essay canon dispatch no. 5 — “The White Album” by Joan Didion (70’s)

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Representing the seventies in the CNF essay canon is Joan Didion’s landmark piece which opens her second collection of nonfiction. i cant find it online sadly. i read it in a library copy of the 2006 collected volume of her work, the title of which is taken from this essay’s opening line. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Encountered by itself it seems like a positive and affirming slogan. Thankfully once you finish “The White Album” it takes on a more pessimistic tone. The notion becomes marked with an anxious uncertainty. How do we draw the material of life into something coherent and linear? Where do we put the beginning or the ending? And if storytelling is just a hopeless delusion of myth making, pasted over the sound and fury of a chaotic and unfeeling universe, how are we supposed to feel about the persuasive thought that our survival depends on our storytelling? Confronting our stories, our values and identities, as articles of faith can be vertiginous. But as Didion writes: “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

The fifteen sections of “The White Album” dont necessarily unify into a story, although there are some fascinating stories within them. Didion describes the house she lived in at this moment and place, the late sixties in Hollywood. Weird things and weird people move through her life. The decadence of these white bourgeois hippy parties, like psychedelic designs painted on a Porsche, make Los Angeles out to be hell on earth for this reader.

(At one point she uses the phrase “flash cut” to transition. i thought it might be a screenwriting term, and it is, although i dont know if it was one in the 70s. i also found a definition strictly within communications media as “an immediate change in a complex system with no phase-in period.” And there you might have the organizing principle of this piece.)

She shares with us some notes on a psychotic breakdown she experienced at this time. There is also a moment with Huey Newton after his incarceration, and a report from a visit to a student occupation in San Fran City College — Didion’s journalist instincts are top-notch, she goes after the right details to put the context together, such as the socioeconomic standing of this Cali neighborhood or that one. One section details a recording session by the Doors. And there are some murder cases. Many lines are spent on the Manson killings, which have many small connections to Didion’s life, from having wine spilt on her dress by Mr. Polanski to buying the dress worn by Linda Kasabian while testifying in the trial.

i gotta admit, i havent read much Didion. Just a few weeks back i started on THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING during my last depression relapse, but put it down. Comparing her prose in that work with this essay i find that her writing is consistent not just in quality but in tone (she was 34 in 1968). There is — to use a word i loathe — authority in her prose. i dont care how aimless “The White Album” appears, her prose is confident enough that im willing to go wherever she’s taking me.

But with this self-possession in Didion’s writing voice is a kind of depressive anxiety.  The tension is embodied in the author’s self as a character in her writing. Didion, as she writes what she is thinking or feeling in whatever scene she witnesses, is in touch with the different dimensions of herself. That is, sometimes she is collected and rational, a “cool customer” as someone in TYoMT put it, and at other points she is paranoid, uncertain, firing away questions to herself that cant be answered.

As a white bourgeois woman, she writes on the social unrest and political struggle around her with a sense of estrangement. There are a few moments in the text where she comes off as disparaging in that white middle-class way, but im thinking it’s more like pessimism: that the demonstrations and campus riots wont stop the powerful from crushing the powerless, that the global imperialism of advanced capital will roll on, and the social fabric will unravel into a nation-wide acid test.

When Didion gets a chance to interview Huey Newton in prison, she shows her disinterest in his prepared verbal attacks on the American white supremacist police state. She wants the human interest — to see what makes Newton tick as a person. There’s a certain something about what the Black Panthers and other black militant organizations are tapping into that she doesn’t see, and she is honest about what is and is not on her horizon. And maybe it’s a fair point, this refusal to accept that a human can throw themselves body and soul into political struggle. Consider CITIZEN KANE. That film has tons of politics, very specific and referential to not only Hearst but the WWII question and the economy and all that. But who cares? What draws the audience is “Rosebud” and a flower design on a sled that might look like a woman’s labia — the Oedipal shit, weird and personal.

The essay is dated 1968-78, and the text is atomized enough that i speculate if these individual sections are interstitial pieces, written in between bigger assignments. So they are fragments of one particular experience of that agitated year when the New Right and Left went at it. And maybe from a historical standpoint the “real story” of the era was elsewhere, in Latin America or “Indochina.” The quiet dread that Didion weaves through these tenuously related encounters regards our relationship to narrative — do we control it or the other way round? And if storytelling is suspect, how does humankind move on after violence, whether it’s a sociopath from Death Valley trying to start “Helter Skelter” or the soldiers dropping napalm on children? Didion’s melancholy suggests to me that hatred and violence in this world is not the real mystery.

im typing up section 7 for the excerpt. In this milieu of global struggles and wild social uprising, this bit is intensely personal. It gives some insight into the writing life, and also showcases Didion’s comedic timing, in case you thought it was all doom and gloom.


“The White Album” by Joan Didion

TO PACK AND WEAR:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with:
   shampoo
   toothbrush and paste
   Basis soap
   razor, deodorant
   aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax
   face cream, powder, baby oil

TO CARRY:

mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

This is the list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e., no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.

It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative. There is on this list one significant omission, one article I needed and never had: a watch. I needed a watch not during the day, when I could turn on the car radio or ask someone, but at night, in the motel. Quite often I would ask the desk for the time every half hour or so, until finally, embarrassed to ask again, I would call Los Angeles and ask my husband. In other words I had skirts, jerseys, leotards, pullover sweater, shoes, stockings, bra, brush and paste, Base soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, legal pads, pens, files and a house key, but I didn’t know what time is was. This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.

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