Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"The falcon cannot hear the falconer"

In reponse to the recent posts on this blog about the sexual revolution, Retired Waif suggested that I read Joan Didion's iconic essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (I had never read Didion, although the eponymous book and several others by her were in my childhood home; I found I didn't like her style, but I suppose that's mainly because it's been so widely imitated). The essay is every bit as chilling as the poem from which Didion took her title. Didion has gone to Haight-Ashbury in the spring of 1967 to cover the desultory youth movement there, which is mostly a loose coalition of drug-addled teenagers who have descended upon San Francisco in a vague attempt to shuck off the repressive strictures of home and school. Drugs are the fulcrum about which this coalition pivots, and there are famous scenes of a five-year-old on acid (she is a pupil in "High Kindergarten") and a three-year-old who starts a fire in a commune while trying to light an incense stick. Didion's preamble sounds eerily like our own times:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.

(There, however, the similarity to our times ends, for "in the cold late spring of 1967 . . . the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose.")

In a sort of reversal of the trajectory of, say, The Great Gatsby, in which the protagonists leave the innocent, golden West and become corrupted in the East, Didion's California is a hollow paradise, a place that lures the young with promises of redemption and fulfillment, of a return to innocence, of an exegesis of transcendental mysteries and a spiritual completeness, but delivers instead a total breakdown of morals and a drug-hazed anomie which barely cloaks the everpresent threat of violence. In light of this, it is jarring to note the fondness with which many baby boomers regard this time and place, which Didion describes as "the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum." She has harsh words for a society that, in the period after World War II, has atomized into self-sufficient nuclear families; it is not just in the inchoate youth rebellion in San Francisco that things have broken down, she suggests, but even in straight, mainstream American culture:

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. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves . . . Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. 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 children who have moved around a lot . . . They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts.

I believe the anomie lived out by the generation of '67 is still very much with us; only now it's no longer on the fringes, but has sunk into the very marrow of our society.


Anonymous said...

Since your dissertation recital, your posts have been excellent.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at my post on the baby-boomers' failure at transforming American culture, despite their conceit.

Maclin Horton said...

This is a subject very close to me. I lived through the mess Didion describes and not a day, hardly an hour, goes by that I don't regret it. Suffice for the moment to say that I think Didion is one of the few who really grasped the essence of what was going on then. You should also read her title essay in The White Album. I always add the disclaimer that it wasn't all bad by any means. But it was more bad than good.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, T.Q. I guess I'm going more into social commentary than I'm used to doing; I suppose some brain cells got freed up post-recital. I will read your post.

Mac, I can't help but wondering what happened to all of those young people Didion writes about. The essay left me with a pervasive sense of dismay. It seemed the Diggers had some sort of social conscience, but that they were as opportunistic as everyone else on the scene in the end.

Maclin Horton said...

What happened to them? Well, most did pull back from the edge and lead relatively settled lives, but with their basic sentiments unchanged. I've lost touch with almost everyone I knew back then, but I think some are--no great surprise here--academics. I seem to be in a minority in having concluded that the whole thing was fundamentally a tragedy. Most are like the Communists of an earlier generation, still unwilling to admit that the basic idea was wrong and believing either that we were not worthy of the great ideal or that it was crushed by the forces of reaction. Those who did not survive intact--either literally died or were severely damaged in some way--were considered regrettable but probably necessary casualties. There is a good portrait of this in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, when the group discovers that one of their number is simply stark mad.

I got into a debate with a woman on the Crunchy Con blog a month or so ago about this. She was a few years older than I, and had been in the real thick of things in a California commune--everybody taking LSD together, swapping sex partners freely, etc. She was totally unrepentant and seemed to see it as the best time of her life--what youth ought to be. When I said I thought the social effect of the drugs-and-free-sex thing, which was fun for those strong enough to keep it up, had chilled youth for those who came after, she thought it a preposterous notion, and was maybe a bit offended.

I go over some of this ground in an autobiographical essay on my web site here. It was written some years ago but still reflects my basic views pretty well.