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'Slouching Towards Bethlehem': Joan Didion On Morality

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento on December 5th, 1934. ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ is a collection of essays written in the 1960s about the pervading ideology of the time and Californian reality. Didion is the author of ‘Play It As It Lays’, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, and ‘The White Album’, and the co-writer of the 1976 screenplay for ‘A Star Is Born’.

The title essay, ‘Slouching  Towards Bethlehem’ is an epic, unforgiving, heavy handed portrayal of California’s runaways, rockstars, and disillusioned youth in 1967. “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, the G.N.P. high, and a great many articulate people seemed to have a high social purpose. It might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant, I decided to go to San Francisco.”

‘Bethlehem’ is an investigation of the relevance of San Francisco to 1967. Didion meets, gets to know, and investigates a plethora of  young people, including Deadeye, a sixteen year old, meth-addicted boy who arrived from Los Angeles. Debbie (15) and Jeff (16) ran away 12 days before Didion’s meeting them . “I ask them why they ran away. ‘My parents said I had to go to church,’ Debbie says. ‘And they wouldn’t let me dress the way I wanted… I had a C average and he told me I couldn’t date until I raised it, and that bugged me too.’” Didion portrays a passionless, lost group of people, who aren't even very sure of what they're running from.

That “uneasy apprehension” and knowledge that American society in 1967 had aborted itself is also alluded to in the essay ‘On Morality’ in which Didion expresses her universal distrust of all grasps at or appeals to morality. When morality is invoked, “there is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.” This essay’s concluding paragraph, selfishly, seems more relevant now than I can imagine it being in 1965, when it was written. 

“It (morality) is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or needing something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”

If, as most American trends do after 25 to 30 years, this whine of moral hysteria has caught on in continental Europe and the rest of America’s economic and technological allies, then Didion’s analysis rings very true of the contemporary zeitgeist.

That moral panic described in ‘On Morality’ is tiptoed around and portrayed in its most charismatic personification in the subject of the essay ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’, Michael Laski. Laski was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist Leninist). Didion describes Laski as displaying “blazing and self-defeating candor”. 

Didion excludes Laski’s idealism from that of the “fashionable madmen” in ‘On Morality’. She explains that she is “comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, with those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and I appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” Didion concludes that “the world of Michael Laski is: a minor but perilous triumph of being over nothingness.”

The difference between Laski and the madmen of ‘On Morality’ is that Laski displays, to Didion, a more sympathetic existential dread, which he is visibly soothing through ideological absolutism. This is a thread of Didion’s wisdom and maturity that runs through this collection, of criticism of self-important morality and an existential understanding of its hypocrisy and the dissolving effect it had on 1960s American life.


Image 'Didion 1970' from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection at UCLA by CC BY 4.0

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