Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My Categories: nonfiction collection
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary (Book was a contemporary when it was written :)

What an excellent look at life and events in the 1960s. Didion brings her incisive words to portray those things and also the thoughts that were important to her then, what she'd read, seen, experienced. So it's a look at life in the 1960s and the person Didion was then.

The section of essays that caught my interest best was the Personals section: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind."

The Monster piece is the most dated in comparison with the other pieces. It is essentially a rant against Hollywood. It has a ton of Didionesque off-hand remarks about people and movies that are no longer in casual memory, thereby rendering the piece unreadable by modern eyes.

The Respect piece is a beautiful meditation on what it means to have respect for oneself, always. Being driven back on oneself and the ending of innocence by being "stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself," is the beginning of self-respect. According to Didion, "people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was one called character." In effect, self-respect is a discipline that life is sometimes about doing things that you do not want to do, putting fears and doubts aside, delaying gratification of immediate concerns for perhaps larger, intangible returns later. What this all means is that anything worth having has its price. And knowing this, "people who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk of investing something of themselves." What is fascinating, and reassuring, is that this discipline, this habit of the mind "can be developed, trained, and coaxed forth." So what is this self-respect all about? "To have a sense of one's intrinsic worth is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, to remain indifferent." On the other hand, if we do not respect ourselves, "we're in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out their false notions of us." This compulsion to please others is not an attractive trait—this is "alienation from self."

In Home, Didion reflects on what home means to an adult. To her, it had never meant the house where lived with her husband and daughter, but rather, the house where she grew up—the place, the people, the attitudes, the memorabilia, the conversations, the quality of the silences. In this essay, Didion says something that I thought was simply my weirdness. Whenever I go away to someplace new for a few days, my precious daily life seems remote. Then when I return home, the rhythm of the new place seems remote, covered by a semi-opaque film. It was interesting to see Didion reflect at length on this, because while it didn't bother her, it obviously bothered her husband greatly. In a very poignant ending to the essay, Didion writes that modern life is so different from her childhood that we can no longer promise our children a "sense of home" that she had: cousins, river, great-grandma's teacups, wild picnics, which to me translate to freedom, companionship, belonging.

What is Morality, Didion asks? "It is loyalty to a social code we learned as children," and if we are vigilant, it is something we continue to learn as adults. Didion calls a conscience, or rather the "ethic of conscience (where something is dangerous or admirable)" to be "a slippery slope to coercion and a power imbalance" (my way or no way). Morality is not where "all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum confer on any one an ipso facto virtue." When we start thinking "not that we want something or that it's a pragmatic necessity for us, but that is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land."

The essay on Notebook is why I read this book. According to Didion, "the impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily." I get this! Any time I mention I handwrite Morning Pages, I get a blank look and a peremptory "Why?" What to explain? How to explain this peculiar need to write, to set down your thoughts—mundane, profound, and every type in between—on paper? Didion says, "Keepers of private notebooks are lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents." So I'm a neurotic? Do I have to be? To me, it is not important why I write, but that I write.

To Didion, a diary is "an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking," whereas a notebook is a clutter of ephemera that may not have met reality recently. To me, a diary is a record of my doings and a notebook is a record of my thinking, all factual. That is how I delineate my two types of writings. What Didion writes in her notebook is "How it felt to me"—which often results in a departure from verisimilitude. Her notebook is not for public consumption—"a series of graceful pensées"—but is unashamedly, implacably about herself. I think that the scratchings in her notebook are really indexes into her memory of people and events, thus even if they're factually wrong, they bring up memories in lush detail, physical and emotional, in narrative and in dialogue.

Ultimately to Didion, notebooks are a good way to keep in touch with our younger selves and how/what was important to us then.