On a visit home last year, on a late-night walk, my mother and I were talking books. We were still getting used to the idea that I would be publishing one myself, and something about the combination of this news and a mother’s impulse to advise, plus an adjacent article in The New York Times, led her to dredge up a well-worn phrase: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I am not especially fond of Didion’s old canard. I’m afraid I responded defensively. I’m sick of that idea, I said. I told my mother that maybe we ought to stop telling ourselves so many stories and simply face up to the fact of our own, unvarnished terror—maybe we’d be better off.
My mother is a biochemist, mild-mannered and of an exacting intelligence, the kind of woman who tends to disguise her many accomplishments behind a nervous, Midwestern modesty. She would tell you that I came by the impulse to write of my own initiative—the family is not especially literary—and that she herself is not especially well-read. But neither would be true. That I grew up watching her fill legal pads with notes for grants, as I now fill legal pads with notes for books, has more than a little to do with my current writing process. And in fact she has excellent taste in literature (seeing as she admires all the same authors I do, Didion included…). What I mean to say is that her opinion matters to me, not just because she is my mother, but because she is a demanding reader. Talking with her about contemporary fiction has led to some of my more productive, if occasionally frustrating, conversations about literary criticism, in part because her (unwarranted) insecurity delegates to me a level of authority I don’t naturally adopt: “Why do you like it?” she asks, when she finishes a book I’ve recommended. When I complain about my own manuscripts, her response is the same: Why do you like it? Why did you begin writing it at all? These are not easy questions. They cut straight to what one thinks a novel ought to do, and to the criteria by which it should be judged. I do not think the answer is: “in order to live.”
In a pessimistic American era understandably in need of palliatives, Didion’s quote is often trotted out in the name of self-care: literature is a kind of spiritual nourishment; we tell stories as an exercise in collective healing, confession, and emotional indulgence. To me, this interpretation seems woefully divorced from Didion’s original context. The opening paragraph to “The White Album,” the titular essay from which the famous line is excerpted, ends like this: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” The stories we tell ourselves, in other words, are delusions that make the ever-shifting and ephemeral nature of experience appear solid and stable as a bowl of fruit. But by the end of the essay, in which Didion recalls her own obsessive attempts to synthesize the chaos of 1960s California, she admits the futility of her attempt: “writing has not yet helped me to see what [experience] means.”
Didion’s essays never were in search of stable meaning. She is the queen of miscellany and hypocrisy and paradox, of yoking together observations that undo and contradict each other.
Didion’s essays never were in search of stable meaning. She is the queen of miscellany and hypocrisy and paradox, of yoking together observations that undo and contradict each other. These techniques preclude inertia: “The center was not holding,” as “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” begins. Her work is a product of the late ’60s, when the idea of stable centers was null, experience incoherent: the stock market was robust, girls were being kidnapped, boys were being drafted to kill, and macrobiotic diets were on the rise. When I ask my mother about this era, she recalls it as exhilarating, but also shameful, petty, absurd, an era in which she and her boyfriend’s mother helped him starve himself into a skeleton in order to avoid the draft. There is an integrity in The White Album’s refusal to make sweeping claims that the writer cannot take back. Maybe that isn’t what literature is here to do—to synthesize, resolve. Instead, we fall straight through the surface of Didion’s prose to plush carpets and Janis Joplin’s brandy-Benedictines and five-year-olds on acid, quaint kitchens in which lentils are “put on to soak,” to “Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.” Generations of readers have become avid and devoted voyeurs of these Hollywood worlds. I read Didion for the eerie pleasures of documentation and fabrication, the intimate choreography of incompatible ephemera. Often I am so absorbed in the detail that I forget her point—and this, in fact, seems to be Didion’s very point, that there is no point, that an America in cultural revolution cannot be frozen. The center does not hold. This conviction in cultural instability has proved evergreen. She indirectly articulates something inarticulable, a mood and a nervousness that, resolution pending, endures in the America of today.
Didion is a master, in short, of extending a simple idea—a confusion, discomfort, an existential anxiety—through a long stretch of prose-time, so that we dwell in generalized doubt a little longer than we otherwise might. The White Album, especially, is filled with the absurdities and celebrities and conspiracy theories and cruelties that dogged Didion at this moment in her California life. In 1968, she tells us, she was living month-to-month in an old Victorian house in Hollywood, across the street from an experiment in communal living. This period also overlapped with a predilection for “intellectualizing,” for approaching experience as the raw material of meaning-making. She writes of her crazed attempts to read significance into court testimonies, newspaper articles, visits from sinister-seeming strangers who break into her home on the pretext of delivering a Chicken Delight no one had ordered. She was so obsessed with making meaning of the meaningless, she tells us, that she drove herself to a psychotic break.
The fundamental farce, and charm, of The White Album, and all of Didion’s essays, is the extent to which she hides the element of fiction in her earnest arrangement of seemingly objective facts:
It was hard to surprise me in those years. It was hard to even get my attention. I was absorbed in my intellectualization, my obsessive-compulsive devices, my projection, and in the transcript of the Ferguson trial. A musician I had met a few years before called from a Ramada Inn in Tuscaloosa to tell me how to save myself through Scientology….I received a telephone call from a stranger in Montreal who seemed to want to enlist me in a narcotics operation. “Is it cool to talk on the telephone?” he asked several times. “Big Brother isn’t listening?” I said that I doubted it, although increasingly I did not.
