Appropriating Wisdom

Jesse Bull, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

The power of Didion's writing appears in her ability to conjure big ideas out of nothing more than a brief recollection of some slightly off-kilter, but seemingly disposable, encounter or experience. In part 12 of "The White Album," she attempts to connect a frantic and "authentically senseless" series of events to demonstrate the desire of the time to find lessons, meaning, and narrative everywhere. In the following section 13, she presents what seems just another senseless and forced piece of an untellable story. And yet her carefully chosen details do produce a meaningful narrative. Not only do these moments underscore her deliberate struggle with story-telling, but they also capture for me the way she attempts to portray the 1960's -- not as an exceptionally bizarre time, but a time when routinely bizarre events must be faced with new forms of interpretation.

During the course of checking out I was asked this question by the manager, who was a Mormon: If you can't believe you're going to heaven in your own body and on a first-name basis with all the members of your family, then what's the point of dying? At that time I believed that my basic affective controls were no longer intact, but now I present this to you as a more cogent question than it might at first appear, a kind of koan of the period. [p. 46]


How does Didion's understated establishment of setting and character for the scene work to enhance the passage (satirically or otherwise)?

How does her appropriation of the question transform its meaning?

Does she do the reader an injustice by always generalizing and applying these already wonderful stories to broader ideas, or is it her job to say something wise for us?

What are the narrative implications of using this disconnected moment as a metaphor or "kind of koan of the period" (koan comes from Zen Buddhism this fact itself may say something about the period and is defined as "A riddle without a solution, used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke sudden enlightenment")?

Cited Works

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

Last modified 1 February 2005