The conservative Joan Didion

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In a ceremony at the White House last Wednesday, President Obama awarded the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts to 24 recipients. For her literary achievements, author Joan Didion was among the recipients. The choice of honorees is often politically charged, and the Washington Post paper suggests the Administration’s choice of Didion, among others, is “an opportunity to support a certain stripe of artistic and intellectual activism.”

Anyone who characterizes Joan Didion’s work as “intellectual activism” might want to take a closer look — or read more than just Salvador. While she has done considerable political reporting for the New York Review of Books since the late 1980’s, the bulk of her work doesn’t really resemble political activism at all, let alone in the vein of upper-middle class Obama-era liberalism. Didion herself, whose work includes five novels, remarks of feminist theorists in her essay The Women’s Movement: “That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.”

Didion’s writing is at once subtle and direct. If anything, she is a moralist, not an activist, and she takes individuals seriously. Of all the beautiful lines she’s written, the bold, blunt beginnings (“Havana vanities come to dust in Miami.”) and the elegiac endings (“There were years when I called Los Angeles ‘the coast’, but they seem a long time ago.”), these simple and very human lines might be among the most memorable: “Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate.”

They could have been spoken or written by anyone. But in Didion’s sure hands, they are spoken by Maria Wyeth about her young daughter, Kate, in Play It As It Lays, often considered one of the most significant novels of the last century. The novel depicts the California zeitgeist of the 1960’s by an author who is unimpressed by, and unforgiving to, its participants. In fact, it was Didion’s cool and knowing dissection of the cultural tumult of the 1960’s in her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that initially won her serious critical attention. Later, in The White Album, she seems to dismiss the salvific possibilities of political activism which inspired such faith in many of her contemporaries: “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest, I would go to that barricade and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”

If it is possible for several phrases to convey the essence of at least some of an author’s work, those cited above (“I bother for Kate.”) just might be the lines. They suggest the implicit questions Didion often addresses in her work: what claims us and what redeems us? In an essay in The White Album, Didion tells us this:

I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic, holding always before me the examples of Axel Heyst in Victory and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove and Charlotte Rittenmayer in The Wild Palms and a few dozen others like them, believing as they did that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments, promises made and somehow kept outside the range of normal social experience. I still believe that

Thus, the “extreme and doomed commitments” Didion portrays in her writing are not rational, practical or even reciprocal — they are unselfish and unreasoned. Her characters are often deeply compromised or flawed people who, nevertheless, are claimed by their responsibilities to one another and redeemed by trying to fulfill them. Or, put another way, they are claimed and redeemed by the simple act of loving another individual and the duty that follows. And Didion doesn’t write about responsibilities to, or as, groups in the modern, secular sense of identity politics. Nor does she write about redemption through the causes they engender. She writes about responsibilities and attachments of the most singular, immediate, and even primal kind.

Maria Wyeth is the central character in Play It as It Lays and Kate is her brain damaged and institutionalized daughter. Kate is four. We are told that she is afflicted with what Maria identifies as “an aberrant chemical in her brain.” Maria is a sometime, somewhat has-been actress, married to an amoral, emotionally brutal, and unfaithful Hollywood director, Carter Lang. They live in a wasteland of promiscuity, exploitation and despair. Maria is dissolute and damaged. But, she has an overpowering love for her daughter which makes her the only moral force, albeit greatly flawed, in a world drained of moral conviction and genuine human attachment.

Maria remarks about a house they rent: “Whether or not Carter could afford the rent, whether it was a month … when he was making a lot of money or a month when the lawyers were talking about bankruptcy, the boy came twice a week to vacuum the pool and the man came four days a week to work on the roses and the water in the pool was 85.” But within this unreality, Maria’s love for her daughter is primal, linked unmistakably to her humanity. Maria “bothers” for Kate, who can never return her affection. Even as she herself is institutionalized after a friend’s suicide, she thinks of Kate: “What I play for here is Kate. Carter put her in there and I am going to get her out.”

Similarly in A Book of Common Prayer, Charlotte Douglas travels to a dangerous Central American country, Boca Grande, in a confused attempt to find her daughter Marin. Marin is eighteen and fleeing the FBI after participating in an act of domestic terrorism. Charlotte loves Marin deeply, immediately and not at all abstractly. Didion writes, “Charlotte adored her, brushed her pale hair and licked the tears from her cheeks, held her hand crossing streets and wanted never to let go, believed that when she walked through the valley of the shadow she would be sustained by the taste of Marin’s salt tears.” The fictional Boca Grande is a country always on the verge of some kind of revolution and not hospitable to North American women in search of their bourgeois revolutionary daughters. Charlotte is accidentally killed in one such uprising and doesn’t find her, but nevertheless, just like Maria, Charlotte “bothered” in her own way for Marin, however doomed the effort was.

For Didion, the notion of “promises made and somehow kept” has less intimate, but equally grave implications as she discusses the history of northern California in Where I Was From. In Chapter 4, Didion discusses what she calls “the crossing stories,” the accounts of those individuals and families who left their homes to go “from east to west,” to go to California to begin again. These stories are often infused with myth, and in turn helped create the California myth of heroic pioneers and brave new beginnings. Many of these stories are found in the journals of the travelers themselves. For such travelers, few portions of the journey were more feared than crossing the Sierra Nevada, and the fatal possibility of being caught there in winter when the passes close. Didion mentions the diary of a Bernard J. Reid who discovers an abandoned 17-year-old girl, “Miss Gilmore” whose parents had already perished and whose brother was ill. As Reid writes, “the train they had been traveling with, after waiting for three days on account of the sickness and death of her parents had gone on that morning, fearful, if they delayed longer, of being caught by winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains…” Didion gets to the heart of the matter: “When you jettison others so as not to be ‘caught by winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains’, do you deserve not to be caught? When you survive at the cost of Miss Gilmore and her brother, do you survive at all?”

Many modern writers and social commentators, including “artistic and intellectual activists,” try to tell us how to live; Joan Didion has no such pretensions. Her task is more humble and more difficult. Didion assumes we know we should risk winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains — risk snow falling and passes closing — rather than abandon someone. With her deep talent and moral acuity, she does what others cannot: she reveals to us and articulates what we know to be true. She doesn’t tell us how to live, she merely reminds us for what, and why.

Sydney Leach, an attorney, writes from Virginia.

Sydney Leach