Didion's Disease

In "The White Album," Joan Didion immediately confronts the reader with a life-or-proposition, or something else — perhaps a death-or-a-kind-of-living-death-proposition. According to Didion, life is not given to us; it's something we must achieve or trick into allowing us in. She applies this paradigm to everyone, most prominently, though, to herself. She stabs the reader immediately, and we bleed the slow death of sixties society, her own psyche and our own hopes at happiness along with her. We become the, "people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit [us] inevitably to conflict and failure" (15). This sense of urgency and this dependency on trends, on society, on things outside the individual removes optimism and agency and replaces it with resignation and doom. "It was the anticipation of imminent if not exactly immediate destruction that lent the neighborhood its particular character." (16) The Franklin house was facing certain demolition, which also, quite unnaturally faced Didion and sixties society at large. So, as she proposes, they lived through stories.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be "interesting" to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live on entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shirting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. [11]


1. Specific intentions are often marred into blurry generalities, as in the case of the revolutionaries at San Francisco State College and in the various criminal trials. Does Didion suggest a unique aspect of the sixties that has created this influx of muddy messages?

2. The individual was lost in the masses in the sixties. Does Didion frame her own detioration as a result of society or the times, as occuring in conjunction with it, as an example of it, as an anamoly within it or in some other way?

3. A sense of inauthenticity pervades "The White Album," and her own writing seems to parallel the "stories" that she originally describes as ways of duping ourselves. The music of The Doors is made to be ultimately scattered and uninteresting, journalism and the legal system are stripped of their fairness and integrity. What is the consequence of removing these pretenses of stripping the stories to their naked, nonconjoinable, sometimes illogical facts and reading them that way?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

10 September 2007