Some years ago, probably quite a few though I'm not sure, I read a review of one of Joan Didion's books which said something to the effect that the chief or most engaging characteristic of her work is her sensibility. I may have that wrong, but whether or not it's what the reviewer said, it seems apt to me, based on the fairly small amount of her work I've read: the novel Play It As It Lays, the essay collections The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I just finished the last of these, and that notion occurred to me several times during the reading.
What is that sensibility? Sensitive, intelligent, unillusioned, depressed, neurotic, nostalgic, fatalistic, romantic, cynical, disappointed--the last three are essentially aspects of one thing. All three of these books were written in the 1960s, and it's pretty clear that she was pretty unhappy at the time. I don't know whether things got better for her or not.
I've had Slouching on my shelf for some time, and had read a couple of the essays in it. I picked it up again because the title essay is her report on the Haight-Ashbury hippie culture in 1967, when it came to the attention of the whole nation as "the Summer of Love." I find Didion's perspective on "The Sixties," by which I mean the whole phenomenon which has been so heavily mythologized since it actually occurred, essential. The prevailing myth, subscribed to by most of the social-political left (which means that it's the dominant one in the media, the entertainment industry, and the academy, and therefore dominant in general) is that it was a time of awakening and liberation, and that the summer of 1967 was one of its high (ha ha) points, the moment when a counter-cultural impulse which included political, social, and philosophical revolutions came to flower. The countervailing myth, subscribed to by most of the social-political right, is that it was a time of disintegration and collapse.
Didion stands somewhat apart from those categories and those views. I take her to be more or less a liberal, but she is, as I said earlier, unillusioned, and she reports what she sees without, as far as I can tell, any ideological filter. She is, in a sense, conservative, in that she seems to suffer from a sort of civilizational vertigo, and to want to hold on to whatever stability she can find. Accordingly, she tends to focus on the crazy aspects of the hippie subculture, which were undeniably there and significant, whether you think it was on the whole a good or a bad thing. I'd say this essay, like its companion, the title essay of The White Album, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what was going on then. Or wants to understand what it was actually like. Didion's view is not the whole story, but it is a true and important part of the story.
We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.
She herself seems to be caught out in that vacuum, as the essay "On Morality" shows.
Apart from all that, she is a terrific writer, in both style and substance, and I think anyone who appreciates good prose and deep intelligence would value this book. Not all the essays are of equal quality and significance, but all are at least interesting.
I'm going to quote from one of them, "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind," about the movie industry, because I think it's so striking a picture of the mentality that apparently set in there in the early 1960s, when the decline of "the studio system"--the nature of which has never been clear to me--gave directors new freedom. And is still prominent.
One problem is that American directors, with a handful of exceptions, are not much interested in style; they are at heart didactic. Ask what they plan to do with their absolute freedom, with their chance to make a personal statement, and they will pick an "issue," a "problem." The "issues" they pick are generally no longer real issues, if indeed they ever were--but I think it a mistake to attribute this to any calculated venality, to any conscious playing it safe.... Call it instead--this apparent calcuation about what "issues" are now safe--an absence of imagination, a sloppiness of mind in some ways encouraged by a comfortable feedback from the audience, from the bulk of reviewers, and from some people who ought to know better. Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg, made in 1961, was an intrepid indictment not of authoritarianism in the abstract, not of the trials themselves, not of the various moral and legal issues involved, but of Nazi war atrocities, about which there would have seemed already to be some consensus.... Later, Kramer and Abby Mann collaborated on Ship of Fools, into which they injected "a little more compassion and humor" and in which they advanced the action from 1931 to 1933--the better to register another defiant protest against the National Socialist Party.
She makes a number of judgments about directors which I don't necessarily share, including a negative one about Bergman, a terrible failing in my eyes. But: "they are at heart didactic." That's still a justifiable complaint. And aren't they self-righteous and self-important about it?
The above is quite inadequate as a review of the book, by the way. I've focused only on a couple of things that happen to especially interest me. There is much more to say of both book and author as seen therein. I might add that her use of Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" in her title and as epigraph were probably not at the time the somewhat tired devices they've since become, when even politicians quote the poem--or at least the one sentence, "The center cannot hold."
This porch ceiling has been painted a color known around here as "haint blue." I only learned of this recently. Has anyone else heard of it? Here's an explanation.
There is a brewery called Haint Blue in Mobile. I'd like to support them but there is a brewery right here in my town so I usually buy theirs. Haint Blue has an odd beer called Marianne, which is spiced with saffron. You can read about it here. Rather in the "hmm...interesting" than "mmm...wonderful" category to me.
May all these little breweries thrive for generation unto generation. The success of the craft beer movement is a great compensation for living with the craziness of our time.