Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Joan Didion Was in My Head Twenty Years Before I Was Born

I'm a furniture magpie, my interior design a funky (read: semi-coherent) collection of items from the glory days of heavy item pick up, cast offs from neighbors and customers, the odd piece from Goodwill or Salvation Army.  But bookshelves...these are the salvager's holy grail, because no one gets rid of a good bookshelf. 

As a result, I have but one, filled to the gills and surrounded by stacks of more recent acquisitions to the library pressing against it like supplicants at a temple.  And I've read every one of those buggers, most of them more than once, so finding something to read on the porch on a sunny afternoon is an exercise in excavation and empty vows to actually pay money and find a home for them all.

Last week I dug especially deep and came up with Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of Joan Didion's essays  from the '60s.  I remember finding them interesting the first time through, which is baffling because this time I'm finding them absolutely glorious: sharply observational, subtle in their judgments, poignant, vivid and outrageously, wrenchingly human.

My favorite, by far, is the piece "On Keeping a Notebook," in which Didion meditates on the orphaned, enigmatic aphorisms that dot her notebook.  They aren't notes of the journalistic variety, just a series of seemingly random observations, a recipe, the kind of random facts that one finds fascinating, if frivolous.  She searches her memory, recalls the moments that generated each tidbit and wonders where the impulse to capture these snippets come from.

The conclusions she draws are, like so many things she writes, both elegantly intimate and universal. No, she acknowleges, these aren't factual accounts meant to capture an important moment, they're deeply subjective observations meant to capture the writer herself at that larger moment in time. "Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point." [italics hers]

She compares the keeping of a notebook like this to that very different creature the journal.  She eschews the journal as a deadly dull exercise in recording the banal details of day to day life and posits that most of it will be as lifeless for the writer as for any third party witness.  The notebook, by comparison, is driven by flights of fancy and captures in living, broad strokes the thinking that defines who the writer was as they were committing that thought to paper.

I would have been satisfied with just that, but the larger point of it all is why, outside of sentimentality and nostalgia, it's a worthwhile endeavor to reinsert yourself into a stream of consciousness you've since abandoned:

"I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to
be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise
us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted
them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!  It's one thing to live your life and learn from your experiences, but a lesson learned once is a fragile thing.  As anyone who's instituted any kind of resolution in their life can attest, it's easy to set your resolve but even easier to lose track of the reasoning behind it. How many people have sworn off "that type" at the end of a miserable relationship, or quit drinking forever as they drag themselves through a hungover Monday?  Those are some relatively petty examples, but the principle holds for any lessons learned in the course of personal evolution.

The arguments of this essay are compelling, but what I love almost equally is Didion's ability to speak very frankly about her personal stake in them with a frankness that is both shocking and extremely subtle.  She fesses up to insecurities and failings in a matter of fact way that feels a little like bravado.  She's self-deprecating with a disarming dash of humor.  In short, she comes across as a person who's comfortable in her own skin, a condition as magical as it rare. (Don't even get me started on "On Self-Respect")

Seriously, this essay, and most everything else she's written is a gift. Get reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment