Sunday, June 13, 2010

Posture For a Second Coming

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Joan Didion, author of a collection of essays written in 1968, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, who borrowed her title line from Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," writes, "I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder." The essays all reflect how and why things were then, and are now, falling apart in America: "the center cannot hold," as Yeats much earlier had warned in "The Second Coming."

The title essay describes Didion's impressions of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the neighborhood's heyday as a countercultural center. In contrast to the more Utopian image of the status promoted by counterculture sympathizers then and now, Didion offers a rather grim portrayal of the goings-on, including  encounters with a pre-school age child who is given LSD by her parents and with a 3-year-old child who gnaws at an electric cable while his parents try to gather up spilled drugs. These are examples of the kind of pitiful casualties of an immense and perhaps inexplicable social change in the '60's.

Soon, her own lack of center and eventual alienation, make Didion a victim of her own circumstances. She gives up her search for The American Dream in the Golden State and becomes Yeats' "rough beast" that "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." (Yeats, "The Second Coming," 1919) 

Didion succumbs to the drugs and counter-culture in which she has immersed herself, and gets lost; she implicates the whole of her generation in causing the storm of the late 1960s:  "At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing . . .  These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values. They are less in rebellion against society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb." (Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968)

The Hippie movement had shaken The American Dream and had failed largely because it was a "desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum." 

According to Didion, the generations following have found their only proficient vocabulary is in their society's platitudes. She still remains committed to the idea that the ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the language, and she is not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from "a broken home." 

She comments, "They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words. Now, normally, those words would come from parents, clergy, schools, etc., but self doubt inhibited their willingness to impart them, and kept them from enunciating these ideals to the rest of society." (Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, 1968)

In this situation, where the demand of the elite opinion-making class has stretched so far from the preferences of the middle class, middle America can not possibly hold its ground, even more so in the face of the concurrent rebellions by youth, feminists and people of color, all of them attacking traditional tastes, beliefs, and mores. Didion points to the rise of the arrogant intellectuals and the snobbish, self-righteous upper class as insurmountable obstacles for the middle class.

Joan Didion's book shows the theme of "the lack of center" that accompanies the breakdown of human connection. Along with this view, Didion reveals the tragedies of "the lack of social community" as wells as "atomization," which suggests that as things have fallen apart, millions have become adrift from the American heritage of ethics and culture. The irony? Has anything really changed since the turbulent, spiraling beginnings of change in the

The Second Coming    
- William Butler Yeats, 1919

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of *Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(Note - Collective unconscious. (Latin for "spirit of the world") is a reference to Yeats' belief that each human mind is linked to a single vast intelligence, and that this intelligence causes certain universal symbols to appear in individual minds.)

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