by Daniel A. Kaufman
Wetson’s was a Long Island hamburger chain that was established in 1959 to be a McDonald’s clone, in a market that McDonald’s and Burger King had yet to enter. Once they did, in the early 1970’s, it wouldn’t be long before Wetson’s would go out of business, but at its peak, the chain’s 70 restaurants stretched across Long Island, New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Wetson’s is also where I met my first and longest-lasting friend, when I was just three years old.
Actually, it isn’t. But that’s what my friend and I have always said about our first meeting and still do. The truth is that neither we nor our parents can remember how or where we first met. (We can’t remember how the Wetson’s story got started either.) That we’ve been friends since before we started nursery school is beyond doubt, but the details remain fuzzy. It doesn’t really matter, though. The story’s the thing, after all, and in this case, it’s an especially fitting one, standing in for a lost memory of the first meeting of two Long Island boys, whose setting is a lost piece of Long Island history.
I don’t know when or under what circumstances I first read Joan Didion, and unlike the case of my longest lasting friend, I feel no need to create a fitting tale about it. I do know that I read Play it as it Lays first, because about seven years ago, when I was putting together a new curriculum for my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, devoted to the American Dream, it was one of the first books I thought of. Play it as it Lays is immediately followed in the syllabus by Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I was concerned, because while I had a substantial amount of “surrounding” material for Fear and Loathing (by that point in my life, I was well versed in Dr. Thompson’s journalism), I had nothing similar for Play it as it Lays. It was then that I began to read Didion’s non-fiction — Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) first and then The White Album (1979) – and not long after, I purchased the complete, collected non-fiction, giving me access to later collections, like After Henry (1992) and Political Fictions (2001).
It’s difficult to say, specifically, what I find so compelling about Didion’s work. With most of the writers whom I admire, there are particular elements to which I can point — Hunter S. Thompson’s fierce independence; Kingsley Amis’s deliciously malevolent sense of humor; George Orwell’s unaffected, unpretentious humanity – but with Didion, the elements that make her work resonate so strongly with me are harder to pinpoint, because so much of it is characterized by ambivalence, sometimes studied, at other times bemused. Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story. It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.
Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Play it as it Lays, no longer believes that there are reasons for things, in any deep sense – that life fits into any sort of meaningful narrative – and says so at the novel’s beginning.
What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none… You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.
Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? NOTHING APPLIES. (1)
This attitude has alienated Maria from most of the people around her, but over the course of Play it as it Lays, we also come to understand that it is what has kept her “playing” at the game of life; that her lack of belief has immunized her against the despair and disintegration that come with having one’s hopes dashed, one’s illusions unmasked, and one’s story unraveled. That this will happen is inevitable, and the grander and nobler the vision, the greater the devastation will be. The question is how one will cope. BZ, her closest friend and the only person with whom she has any kind of real connection throughout the novel, cannot, and chooses to end his own life. “You’re still playing,” he says to Maria. “Some day you’ll wake up and you just won’t feel like playing anymore.” (2) But he’s wrong. For Maria has no expectations, no narrative she expects to see fulfilled. And because of that, she is the only one who isn’t destroyed, by the end of Play it as it Lays. As she tells us, in the book’s final lines:
One thing in my defense, not that it matters … I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.
Why, BZ would say.
Why not, I say. (3)
That there is no larger meaning, no hopeful or vindicating narrative, is why Didion avoids abstractions and focuses so intently on the particular and the personal. On the details of things, rather than their form. It is what makes her suspicious of morals and especially of moralizing, and it is also why she has little use for politics or at least, the sort of politics whose aim is to advance ideologies, which represent the ultimate synthesis of abstraction and vindicating narrative.
Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen… (4)
This anti-political impulse that runs through Didion’s work is essentially non-partisan in character – the depictions of the Reagans in “In the Realm of the Fisher King” (1989) and of the moral crusade against Bill Clinton, in “Clinton Agonistes” (1998) make it impossible to identify her with the political right, as some have tried to do — but it is one that is most potently applied to left wing political thought and activism. (5) That brand of politics presumes an almost infinitely malleable human being — one that can be molded and shaped according to the very best ideas, by way of the very best policies, implemented by the very best people – a notion that Didion cannot accept. The idea, so popular today, that but for odious public policies and laws and societal intolerance, one’s capacity for self-making and remaking would be (and should be) limitless is, in a sense, the ultimate narrational view of life, and runs headlong into Didion’s conviction that there are, in fact, givens; things about us and our nature – our humanity, our sex, our history, our blood – that can never be altered or denied, without self-deception and bad faith.
This was bound to put Didion on a collision course with the movement feminism of her day, and it did when, in 1972, The New York Times published her essay, “The Women’s Movement,” which remains one of the most devastating critiques of second-wave feminism ever written:
To read the theorists of the women’s movement was to think not of Mary Wollstonecraft but of Margaret Fuller at her most high-minded, of rushing position papers off to mimeo and drinking tea from paper cups in lieu of eating lunch; of thin raincoats on bitter nights. If the family was the lass fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, “the very organization of nature,” the oppression, as Shualmith Firestone saw it, “that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.” I accept the universe, Margaret Fuller had finally allowed: Shualmith Firestone did not.
The transient stab of dread and loss which accompanies menstruation simply never happens: we only thought it happened, because a male-chauvinist psychiatrist told us so. No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told she should. The power of sex is just an oppressive myth, no longer to be feared… All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all. (6)
It occurs to me that the things I find strongest about Didion’s work – the resistance to abstraction and to narrational views of life; the suspicion regarding morals; the rejection of ideological politics – operate primarily at the generational level of my consciousness. As a philosopher, I’m engaged with abstractions and with morals as a part of my daily business. As an aesthete and part-time romantic, I sustain all sorts of narratives (like the one about how I met my longest lasting friend). And as someone who cares about what goes on in my community and the larger world around me, I pay not an insignificant amount of attention to politics.
