Chaos of Diction

In her essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion manipulates both language and structure in an attempt to mirror the radical shift that transgressed between the 1960’s and ’70s. The progression of both her mental state and physical body becomes a physical embodiment of these emerging forces. Peace and love are no longer the main focus as confusion, paranoia, and doubt in the good of mankind promote a culture whose presence was seemingly nonexistent in the ’60s. Her scattered writing style directly exemplifies both Didion’s personal struggle with the complexities of human nature and her chaotic attempt to maintain control — over her self and the society sees rapidly spinning downwards. Heavy sentences create an air of confusion by bombarding the reader with disparate events in an attempt to portray the disparate forces emerging at the time. It seems necessary for Didion to collect her thoughts, to ramble in order to draw conclusions.

Didion not only overloads readers with information, but she places them at the edge of a mental break. We, as readers, stand alongside her, staring at the monotony of everyday action, the pointless “gingham curtains” or answering appropriately on a California driving examine. These details aren’t introduced to the reader for their significance, but in an attempt to induce similar feelings of confusion, paranoia and doubt in the human condition. Didion alludes to her self as the vehicle through which these changes are physically embodied. The diagnosis of her mental state is not solely a diagnosis of Didion, but of the mental state of the time. Marked by paranoia and lust, the reader, alongside Didion, feels her mental affliction and a life that is dominated by “feel[ing] deeply that all human effort is foredoomed in failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal... in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and above all, devious motivations that commit them inevitably to conflict and failure . . . ”The three paragraphs are indicative of three shifts in tone, structure, and context that are desperate coping mechanisms in order to maintain her mental stability.

During those five years I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and air travel cards, a citizen: I wrote a couple of times a month for one magazine or another, published two books, worked on several motion pictures; participated in the paranoia of the time, in the raising of a small child, and in the entertainment of large numbers of people passing through my house; made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, remembered to ask agents if any reduction of points would be pari passu with the financing studio, put lentils to soak on a Saturday night for lentil soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver’s license on time, missing on the written examination only the question about the financial responsibility of California drivers. It was a time in my life when I was frequently “named”. I was named godmother to children, I was named lecturer and panelist . . . [p. 11-12]

Patient’s thematic productions of the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her. It is though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed in failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal... in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure . . . [14]

The Doors were different, The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Karma Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex. Break on through, their lyrics urged, and light my fire, and: . . . Baby gonna drown tonight. [22]

Everyone seemed joined in a rather festive camaraderie, a shared jargon, a shared sense of moment: the future was no longer arduous and indefinite but immediate and programmatic, aglow with the prospect of problems to be “addressed.” Plans to be ‘implemented’. It was agreed all around that the confrontations could be ‘a very healthy development’ that maybe took a shutdown ‘to get something done.’ The moos, like the architecture, was a functional, a model of pragmatic optimisms.” [39]


1. Does this emphasis on the self help or hinder Didion’s attempts at illustrating the transition into the ’70s?

2. Why is Joan Didion so deeply affected by the trial of the brothers? Is she questioning the morals of solely others, or herself as well?

3. Is the integration of outside sources (Mental prognosis, quotes, lyrics etc.) beneficial to the reader?

4. What is the significance of her encounters with others? Why are they the moments she has chosen to define the cultural climate?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

31 January 2011