The Outsider with the Public Voice: How Joan Didion Mirrored Us Back to Ourselves
By Maria Popova
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in one of the early masterworks that turned her, over the course of the half-century that followed, into a patron saint of the personal essay and one of the most recognizable and influential voices of our time. In The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion (public library), biographer Tracy Daugherty delves into the wellspring of Didion’s character with a responsible and generous willingness to examine her life, trace her intellectual and creative development, and transmute what he finds into larger insight not only on what made Didion a great writer but on what it means to be one, both for the writer and for the society whose collective memory she or he reflects, preserves, and shapes.
From the first, her work insisted that a single life contained the life of our times.
In framing Didion’s living legacy, Daugherty points to her memoir of barely survivable loss, Blue Nights, and the striking coincidence of Political Fictions — her critique of the American political system’s propaganda machine — being released on the date of the 9/11 attacks:
By nailing the naughtiness of American politics on the day two of its physical symbols were attacked, and by keening ten years later, exploring, as a blind person touches strange new skin, the mechanisms of mourning and irretrievable loss, she had told us who we are, who we were. She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired: the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death. At its best, her prose surfaced suppressed emotions, causing in the reader vertigo, déjà vu, and yes, even the sensation of coincidence: the now and to come, the hidden and known, overlapping like warm and cold Pacific waves. So conceived, coincidence is an evocative word for what we have always been and what we are already losing. It is, like an evening tide, a thick and somber blue: for Didion, the color of our current moment.
In a palpably Didionesque passage, marked by the sort of elegant rhetorical acrobatics reminding the reader of the writer’s presence, Daugherty dissects her singular technique for coloring that current moment:
Didion’s writing is more specific and personal, but like Austen and Tolstoy, she presents a confident speaker with a solid worldview offering verities about human nature and culture. That these verities are not true (or not necessarily true) is beside the point. The effort is to create a social context in which the characters we are about to encounter must be considered, and reveals the narrator’s values. Since views of human nature and culture are notoriously subjective, such pronouncements are meant to be quibbled with, poked, and prodded.
Let me amend my earlier statement, then. That such verities are not true is the point.
Didion’s points, however subtly or coolly or circuitously delivered, have always been precise — a precision crafted with crystalline clarity of intent, the craftsmanship of which Daugherty captures perfectly:
Even as Didion frets about narratives in tatters, she is weaving narrative. She is carefully plotting a story, manipulating details, with a clear direction and a sense of who’s in charge — Joan Didion, jittery, uncertain, but vivid and speaking with a distinctive Western voice. Her collages are not stitched of random scraps. Her roads do not dead-end. Her narrative breakdowns are mirages. Every piece fits, often in more or less conventional patterns.
On the page, Didion’s sensibility is individual, “passive,” “strange, conflicted,” as well as communal. She attempts to speak for us all through the apparently self-defeating strategy of grounding her authority in weakness. In the confessional tradition of Montaigne, Didion admits her limitations and befuddlements up front, so readers feel they are in the presence of an unusually honest speaker. “I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind,” she says in The White Album. “I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” This self-deprecatory statement is also a brassy declaration. Rhetorically, its function is to establish the narrator as someone with a unique consciousness, someone whose disengagement places her in a better position than anyone else to plumb contemporary life. She is an outsider whose singular, untainted perspective allows her to assume a public voice. Our responses to her persona tell us less about the woman behind the books than about ourselves.
Perhaps because of how deliberate Didion has always been about details and how controlling of narrative, the task of probing the details of her own life and weaving them into a truthful narrative “leaves obvious potholes for a biographer,” as Daugherty puts it. And yet he takes it on nonetheless, approaching it with the same scrupulous intentionality as his subject did her prose:
In choosing Didion as a subject, I am offering a particular slant on literary biography. In the spirit of saying “exactly what you are getting,” let me lay it out. There is the biographer who promises explanations by threatening to reveal a subject’s secrets, who promises to dish. I am not that biographer. Nor will I live and die by psychological theories. When presented with the private correspondence, diaries, journals, or rough drafts of a writer, I remain skeptical of content, attentive instead to presentation. It is the construction of persona, even in private—the fears, curlicues, and desires in any recorded life—that offers insights. A writer forms her stories, but the opposite is also true. This is especially the case with Joan Didion, whose prime subject is the nature of narrative and who has often said she does not know what she thinks until she writes it down. The “women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are,” she once wrote. Her work does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms. Any serious work about her should seek to do the same.
I take my cue from her long and varied career: Her life illuminates her era, and vice versa. If this were not so, a biography of Joan Didion would serve only prurience. Writing is the record we have of our time. Just as certain memories burn brighter with age — the day we were taken to get our first haircut, the day we left home, the day we got married — so, too, do the pages of our contemporaries, the marks they have made of our lives, cast us more vividly as immediate circumstances vanish and the record’s uniqueness comes more to the fore.
In the remainder of The Last Love Song, Daugherty accomplishes precisely what he sets out to do. Complement it with the excellent recent biographies of Susan Sontag, E.E. Cummings, and Albert Camus, then revisit Didion on self-respect, grief, keeping a notebook, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and her all-time favorite books.
Published December 17, 2015