It is as a very conscious (and proud) member of Generation X that Didion most resonates with me, and this has increased, steadily, as I have aged and as my generational identity has taken on a greater significance in my mind. Didion herself gives substantial credit to her generational identity – in her case, the so-called “Silent Generation,” which includes those born between 1925 and 1945.
To think of Berkeley in the Fifties was not to think of barricades and reconstituted classes. “Reconstitution” would have sounded to us then like Newspeak, and barricades are never personal. We were all very personal then, sometimes relentlessly so… I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs…, of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood… We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action 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. (7)
Distrustful of political highs. Unwaveringly personal. Buying into neither the propaganda nor the panic. An ultimately tragic vision. These are as descriptive of my generation as they are of Didion’s. And it makes perfect sense that they would be. The Silent Generation are our parents, just as the Baby Boomers are the parents of the Millennials. And as the Millennials have inherited their instinct for social-justice oriented, “fix the world” activism from their parents, so those of us who belong to Generation X inherited our inclination towards moral and political ambivalence from ours.
Our childhood was marked by Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, urban disintegration, stagflation, and the divorce-wave that would completely transform the American family. Our adolescence saw the great hippie sellout, Reagan’s surreal “morning in America,” the rise of the religious right, and the emergence of the “greed is good” ethos, manifested in the vanguard of celebrity criminal financiers, who made their names in the 1980s. And while any generation can claim their own parade of crooks, cretins, and other assorted dishonorables, mine developed its consciousness at a time when the failures and the falsehoods and the hypocrisies of all the political orientations and ideologies were being represented with great clarity and in high relief. Indeed, one might characterize our attitude, above all, as one of not buying it, where “it” means whatever narrative someone is trying to sell. The left tries to tell a tale of widespread oppression and unfair advantage. Not buying it. The right presents a harrowing story of societal moral decay and ruin. Not buying it. Both try to get us to “join in!” “be active!” “get involved!” Sorry, but we’re not buying it. I mean, after all…
- Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), pp. 3-4. Emphasis in the original.
- Ibid., p. 212.
- Ibid., p. 214.
- Joan Didion, “On Morality” (1965), reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006), pp. 123-4.
- Didion had once been a “Goldwater girl,” but then, so had a young Hillary Rodham. In recent interviews, when asked, she has said that she is a registered Democrat.
- Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement” (1972), reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, pp. 258 & 262.
- Joan Didion, “On the Morning after the Sixties” (1970), reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, pp. 329-330.
49 responses to “Nothing Applies”
“ Indeed, one might characterize our attitude, above all, as one of not buying it, where “it” means whatever narrative someone is trying to sell. The left tries to tell a tale of widespread oppression and unfair advantage. Not buying it. The right presents a harrowing story of societal moral decay and ruin. Not buying it. Both try to get us to “join in!” “be active!” “get involved!” Sorry, but we’re not buying it. I mean, after all…Nothing applies.”
This is fascinating stuff and I think you have given a good portrayal of an era and its angst.
But then I am forced to ask – what do you buy into? Can you really lead a life without buying into something? After all your generation inherits power and to exercise this power you need a direction.
To answer my question perhaps one needs to ask – how will your children judge your generation? You can be sure it will be an unkind judgement. My generation was savagely critical of its parents and now the verdict has come in from our children, it is just as savagely critical, or maybe more critical of our generation.
Do you think you will escape this generational censure? Of course not, but what will the judgement be?
for myself, most of my “activism” is done at the local and especially, the personal level, rather than at the level of larger-scale causes.
In terms of generational censure, I care about what my daughter and her close friends, and our young relatives think of me. What total strangers think of me? I could care less.
So you believe in the power of local communities? That charity and activism is best focussed on local communities? That personal involvement with the targets of your activities are more rewarding and more effective?
Daniel, “couldn’t care less,” unless you can care less than you care at this moment.
Very well done article. It’s obvious you’ve given a great deal of thought to this topic and know Didion’s work. I seem to remember reading “Play It As It Lays” many years ago, but aside from being impressed by her skill with prose, it never made as big an impression on me. Like labnut, I’m intrigued by the generational angles, but would have to read Didion in greater depth to comment on the “Nothing applies” narrative. BTW, I was a boomer born in 1946 and had a daughter (deceased) in 1968. She would have been a Gen X.
Nice! Firestone, the Reagans and Clintons were all equally easy targets, just as Trump and HRC are depressingly so today. But just how real do you feel these zeitgeists and generations really are? For example, was the relative lack of success of the US racial equality movement in the 1950s compared to the 1960s partly due to apathy of the “silent generation”?
I’m afraid this gives me too much credit. My reasons are more mundane. I find that I am only motivated to spend substantial sums of money or engage in labor intensive activities on behalf of people I care about, and these are people within my personal circle and local community.
I confess that I’ve never read much Didion; so, since the essay has real connections with her work, I’m reading some of her stuff/ reading up about her.
It’s interesting that while we came to much the same conclusions here, our pathways were very different. I think that beneath both our experiences is a fundamental problem with Modernity. (Post-Modernist theory tried to address this, I think, but largely -with important exceptions -rambled off into theoretical explanations, rather than narrative explications, which are really more to the point and more informative.)
A tantalizing start. I hope you will say more.
Robert Wright did an interview with me on the essay, which will go up on BloggingHeads.TV soon.
