January 14, 2008

FROM NATIONAL REVIEW TO THE NY REVIEW OF BOOKS IS PROGRESSIVE, BUT NOT PROGRESS:

In a Time of Posturing, Didion Dared 'Slouching' (JONATHAN YARDLEY, December 27, 2007, Washington Post)

Precisely why her essays were pressed upon me I do not recall, but I was impressed. There were 20 of them in all, the focus being primarily on California, the author's native state, but also on her own interior landscape and, in virtually all of them, the conviction that, as she put it in the title essay, "the center was not holding." Didion appeared to have been touched by the feminist movement that was gaining currency at the time, but she showed not a scintilla of doctrinal rigidity or orthodoxy. She was a clear-eyed observer who declined to be roped in by fads, publicists or anyone else's expectations. She found the '60s interesting, occasionally amusing, occasionally scary, and she was always a tough sell:

"Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who 'feels' things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley."

What I thought when I read that nearly four decades ago was, in a word: Wow. Not merely does that paragraph deftly (yet not wholly unsympathetically) skewer Baez, for whose singing and persona I have not an iota of affection, but it tells us much more: what happens to people when they become "personalities" before they are ready for that, and what uses we make of them to our own ends. Like so many other paragraphs in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," it transcends its immediate time and subject; all of these essays can be read with as much pleasure and profit as when they were first published, even if memories of Baez and, say, Haight-Ashbury already have faded.

Reading "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" started me off on what has been a long on-and-off love affair with Didion's work.


Actually, what's most striking about Ms Didion's work is how good the early stuff was--Slouching and the White Album--and how bad the later, as she became just the sort of trend-sucker she'd previously warned against. Thus, where you'd think someone so smart might have learned something from opposing Ronald Reagan's war on Marxism in Latin America in the '80s, she instead opposes liberalizing the Middle East too. It's a rare enough life arc, but she went from an interesting young conservative to a depressingly orthodox liberal as she aged.



Posted by Orrin Judd at January 14, 2008 9:57 AM
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