Shared Reality, Political Volatility, and the Genius of Joan Didion

by Neil H. Buchanan

Writing today's column is a pleasure.  Even though it is directly relevant to our current political disaster, and even though the analysis does not lead to a reduction in pessimism, it in large part concerns Joan Didion.  Didion was arguably the greatest essayist of the last century, which means that writing about her and her work cannot help but improve one's day.

I write about Didion after having read a wonderful guest op-ed in The New York Times that ran last week: "Joan Didion, the Death of R.F.K. and the Solution to a Decades-Old Mystery."  Written by a scholar named Timothy Denevi, who is identified in The Times as "an associate professor of creative nonfiction at George Mason University," the essay is fascinating and insightful.  I would even be tempted to say that readers who had to choose between reading Denevi's piece or this column should click over and never look back, which is saying quite a lot in light of my ego.  But I hope that readers will find time to read both, because Denevi does misread one very important point about the current US political situation, and getting it right matters.

I should note up front that, although my columns are often infused with personal anecdotes and perhaps even the occasional oversharing, writing about Didion is personal in a very different sense, to which I will turn momentarily.  Most importantly, reading about Didion cannot possibly be as important as reading Didion.  This column is merely an attempt to explain a few reasons why the late author's work still resonates.

During my final semester of college, I had a hole in my schedule that I filled with a course in the English Department called, blandly enough, "Expository Writing."  The professor was a young woman who wanted to make the course something much more than a how-to, which is not to say that a skills-based course is unimportant.  Indeed, even setting aside the larger lessons learned, that single course formed the basis of my ability to write a decently engaging essay, on law or any other topic.  (As a professor myself, it is somewhat bittersweet to note that I cannot remember the name of that professor, despite her influence on my life.)

But I do remember Didion, specifically her masterpiece, The White Album, which had been published only two years before I took that course.  My professor had us read that book, and even though I had senioritis in the worst way, I was hooked.  I remember in particular how Didion explained the importance of water to the American west.  As a kid who had grown up in the Midwest, directly on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, water seemed to me to be one of the least important or interesting topics for an essay, but Didion made it clear that water was an essential and very political topic, especially in her native California.

I am fairly certain that I had seen "Chinatown" (1974) before reading Didion, but if I did, I could not possibly have understood how the main plot point of that movie was so realistic.  Political battles -- including murders -- over water rights could almost seem like a MacGuffin, which Wikipedia defines as "an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself" in fiction.  Didion explained why water was highly significant, surpassingly important, and completely relevant to life and death.

Of course, anyone can tell that story to an outsider in a reasonably compact way.  "Hey, for those of you who have never thought about it, be aware that Southern California was a desert.  Whoever controls the water controls life, which means that controlling water is to the American west what controlling oil is to the rest of the world."  That is true, but only Didion could communicate such a truth in a way that makes one see the world entirely differently.

I share this digression because I think it captures Didion's genius.  Of course, genius is one of the most overused words in the English language, applied casually to the guys who write "South Park" and lazily to Donald Trump's supposed genius for whatever a writer (even a critic of Trump's) wants to elevate, such as a "genius for diminishing his opponents."  Please.  Joan Didion was the genuine article.  I recommend to everyone that they take a few moments to find any of her essays online (some are quite short) and simply marvel at her craftsmanship -- which she famously suffered for, agonizing over word choices that other writers would blow past without a second thought.

Denevi's op-ed is also focused on The White Album, but he is interested in a famous line in a different part of the book: "I watched Robert Kennedy’s funeral on a veranda at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu."  He explains that this simple declarative sentence presented a mystery:

“What was she doing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel during Robert Kennedy’s funeral?” Tracy Daugherty wrote in “The Last Love Song,” his 2015 biography of Ms. Didion. “Was she alone? Did a crowd gather before a television set to watch the ceremony in sorrow? Was the TV propped on a wrought-iron table in the sun? What is the point of teasing us with the hotel if not to deliberately disorient the reader?”

