The placement of this suggestion within an essay on self-respect appears strange today, though her reaction to the idea is unemotional and nearly comical. She writes, “…but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag” (147). Didion avers that self-respect is gained by having a sense of “self-worth,” and that once this is achieved, to have self-respect is to “…potentially have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent” (147).
One of the reasons that Joan Didion’s essays are so successful is that they are at once both “personal” and yet often not. The essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem entitled, “John Wayne: A Love Song,” in which Didion chronicles a period in Wayne’s life when he had recently come through a battle with cancer—the disease that would later take his life—is an example of both. Didion was an eight-year-old the first time she saw Wayne on a movie screen, and she writes of the shock in hearing about his illness years later,
“I licked the Big C,” John Wayne announced, as John Wayne would, reducing those outlaw cells to the level of any other outlaws, but even so we all sensed that this would be the one unpredictable confrontation, the one shoot-out Wayne could lose. (32)
She describes a type of collective rejection of facts in which she participated, “I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality, and I did not much want to see John Wayne when he must be (or so I thought) having some trouble with it himself.” (32) Later, while Wayne is in Mexico working on a film almost unbelievably, that eight-year-old girl—now a married woman—is with the big man himself, “…time brings odd mutations, and there we were, one night that last week in Mexico.” She and her husband John [Dunne] were dining with Wayne and his family and she writes of the incident that led to the title of her essay, “And then something happened. Suddenly the room seemed suffused with a dream, and I could not think why. Three men appeared out of nowhere, playing guitars” (41). What Didion hadn’t realized until later was that without saying a word to the movie star, the three men had been playing the theme song to the film Wayne had just shot there. She writes, “…even now, I can still hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this (41). Though this essay is essentially about John Wayne, Didion literally shows up at the beginning and end of the piece. She writes of her presence and proximity to Wayne at two different moments in their separate lives; it’s somewhat about her personal experience, but mostly, it’s about John Wayne’s journey and she takes us along for the ride as she sews their life pieces together seamlessly in her unique and pragmatic style.
In her essay entitled, “On Keeping A Notebook” from her book, Slouching towards Bethlehem, Didion discusses finding old entries she’d written in a notebook and how upon revisiting them she is unable to explain the meaning of or her motivation for having recorded those thoughts. Her self-reflective questions take us on the journey with her as she asks,
Why did I write it down? …what exactly was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that a compulsion tries to justify itself.
Later, her tone is almost dismissive of the act of recording what now appears as random and useless, “What is this business about ‘shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed’? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?” (134). As someone who has kept a journal at different times, I completely understand this sentiment. Despite the thoughts having come from my own mind, when too much time has passed and I re-read them, they appear foreign, sometimes inane, and often—pointless. She delves deeper as she discusses what she feels is the truth uncovered in a notebook and how it is intrinsically linked to our own slant on things. She tells us that her family frequently called her out on “what some would call lies” and writes,
Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. …How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. (134)
One conclusion Didion draws about the reason for keeping a notebook is stunning in both its truth and its simplicity, “Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Her description of the minutiae that sometimes appears in one’s notebooks is elegant; “…we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker” (136). She believes it’s useful to revisit our notes because they keep us tethered to our younger selves and that this is at the very heart of keeping a notebook. She writes, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” (139).
As I read more of Didion’s essays, I became curious about how others have perceived her work over the years. I was fortunate to happen upon an article in Vanity Fair written in 2016 in which the writer, Lili Anolik appears to have captured the very essence of Didion as a “cultural icon” and as a writer. She is quick to include a codicil however, warning that she could be guilty of “misapprehension.” Still, her assessment of Didion, the woman, feels accurate:
She’s cool-eyed and cold-blooded, and that coolness and coldness—chilling, of course, but also bracing—is the source of her fascination as much as her artistry is; the source of her glamour too, and her seductiveness, because she is seductive, deeply. What she is, is a femme fatale, and irresistible. She’s our kiss of death, yet we open our mouths, kiss back.
The article begins with a flourish by revealing to the reader that Anolik is in awe of Didion as she includes Didion’s own intention in her writing:
In a 1969 column for Life, her first for the magazine, Joan Didion let drop that she and husband, John Gregory Dunne, were at the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce,” surely the most famous subordinate clause in the history of New Journalism, an insubordinate clause if ever there was one. The poise of it, the violence, the cool-bitch chic—a writer who could be the heroine of a Godard movie! —takes the breath away, even after all these years. Didion goes on: ‘I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.’
