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Joan Didion and His Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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When we think of America in the late ’60s, we think of the Summer of Love. We imagine the thousands of hippies converging in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. We think of flowered sundresses, psychedelics, and the Rolling Stones.

Not so for Joan Didion. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her formative essay on the counterculture movement of the ’60s not once does the word “love” occur – except in ironic quotes from dumb kids who know nothing. Her essay was like a darker, more twisted foil to all the mainstream depictions of this era. While everything from song lyrics to movies idealized this period as some sun-drenched utopia of ‘free love’ and ‘spiritual upheaval’, Didion’s grim account showed it for what it really was: a vapid cultural movement composed of misguided, bored young people which caused drug abuse and criminal activities to run rampant in San Francisco (the essay ends with an account of a five-year-old being given LSD by her parents).

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The rest of her essays went on to address similar themes – a society without cohesion, a fragmented society. She explored widely disparate topics, ranging from serial killer Charles Manson to the emerging Women’s Movement. What connected the pieces were Didion’s tone of utter doom and her brilliantly precise style of writing. Suffering from “attacks of vertigo and nausea”, she recorded the disintegration of society through the lens of her own mental disintegration. Her account of the country presents a gloomy landscape populated by dumb movie stars, clueless politicians, and serial murderers.

One is struck by Didion’s refusal to commit to any conventional narrative. She was among the first journalists who challenged the racist mainstream account of the infamous Central Park jogger case (unlike Donald Trump, who continues to blame the wrongly convicted African-American men to this day). It is this particular reason that makes Didion urgently relevant in our current age. Our chaotic, violently polarised, fake-news-addled media scene is sorely in need of the cool, critical gaze of someone like Didion.

She may also seem ‘culturally relevant now for another reason. A very fun part of her essay is trying to piece together her super-glamorous lifestyle based on the elusive personal details that she provides. Her mansion in West Hollywood was a rock-‘n’-roll party haven, visited by the likes of Janis Joplin and Warren Beatty. She was friends with Roman Polanski and would visit Jim Morrison while he was in the studio, recording for The Doors.

So if not as social commentary, then readers may perhaps approach her work as a gloomy lifestyle blog. Especially now that sadness has emerged as an aesthetic genre in itself (hello Lana Del Rey), she might be very endearing to millennials inclined a certain way.  

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