We need to remember Joan Didion, who died December 23rd, as perhaps the best defensive pessimist we’ve ever had. She nailed the feet of her times down to the floor to make sure it talked and wept all its pain out.
It’s not enough to call Joan Didion just a pessimist, because she wrote hard in the late 1960s and 1970s from California when there was nothing on the streets except anomie and formlessness. She recalled at one of the big parties she held with all the hipster bad-boys and filmmakers of the milieu, finding cocaine in her young child’s bedroom afterwards; quite reasonably outraged and called out that kind of ‘liberation’ for what it was. And the outrage, helpfully, was ink for tomorrow’s column. Use what you have.
What appalled her was any tendency towards disorder that led to unbelief. She saw the rise and fall of the Hippie movement as a chaos from which idealism still hasn’t recovered. From Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
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, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.
And I suspect we are already there.”
Thin whine of hysteria indeed. Plenty can hear it; too many join in.
I don’t know of anyone who did or does essays like her. One of her first jobs was for Vogue Magazine, and she was the first to write more than ‘how to apply lipstick well’ and start on ‘this is what self assurance is”. Relentless good writing tilts institutions, it really does.
In her later work, indeed in her face itself, you can see the accreted damage of the world and her own world. How her kind of world kept cracking and breaking off.
She described herself as:
You are getting a woman who, somewhere along the line, misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract … in the whole grand pattern of human endeavour.”
That line again from Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Here she is with long time friend Tom Brokaw.
No one has done better on the death of a long-term love than The Year of Magical Thinking.
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.” If indeed a limb of your life has died, join the club and read the book. It helps that she knows the damage inside.
She did defensive pessimism better than any I know because what was simply true of her life was expressed in hard ruthless daily training as the collective editing power they forged daily with each other ground blunt feeling down to that pointed slicing edge.
Defensive pessimism is an important sport played well; it seeks to marshall risk while still presuming that such management will simply delay the run down to anomie. It is simply not their job to show the way. It is their job to say that you can still make a frog convulse if electrodes are applied here or here. It is their job to name what you are doing shorn of its lies, if there’s anything left after that.
The week between Christmas and New Year is the trough of reflection and the promises we will make to ourselves, yet one more time. That we can get over all the losses we’ve suffered, or that we can’t and see what a wreck we are. It happens every damn year.
In that precise week Joan is worth returning to, but come prepared to strike your own light in the dark.