It is not entirely a spoiler to say that Denevi's piece explains (based on newly available tapes of a 1971 interview) that Didion was in fact at that famous hotel at that time, and she was not alone.  She was sitting with her husband (the writer John Gregory Dunne) on the hotel's lanai, where a television had been set up.  (This was 1968, and even luxury hotels did not yet have TV's in the guest rooms.)  Didion -- who, I was surprised to learn, ended up a fixture in the 60's counterculture after having supported Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential run -- sat and watched a 3-hour compilation of coverage of the RFK funeral from ABC after the fact.

This experience felt to Didion "like something snapping," which undergirded one of her most famous turns of phrase.  Denevi writes:

In June of 1968, Ms. Didion experienced “an attack of vertigo, nausea and a feeling that she was going to pass out,” for which she underwent an extensive psychiatric evaluation and was prescribed amitriptyline, an antidepressant. “By way of comment,” she wrote, “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

While watching the coverage on the hotel's lanai, Didion had been overwhelmed by seeing so many other guests becoming angry or annoyed at having to watch the funeral coverage.  Drunk salesman, attending a convention accompanied by their wives "with their big bouffant hairdos and flower leis," became belligerent.  Even short of anger, the response was at best apathetic:

A few guests stopped to ask about the program she was watching, but at the reply — Bobby Kennedy — they continued on their way. When a woman lingered to take in a scene from the funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s, the man she was with exclaimed, “We’ll get enough church in the morning!” and hurried her along.

Dunne said in the same interview: "It was as if they were shutting their minds to it, shutting their eyes."  Vertigo and nausea, indeed.

Yet this is where I think Denevi goes astray (albeit completely in good faith).  He draws the following conclusion:

"While firmly rooted in the turmoil of the ’60s, “The White Album” clarifies something essential to our current experience: what it’s like to navigate our fractured cultural landscape when it can feel so difficult to talk to one another, because we lack the sense of a shared reality on which such a conversation depends."

Here is the note that I wrote to myself immediately after reading that sentence: "The RFK thing was not about a lack of shared reality. They just didn’t give a shit."  Although the current American right also does not give a shit -- indeed, they seem intent on performing acts of cruelty against the most vulnerable people (such as kidnapping migrants and sending them to liberal cities, often causing them to miss make-or-break immigration hearings) -- they are incapable of having a conversation with anyone else because they do not believe that Trump lost the election, because they have several different (and inconsistent) stories about what happened on January 6, 2021, because they think that vaccines are mind-control experiments run by "globalists," and on and on.

In my taxonomy of naive/stupid/evil, which I sometimes characterize as ignorant/illogical/malevolent or uninformed/irrational/malicious, one could add the crossover categories "willfully ignorant" and "maliciously ignorant."  The people refusing to watch the RFK events on TV were neither wilfully nor maliciously ignorant.  In fact, they were not ignorant or uninformed at all.  They were uncaring, malevolent beings who were simply pissed off about seeing how other people were reacting to Kennedy's assassination.

Nobody in the story that Didion and Dunne narrate was denying reality.  Nobody was unaware of what happened.  Nobody was claiming that something else was happening.  Again, they simply did not give a shit.

One theory of our current political moment is that at least some of the Republicans who are doing the most damage to the country do live in reality but cynically choose to pretend to believe the Fox-iverse's narrative.  Perhaps, but we should remember that going "deep undercover" can warp the mind.  I do not in fact believe that some of these people even know what reality is anymore.

In the end, maybe this difference does not matter.  I think it does, however, because comparing the traumas of the Sixties to today's insanity is useful for seeing the differences as well as the similarities.  The country nearly fell apart back then, even though there still was one set of facts that almost everyone agreed was true.  We are in a much worse situation today.

If nothing else, however, I hope that this column will inspire some readers to read, or re-read, Joan Didion's work.  It will not alleviate one's sense of dread about the present, but great writing is always great writing.