This quote leaves no question about Didion’s presence in her essays. She means for her writing to be idiosyncratic and she’s unapologetic about its revealing nature, the secrets she discloses about herself.
In her 1976 essay, “Why I Write,” held in The New York Times Archives, I discover that Didion writes about grammar much the way I experience it:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.
The essay was written for a lecture and before she delves into it, she reveals why she “stole” her title from George Orwell; “… I like the sound of the words: Why I Write.” Didion explains in a no-nonsense way that she is “not a scholar” nor is she an “intellectual” and she writes of her time as an undergraduate at Berkley with uninhibited candor,
I tried, with a kind of hopeless late adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract. In short I tried to think. I failed.
This description is something I suspect many writers can relate to—trying to “buy” our way into “the world of ideas.” Another way of saying, I got nothing over here; where the hell do I start? I also appreciate the way Didion describes her process—how she begins with an image and then the writing and syntax is the result of that image:
The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture…. It tells you. You don’t tell it.
She also describes how images “shimmer around the edges” and how this is the genesis of her stories. She uses a novel she wrote entitled, A Book of Common Prayer to make a point about why she writes. She describes how at the time she began the novel she was unaware of “who” the characters were and “who” the narrator was and that this is at the heart of why writers write—to solve the mystery of that shimmer: “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”
Joan Didion suffers from debilitating migraines that prevent her from working on a regular basis, and yet she is a prolific producer of writing. In her essay, “In Bed” from her book The White Album, she discusses the experience of living with this ailment. When she touches upon a phenomenon that I experienced for an entire decade of my life—the idea that pain is imaginary—I could practically feel her headache.
I spent a decade in agony for every step I took, a pain that no practitioner could cure. I tried physical therapy, chiropractic adjustment, acupuncture, somatic movement, Pilates, kinesiology, massage, biofeedback, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, before I moved 3,000 miles from home to the land of sunshine in the hope that the change of climate would improve my condition. And still, I walked in agony. Doctors believed in my pain, but some outside the medical profession doubted the veracity of my claims—the suspicion of hypochondria besting their frontal lobes. In her essay, “In Bed,” Didion recounts a similar experience—a time in her life when people did not believe her pain was legitimate:
For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary….Migraine is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination. (168-9)
Didion also discloses that she hid her pain. She experienced her first migraine at the age of eight and she explains that because of the stigma [pain as a figment of her imagination], by the age of twenty-five and “wary of the trap,” she would “sometimes lie” about the frequency of her migraines—despite the physical truth of her situation. She writes,
The fact that I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secret, evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink. (168)
As Didion grew older of course, she understood that her painful condition was a result of biology,
One inherits, …the predisposition. In other words, I spent yesterday in bed with a headache not merely because of my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, and wrongthink, but because both my grandmothers had migraine, my father has migraine and my mother has migraine. (169-70)
She continues the essay by listing the effects of this illness (many more than I’d realized) and that because it “stretch[es] the very limits of [her] endurance” the fact it is not fatal… seems, to someone deep in an attack, an ambiguous blessing” (171). For me, the most poignant statement Didion makes about her condition is when she writes of the continued negative discourse around migraine pain:
All of us who have migraine suffer no only from the attacks themselves but from this common conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin, that we are making ourselves sick, that we “bring it on ourselves.” (171)
She concludes by explaining that she has made peace with her incurable condition and her foray into personification makes it real for her reader. She writes,
We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble…. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work don and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited. (172)
Despite how debilitating and inconvenient this “friend” is, she ends her essay in an uplifting manner. She writes that it acts like “a circuit breaker” and that the “fuses have emerged intact” and then she leaves us with an image of what it’s like to emerge from such pain,
There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings. (172)
Didion is an enigma in every sense of this word and her essays, though inherently hers, present a cache of varying ideas over many decades of thinking, writing, experiencing, and observing the choices and events that occur in a human’s life. Hers has certainly been a wholly unique and interesting one and she writes about all of it with her own curious, revealing, and distinct shimmer.
by Sonja Martineau
Didion, Joan. “On Keeping A Notebook.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.
Didion, Joan. “The White Album.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.
Wallack, Nicole B. Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. The University Press of Colorado, 2017.