Joan Didion’s scientific method

Photo of books by Joan Didion
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

Related Posts

Discourse is dead in 2022. Any semblance of nuance or context is quashed by an insatiable proclivity toward ideology. Good faith arguments are hard to come by. Morality is foisted upon every piece of art and every consumer of art either by way of those disseminating discourse surrounding it, or increasingly (and concerningly) by those making the art. In a world where everything seems subsumed by polemic, Joan Didion’s writing, in its refusal to tell people what to think, but rather tell them how to think, feels like a relic of more halcyon days. 

Perhaps ironically, given the leagues of modern journalists who cite her as an influence, Didion’s scientific approach to cultural commentary is fundamentally incompatible with the think-piece era. The occasional branding of Didion as a conservative is itself a product of the party line vice grip she sought to critique. If anything, she is, in form, a skeptic, perpetually wise to the relay of artifices that form a patina obscuring our myriad crises, stagnations and deceptions.

Writing about second-wave feminism, Didion is wary of the mainstream Women’s Movement’s attempt to position women as a class. The idea seemed particularly ludicrous when considering how the movement was led by and privileged the needs (or perhaps delusions) of affluent white women — who share almost no interests (class or otherwise) with the majority of American women. She saw the movement as predicated on an opportunistic falsehood enveloped in the slippery folds of dogma. “The idea that fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women,” she wrote, “nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.” 

Notable for its rejection of binaries, her writing is intensely preoccupied with the distinction between personal and societal ills and how the invocation of illusory narratives blurs their boundaries and obfuscates truth. Writing about the Central Park Five case, Didion unpacks how narratives twist themselves “to veil actual conflict”; the way cracking down on crime was positioned as a panacea for the city’s much more insidious crisis of a fragmented community inchoately stitched together.

The titular “sentimental journeys” are fabricated by a distorted recounting of history, or in some cases, an elision of it. Omission of context is a familiar trapping of digital era thought — and one Didion sounded the alarm for several decades ago. In the case of New York (and arguably the United States more broadly), it engenders an “empathy without political compassion.” If moralism and sentimentality have poisoned the discourse, Didion’s intrepid demystification of “magical thinking” is the antidote. 

Didion’s mind, much like the California landscapes she writes about, is not an easily negotiable place. The psychological horror of existence she experienced at certain points in her life was brought on by her profound ability to probe the various crises embedded in the mundane, this being the result of an attention to specific and tangible realities of a culturally and spiritually barren world — to the center that, famously, was not holding. 

To no one’s surprise, today’s center is no more structurally sound than in the post-Manson murders, Haight-Ashbury counterculture milieu in which Didion began writing. In her conception, the “center” is not a singular Jenga block that when pulled, precipitates the crumbling of the entire structure; it’s a center that has deliberately and systemically been hollowed out, weathered by both top-down forces and, as she inconveniently asserts, the supplemental corroding forces of self-delusion.

As Zadie Smith notes in a recent New Yorker article about Didion’s legacy, it is unfortunate that so much of what Didion viewed as a dialectical failure (the “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” ethos) has been interpreted as earnest affirmation, even by some of her most ardent fans (the brigade of Lithub tote-wearing millennials with liberal arts degrees).

Yet, it remains difficult to fault Didion’s misinterpreters too much; after all, we are a culture disinclined to think critically — a failing at both the individual and institutional level. Apropos of our shared disordered thought process, Didion’s most important legacy will not be her cigarettes-and-Coca-Cola chic or her California-gothic grit, but her staunch realism and conviction in excavating it. 

For Didion, “Style is character”: i.e., language betrays character. As such, the act of writing, distilling complexities into language, also merits a prioritization of verisimilitude and accuracy, because it is so easy to go the opposite way: easy to “reduce human suffering to what atomized individuals endure,” easy to forgo nuance for convenience, easy to distort truth into falsehood. Didion taught us that thinking is an act that should require effort — more effort than we often are wont to exercise.

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].