Death of an Iconoclast

What Joan Didion did for American letters

On Thursday, the unique and pioneering essayist, critic, memoirist, and fiction writer Joan Didion left this world at age 87, leaving many at a loss for words. Didion in all likelihood judged most obituaries that she read rather poorly from a literary and thematic standpoint, and now that she has died, we might take a moment to reflect on the inadequacy of obituaries. Tributes that say that so-and-so was kind, well-liked, made others laugh, and will be missed, et cetera, do not just fall short of their goal, but, trading in such banalities, actively thwart that purpose. They make their subjects less distinct, more easily confused with any number of souls who have lived and died through the ages.

Didion’s iconoclasm is worthy of far more eloquent tributes than we are likely to see in coming days, even if those writing about her are untainted by any wish to settle scores with a fiercely independent mind who refused to conform to the dogmas of either the right or the left and annoyed people on both sides the way a clear-headed NBA referee infuriates puerile fans. One finds many iterations of this iconoclasm in Didion’s ground-breaking essays, written in an elegant, fluid style. Often it is nothing short of eerie how directly her moral honesty contrasts with the posturing of some of the characters in our debased, celeb-ridden culture. Joan Didion respected herself in the best sense of that phrase. Her self-respect did not mean bravado. On the contrary, what it meant was, in today’s parlance, owning your words and deeds. In 2021, that is in short supply.

We no longer have Joan Didion to analyze the psychology at work behind today’s refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, a world in which what little moral responsibility does exist is diluted, dissolved, spread among all players. But we do have Didion’s 1961 essay, in which she vents her frustration at failing to win election to Phi Beta Kappa and admits the hubris that led her to believe she was so special that the cause-and-effect factors determining whether others won admission somehow did not and should not apply to her. Didion says that she had thought of herself as an academic equivalent of Dostoyevsky’s famous protagonist, Raskolnikov, who cannot accept the moral imperative of punishment for his crimes. At the very least, Didion writes, this experience helped her shed her hubris and get on the path to genuine self-respect. In order to do that, you have to overcome the moral cowardice that seeks ever to project responsibility outward rather than inward, to avoid thinking of yourself as a cipher in which agency never resided in the first place. You must come to think more like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character, Jordan Baker, in The Great Gatsby, Didion says, who hates carelessness and admits her own part in what accidents may occur in her life. “Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things,” Didion writes. “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.”

You have to wonder how much character resides in the executive producer of a film who denies responsibility, and very explicitly denies guilt, for what transpired on the set of a film over which he was the ultimate master of all the moving parts. Alec Baldwin does not display toughness or moral nerve when he tells George Stephanopoulos that people on the set, including the armorer on whose safety lives hung, were there because of decisions in which he had no personal involvement and he just did what he was told. In trying to shuck off moral consequences and blame others, you deny yourself agency, and nothing could be less consistent with self-respect. Reading Didion’s essay, you have to ask how much self-respect a man can feel having served as executive producer without actually taking on the role, rendering it an outline, a cipher, an empty chair in a deserted office, and turning to highly paid specialists in legal chicanery to get him out of trouble.

“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight; to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”

Didion’s wisdom here does not just apply to Alec Baldwin, but to CEOs, media executives, and college presidents who, rather than give a rationale for having run things a certain way, cave to the will of mobs demanding the cancellation of one or another professor, course, or curriculum and retroactively remake their institution, never having really stood for the earlier incarnation they supposedly led.

On Liberation

But the early-career assertion of bold iconoclasm that really got Didion in trouble with the defenders of certain faiths is her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement,” which appears in her 1979 collection The White Album. In this famous essay, Didion critiques the rhetorical sleight-of-hand, not that there was anything subtle or clever about it, by which feminists twisted and distorted Marxist notions of history and historical processes in order to consign all women, not some but every single one of them living in the United States, to the status of an oppressed class that needed to cast off its chains. “One could not help admiring the radical simplicity of this instant transfiguration,” Didion writes, acknowledging with sharp irony the problematic nature of assigning a universal trait to a category as large and diverse as “women.”

