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What Joan Didion’s new book, South and West, explains about her sensibility

Class Of 2009 Graduates From Harvard University Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The standard critique of Joan Didion — insofar as there is a standard critique of the legend, one of America’s greatest prose stylists and a pioneer of new journalism, she of the inscrutable cigarette-dangling photograph — is that she is a cold and self-centered writer. That her exquisitely polished and balanced sentences concern only herself, and never her ostensible subjects.

Didion, says Barbara Grizzuti Harrison in her famous 1980 takedown, reports almost exclusively on “Didion’s sensibility,” noting that in the author’s essays, said sensibility “assumes more importance than, say, the existence of the electric chair.”

For Harrison, this aesthetic focus seems vaguely immoral. She argues that Didion is always writing about her own taste, which is the taste of an educated upper-class West Coast white woman: minimalist, but expensively so. When she writes about the working classes or the nouveau riche, it is almost always with a faint sense of distaste for their poor taste, and rarely with an eye toward the systemic inequalities that separates her world from theirs. In the parlance of 2017, Harrison thinks Didion needs to check her privilege.

As I read Didion’s new/old book — South and West: From a Notebook, which is a newly released reproduction of Didion’s notes for two unfinished essays, one from 1970 and the other from 1976 — Harrison’s critique kept popping into my mind. Didion’s notes are overwhelmingly focused on her own aesthetic sensibility, just as Harrison charged, but they are not amoral. It’s just that Didion’s morality is aesthetic.

Didion uses California and the South as a means for understanding herself

South and West is split into two sections. “Notes on the South” sees Didion traveling through the Gulf South states in order, she writes, to understand California and America more clearly. It’s an amorphous idea, one that Didion never seems to have articulated to her satisfaction, and the notes mostly consist of quick, impressionistic sketches of each state and long transcriptions of her conversations there.

“California Notes,” much slighter, is a series of notes Didion took in preparation for covering the Patty Hearst trial. “I thought the trial had some meaning for me,” Didion writes, “because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.” Her observations are all about California and how class functions there, specifically the upper-upper classes, to which both Didion and Hearst belong.

They are, in other words, notes about Didion trying to understand herself and her home and her class by placing them all in opposition to something other: the South, which is antithetical to her aesthetically and culturally, and Patty Hearst, whom Didion seems to think of as the epitome of her own personal type of Californian wealth, and who was so rapidly undone after her kidnapping.

“I am trying to place myself in history,” Didion writes in “California Notes,” continuing: “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.”

Didion’s notes repeatedly circle this idea: She sees the South as a place enamored of the past, as opposed to California’s obsession with the future, and intuits that the South and its nostalgia are the key to America’s future, not California’s utopian visions. Much has been made of her prescience in this regard, and how this line of thought anticipated the culture split of the 2016 presidential election, but for Didion, what seems to be most unsettling about the South and its rising influence is that it upsets her sense of aesthetics. She’s trying to make her aesthetic unease the basis for her argument that the South is troubling, and perhaps the reason the essay remains unfinished is that she wasn’t quite able to make that rhetorical leap.

Didion almost always expresses her morality and her politics in aesthetic terms

Didion seems troubled by the idea that the ground feels more unstable in the South; that it is wet and porous, without any solid boundaries; that it is simultaneously fecund and rotting. “The wilderness is sensed as very near,” she writes, “not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.” She quotes, with a faint sense of menace, the famous naturalist John James Audubon on “the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition.” For Didion, the very land of the South is in opposition to her crisply defined Californian aesthetic.

Didion is writing about her own sensibility — as Harrison argued she always does — but she is not doing so apolitically or amorally. South and West reminds me of Elif Batuman’s new novel, The Idiot, in which the narrator is charged with seeing the world through strictly aesthetic terms, an idea the character finds hard to grasp:

It had never occurred to me to think of aesthetics and ethics as opposites. I thought ethics were aesthetic. “Ethics” meant the golden rule, which was basically an aesthetic rule. That’s why it was called “golden,” like the golden ratio.

“Isn’t that why you don’t cheat or steal — because it’s ugly?” I said.

Like the narrator of The Idiot, Didion’s morality and her politics are both aesthetic. She finds the South both beautiful and aesthetically threatening, and that aesthetic menace becomes an ontological menace through a process she cannot quite render into a coherent argument. She thinks the California class system is not quite in good taste and hence might be immoral, but she cannot translate her aesthetic outrage into moral outrage.

South and West doesn’t have a coherent argument, but it does tell you a lot about Didion

Perhaps the most telling passage in South and West comes as Didion is traveling from New Orleans to Mississippi, when she buys a beach towel printed with the Confederate flag. “It is ragged and gray now,” she writes, “and sits in my linen closet in California amid thick and delicately colored Fieldcrest beach towels, and my child prefers it to the good ones.”

For Didion, the Confederate flag–printed towel is offensive in primarily aesthetic and classed terms: It is cheap and of poor quality, and its colors faded quickly; it is a lower-class and ugly object that doesn’t integrate well with Didion’s carefully selected, high-quality, expensive towels.

In South and West, the aesthetic underpinnings of Didion’s intellectual ideology all become clear: When Didion wants to disavow something, she does not make a moral argument. She argues that it is ugly. Conversely, when something pleases her, she argues that it is beautiful.

South and West is an unfinished book, but it’s worth reading as a peek under the hood at Didion’s extraordinarily lucid arguments: It shows you the beginnings of her thought process, as she’s just beginning to translate aesthetic judgment into rhetorical logic. If you like Didion, you can glory in the beauty of her sentence fragments and analyze the beginnings of her process; if you don’t like her, you can feel vindicated in knowing that her reporting notes really are quite self-centered. South and West does not succeed in creating a coherent argument about America or California or the South, but for insight into Didion herself, it’s invaluable.

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