EJ: A lot of the stuff I talk about is available.
Didion on the Women’s Movement.
Didion on Morality.
EJ: And I *strongly* recommend reading “Play it as it Lays.” I think it will affect you as strongly as it did me.
What EJ says is very interesting. Giddens talks, not of post-modernity, but late-modernity. His essential thesis is that late-modernity is characterised by the pastiche man. That is people whose sense of identity is no longer continuous with the past. They have rejected tradition, authority and overarching purpose as sources of identity. Instead they assemble a pastiche-like identity from whatever materials are available and appeal to them.
But, Labnut, here’s the thing.
The rejection of tradition and authority isn’t whimsical, or adolescent. It’s grounded in cold, hard experience. Look at the litany I cite, near the end of the essay, when I talk about the history in which my generation’s consciousness is grounded. How could you *not* mistrust the authorities and the institutions after that?
On my old blog, Apophenia, I published an essay on Conservatism. I said that I think it is no longer possible to be a genuine conservative, because it is no longer possible to believe in the institutions.
I remember that essay and thought it was jolly good. The discussion that followed was insightful. But, while mistrust of authority and institutions is a real and justified factor, I think there is more. I am trying to get my thoughts in order so will continue later.
“The rejection of tradition and authority isn’t whimsical, or adolescent.”
Yes, agreed. But the new identities assembled by pastiche man tend to be whimsical or adolescent. They are un-moored from any kind of guiding principle.
Thomas Jones: Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that. I was born in 1968 myself.
I certainly would like to hear more of your thoughts on the essay.
Alan Sokal, on Scientia Salon, in March 2014 wrote
“But historically — starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world — scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities”
I agree with Sokal here. I think this is the heart of the matter. But the problem goes further than that. Scientific skepticism becomes a habit of mind that questions all beliefs, rational or not. More specifically, it questions not just the belief, but the authority of the source of the belief. This matters a great deal because 99% of our knowledge of the world is vicarious and not direct experience. Vicarious knowledge is knowledge necessarily accepted on the authority of others and society tends towards a consensus about which sources of knowledge are authoritative and credible.
The habit of scientific skepticism is becoming a habit of societal skepticism and herein lies the problem. All sources of knowledge are open to questioning and skepticism. This is the problem that characterises late modernity. Since all sources of knowledge are open to questioning, the pastiche man feels free to assemble his beliefs at will, or whimsically, as you put it, as he picks and chooses which authorities suit his needs of the moment.
This patchwork of beliefs can be quite arbitrary, free from any organising principle, but we need organising principles in our lives. Moreover this patchwork of beliefs is not stable, since it lacks an organising principle, making it subject to societal fads..
The result is
1. the growth of the counter-knowledge movement
2. the growth of esoteric beliefs and practices
3. widespread cynicism about society and the state, which you describe so well.
4. the growth of consumerism
5. the growth of hedonism and narcissism.
Four and five need explanation. Purpose is the subjection of pleasure to principle. When the organising principles in life are dissolved by the intellectual acid of skepticism we are left only with pleasure as our primary purpose. And so we have a society obsessively concerned with all pleasures, the pleasure of possession, the pleasure of escape(drugs and alcohol), the pleasure of power, the pleasure of denial of responsibility or finally, pleasuring our genitals, the one pleasure available to us all, regardless of class.
The most telling example of the move from principle to pleasure is the way in which society has replaced the Sign of the Cross with the Sign of the Condom which now reads – In the name of the Vagina, the Penis and the Holy Orgasm, ahh men (or women, or both, according to your tastes). And, in the ultimate abandonment of responsibility in the service of pleasure, we have replaced baptism with abortion. The new ‘baptismal’ ceremony reads – I abort you in the name of the Vagina, the Penis and the Holy Orgasm.
The intellectual acid of skepticism is dissolving the connective tissue of society. But we need society. It is a very deep need, and so we re-form or re-group at the local level where immediacy confers believability and trust.
And this is why you say:
“I find that I am only motivated to spend substantial sums of money or engage in labor intensive activities on behalf of people I care about, and these are people within my personal circle and local community.”
I see a lot of hope in that. By reconnecting at the local community level we will slowly build outwards, returning health to society. But it will be tough.
sorry for getting back belatedly.
Alright, I’ll try to give something of my own experience as briefly as possible. I was born 1955; technically my age-group is considered Baby Boomer, but we were really the youngest siblings of the War Babies (as they were initially called). As such, while we grew up during the political and cultural upheavals of the ’60s, we actually didn’t participate in any of it. By the mid-’70s, there was a growing reaction among us towards the ’60s, on several fronts: 1st, we had missed out on all the groovy fun stuff, like Woodstock, underground comics, or the Sexual Revolution; most of our political experiences were not of participating in grand marches, but of the political backlash against these. Secondly, we witnessed how our elder siblings, having made ‘selling out’ a social crime in the Cultural Revolution, began selling out – not just of necessity, but gleefully, as if the anar chic left culture of the ’60s had been a big party that had ended a few hours before dawn. This sell out reached its climax in 1980, when we watch so many ‘ex-hippies’ vote for Reagan, as a pursuit of their personal interests. There were also one might call ‘spiritual’ sell-outs, like the arrival of foggy headed New Age self-centeredness, and a related renewal of Christian Fundamentalism. Finally, we were left to find ways to ‘re-capture’ the ’60s, to find the best of that era and continue it. All of this was for naught, first because the Cultural Revolution was funded on a pack of lies, and second because the War Babies themselves kept blocking such efforts over and over, refusing us a place at the various tables where they were enjoying their desserts. By the mid-’80s we were all trying to find a way to sell out – because this is a capitalist culture, selling out is necessary to survival. And indeed, the fiercest hold-outs ended up on the street, or dead on some drug.
