02 February 2007

Joan Didion: The White Album essay (abridged)

In Joan Didion, there is a yearning for the elemental. In her nonfiction collection The White Album, Didion chronicles the Sixties and Seventies in such a way that casts Didion as her own tour guide: pummeling through the thick brush of endless pretension and arriving, not unscathed, on the other side. Never would Didion presume completion of her journey, but she needn’t convince anyone of the wisdom she has collected along the way, leaving both herself and her reader in the vicinity of the fundamental aspects of self, society and the line between mass and fringe cultures. The idea of the elemental has Didion breaking down her subject to its most basic properties in order to find a stark representation of both motivation and impending cultural relevance. The “other side” is a frequent destination of a Didion essay, leaving the reader one hundred-eighty degrees from where he began, and having no conclusions thrust upon them. Didion never succumbs to preaching, but instead subtly articulates her own brand of cultural gospel: plodding through thick deception and posturing in a search for an elusive morality and sincerity. Instead of providing callow and superficial conclusions for the reader, Didion employs directness and precision in which every move is calculated and consequential, but never evocative in a manipulating sense. Joan Didion refuses to be the reader’s guide to a prefabricated deduction, but make no mistake; she is her own pilot through minds and thought processes, of strangers and of self, never shy or reserved about what she may stumble upon. This leaves the role of the reader as voyeur, sorting sordid details of a scandalous decade with Didion as a time machine, freezing this era from which she sees distinctiveness. And through this era, Didion hopes to impart wisdom, if not from the decade’s accomplishments, than through its moral, political and cultural shortcomings.

As an author, she is eager to underscore socio-economic, cultural and political differences that not only exist within the Los Angeles area, but also on a much larger scale, span the country. The notion that those in charge may secure these gaps with empty rhetoric and vague nationalism are sentiments that do not sit well with Didion’s large-scale introspection. If these divides do indeed exist, Didion sees more sincere and significant methods of approaching them, perhaps those methods many, Joan Didion included, would have hoped outlived their rise in the landscape of 1960s America and would become central to the idea of a developing nation. Didion assumes the role of a chameleon; she works among the Hollywood elite, among the working class, and among the newest incarnation of “middle America.” As an author, she will never appear conspicuous due to this ability to blend into the background, yet would never surrender ample footing by which to strike at a particularly glaring example of injustice or phoniness. In her writing, Didion refuses the background without adopting an ostentatious posture giving merit to her commentary by avoiding characterization as a resentful author.

In this brand of introspection, Didion raises some glaring parallels to modern times. With an air of political uncertainty as a dark cloud above the heads of Americans everywhere, Didion’s description of class discrepancy becomes just as relevant now as it may have been half a century ago. The idea of seeing through petty differences and essentially, hypocrisy, in search of sincerity and authenticity remains something we, as a society may strive for. Subtly, Didion is quick to highlight divergence, but perhaps this is in the name of holding on to what it is we do have, in order to forge a societal bond that transcends the criticism Didion never appears short on. In its purest, elemental form Didion’s criticisms and claims are indeed centered on, geared toward and pointed at morality. Never assuming superiority, it is the journalistic stance taken by Didion that assures an air of empathy, but the song remains the same. Didion views the 1960s as a representation of American potential, never fully realized. Glimmers of progress and cracks on the surface suggested moral development, yet the process remained grounded. It is in her writing on that time that Didion highlights this prospective development as a lesson of sorts, aimed at anyone who will listen and make the mission their own. However, Joan Didion never forges grandeur; she is wholly aware that America’s moral burden is an impossibly heavy cross to bear, relying instead on her secular gospel which refuses to pass the proverbial buck in a patronizing manner, but instead alleges that the responsibility is to be extended culturally, economically, politically and through generations. In this, Didion transcends the cultural and historical era in which her ideas were fashioned in hopes that they be honed for application in decades and generations to come.

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