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A and Not-A, B and Not-B, C and Not-C

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

I am beginning to realize that what I admire most about the essays of Joan Didion is that they do not take a stand. They present both A and Not-A, B and Not-B, and C and Not-C. Take, for instance, the title essay in The White Album. There is a constant feeling of dread, yet Joan never takes the easy way out. Here, for example, she writes about Huey Newton of the Black Panthers:

I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newtons guilt or innocence was irrelevant. I am telling you only How Huey Newton happened to be in the Alameda County Jail, and why rallies were held in his name, demonstrations organized whenever he appeared in court.

There is also a description of a 1968 recording session by The Doors at which Jim Morrison was not initially present. When he arrived wearing his tight black vinyl pants, the scene was a discombobulated one:

The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it. Robby Krieger continued working out a guitar passage. John Densmore tuned his drums. Manzarek sat at the control console and twirled a corkscrew and let a girl rub his shoulders. The girl did not look at Morrison, although he was in her direct line of sight. An hour or so passed, and still no one had spoken to Morrison.

Didion does not say that Morrison was an inconsiderate dick: She presents the scene and lets you draw your own conclusions. Particularly revealing is a quote from a psychiatric evaluation of Didion in Santa Monica after she reported “an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out.” The evaluation concluded:

Patient’s thematic productions on the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure….

In her place, we might all be tempted to put our thumbs on the scale, to introduce our own prejudices and draw a conclusion which may be no closer to the truth, but mainly revealing of our own misperceptions. I do find it odd that she would quote a lengthy psychiatric diagnosis of her sense of dread near the beginning of the essay, or anywhere within it for that matter.