If there’s one writer who has the power to evoke emotion in me unexpectedly, it has always been Joan Didion. I say “unexpectedly” because Didion is not an overtly “poetic” writer; she works mostly in non-fiction, her style is spare, stripped-down, deemphasized, non-dramatic, straightforward. But her prose is deceptive; you’re reading some nonchalant lede, and suddenly you’re sitting right there next to Didion back in 1961 or whatever, sitting on a barstool in a train station, overhearing a conversation between two men that makes you think about some dress you used to wear. She pulls you in, transfixes you, raises the atmosphere of some foreign but familiar place all around you — just the way it must have felt.
One of my favorite of her essays, and one I think about often as I read more political and educational philosophy, is from her book The White Album. The story is called “On the Morning After the Sixties” – just the title itself is so beautifully evocative. It’s short – not even four full pages – but just devastating. And for me the central line in the story, the one I find myself thinking often about, comes — characteristically — quite casually, just about halfway through.
But let me set the scene.
Didion is writing about her undergrad experience at Berkeley in the 1950s, and drawing contrasts between the politically charged, activist 1960s and her own experiences in the “silent” generation of the 1950s college students. It’s a unique way to get at all of the turbulence of the 60s: there is Didion, in a deeply calm and non-turbulent scene, almost the calm before the proverbial storm, lying on a couch in a fraternity house in 1953, a middle-aged alum picking out the notes of “Blue Room” — a Rodgers and Hart showtune from the 1920s — on the piano in the otherwise empty room as the afternoon passes slowly. It’s a tranquil, lonely scene — everyone else has left for the football game except for Didion and this lonesome man, whose melancholy presence Didion reads as “telling me, without ever saying a word, something I had not known before about bad marriages and wasted time and looking backward.” Two strangers staying behind, idly, not speaking or even acknowledging each other’s presence — it’s a scene of isolation, loneliness, regret.
And for Didion, this moment was deeply emblematic of not only a whole list of antiquated 1950s-era traditions that soon vanished (having a date for a football game lunch at a fraternity, she says is one), but of the peculiar kind of melancholy, inwardness, and even depression that Didion believes characterized the youth experience of her generation. It’s not pessimism, exactly, but a kind of too-clear-eyed realism. Students of the ’50s were more realistic, if not to say cynical, than the idealistic students a decade later. The ’50s students expected the world to be flawed, and as a result, “no one was surprised by anything at all.” They believed that political movements were transitory or ineffective at best – “a generation distrustful of political highs” who “found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be” and for whom the political sloganeering of the 60s would have sounded not hopeful but like “Newspeak.” As a result of this cynicism, her generation, she believes, turned inward, to a kind of resigned existentialism that she believes precluded real meaningful collective action and which doomed her generation to “historical irrelevancy.” The most important issues for the ’50s students were personal ones; these she does not explicitly describe, but one can infer they are the deeply individual, human preoccupations hovering beneath the surface — akin to the repression and longing and dissolution that the older man in the fraternity house was expressing through his wistful piano playing.
For Didion, the political aspirations of the ’60s students — the “reconstitution” of the university, the anti-war protests, and the collective calls to political action – and this is a strange thing to say – would have “seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.” This is not just realism or cynicism — it’s a kind of resigned nihilism which results in the need to, as Didion seems to imply, pursue one’s necessarily individual interests, without much hope of anything beyond that. She writes, “The personal was all that most of us expected to find.” This fairly diminished hope of merely carving out a modest portion of happiness and meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence is symbolized in the catchphrase she remembers hearing from students in her own college years: that of just hoping to find “some little town with a decent beach.” Didion tells us she herself did not even find that: “What I have made for myself is personal, but is not exactly peace.”
For me, the most important line in the essay — the one that I always remember — is when she writes about why her generation is so especially unmoved by political action. The problem was that they:
“ . . . [grew] up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error.”
This is a wonderful image of the “tragic” or “constrained” sense of human nature, as I have written about many times on this blog. It is an idea that says that trying to protest to reorganize Berkeley – which just ten years after Didion’s student days became ground-zero in the student protest movement – was operating under an illusion that political change might improve things. Didion agrees:
“If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”
This diminished outlook is such a fascinating take on her generation – its subtlety, and the nuanced, almost unstated contrast with the turmoil of the 1960s – is what makes this such a remarkable essay. And this markedly different perspective on the possibilities of social or political action are why I think that Didion – years later, by then in her 30s – was such an astute and celebrated observer – and critic – of the 1960s, particularly in her famous essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In that essay – please read it if you have not – Didion immerses herself in the hippie culture of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, drawing out for readers a very different – and much more clear-eyed perspective on the movement than what she considers the uninformed views of the mainstream press. Didion viewed the movement as less of an “extended panty raid,” an artistic movement, or a “they’re-trying-to-tell-us-something” thoughtful protest than a scene of concern for a generation of children neglected or cut-off from traditional society, trying to “create a community in a social vacuum,” and whose political naivete (and lack of formal education) made them – she felt – easy marks for the worst kind of utopian/fascist political messaging. At one point she memorably quotes one of the Grateful Dead, who tells Didion that there are always activists at their concerts trying to “take the crowd on some militant trip.” The Hippie Movement, she quotes a local psychiatrist at one point as saying, is “quintessentially Romantic” – and contains all the hallmarks of “the ways that romanticism historically ends up in trouble, lends itself to authoritarianism. When the direction appears.”
In a sense, Didion is alarmed that this generation is so drastically different from hers. Where her own generation were social conformists and political realists to a fault – to the point of feeling depressed about both the efficacy of political action, and even about their own personal abilities to influence their society, the children of the 1960s were so nonconformist and utopian that they were, in Didion’s view, ripe for manipulation by all manner of bad actors.
And it is with this backdrop – that of her more famous essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in my head that I always think of her later and more subtle “On the Morning After the Sixties.” I think often of this essay – particularly the line about the heart of darkness being in man’s heart, not in some social mis-organization – as being such a wonderful contrast of the differing political and ontological visions that can happen between two generations just ten years apart. The 1960s view is a Rousseauian view of a return to a bountiful state of nature in which the individual can finally thrive, outside the corrupting conventions of society, dashed with some Freudian spice about freeing the id from the repressive superego of the authorities. Didion’s view is more in line with the hemmed-in, constrained vision that Thomas Sowell writes about: that human beings are innately flawed – but her conclusions are different than that of the Lockeans, the Hayekians, the American Founders. These thinkers too take human flawedness as a given, but they use this as a merely realistic starting point for using politics, as Aristotle did, to try to actually make men better than he is for the purposes of creating the good society. Didion and her generation take a much more nihilistic, existential approach: if man is flawed and fallen, there is no hope for great political improvement, only for the staving off of meaninglessness through the location of meaning in one’s life, which is necessarily highly individualistic and disconnected from any capacity for broader meaning or (one infers) community.
I believe that a smarter observer like Francis Fukuyama might say that Didion’s Berkeley (notwithstanding the accuracy of her assessment of that era for anyone beyond herself, of course) was an example of the dangers of the Lockean liberalism: the when personal privacy becomes isolation, when individual freedom becomes atomization, when political realism becomes cynicism and even depression.
It is this background, I believe, and the touch with which she does it, that made Joan Didion such a fascinating writer on the 1960s, and such a fascinating mind in general.