Joan Didion and Twentieth-Century Acts of Interpretation

Decorative Initial In The White Album Joan Didion offers a twentieth-century example of interpreting Signs of the Times that is characteristic of recent versions or extensions of this genre because at the same time that it emphasizes the essentially arrogant act of interpretation, it humbly admits the author's difficulties in comprehending her subject.

The title essay of Didion's White Album opens with this typically modern intonation of the sage's search for meaning, for while she reminds us that the urge to make sense of things, of our lives, and of what happens to us answers to an essential human need — to a need as basic as that for food and sleep — she also lets us know that she herself doubts whether such a project is even possible. Her admission of doubt, which serves to convince the reader that she is like him, paradoxically goes a long way to creating the effect of credibility because we know that she will retail no familiar saws, no used-up answers; we know too that she has experienced and survived those very doubts that made her enterprise necessary to us in the first place. If she fails to answer our need, well, at least she has tried honestly to find a solution (so we feel upon encountering such an open admission of weakness), and we therefore shall have, at the very minimum, a companion in our wanderings. But, if she has something to offer, we shall be all the more willing to take it seriously.

Didion begins her snapshot-history of the 1960s by emphasizing that in order to live we try to impose a fictional order upon the welter of fact and experience amid which we find ourselves: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she insists, and then she heaps up instances of things about which she has tried to tell herself stories in order to live:

The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy; will lead the children into the 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. (White Album, 11)

Like Carlyle and Ruskin before her, Didion thrusts forward a grotesque assemblage of encountered fact, and, also like them, she reveals that she has come upon one of the Signs of the Times to which we must pay close attention. Like her predecessors, she also has chosen to force apparently trivial matters upon our attention, for however bizarre they may seem to us, none of the images she proffers at first seem to bear any major significance. Would-be suicides, protesters, or what-have-we are all alas so common that we hardly pause over them any more. Of course, Didion's proffered album contains pictures, snapshots, which turn out to be secondhand. The disguised fireman, for example, has been captured from that enigmatic event not by Didion's memory but by a newspaper photograph of it;and that secondhandness, like the fact that her memory (our memory) has been stored with images made by others preserved with the aid of modern technology, is itself a Sign of the Times — indeed, perhaps one of the most significant.

These events and the photographic images that record them have intruded themselves upon Didion's consciousness, and now, in her role as sage, she makes them intrude upon ours. For having tried them upon her own pulse and in the chambers of her own mind, she knows that they are significant, that they are Signs of the Times, and that to survive these times we must read them. We must interpret, and we must interpret correctly. According to her, writers exist to present connections between things and events, and she therefore has a double advantage over us — her career as writer has forced upon her the crucial recognition that the writer of fiction engages not in just one among many human activities but in the primal one that defines the human and also enables us to survive.

In the manner of the modern sage, she also admits doubt about both her own enterprise and her own ability to carry it out successfully. According to her, "We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five." We must make them mean something. Therefore, "we interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live 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 shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience" (White Album, 11). Thus far we have encountered a good old-fashioned generalization, a sententia such as Samuel Johnson might have advanced for our improvement, after which we have found ourselves amid a welter of puzzling images and have been told that we must understand them in order to live. At this point, Didion introduces the element of doubt, and in so doing she answers our curiosity about "why these images?" For after instructing us that we — and writers, in particular — live by imposing stories, order, upon that "shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience, "she reveals that her album captures the crucial fact about the 1960s in America: belief, the paradigmatic narrative that held society together, had disappeared.

John McPhee

Decorative Initial In contrast to Didion's almost despairing presentation of the need to make such acts of interpretation, John McPhee never explicitly announces their problematic nature. McPhee, one of the host classical or Johnsonian of those twentieth-century practitioners of this genre, earns his position in this study of secular prophets by his resolute intention to interpret those contemporary phenomena that he finds to be clues to the heart and mind of his society. This superb reader of the Signs of the Times, who frequently invokes the Carlylean contrast of past and present, rarely emphasizes the grotesque elements of his symbolic al materials even when they might seem to demand such emphasis. For example, The Crofter and the Laird opens and closes with obviously grotesque matters involving murders, bizarre loyalties, and equally bizarre betrayals of others. These tales of the McPhee clan's past serve to frame the balanced view of the modem tale that provides the subject of most of the book, but by placing them outside the main action, as it were, McPhee manages rather nicely to prevent them from obtruding upon a view of reality they might disturb and even disprove. Such grotesqueries provide interesting, entertaining reading, but they do not, as similar facts would in Carlyle or Mailer, appear particularly relevant to the present.

Unlike many of his predecessors, McPhee does not transform grotesques into what Ruskin termed symbolical grotesques, and he does not do so because his basic method necessarily must defuse such materials to prevent them from obtruding upon his main themes. This avoidance of the grotesque — or rather this commitment to making his audience perceive that even the most seemingly grotesque phenomena have relevance to their lives — sharply contrasts him to those other ages, including Carlyle, Thoreau, Ruskin, Lawrence, and Mailer, who emphasize the grotesque nature of so many Signs of the Times precisely because they wish to emphasize how badly their contemporaries have fallen away from the true path. McPhee, one suspects, does not emphasize the obviously grotesque nature of some of the phenomena he cites for the same reason that he explicitly adopts a balanced structure in The Crofter and the Laird, Coming into the Country, and Levels of the Game: Grotesqueness is a product and sign of unbalance, and McPhee desires to present a balanced view, a view that simultaneously communicates an intellectual interpretation and a moral judgment (though in fact this moral judgment usually takes the form of spelling out the rights and wrongs of opposing sides). McPhee thus resembles Samuel Johnson more than any of the other. sages, even Arnold; but whereas Johnson used balanced periods in individual sentences and balanced paragraphs, McPhee's classicism, if I may term it that, appears in his judicially arranged major arguments. In other words, he most frequently begins a book by presenting one side of a case he does appear to conceive them as cases — and follows this first view by one that opposes it.

Two things demand remark about his method. First, he does not generally follow his argument and counter argument with a conclusion, for he does not seem interested in, or apparently feel himself capable of, a synthesis. Indeed, the purpose of his method, which here appears very Arnoldian, seems to lie precisely in this final balance and tension; like that Victorian sage, McPhee holds up as an ideal the critical, inquiring mind that can examine both sides of a controversial question, thereby doing self and society a major service. It is not clear — just as it is not clear in Arnold — if such presentation of opposing views (often the politically liberal and the politically conservative) arises more from a pure commitment to the ideal of balance or merely from the journalist's inability to take sides.

Second, his method has as an unspoken assumption the notion that only two views exist, or that all possible views of a subject can be justly and accurately separated into two opposing positions. For all its obvious judiciousness and its equally obvious rhetorical advantages for McPhee, this means of presenting his subjects fits them into a mold as firmly as does the prose of Johnson or Macaulay, leaving no room for phenomena that have more than two rival interpretations.


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Last modified 14 July 2008