Is Joan Didion a "moral" writer?

A fundraising campaign and trailer of sorts for a new documentary about Joan Didion has hit the internet, engineered by her nephew Griffin Dunne. For someone with such a distinct place in American letters — her seminal subjects, her cool tone, those sunglasses — it’s surprising that no such documentary already exists.

What was surprising, however, was Dunne’s confident, repeated description of Didion as a “moral voice.” I say this as a great fan (I came this-close to getting a tattoo of her prose a few years back): it never occurred to me to read her as someone with a particular moral vision of the world. Despite the fact that for young, writerly women of a certain disposition Didion is practically a saint, that was never part of her appeal. She has a clear vision, surely. Even an incisive and necessary one. But in what sense is Didion’s work concerned with morality?

Early in her career, she actually wrote a piece called “On Morality,” in which she lays out her concern with the way we use the term. Writing from Death Valley — a name she milks for its metaphor — she sees morality as the practical value we place on helping each other survive, on not leaving the wounded to the wild. “I am talking, you want to say, about a ‘morality’ so primitive that it scarcely deserves the name, a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good. Exactly.”

Didion has no time for transcendent virtues; it’s socially negotiated promises all the way down. Morality is fundamentally a community’s habit, and “the good” does not exist independently of how we apply it. Her essay elegantly conveys the desperate chaos of the surrounding culture (she compares it to a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and the whole piece is filled with subtle and layered images that make you believe her). She hopes this view will steer society away from the absolutist banners of “right” and “wrong” that politicians and fanatics use to do foolish or unjust things:

’I followed my own conscience.’ ‘I did what I thought was right.’ How many madmen have said it and meant it? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on the most primitive level –our loyalties to those we love–what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?

Of course, it’s news to no one that people claim moral imperatives for acts that are plainly wrong. It also probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that even the great villains of history could show loyalty to people they already liked. Yet for all of Didion’s concern about survival, I suspect she does have some notion of what is “wrong” outside her own description, even something beyond loyalty to those she already loves. It raises the question: where did this idea of loyalty or justice come from in the first place?

Her famous phrase, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is the current running under her work. As the title of the documentary, it’s her most fundamental view on her subjects and society at large. She wonders what tenuous narrative thread seems to hold it together for people as the world dissolves. “The center was not holding,” begins “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” her 1967 essay on San Francisco. Didion watched the youth descending on the city to escape and rebuild their lives with drugs, tracts, songs, and each other, and if she sees tragedy, or something deeply amiss that led to their confusion, it comes through. Still, she declines to moralize or hint at a way out of their predicament.

Her style reflects her concerns: her sentences are clear and polished; her tone is distant and sensitive. The prose aims to get what it’s recording right, but what is she getting at?  Beyond the commitment to accuracy, there is no sort of “ultimate.”  It’s notable that her writing is always graceful, but “beautiful” isn’t the first word critics reach for. Maybe the word “beautiful” tends to be reserved for work that aims or alludes to a transcendent quality. If there is anything transcendent in Didion’s work, it is the shared thread of human longing she records, which finds its height in her two most recent books: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. They are both about grief, for her husband and her child, and in neither can she quite reconcile the effect these deaths have on her. It surprises her, “the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” Death, and what appears to be the end of the story, is then the end of meaning. “Telling ourselves stories” for survival frames the world, though we feel her straining against it.

That she strains against the meaningless isn’t to claim that Didion has some crypto-religious element in her work. But she is faithful to her observations, even if that means revealing something a little contradictory in her desire to have meaning, to describe meaning in stories, and her concern that maybe that’s all it is and that’s the end of it. Perhaps that fidelity is the most moral impulse in her work.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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