So I look at my story, and I look at your story, and ask, what’s the connection? What are the themes that seem to lead in the same direction. First of all, we modernists are raised to believe in certain shared values, that in fact cannot be true if the society is to exist as a political entity (as discovered following virtually every Modern revolution, whatever benefits actually accrued). Thus, the members of this society must share values that they rarely verbalize, and these are the real motivators for social behavior. (What did the Light Brigade charge into the valley of death in Crimea to defend? British business and political interests concerning Russia and Turkey.)
Secondly, on some level, many our elders actually know this, or at least have a sense of it; but rather than teach us to live with it, recognize the value of raising us to hold values unrealizable, as a means of disciplining our behavior. However, this discipline does not last for many; often there is rebellious response to this, and so we get, eg., grimly realistic portrayals of social ills in the arts; but we can also see the unrealizable values systematized into grandiose ideals like Communism, in attempts to achieve a kind of value purification.
Finally, there are those values we actually do live by. We may be theoretical socialists in thought or hope, but we are all capitalists in practice. We may be any religion in belief; but we respond to the world in our own interests, or those of our immediate loved ones, in ways never taught in any book of wisdom. There are no saints left (well, let’s at least agree that they’re rare), and neither De-Ontology nor Utiluitarianism – both developed to fill the place of the collapsing strictures of religious morality – can adequately describe or guide us. We may desire a greater social commitment to the people around us (beyond family and friends) – but we actually don’t want them to get too close. We are basically on our own; like one of my friends once put it, planets in apposite orbits bumping into each other.
So if I had to say what chiefly characterized the ethical/political theme of Modernity, I would have to say, it was a search for value, complimented by an effort to make value, in the face of certain disappoint in that search.
Thus if anything identifies Post-Modernism, it is the exhaustion of these themes; but they’re replacemed with what? That’s a different story.
Still working on Didion, definitely a worthy writer and thinker, from what I’ve seen so far.
I loved reading your two comments. You brought back so many memories. Born in 1945, I can relate very well to your descriptions. Some time ago I bumped into an old friend, and, as usual we engaged in some fond nostalgia. We don’t have the bitter memories you seem to evince. And I am glad. I want to preserve the golden glow of my youth’s memories. You cannot imagine the momentous sense of adventure as we broke free of so many taboos. It was liberating, it was exhilarating, it was overwhelming. There was this unbounded sense of hope and discovery. My friend looked at me with a genial twinkle in his eyes and said ‘Peter, we were so lucky, sex was safe’. Indeed, and what a playground of thrilling adventure it turned out to be.
This was a generation fueled by song as no other was. Song fanned our emotions, validating our yearnings. Life was a song but the song ended when we finished our education and took our place in the workforce. There we found another kind of reality, the reality of power and discipline and necessity. You call it a sell out. I call it a grim adaptation where you learn new rules and acquire new skills. My colleagues became cynical, brutal and skilled in corporate warfare. I joined them in eager battle for for the rich rewards. What else could I do? Should I sit at the bottom of the heap and be content with the grimy discards of those above me? Would my children ever forgive me?
The song had ended and was replaced by the clash of swords on shields, by the shrieks of betrayal, by the cries of the wounded and the shouts of the victors. But whatever the outcome we fought well and with conviction.
But what else could we have expected? Life is at its core Darwinian. We have hung up our swords and spears. We polish them in our memories and replay the songs with fond nostalgia while we look at our successors with pained surprise. I suspect we were looked at in the same way by our predecessors.
Jeez, man, when you bring it, you bring it. Another beautiful post.
Your observation about the aims of deontology and consequentialism are spot on. Remiscent of Anscombe’s critique in “Modern Moral Philosophy.”
What is truly surprising is when someone survives that era unchanged, It is so improbable that it deserves recording. Here is my account, written some years ago:
“A Mountain Ducktail and a Mountain Mermaid
The Mountain Ducktail is not a bird but a previously unknown subspecies of the human species and we all know what mermaids are, a species that every man longs to meet in his dreams.
One of the delights of mountains are the people you meet in the mountains. These are big, lonely mountains so you almost never meet someone ‘in’ the mountains. Rather you meet them in places like the Mountain Club in preparation for going into the mountains. I have walked through these mountains for 27 years and only twice have I actually met someone else ‘in’ the mountains.
On the first occasion my good friend Cliff H and I were toiling across the Groendal Plateau on a gloriously clear, crisp morning when we saw a solitary figure coming slowly towards us. Slowly, because we could see he was in a contemplative mood, keenly examining all around him with great interest.
He stopped to greet us. Cliff had the good manners to give him a courteous reply. My discourtesy had nothing to do with discourtesy, my mind was struggling with the sheer improbability of what I was seeing. My mind had instantly been transported back to the early Sixties, the years of the Ducktail, that aggressive, posturing street hooligan with the distinctive Brylcreem hairstyle that that gave rise to the name ‘Ducktail’. They wore jeans, tattoos and bangles and sauntered down the street, hands splayed, with a challenging gaze and aggressive stance that they backed up with the ever ready flick knife. “Kyk jy my? Soek jy kak?” And if you weren’t large, ferocious and fiercesomely armed you would avert your gaze and mutter a simpering apology.
Here before me was a Ducktail in dress and mannerisms, just much older. I could not see the flick knife and instead of narrow pointed shoes he wore good, serviceable boots. The aggressive, challenging glance had been replaced by the keenly inquisitive stare of someone interested in all around him. We chatted animatedly and it soon became apparent that he was a habitué of the mountains, was fit, knowledgeable and loved them.
