The “Imagined” and the “Real” in Actual Literary Settings


One section of Joan Didion’s “In the Islands” involves the author wandering around Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, the setting of James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, and claiming that “[c]ertain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them” (146). This of course does not mean that Schofield Barracks did not exist prior to Jones’ novel or that the novel brought them into existence, but is instead a rhetorical conceit that Didion takes to heart precisely because Jones’ written perceptions of Honolulu inform and influence her own perceptions to such a drastic extent. Another reason for Didion’s sentimental attachment might be that within the context of the essay Jones has recently died; in this sense, Didion’s resulting exposition reads as an elegy or tribute to Jones and to his setting. Although Didion initially seems fine with her biased perspective of Honolulu and the barracks, which she describes as “a sudden blurring, a slipping, a certain vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real,” as the passage continues she begins to wonder if she might be misapplying or hastily applying Jones’ descriptions to certain things and locations in her time at the barracks that might not actually be representative of what the author was going for at his time — or whether or not “the extreme gravity [in Jones’ novel] is an exact reflection of the light at Schofield Barracks or whether [she] sees the light as grave because she has read James Jones” (48). In other words, she begins considering to what extent her perception of Schofield Barracks is dependent upon Jones’ novel, and to what extent that novel actually captures the environment she is now experiencing (complicatedly enough).

I have never been sure whether the extreme gravity of From Here to Eternity is an exact reflection of the light at Schofield Barracks or whether I see the light as grave because I have read James Jones. ‘It had rained all morning and then suddenly cleared at noon, and the air, freshly washed today, was like dark crystal in the sharp clarity and sombre focus it gave to every image.’ It was in this sombre focus that James Jones rendered Schofield, and it was in this sombre focus that I last saw Schofield, one Monday during that June. It had rained in the morning and the smell of eucalyptus was sharp in the air and I had again that familiar sense of having left the bright coast and entered a darker country. The black outline of the Waianae Range seemed obscurely oppressive. A foursome on the post golf course seemed to have been playing since 1940, and to be doomed to continue. A soldier in fatigues appeared to be trimming a bougainvillea hedge, swinging at it with a scythe, but his movements were hypnotically slowed, and the scythe never quite touched the hedge. Around the tropical frame bungalows where the families of Schofield officers have always lived there was an occasional tricycle but no child, no wife, no sign of life but one: a Yorkshire terrier yapping on the lawn of a colonel’s bungalow. As it happens I have spent time around Army posts in the role of an officer’s child, have even played with lap dogs on the lawns of colonel’s quarters, but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.

I had driven out to Schofield in other seasons, but this trip was different. I was making this trip for the same reason I had walked the Oxford graveyard, a courtesy call on the owner. This trip I made appointments, spoke to people, asked questions and wrote down answers, had lunch with my hosts at the Aloha Lightning NCO Club and was shown the regimental trophies and studied the portraits of commanding officers in every corridor I walked down . . . ” (148-149)

Many of the images described toward the end of this passage deliberately invoke aspects of Jones’ novel in a way that suggests Didion can only experience the setting as Jones has written it. Her verb choice compliments this sense of hallucinating herself into Jones’ world — “seemed,” “appeared to be,” etc. — in a way that shows Didion is perfectly aware of her hallucinations. As it appears, she has willingly immersed herself in Jones’ fictive reality by the end of the passage to a point at which her own memories of playing with a dog in the barracks of her childhood must be forgotten so as to keep with the fantasy: “but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.” The questions of perspective that arise from this shift are in the same vein as Didion’s initial “vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real,” but the way she delivers this ending line shows that the imagined — the character Prewitt’s eyes and his way of seeing the dog and the barracks — in some way surmounts the real (Didion’s positive memories).

Questions

1. In what way are Didion’s empirical observations about Schofield Barracks’s ambiance and “sombre focus” (as it is called in From Here to Eternity) made somewhat untrustworthy by the author’s proclaimed willingness to see things as James Jones saw them? If they are incredulous in some way, can we excuse this incredulity as a part of the essay’s exploration on perspective and authorly influence?

2. At the end of the passage, Didion’s attitude seems more like that of a journalist collecting information and conducting interviews. How do these details function in a passage that is primarily about Didion trying to see as Jones saw? Is she being observational or indulgent?

3. Within the passage, does Didion answer the issue she presents in the first sentence — that she might be misapplying or hastily applying Jones’ images? Through her description of the Yorkshire, does she at all concede that Jones’ representations of things, whether accurate or not, is inseparable from her perception of them?

4. In what way could the “dark crystal” through which Jones describes a sombre day at the barracks be seen as analogous to the dark lens Didion takes on so that she might see and experience it in the same way?


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31 January 2011