Writer Joan Didion dies at 87 – Oberlin review

Joan Didion, whose literary prowess emerged in the 1960s with her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, died in Manhattan on December 23 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 87 years old. His most famous works, including his collection of essays Collapse towards Bethlehem, novels Play as it turns out and A Common prayer book, and memory The year of magical thinking, established her as one of the great American writers of the 21st century. Defined by his artful and laconic writing style, Didion’s genius lay in his ability to articulate the true and the enduring alongside raw, unadorned observation.

A descendant of pioneers who began their journey west with the hapless Donner Party, Didion was born in 1934 into the Republican traditions of the Sacramento countryside. While she remained on the West Coast most of her life, still interested in the remnants of her Californian childhood, her gaze shifted outward when she first attended the University of California to Berkeley, then to New York, where she was offered a job at Vogue.

Although some of his early work – which The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als refers to “those on marriage and motherhood and migraines and life in Malibu” – is certainly the product of typical 20th century Californian white ignorance, Didion’s repertoire calls into question her privilege . Her conservative political imaginations shifted to the left when she began to see the flaws in her patrician education. She ended her 70-year career, best known for her criticism of the Reagan administration, the Bush-era GOP and the injustice of the Central Park 5 trial, as well as her account of her own depression nervous, rather than her love of Barry Goldwater or John Wayne’s West.

While many remember her for her breathtaking novels, memoirs and political journalism, I feel particularly nostalgic for her essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power”, which first appeared in Vogue in 1961. Written when Didion was in his twenties, it offers an insightful meditation on the foundations of true self-respect.

“Once, during a dry season,” wrote Didion, “I wrote in big letters on two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when we are stripped of the illusion that we love ourselves. same. “

In the months before I discovered the essay, I had started to feel like I was looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. This spring, which saw the onset of COVID-19 and long periods of quarantine, I was lost, disconnected from my internal dialogue and stuck in a haze of doubt and insecurity. By the time I started reading the article in late July, I felt a bit like a stranger to myself.

Didion coldly calls this phenomenon “self-estrangement,” a problem of misplaced self-respect, the origin of which, she says, has nothing to do with the approval of others but rather lies. “in this terribly well-lit alley where you keep your appointments with yourself.” To have self-respect, “this sense of one’s intrinsic value[,] … It is potentially having it all: the capacity to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To live without it, she argues, is to live prisoner of a spirit perpetually at war with itself – “we end up discovering the last turn of the screw: we run away to find ourselves, and we find no one behind. House.

That summer, Joan Didion taught me that self-respect is about taking responsibility for your own life. Having it does not necessarily mean that you are still a good person, sheltered in an “intact Eden”, but it does mean that you have the courage to accept your missteps and the means to overcome them. “It has nothing to do with the face of things,” she advises, “but is more about a separate peace, a private reconciliation.” To someone struggling to connect with themselves, it seemed revolutionary.

Throughout his career, Didion has written about his emotions and opinions with an insensitive journalistic distance, questioning his own questions rather than validating his experiences. In Didion’s 1976 essay “Why I’m Writing,” a headline from George Orwell’s 1946 article of the same name, she says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at. , what I see and what it means. “

Didion wrote to sew himself up; to make sense of one’s own perspective. She wrote to keep in touch with herself; dissect his feelings and fears. In his last memoirs, Blue nights, she treats the loss of her daughter – only two years after the loss of her husband – with the same sympathy as she treated any other subject. Always a reporter, she writes with constant contempt for the easy answer, for immediate virtue. She was interested, as author Zadie Smith argues, in what was right “under the seemingly rational or ideological topsoil.”

She begins “Why I write” with a discussion of the word “I”. The act of writing is “saying I, she said, “to impose oneself on others, to say listen to me see it my way change your mind. “There is something disturbing about her authority, something so overtly powerful. In one of the following lines, she describes herself as a ‘secret bully’, guiding her readers eagerly and firmly through their own subconscious thoughts. .

She understood that her own fear and alienation were symptoms of a change in American identity, a change she deemed worthy of study. She created meaning out of despair, grief and chaos, communicating the essential through the insignificant.

Didion countered my objections in every sentence and convinced me of truths that I still had to recognize, let alone accept. His words will always stay with me.

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