Finally we parted with mutual good wishes and, on my part at least, newly acquired respect. Cliff and I were bemused. How was it that somebody from the early Sixties had preserved exactly the dress, style and mannerisms of that time? And even more improbably, what was such an animal doing in the mountains, so far from his urban home range? Cliff was delighted. I could see that he had added another story to his copious memory of the unusual, amusing and strange. He is a born raconteur and would soon be delighting others around many camp fires.”
The story of the Mountain Mermaid can wait for another time.
Dan, I’m not sure I can really contribute much to this conversation without reading Didion in depth. I’m impressed first of all that you undertook such a course–Philosophic Ideas in Literature–something that I would readily have welcomed back in my college days when I had one very earnest professor of English Literature who structured his lectures around the influence of prevailing philosophic ideas on both poets and novelists and how these were reflected in their art. Frankly, I always enjoyed this professor’s courses more than others’, even those who took me under wing, one a published poet, the other a published short story writer and novelist who weren’t particularly complimentary of the earnest professor’s approach to literature.
I also must confess that I’d never thought much about generational concepts/designations until I began to see them referred to in popular media, say, in the last 20 years or so. Now, in part thanks to your OP, I see that Karl Mannheim first explored this concept in the 1920’s, and there are plenty links if one googles “concept of generations.” Even my mom started in on this late in her life by reminding me that hers was “the greatest generation” by way of Douglas Brinkley’s tome.
But back to Didion and your statement, “the opening line of The White Album reads, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.” But it seems to me you undercut her point about narratives/stories by questioning whether “it is good for us to believe them.” Some further clarification here is needed since “the good” seems entailed by “in order to live.”
I feel a strong identification with Maria, as you’ve depicted her in “Play It As It Lays,” while at the same time recognizing that it is ultimately a futile response, one that flirts with anesthesia rather than engagement. It is also unclear whether Maria is in someway a persona for Didion of whom you write, Didion’s conviction that there are, in fact, givens; things about us and our nature – our humanity, our sex, our history, our blood – that can never be altered or denied, without self-deception and bad faith.”
Returning to the generational concept and my personal thinking, I’m more inclined to take into account rapid medical and technological advances as a major point of the cultural narrative today. Such advances tend to blur generational distinctions that become vastly more short-lived in importance, to the point where commodification of narrative becomes the fundamental narrative.
My apologies in advance if I misread your intent and central thesis. My comment is rather all over the place. I’ve been bouncing off the walls lately for personal reasons.
I think it is tricky to identify Maria with Didion. I think it would be fair to say that some of Didion’s ideas/views get expressed through Maria, but there are any number of ways in which Maria is very unlike Didion.
I don’t see the way in which my point re: narratives “undercuts,” as you say. It could be the case that we really feel the need for something, but that at the end of the day, it isn’t good for us. We could strongly feel the need for these meaningful, vindicating narratives, but it could be that at the end of the day, they do us more harm than good.
The point regarding generational thinking, in my estimation, is nothing more ambitious than observing that people whose consciousness is shaped by certain common experiences, because they live in a common time and place, which seems to me to be obviously true. All the hazard lies in what one does with such generational information, and hopefully, I haven’t made any overly ambitious points on the basis of it.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live has been on my shelf for years but I don’t go back to it much. It seems on reading it again to be bland, affectless and slightly nihilist and as that other Californian Walter said about nihilism – say what you like about National Socialism- at least they had an ethos. She’s cool outasight with elite overtones and access to all areas dropping names with abandon, Morrison, Joplin, Bobby Seale, Eldrige, and so forth.
Her ‘nothing applies’ makes moral judgment sound like a poultice or a cold compress applied to cancer. She’s a good writer, technically, but there is no reason that I would pay any attention to her when she offers her nihilism. Her self-admitted frail grasp on sanity does not recommend her. Now that I think of it I see her as influenced by French Existentialism, Camus particularly. She is no outsider, more of a watchful insider.
Of all the ‘new journalists’ I wish Norman Mailer was around this election.
Well, obviously, I completely disagree with your assessment. And the Nazi reference is just the cheapest sort of shallow rhetoric.
And to read her as a nihilist is to completely misunderstand her.
Caveat: Again, as in my initial comment, let me reiterate that I haven’t studied Didion so will defer to your analysis of the philosophic implications of her writings. I read “Play It As It Lays” many decades ago, but have no firm recollection of it. By way of comparison, for example, I read Updike’s “The Centaur” before Didion’s novel, and have a better recollection of it. But this fact is not intended to be construed as an attempt to compare the merits of the two as writers of fiction. Everyone has favorite fiction writers, whether branded as popular or serious by the critical establishment. I left such considerations behind in the late 70’s. But I have no doubt that some writers resonate with readers for reasons that only the reader can explain, something you’ve done well in your OP.
Let me apologize if I misread your point about generational distinctions while noting that the word appears 11 times in your OP. I accept your explanation that you haven’t made “any overly ambitious points on the basis of it.”
TJ: Apologize for what? Your comment was perfectly apropos.
Hi Dan, I enjoyed the essay though know nothing about Didion, except what you wrote in an earlier essay. I’ve tried to find her in bookstores around here but so far no luck. Hmmm, I may try again over the next few days. She seems intriguing to me, though perhaps a bit on the existential side.
The generational analysis resonated with me, except…
“The left tries to tell a tale of widespread oppression and unfair advantage. Not buying it.”
But there is widespread oppression and unfair advantage, particularly if we are discussing economic oppression and advantage. It is hard to see how that is merely a (fictional/constructed) narrative one can choose to buy into or not.
