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.