Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.”

“Considered as artists, we perhaps have no need to interfere in the affairs of the world,” answered Alfred Camus when asked about the role of artists, “But considered as men, yes.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem is Joan Didion’s (b. 1934) bold interference in the affairs of the world.

Didion’s subject was the shattered, hollow American dream in its most physical manifestation: the state of California.1

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles… but is in certain ways an alien place: a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.

October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

It was 1967. With a mix of journalism and personal voice, detachment and immediacy, Didion brought her nymph-like person and Zeus-like persona into the public consciousness.

She grabs our chin: This has happened, is happening. Pay attention.2

Photo of San Francisco graffiti featured in Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" in the Examined Life Library.
San Francisco graffiti. I took these photos years ago, struck by the physical energy that must have been involved. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.

Didion’s subject was deleterious change. Not unravelling as we might say colloquially, but falling apart. “The center will not hold” observed Didion in a elegant concretization of feeling.

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers.

It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people hid the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

Knowing this much, Didion jumped to California to witness the lives most affected by the gyrating center, “I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around.”

Didion’s subject is the tension of false hope against the shockingly true reality of absurd changes.

I sat next to one such wedding party in a Strip restaurant the last time I was in Las Vegas. The marriage had just taken place; the bride still wore her dress, the mother her corsage. A bored waiter poured out a few swallows of pink champagne (“on the house”) for everyone but the bride, who was too young to be served. “You’ll need something with more kick than that,” the bride’s father said with heavy jocularity to his new son-in-law; the ritual jokes about the wedding night had a certain Panglossian character, since the bride was clearly several months pregnant. Another round of pink champagne this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. “It was just as nice,” she sobbed, “as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”

Photo of San Francisco graffiti featured in Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" in the Examined Life Library.
Is there another art form that requires such rapid movement? Dance perhaps. Graffiti is the time-lapse of dance. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The term Slouching Towards Bethlehem is from a W. B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold…

from The Second Coming

Read full poem here.

Didion’s writing and subject remind me of another poem, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” written twelve years earlier.

Different decade same widening gyre, Didion peered over its edge, Ginsberg wrote from its pit.

Photo of San Francisco graffiti featured in Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" in the Examined Life Library.
To claim a space, to tag it and change it, it is powerful and requires a person who deeply wants to be heard. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It is September 2020. Orange, ashy light has poured into San Francisco windows and opened eyes for days. Fire season. Are we all in the gyre? Is anyone watching from the edge?

If you are new to Didion, begin with Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Imagine this fierce young talent who sprung into the world like a fully-armored goddess. End with Blue Nights and A Year of Magical Thinking her autobiographies of grief.

Breathing is so difficult, said my friend in San Francisco last week. Said George Floyd six months ago. Wrote Joan Didion in 1967.

“There is an unadmitted icy panic,” wrote James Baldwin, “coiled beneath the scaffolding of these present days, hopes, endeavors..” Didion would nod agreement.

Joan Didion. © The Examined Life