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne with their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, photographed by Jill Krementz on March 31, 1972. (Photo: Jill Krementz)

With hindsight today, half a century after the essay came out, it is hard not to admire how directly Didion anticipated a world where so many women, in Western societies, enjoy wealth and political freedoms that men and women throughout much of the rest of the planet can only envy. Ever the bold iconoclast, Didion is not afraid to put the terms class and consciousness-raising in quotation marks. One wonders whether she might have had to hire bodyguards when venturing to speak on a campus after this essay’s publication. But that is not even half of it. Didion goes on to critique the schizophrenic nature of a movement and ideology that wants to assert that women are just as tough and aggressive, just as beastly when you come down to it, as men throughout history have been, even as it sounds the alarm on behalf of damsels in distress eyed by construction workers as they walk down Sixth Avenue.

Here Didion courts controversy, but no one can attack the author of this essay for misogyny. Its genius is to put forth this critique as the perspective of a woman who objects, as a woman, to what feminism tries to foist on the world. Feminism denies Didion and other women many of the joys of life. “Cooking a meal could only be ‘dogwork,’ and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s own forced labor,” Didion writes. It is hard to disagree. Men take cooking courses and become celebrity chefs, but some radical feminists accuse women with even a flicker of pride in their culinary gifts of complicity in their own oppression. And that’s hardly all that is off-putting. “Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their ‘freedom,’” Didion writes.

In other essays, Didion is unafraid to criticize writers much admired by the left, namely Doris Lessing, who came of age in Southern Rhodesia as the struggle got underway between the white minority government and rebels backed by China and the Soviet Union who ultimately supplanted white rule and established Zimbabwe. Even by the standards of guerrilla war, it grew into an extremely nasty, bitter conflict in which both sides flouted the rules of war. Lessing moved to the U.K., where she joined the Left Book Club and the Communist Party. In much of her writing, Lessing skewers the whites of Rhodesia for their treatment of the black majority, and indeed there was much to criticize, but Didion finds Lessing’s “good guys/bad guys” take to be reductionist at best, and, at worst, unsuited to literature, whose chief role is to examine moral ambiguity. In her essay “Doris Lessing,” Didion offers a sober appraisal of Lessing’s work and makes a case that coming of age in an agrarian society with inflexible routines and customs instilled rigidity in Lessing, a tendency to view what went on in the world in terms of injustice and oppression. Literature, Didion writes, is fundamentally at odds with ideology. Lessing had far more of a taste for the latter. In Didion’s view, Lessing was “only too relieved to abandon the strain of creating character and slip into her own rather more exhortative voice.”

But those who might take Didion for some kind of apologist for right-wing causes will find in her 1987 work Miami an exposé of the horrific ends to which a movement ostensibly devoted to a democratic Cuba have readily gone. Here Didion trains her sights on the anti-Castro diaspora in southern Florida and some of its members’ growing reliance on terrorism. The work is a sobering corrective to credulous media accounts in the summer of 2021 of peaceful dissidents. Nowhere does Didion’s iconoclasm shine more brightly than in Miami. No one since Orwell has reminded us more forcefully how commitment to an idealistic cause leads to evil. Recall the words of Nietzsche. Whoever fights monsters should take care that he does not become a monster.

Impossible Farewell

“It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends,” Didion writes in “Goodbye to All That,” the essay that concludes Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The piece is a reminiscence on arriving in New York as a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, planning to spend six months in the city, and staying for eight years. Didion had little cash and spent a lot of time in the company of writers manqué, insomniac friends, and others who shared her taste for partying as if the ends that they could not see were too far off to care about and there was no need to hurry to where they wanted to be in life, to do whatever it was they were in New York to do other than have a good time. Even as time stretched on, Didion recalls, she found herself in the company of other “temporary exiles” who knew what time the flights were set to leave for New Orleans or Memphis or wherever they were to live a life that made sense. In Didion’s case, home was California, but the siren song of her engrossing life in the city where she felt on some level she did not ultimately belong kept her there. “I hurt the people I cared about and insulted those I did not,” Didion writes. Even after getting married, she struggled with alienation and despair, but she did things, you know, her way up until her move with her husband to L.A. That personal and spiritual independence thwarted the need for a more settled predictable existence, and so too with Joan Didion’s iconoclasm as a writer. The essays and books wrote themselves and it could not have not been otherwise.

Goodbye to all that.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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