When Joan Didion was first described to me, it was as a woman recalling how it was to be a journalist finding a toddler tripping on acid. I imagined the old lady with dead puppet-like pinhole eyes and tried picturing the hand gestures she made as she searched for the word, ‘gold.’ I was told she has been controversial and has been considered insufferable by more than a few, so my only deduction was that she must have done something right.
More than reading her work, I wanted to know her face. The photos that appear first for her name reveal a wraith like image, not far from the first one I had pictured her to be, dead eyes and sagging skin like a cheap chess piece shining in camera flash. Beyond the more recent pictures come some of the more iconic ones. She is young, usually holding a cigarette with the sort of elegance and poise that isn’t learnt. She is standing leaning her weight on one leg in her Los Angeles home, or by a beautiful Corvette Stingray. These sepia tone photographs painted her as a typical California girl to me, a life of beach outings, pool parties and Sunset Boulevard evenings. There is no warmth about her, in her sharp elbows, the way her hair stays out of her face, how she does not smile.
The chill of her appearance was not something I could penetrate easily while reading her essay on self-respect. She opens with memories of her not getting into a sorority club in college, and somehow does not show vulnerability at the same time. Her descriptions of what is it like to have and not to have self-respect are truthful, familiar and yet abstractly scientific.
One moment it is ponderings on character and what it can spawn, one moment it is lying in bed and replaying all your worst moments until the early morning. I found myself, stuck in these little nooks of Didion’s essay, relating to her for the first time. As similarly as I would have been unnerved if a fraternity rejected me, what came after for her, seems like a grim premonition for what might come after for me. I imagine the sentences playing in my head like a reprise when I encounter any such struggles in my life from now. The words will be familiar, and it will be like singing along to song recently forgotten, remembering the next word half-way through the one before it.
What started the self-respect question in my life was a moment in my second or third year of primary school. One of my classmates had done badly on a test, and the principal of the school, while yelling at him, threw in a jab about how he was a Marwadi and hence could only sit at home and count money. I suppose all the kids in class wondered if that was an okay thing to say when she said it, but it was only when I came home and narrated the story to my mother that I could confirm such a thing was “simply not done.” The boy that was scolded seemed unaffected, but I know I would’ve been crushed and traumatised forever if it was me. My family would have had a big fight with the principal and management, or even put me in a different school without second thought, self-respecting as we are. But he stayed in the same school and graduated just fine with the rest of us, self-respecting as he must have been.
More than the words, more than what could be similar situations, it was the flavour of sadness that Didion carried inside her that resonated. She often uses magical terms and symbols in the essay, speaking knowingly of amulets, charms, wards, and snakes. My mind was pointed, for whatever reason, by these things to psychics, tarot cards and seances, things and places that people look for solace and closure in. What tension did her eyes and lips promise to never betray? To see her writing about self-respect, both as an initiate and a practised authority, was like seeing a tattoo of an ouroboros on her skin.
I grew closer to Didion in the second piece of hers I read, Goodbye To All That. I have been subject to countless movies, plays and books that romanticise, canonise, and eternally edify New York City as the greatest city in the world. Considering this was a piece on leaving the place, I was excited to see what she had to say about it. Her sense of vivid memory of times when she was young comes through in her writing the same way as the way she reminisces about her not-so-distant college self in her self-respect essay. Though the pieces were written six years apart in time, it was as though Didion hadn’t changed at all. I have on several occasions imagined going to a place like New York or Los Angeles, just for the sake of being young there, walking the roads, feeling the breeze, and living in the glass capsule of promise. Didion’s writing here again, comes to me, like a prophecy. Is it that I think and feel similarly as she does, or that she wrote her thoughts into words everyone thinks and feels?
My most personal moment with her was in the beginning of this essay, where she says she arrived in New York on a DC-7. Being a fan of aviation, I knew what she was talking about, and it was nice to have a picture for the term, unlike what was happening when the references in her Vogue essay flew over my head. I wondered why she named the aircraft, rather than saying she just came by plane. I remembered the Stingray she posed with for a photo, and I found some confidence to assume that it was the iconic Corvette-yellow. Along with that, I take some personal enjoyment in assuming also that the car was hers, and she would frown in her sunglasses and say, “oh, the Stingray?” when someone told her it was a nice ride.
Her disillusionment with the city and its promise is when she finds herself crying in Chinese laundries and the elevator, unknowingly, unconsolably. When she is rendered immobile. She says if she knew despair then yet admits that she likely does not know it anymore. There are no reasons cited, no grievances registered, no possibilities speculated for her sadness or her sudden loss of hope in New York. Human as she reveals herself to be, personal as the essay is, Didion shrouds herself in tremendous mystery. I had gained both familiarity and a new sense of emotional distance from her, whatever curiosities that were there in the beginning were fed, not to be satisfied, but to grow even bigger.
And then I watched the documentary, The Centre Will Not Hold. Didion is reading out pieces she has written in the past for a large part of her voiceover, but the child in her writing is less evident through her deceptively young sounding voice, that rarely sinks into the raspy resonance that comes with old age. The movements of her hands are alien and immodest. The documentary showed her taking hold of different points in her life, to write social commentary, to write on war, to write books and a play.
She seems more at rest now, whatever hidden tensions resigned. I thought she knew all of herself when she wrote about self-respect that clearly, and it seems she still does, only that there is infinitely more of herself to know. When asked what drew her to The Doors, she simply says “bad boys.” This is where that shroud of mystery goes to the background, and it seems for the first time to me that Didion is as regular as anyone can be. Whatever romantic mystification that comes when reading someone is unfortunately very easily dispelled.
The transformation in her appearance to this sudden ghoulish form, as the documentary points out, is part of the grief of losing her husband and daughter. The image of her eating congee in despair was not hard to access, but she is no longer bearing those burdens of youthful despair that appeal in familiar guises to readers like me. She is not by any means empty, but rather full of something it takes stranger, more long-lived minds to comprehend.
One of the last scenes in the documentary is that of Didion receiving the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama. He muses, saying he is surprised she hasn’t received the award before. She is on someone or the other’s arm for support, except when the medal is put around her neck. The applause seems to bounce off her, she looks as good as if she were in a room alone. Was she caught in one of the migraine auras she wrote about? Although the President meant it as a joke, her demeanour really made it feel like she was given the award far too late. Despite everything and anything, she still does not smile.
Featured Image Credits: W Magazine