Joan Didion: Slouching Toward Bethlehem

A few years ago, while on a trip to CA, I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a series of essays about CA written in the late ’60s.

Didion was in the belly of the beast while writing the titular essay; she was there in S.F. in 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’. Hers is not a glowing, idealistic portrait of flower children holding hands and organic Rousseauianism come to life. Rather, Didion portrayed the S.F. hippie scene of 1967 as a sad, degenerate, and drug-infused cast of runaways looking to escape personal responsibility and a job, and preoccupied with their next high. In this portrayal of hippie culture, Didion postulated to what extent this hippie subculture might represent a larger social atrophy taking place.

In “Out of Bethlehem: The Radicalization of Joan Didion“, Louis Menand’s lengthy profile of Didion for The New Yorker, Menand strangely criticizes Didion for, essentially, over playing the demographic extent of drug addled hippies in American culture in 1967 and for, essentially, not knowing their precise statistical component of U.S. culture (relative to the coverage they received from mainstream culture at the time.)

This seems a rather odd critique, given that the drug addled hippie culture — with images and accounts provided by the wider media — was, arguably, collectively perpetuating something of a Dionysian value system to a wider audience. Rightly or wrongly, everyone today — from the political left to the political right — inveighs “the Sixties” with the stamp of having been a time of all-things-liberation and all-things-libertinism. Menand writes:

Didion presented her article as an investigation into what she called “social hemorrhaging.” She suggested that what was going on in Haight-Ashbury was the symptom of some sort of national unravelling. But she knew that, at the level of “getting the story,” her piece was a failure. She could see, with the X-ray clarity she appears to have been born with, what was happening on the street; she could make her readers see it; but she couldn’t explain it.

One gets the impression that Menand just plain doesn’t like Didion, probably because she wasn’t sufficiently liberal. “Didion came from a family of Republicans,” begins one paragraph, as if the latter were a strange, zoological spectacle. Elsewhere, dripping with barely contained disdain, Menand writes:

Didion worked at Vogue for ten years. She continued to write for Mademoiselle, and, in 1960, she began contributing to The National Review, William F. Buckley’s conservative weekly. She wrote pieces about John Wayne, her favorite movie star, and, in the 1964 Presidential election, she voted for Barry Goldwater. She adored Goldwater. It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant…

Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too. Polsky, in his study of the Beats, had dismissed the theory, endorsed by some social critics in the nineteen-fifties, that disaffected dropouts are potential recruits for authoritarian political movements. Didion never rejected that theory. She thinks that dropouts are symptoms of a dangerous social pathology.

In my opinion, I see Didion’s work in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as a New Journalistic companion to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s academic work on how the libertinism of aristocratic elites in the late Victorian era (a group that could afford to get addicted to opium, or have a child out of wedlock, as the case might be) inadvertently promulgated similar behavior among the lower classes, the latter not able to afford the opium and not able to raise a child by themselves.

The results were crushing blows to Victorian notions of virtue and the ensuing pathological value systems we see today among the urban poor.

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