If you mean near ubiquitous oppression and advantage (like 2nd wave feminist doctrine), something always needing to be ferreted out purged, then I would agree.
But as far as the general concept of (almost physically specified) oppression and advantage that is largely an empirical question, and one with a pretty solid case for it.
The arguable fictional/constructed narrative on that issue being that the left has the only viable answer to these problems, and indeed that a single solution is plausible for all people/societies. It was that idea that I didn’t buy.
Dan, as I said on the other thread, I haven’t read enough Didion to add much here. I’m with her – and you – on a number of things, in particular the focus on particulars and the rejection of certain kinds of theorizing and moralizing.
“Ultimately, it is an ambivalence about whether we should view our lives and the things that happen to us and that we do as having a certain kind of significance; as playing into some meaningful, hopeful, and ultimately vindicating story. It is Didion’s view that we feel a strong need to believe this – the opening line of The White Album reads, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — but she is doubtful whether any of these stories are true or even if it is good for us to believe them.”
Right. But then you tell this story about generational identity which you indicate is increasingly important to you. I don’t relate to this. (A complicating factor: my ‘generation’ is not my generation in that I am drawn to earlier times – and other places.)
You write: “[W]hile any generation can claim their own parade of crooks, cretins, and other assorted dishonorables, mine developed its consciousness at a time when the failures and the falsehoods and the hypocrisies of all the political orientations and ideologies were being represented with great clarity and in high relief. Indeed, one might characterize our attitude, above all, as one of not buying it, where “it” means whatever narrative someone is trying to sell.”
The first sentence I accept, but not the second. As a *personal* story, perhaps, or as a story about how things seem to a small slice of a particular cohort of people born between certain dates.
Didion makes the same mistake (as I see it), if her “we” is meant to refer to something more than just “me and my friends and associates of a similar age”. She does say “many of us”, but there is still a generalizing and mythologizing element here involving this strange thing called “the silent generation”:
“We were silent because the exhilaration of social action 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.”
I was going to say that I suspect my main problem with Didion might be not (as with ombhurbhuva) that she is nihilistic but that she is not nihilistic enough. But that would be needlessly provocative. The truth is more subtle and I can’t quite nail it.
Besides, I’m more than happy to count both you and Didion as allies on most of the important questions.
Also, your piece is very nicely written.
Hi Labnut, I enjoyed your comments to the essay before this (Mark’s piece on special people) and part of what you wrote in this thread.
However, while I agree that organizing principles play an important role in people’s lives, and the idea of a pastiche man is interesting to consider, I was surprised when I got to this:
“When the organising principles in life are dissolved by the intellectual acid of skepticism we are left only with pleasure as our primary purpose. And so we have a society obsessively concerned with all pleasures, the pleasure of possession, the pleasure of escape(drugs and alcohol), the pleasure of power, the pleasure of denial of responsibility or finally, pleasuring our genitals, the one pleasure available to us all, regardless of class.”
I’m a pretty firm sceptic, even if I also “opt for an enchanted view of the world” (though not all the time, as you claim, which I believe to be impossible). In my sceptic’s clothes I cannot see where you find support for this assertion. I’ve heard some argue that survival or reproduction (regardless of pleasure) is our primary purpose, but not pleasure (drive maybe, purpose no). Why should any of those be more viable or real a purpose to the sceptic than the interest one holds for a personal organizing structure?
And then there is this:
“The most telling example of the move from principle to pleasure is the way in which society has replaced the Sign of the Cross with the Sign of the Condom which now reads – In the name of the Vagina, the Penis and the Holy Orgasm, ahh men (or women, or both, according to your tastes). And, in the ultimate abandonment of responsibility in the service of pleasure, we have replaced baptism with abortion. The new ‘baptismal’ ceremony reads – I abort you in the name of the Vagina, the Penis and the Holy Orgasm.”
I am also a proud hedonist… and I have no idea what you are talking about. The idea that the world is moving toward some sexual pleasure based hedonism in abandonment of traditional organizing principles is empirically unsound… false on its face. The world is in the grip of sexual repression from the left and right. Does it really look like a world-wide hippy free-love movement is taking over? Man, the only thing we are growing in our communal garden these days is ideological driven violence and fear.
And this caricature of sexual hedonism is purely aligned with what Dan described as the narrative of the right (“The right presents a harrowing story of societal moral decay and ruin.”).
Sexual hedonism has nothing to do with abortion, and abortion has nothing to do with sexual hedonism. What you have clearly done is conflated ignorance and irresponsibility with hedonism. “Ultimate abandonment of responsibility” is a problem, for the ascetic as well as the hedonist. Good religious families pumping out babies they can’t afford and to the deficit of the health of the mother (because we must be fruitful and multiply!) is just as bad as (perhaps worse) than a woman aborting a child due to insufficient birth control.
And on that matter hedonists aren’t telling people they must be hedonists and have sex all the time (as if sex embodies the only and top hedonist activity these days), much less that people should be having abortions.
On the other hand religious groups are not just telling, but actively restricting people’s access to birth control (including sterilization) which increases the desire/need for abortions. And that is not just against “hedonists” having wild orgies in the street. That includes monogamous married couples who need such things for financial and health reasons.
And by the way… “the Holy Orgasm, ahh men (or women, or both, according to your tastes)”
Is there something wrong with that? You will note that homosexual acts (among a myriad of practices other than strict vaginal intercourse), inherently do not result in pregnancy and so (according to your bizarre scheme) abortion.
So your “replacement” claims, while nice religious-zealot theater, are intellectual garbage Labnut. Empirically and theoretically.
