52 Poems, Week 32: The "Cynara" poem (Ernest Dowson)
52 Poems, Week 33: Thrice Toss These Oaken Ashes (Thomas Campion)

Sunday Night Journal, August 12, 2018

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.

HaintBlueMost people would just call it sky blue, I guess. 

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. 


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I bought Slouching... not long ago but haven't looked at it yet. Based on what you've written here I need to get to it sooner rather than later.

"Haint blue" -- never heard of it, although I knew that "haint" was a Southern variant of haunt. Very interesting.

And yes, long live the local brewpub!

I'll be surprised if you don't like the Didion book.

I would be surprised, too.

One thing about Slouching.. is that she really immersed herself in that culture. She seems to have been with that group of people for quite a while, so, she saw what was going on much more clearly than most reporters. Also, she seems to get at the heart of something that isn't always noticed, which is these kids--the ones who left home and went to San Francisco and did the really radical thing--frequently did not have any kind of decent family life. I'm not saying that a young person from a good home couldn't do something like that, but many of these kids were not. And the girls especially seemed to be very young. It's one thing to cut yourself off from your family when you are in college, but high school?

Anyway, it was very good, but very hard for me to read.


I thought for a minute that you had painted your porch like that.

I had never heard of haint blue before. It looks very fresh and clean. It wouldn't last a day around here--too much dust.

I am so glad to see the emergence of Indie movies. They aren't all good, of course, but they account for most, maybe all, of the really good movies being made here.


Years ago I heard of painting porch ceilings blue to make wasps and spiders think it's the sky and keep them from nesting or webbing there. Later, on facebook, I saw people talking about haint blue. Looking around on the Internet, it's sometimes used for doors and window frames too. One explanation for the idea it repels haints is also that it looks like the sky.

If I thought it would work, I would paint my whole house that color.


The "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" essay first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and I just found it online here in what the magazine says is its 50th anniversary commemoration of the Summer of Love. I had no idea the Post was still being published. Anyway, I've not finished the essay yet, stopped at this point, which reminded me how big a role drugs played in the whole thing: "Max sees his life as a triumph over 'don’ts.' The don’ts he had done before he was 21 were peyote, alcohol, mescaline, and Methedrine. He was on a Meth trip for three years in New York and Tangier before he found acid."

It is pretty difficult to overstate the importance of drugs to the counterculture and still leave room for anything else. Without the drugs it would have been something else.

Most of the essays in this collection were printed in the Post. Pretty sad commentary on the way things have gone. Some appeared in Vogue and Holiday.

"she seems to get at the heart of something that isn't always noticed, which is these kids--the ones who left home and went to San Francisco and did the really radical thing--frequently did not have any kind of decent family life. "

Yes, I remember thinking at the time that a disproportionate number of my friends came from families that were damaged in some way--missing a parent or something. It's hard to know how much of a factor that was, all families being imperfect. But I think it's a pretty safe assertion that most of the runaways were from unhappy homes.

Catwoods, here's what Wikipedia says about the purpose of haint blue:

"Originally, haint blue was thought by the Gullah to ward haints, or ghosts, away from the home. The tactic was intended either to mimic the appearance of the sky, tricking the ghost into passing through, or to mimic the appearance of water, which ghosts traditionally could not cross. The Gullah would paint not only the porch, but also doors, window frames, and shutters.[6] As Gullah culture mingled with White Southern culture, the custom became more widely practiced.[7] The use of haint blue has lost some of its superstitious significance, but modern proponents also cite the color as a wasp-deterrent.[8] However, the color has not actually been scientifically shown to stave off bugs.[9]"

"I am so glad to see the emergence of Indie movies. They aren't all good, of course, but they account for most, maybe all, of the really good movies being made here."

Very true. Whenever I'm in a conversation with someone who's lamenting the state of Hollywood I point him to the indies.

I'm not really aware of which are and which aren't.

Well, Rob can correct me if I am wrong about some of these, but Arrival, anything by Terrence Malick, or Jeff Nichols, I think the Blade Runner movies. Most things that aren't superheroes or silly romances. ;-)


Gosh, those are fairly big-budget movies. In that light I'd certainly agree that there wouldn't be much worth watching without them.

I guess I never gave it any thought, because now that it comes up I realize I don't exactly know what "independent" means in this context. And as I mentioned in the post I've never been entirely sure what the "studio system" was, beyond the obvious literal meaning. I shall read this Wikipedia article:


Not all big Hollywood movies are rubbish, but good ones are few and far between. They have a very low overall batting average, so to speak. For every Arrival or Sicario or Dunkirk there are probably at least a dozen lowbrow comedies, silly rom-coms and comic book movies.

Mac, very interesting about the haint blue origin in the Gullah culture! I breezed by another source yesterday that said that too, but I didn't have time to really look into it. Color vision often varies by species so wasps may not see the same ways we do; but lots of anecdotal evidence may suggest some truth. Regardless, if I had a porch I'd use haint blue for the ceiling just because I like blue.

Yeah, it strikes me as extremely unlikely that wasps see color.

The Wikipedia statement that "the color has not actually been scientifically shown to stave off bugs." You can take that to mean either that it's never been studied or that it's been studied and the results don't show an effect. But it's footnoted, and the footnote goes to an NPR piece which explicitly states that no research has been done. So as far as anyone knows now there could be something to it.

I saw one of those comic-book-derived movies not long ago. What was it?...Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I did not care for it. I've never had any interest in those movies. Even as a 12-year-old I was not more than mildly interested in the comic books.

And *really* not interested in the academic study of that stuff, or any of the "mythology for our time" claims that are made for it.

The only recent comic book movie that I liked was the first of the new Batman series with Christian Bale. I greatly disliked the second one and therefore never watched any of the follow-ups. I'm pretty sure that the last superhero movie I saw was that second Batman flick, the one with Heath Ledger as The Joker. That would have been about ten years ago I guess. The whole superhero thing simply has no draw for me whatsoever.

I saw some part of that Heath Ledger one. It was on tv when we still had a cable service with a jillion channels. I didn't find it very interesting at all but I have to admit he was horribly effective.

~~And *really* not interested in the academic study of that stuff, or any of the "mythology for our time" claims that are made for it.~~

Ditto. And that goes for Star Wars too, in my case!

Yes indeed. I was thinking of it when I wrote that, actually.

Of course you were.


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