This passage is rife with fibs, as are all summaries of a swath of life. But how captivating—how clarified—to cinch three to four years into one, neat state; it’s the simplification of summary, the speed, that lends the passage its jittery appeal. The musician from Tuscaloosa and the stranger from Montreal could not have called back-to-back, could not have been in cahoots, but that Didion presents these events one after the other makes it seem they could; the very parallelism of the sentences (a musician from Tuscaloosa, a stranger from Montreal) suggests a connection beyond coincidence. The presentation suggests a hidden meaning. But what is imposed on these experiences here is not actual meaning, but syntax and convenience. The writer’s tyranny is revealed in the manipulation time. The effect is to highlight the prevailing sense that meaning, though everywhere suggested, has ultimately fled the scene.
Be specific is a trope repeated in every creative writing workshop, too often inspiring thickets of description. Didion is a reminder that the only reason to be specific is to tempt the reader into inference: It seems that there is something to be gleaned from the clues of Tuscaloosa and Montreal, when in fact they “mean” nothing at all.
To Foucault, every text is a kind of “heterotopia,” a medium which, unlike space, is capable of juxtaposing completely contradictory items. For instance: Schrodinger’s cat is dead and alive—and also shopping for tuna at the Walmart down the road, hitchhiking, catnapping, and any other number of activities that are precluded by his being alive, or dead; by his simply being a cat. These declarations can hardly coexist! And yet this text exists. (Or does it, if it exists online?) Texts fix fantasy to specific sites, and literature is one: here you are in Hollywood, on Joan Didon’s coach, while she prepares for you an elaborate, low-calorie lunch; here you are, Á la recherche du temps perdu, in someone else’s thoughts. Literature operates on convenience: so many disparate things, so much time, can be gathered in a single sentence, chapter, book. Those spells are not cast, however, with the aim of making it easier to live, or even of making meaning, but rather of inviting the reader to infer, from a pared-down presentation of some kind of experience, a kind of descriptive truth about what it’s like to be alive. The result foregrounds uncertainty, the fragility of our understanding. The truths we can infer from literature, then, are more akin to characterization than meaning: e.g., the ‘60s were rife with hypocrisy, paradox, and doubt. The White Album highlights the kind of desperate uncertainty that, in that summer of 1968, drove Joan Didion to the brink of madness at a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sometimes to our detriment.
Literature operates on convenience: so many disparate things, so much time, can be gathered in a single sentence, chapter, book.
The relationship between literature and life is famously frustrated. What is the writer’s obligation to life, and what does fidelity look like? The unease inherent in this question was immortalized in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black:
A novel, gentlemen, is a mirror carried along a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure of the sky, sometimes the mire of the ruffles in the road. And the man who carries the mirror on his back will be accused by you of immortality! His mirror shows you the mire, and you blame the mirror?
If literary realism, this passage seems to say, is no more than a mirror that reflects the world, then those who do not like what they see should file their complaints with society at large, not with the innocent novelist. But Stendhal’s is a souped-up mirror, a mirror in motion. Such a mirror is not particularly attentive to the accurate reproduction of the surfaces of things, but to capturing a sweeping excerpt of life in progress, juxtaposing as many differing elements—thick mud, clear sky—as it can. It reveals hidden structures and incompatibilities, hypocrisies; it has the freedom to represent a vision of life more expansive than what one can see from the limited perspective of an individual consciousness. Like The White Album, it does not mechanically reflect the real—what happened or is happening—but only a choreography of events made possible by free movement across geographies and time. It is no surprise that to Foucault, the mirror lies somewhere between a utopia and a heterotopia: “From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there.” In literary realism, we can register the absence of stable meaning in our lives through our recognition, in the text, of a familiar doubt.
It is worth remembering that Stendhal and Foucault were jokers. Stendhal delighted in confusing his readers, even his own editors, fabricating the epigraphs (and most of the authors cited) that accompany every chapter in The Red and the Black: “The novel is a mirror being carried along the road,” reads the epigraph to chapter thirteen, an echo of Stendhal’s own passage above, and which he falsely attributed to French historian Saint-Réal. “Other Spaces,” the lecture in which Foucault developed his theory of the heterotopia, may have been nothing more than a lark (1). It’s dangerous, in such company, to make too many self-serious claims about the nature of illusions or delusions, literature or life. It seems a cautious enough assertion, however, to claim that Didion had no particular desire to resolve the anxious mystery of being alive.
One more thing on which everyone might agree: I should be nicer to my mom.
Jessi Jezewska Stevens holds a BA in mathematics from Middlebury College and an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, Guernica, BOMB, and elsewhere. She lives in New York, where she teaches fiction.
(1) Upon receiving an invitation from a society of architects to give a speech on heterotopias, Foucault wrote to his partner Daniel Defert, “Do you remember the telegram that gave us such a laugh, where an architect said he glimpsed a new conception of urbanism? But it wasn’t in the book; it was in a talk on the radio about utopia. They want me to give it again.” [The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space, edited by Robert T. Tally Jr.]