Quite the opposite of your claims, my scepticism neither led to nor informed my hedonism. And my hedonism does not involve consumerism, ignorance, or “ultimate” irresponsibility.
Mark, you are hardly the only one who doesn’t think much of generational characterization. It is highly controversial — at least when taken too seriously. So, I would say two things:
1. So long as one acknowledges that when one is talking about tens of millions of people, any characterization one makes will admit of substantial exceptions, I do think it is fair to speak of the consciousness of a generation, insofar as one is talking about people who have shared a set of experiences and a particular piece of history.
2. I tried, in introducing the topic, to make it quite clear that this only represented a slice or layer of my consciousness. That it has become a more prominent one lately, I’m sure, has to do with my arrival at middle age.
dbholmes: Yes, re: widespread oppression and unfair advantage, I was thinking in the manner that you suggest.
That said, I suspect that there might be a number of advantages that people have that you might deem unfair, which I would not. I could be wrong about that though.
db: One thing. It’s fine to disagree vehemently with Labnut, but your last post — the substance of which I almost entirely agree with — wanders quite close to a civility line that I don’t want crossed around here. We are tremendously fortunate to have such a high quality comments section. I would hate to see us lapse into flaming.
“I suspect that there might be a number of advantages that people have that you might deem unfair, which I would not. I could be wrong about that though.”
I might surprise you… then again I might not. 🙂
I am not against the existence of economic disparity per se, or believe we have to even the playing field (or results) constantly for everyone. That would be impossible, and likely come with its own bizarre costs. But there is an extent of inequality and advantage which is damaging and more importantly unnecessary for the “advantaged” to enjoy their position. It sort of gets to a Lockean proviso.
“It’s fine to disagree vehemently with Labnut, but your last post… wanders quite close to a civility line that I don’t want crossed around here.”
Understood and agreed.
For my part I tried to caveat my disagreement (and soften the blow) by starting with how much I’ve been enjoying his commentary recently, which has been excellent, before pointing to the specific claims I thought lacked empirical and logical rigor, as well as being deliberately offensive, mocking (of people like me and my beliefs).
I was actually surprised that last section I quoted was allowed to make it to the site in the first place, given its working assumption that sexuality is chosen or a product of scientific reasoning (in addition to its dismissive treatment of commonly oppressed people in such a cavalier fashion). Seriously, isn’t the last sentence of the second quote analogous to, if not a form of, blood libel with respect to hedonists and sexual minorities (accusing them, rhetorically or not, of ritualist killing of children in pursuit of their fiendish desires)?
Anyway, it read that way to me and so I was responding with a strength I felt such a provocative position (which is not to say the person) deserved.
I apologize to Labnut (and anyone else actually) if my comment seemed to be insulting Labnut. That was definitely not my intention.
I think we’re all good with each other, DB. I just think the discussions are so much more fruitful when we don’t get too hot. And Labnut can certainly get hot, as can I!
I have had a bit of enforced silence as a result of equipment failure(how fortunate).
I was deliberately provocative, knowing I would touch a tender spot, so some blowback was to be expected. It is all in the spirit of fun. And in any case I enjoy DB’s commentary, so all is good.
“And Labnut can certainly get hot, as can I!”
We don’t want things to get too bland do we?
DB, I am still enjoying your comment, but I won’t reply. I unapologetically stand by what I said in the firm knowledge that I can back up my claims. I have been giving some thought to the manner of how one deals with emotions inflamed by provocation. There is the Stoic way advocated by Massimo. And yet I have noticed a few times that when I prod him in a certain way his emotions explode. He could, quite justifiably, say the same of me! The Stoic way, while plausible on the surface(I believed in it for a long time) is prone to sudden ruptures. I also think that containing these emotions might be damaging.
Emotions are real and need to be recognised as an important signal. I am coming around to the point of view that can be paraphrased as ‘feel them and then deal with them’. But feel them in private, let recovery set in and then deal with them, where deal with them means reflectively examine your feelings. The following will sound quite alien to you, but I have been exploring the practice of Ignatian prayer called the Daily Examen. This practice was started by St. Ignatius of Loyola(founder of the Jesuits) as part of his renowned spiritual exercises. My first experiences are very favourable. I can tell you more after I have completed the 34 week program of spiritual exercises.
“ I do think it is fair to speak of the consciousness of a generation, insofar as one is talking about people who have shared a set of experiences and a particular piece of history.”
Yes, I do think that is true. This shared consciousness emerges over time. We recognise it because certain commonalities emerge over time and then we label it. And then everyone declares that the label does not apply to them. We really dislike being labelled. It is an insult to the pastiche man who fondly believes in and treasures his unique individuality.
Pascal Wallisch, in his blog, Pascal’s Pensees, produced interesting evidence in the form of musical tastes, Diversity of Musical Tastes since 1940:
He showed that music diversity had a decadal cycle with marked peaks every decade. I interpret it in this way. The profound formative stages of childhood last approximately ten years, from age ten to twenty and this accounts for there being a decadal cycle. This is the time period when exposure to the external world of peer pressure, adult world and adult expectations is felt with increasing force. Each new cohort that enters the decade is exposed to very different forces than the cohort before them and when that cohort ages out it imposes new forces on the succeeding cohort. This molds them in different ways to the previous cohort. There is no sharp distinction since the cohort’s influence bleed over to their neighbours, but, as the musical tastes show, there are clearly recognisable distinctions.
“We don’t want things to get too bland do we?”
Bland, of course not. But blandness is not the problem suffered by most discussion forums on the internet.
