Saturday, December 25, 2021

I've said before: Didion was a conservative. She wasn't a "law and order" conservative. She was an anti-utopian, pessimistic observer of the world. She saw no "beckoning light"

I return to the same piece because it suits my purposes: the relation of art and politics, individual and collective.

Didion humanized the Central Park 5 without claiming their innocence. She knew the difference between sympathy and pity. Jim Sleeper accused her of being drawn "like a moth to a flame", which she was, but not for the reasons he assumed. She had the journalistic distance of a voyeur, against Sleeper's moralism and his assumptions about the accused. Their exoneration made Sleeper the loser in his argument with Didion, but it does nothing to what Didion wrote, since she wasn't arguing, and their actual guilt or innocence was irrelevant. She was describing something larger. We're back to Baudelaire, Eliot, James, and "disinterest", touched with perversity because turning life and suffering into art is morally ambiguous, and turning others' pain into art is more so. Surgeons enjoy surgery. "I’m a smooth type of fellow, cool, calm, and mellow" rapped Yusef Salaam at his sentencing. When I was placed across the table from Ann Beattie at dinner at Roger Angell's summer house she looked at me as material, cruising me with flat directness, but not for sex. Didion would have been more discreet.  

On misplaced self-respect. Didion's description of the jogger's world, close to her own, and the liberal feminism of "Take Back the Night" is cutting. This is what people forget. She spent paragraphs describing the design process behind Central Park. It wasn't made to be safe at night—a "safe space"—because in a park not in s police state it's impossible. Freedom demands prudence

“[T]he wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980’s,” has spread out into the boroughs. Brooklyn is the new Upper West Side, the new home of the literary class. The working class is pushed aside. Didion and Dunne lived on the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills. 30 years ago an assistant editor at the NYR, a thin white boy-man sniffed contempt for Didion as someone who had fallen off the perch he'd put her on in high school. "They want it both ways...", LA and NY, Hollywood and whatever he thought was serious. He was a snobbish moralizing self-hating faggot, and he'd worshipped her. Like Bacharach, he'd turned self-hatred in a form of idealism; but unlike him, he'd begun with Didion and not Ayn Rand. I found out years later he'd quit the job in and gone to business school. Bacharach can still celebrate Didion as "camp": a knowing fake and failure. What interests him most about her is in fact her weakest point.
In the recent documentary that her nephew, Griffin Dunne, did for Netflix, he asks her what she thought when she was hanging in Haight-Ashbury and saw a young child high on LSD, and she gets this sly smile and says, shamelessly, “It was gold!” Which is what I would say if I were playing a drag version of her.

He likes the little touch of journalistic nihilism. And it's a quote from a conversation. In her writing she's more careful about crossing the line from observation to indulgence. 

Didion's writing as writing gives me pleasure because I sense the contradictions, in the tone and the precision of the language, as form and representation. I sense them because I'm in sympathy with them, part of me all of the time, or all of me part of the time. That sympathy predates my reading her, so her pulling her interests and herself apart interests me by way of comparison. I learn things about her, the world, and myself. It annoys me no end that Pynchon is incapable of writing an essay without going into cutesy false modesty. Whatcha gonna do? 
 
The last paragraph of "Sentimental Journeys" 

That there might well be, in a city in which the proliferation of and increase in taxes were already driving private-sector payrolls out of town, hardly anyone left to tax for such public works and public-sector jobs was a point not too many people wished seriously to address: among the citizens of a New York come to grief on the sentimental stories told in defense of its own lazy criminality, the city’s inevitability remained the given, the heart, the first and last word on which all the stories rested. We love New York, the narrative promises, because it matches our energy level.

Someone will write something about Didion and her beginnings as a Goldwater Girl and California libertarianism. But it won't be me. 

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