I simply do not want the discussions here to devolve into the sort we’re all familiar with from … “elsewhere.” Mine is a fundamentally different moderating philosophy, and I think the superior quality of our discussions, here, testifies to its validity. The discussions may not be as long, but who, other than a masochist, wants to listen to six people say the same thing 200 times?
In short, our discussions are great, precisely because they don’t turn into what one typically finds on internet discussion boards.
You are right of course, though sometimes I won’t admit it so readily. The freedom to work out one’s thoughts requires a kind of confidence that the other side, though you are sure they won’t agree, at least they won’t react with incredulous scorn and derision.
That freedom allows one to explore ideas in a sense of openness and curiosity. I really appreciate that. There are all sorts of unexpected thing to be learnt along the way.
That should have been Dan-K, not Dan-T. Let me have another glass of red wine!
Hi Labnut, we probably shouldn’t continue the argument anyway since it is not about Didion. However, since the topic of civility and nature of discourse at EA has come up, I’d like to say something about that, in relation to the argument we were having…
“I unapologetically stand by what I said in the firm knowledge that I can back up my claims.”
To be clear, I am also unapologetic for the claims I made, and was only sorry the tone may have made it seem I was attacking you personally rather than a very specific subset of your position.
On that subset, I honestly don’t see how you can back up those claims and so would be interested in seeing evidence/argument presented (at a more appropriate time/place).
With one caveat… I had taken the nature of your argument (specifically the second quote I gave) as being emotion laden and quite opposite the civil discourse I expected at EA (not to mention deviating widely from such nice writing for the last few threads). While rhetorically valid, it is often deemed offensive to “dress up” as someone you are discussing (as if you are familiar with or one of them) and put words in their mouths (or actions to their hands) to make your point, especially words/actions that they would find offensive themselves, beyond the patent mocking quality.
If the same form of argument had been used against an ethnic or religious group its offensive quality might have been more obvious. Indeed, I don’t think you would have appreciated someone (say a New Atheist) using that same rhetorical approach to tell people what Catholics say or do.
So if we get back to that topic someday I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use that approach, which to my eye was hardly better than donning some clownish blackface character to make a point about poverty/crime in black inner city neighborhoods. If “we” are doing the things you suggest, sober argument and evidence (stated from your outside perspective) would be more appropriate and appreciated.
Like I said, it is rhetorically valid, but then I don’t feel any reason why I shouldn’t respond in kind (emotion laden).
“I have been giving some thought to the manner of how one deals with emotions inflamed by provocation. There is the Stoic way advocated by Massimo. And yet I have noticed a few times that when I prod him in a certain way his emotions explode. He could, quite justifiably, say the same of me! The Stoic way, while plausible on the surface(I believed in it for a long time) is prone to sudden ruptures. I also think that containing these emotions might be damaging.”
I agree with this, and actually try to vent as much and as quickly as possible (offline) to get the less useful “fight or fight” response out of the way. Then I get to thinking and writing. Sometimes (especially if writing late at night or in a hurry) I fail to vent enough before writing.
However even while writing with a calm demeanor, which believe it or not I was in this case, if I am fighting deliberately provocative emotion laden language I feel that avenue is open to me as well. Perhaps, I think, it is even necessary to give the author a little “jolt” to help them realize the error of their method. That was the direction of my thinking in writing my response.
That said, “he did it first” is not a very great excuse and if a site wants to maintain a certain level of civility I’m willing (and happy) to work at meeting such expectations.
“Hi Labnut, we probably shouldn’t continue the argument anyway”
It is not useful and is really not worth worrying about.
I am trying more and more to use my writing to vent in — hence, the “Provocations,” a new one on which I am working right now — rather than my discussions. 9 times out of 10, the person I’m talking with doesn’t deserve it!
Hi Labnut, I’m sorry but it was not clear what your response meant.
I hope you read past that spot in my reply and did not assume the rest was continuation of the argument? I realize now I shouldn’t have started the very next sentence with “however” which might make it seem like I would.
The point of my reply was that I am interested in continuing the argument at some more appropriate time/thread (given that you have evidence to support your claims), but would prefer you not engage in certain methods of argument if we did… and laid out an explanation for that request.
And I agreed with your position about how artificial repression of emotion, as perhaps suggested by Stoic practices, might lead to a build up rather than a lessening of tension and so lead to outbursts. Steady, consistent, low level catharsis is better than creating a faux calm before the storm.
Hi Dan, yes I’m coming to the opinion it is better to write provocative or venting pieces as stand alone things (my First Party Spoilers is an example), rather in the course of discussion. Whether a person deserves it or not, the resulting exchange is going to shed more heat than light. In a general essay unless a person is particularly singled out for attack, the reader can take it a bit less personally. They have the opportunity to dissect it clinically.
However during a direct exchange venting or provocation (especially with literary flair) is like having someone start shouting in another’s face or getting away with a solid “burn” (a joke made about the other person) with people standing around watching. The need to respond in kind is heightened. Defenses, hackles, and (figurative) fists come up.
Of course modern media (from commercial news to twitter) seems to be focused on fighting. Not debate on an issue, but scoring points in fighting one another. Like the crowd of kids huddling around two high schoolers about to go at it, people seem to want and expect that kind of “action”. The trend in Presidential “debates” (which ought to exhibit the best in debate) is toward, and now well into, gutter-level brawling. Not sure if or how that habit can be broken given the for profit, 24/7, infotainment news cycle.
Not to say that kind of interest is new. Popular interest in the fight between Hume and Rousseau shows that. But it has become more of a habit, a constant expectation, rather than the exception.
join us in discussing EJ’s stimulating essay on Hegel.