Monthly Archives: October 2012

Romanticism, Modernism, and California: Didion’s Search for Self

Joan Didion, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, establishes her unease with the disconnect between her memories of California and the pseudo-culture that she believes has replaced it. Her essays reflect both the nostalgia and appreciation for landscape that are characteristic of Romanticism, as well as the prevalence of subjectivity which dominates modernism. Didion, like many romantics, emphasizes the importance of individuality and emotion over logic. She uses the Gothic development of scene to reveal greater themes—nostalgia and resistance to change.   In her sentimental descriptions of home, California, and of writing, she reveals a search for herself.

The original Romantic period grew out of the growing distaste for industrialism and the dogged rationalism of the Enlightenment. The Romantics such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, often spurned Newtonian physics and other sciences that sought to define the natural world in terms of mathematical laws. Instead of logic, the Romantics embraced creativity, celebrated individual genius and self-discovery, believed in the purity of the child, and revered nature almost to the point of Pantheism.  Mary Shelley, in her novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, intensifies Victor Frankenstein’s guilt after his monster murders Frankenstein’s younger brother, by complementing Frankenstein’s grief with the sudden fierceness of an approaching storm (Shelley, 76). Often Romantic painters, especially those from the German Sturm und Drang movement, placed the landscape as the dominate figure, leaving the characters dwarfed by the elements. Similarly, Didion develops and often personifies landscapes and natural forces giving them emotion and character, consequently leaving the people she describes as an afterthought. In Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion constructs a feeling of inevitable disaster out of her description of the San Bernardino Valley,  which, through her lens, becomes “haunted by the Mojave” and “devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind,” a place where “every voice seems a scream (Didion, 3).” She continues to develop the scene by describing the type of people who live there, establishing a foundation for her dislike of the budding pseudo-culture. In much of Didion’s writing, the characters are a product of the scene and the scene itself is merely a melding of the facts and her opinions. Even her description of  what she considers “home” centers more on the landscape in which she grew up than the people she grew up with. When Didion goes to see her family, their seemingly mundane discussions confuse her husband, who fails to understand that “when [they] talk about sale-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations [they] are talking in code about the things [they] like best, the yellow fields and the cotton woods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in (Didion, 165).”  In an interview with the Paris Review, Didion hints that her extensive use of scenery comes from the influence of landscape and atmosphere in her own life. “[She] grew up in a dangerous landscape” and believes that “people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather (Didion, The Paris Review).” Didion derives her sense of belonging more from California’s natural features and the resulting culture than from individual people.

The Romantic emphasis on individuality and self-discovery, which plagues Frankenstein’s monster throughout Shelley’s novel, plays a prominent role in many of Didion’s essays, in which Didion explores her own writing, her records of significant moments, as well as the meaning of “home,” in an expression of her individuality. As she rifles through the pages of an old notebook, she discovers an unusual collection of sentences, records, and memories. Wondering at “what kind of Magpie” compiled her loose collection of observations, Didion reflects on the meaning of her notes. She realizes that “notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always , transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’ We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful penseés; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, and indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker (Didion, 136).” Didion’s notebooks reflect the personal functionality of her writing. She writes about the world, collecting information, events, details about other people, and strands of conversations, but from her observations about the outside world, she gains knowledge about herself.

The Romantics valued writing and art imbued with emotion rather than dry factual accounts, and the Modernist movement in journalism, similarly, blurs the line between objectivity and subjectivity. The original European modernist movement emerged after the Victorian era. Modernist artists during that time demonstrated restraint and often minimalism in art and architecture, centering much of their work on clean, geometric, and utilitarian designs. Modernist writers, such as James Joyce, often wrote in stream of consciousness and employed subjectivity like the Romantics, but were also concerned with the technical aspects of writing, unlike the Romantics. Overall, the European Modernists rejected the gaudy, overly-involved art of the Victorian era, resulting in the minimalistic characteristics of modernist art.  Slouching Towards Bethlehem reflects Didion’s tendency to shape her observations according to her perspective, which makes her a modernist writer both in the original sense, and the in terms of the newer modern journalism movement. Her social-conservatism demonstrates an interesting parallel between early modernists’ rejection of the flashy, overly-ornate or exotic culture of the Victorian era. In the essay Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Didion depicts California’s San Bernardino Valley as culturally bereft by choosing to emphasize sites which hold commercialized, vaguely exotic, cultural references, such as a motel with “nineteen stucco tepees: ‘SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM’ ” or “Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee shop (Didion, 5).” Although her description remains factual, in the following sentences Didion demonstrates her subjectivity, blatantly calling the scene a “trail of an intention gone haywire, the flotsam of the New California (Didion, 5).” Through her commentary as well as her choice of details, Didion conveys her belief that California has been disinherited of its original culture. As she turns objective events into social commentary she attempts “then to close the gulf between herself and an objectified world and her method of doing so is what comes closest to home: her subjectivity (What Followed, 152).”

Some have criticized Didion’s subjectivity as well as her use of first person. Didion even stated that, in writing “you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture…The writer is always tricking someone into listening to the dream (Didion, Paris Review Interview.) Her subjectivity renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem less factual, distancing her writing from conventional journalism, and she admits that she lacks “an instinct for reality” which she sometimes envies but does not possess (Didion, 133).  However, in the style of modern journalism, she manages to capture real events, to give us an accurate picture of them, but also to explore and display her own opinions.

While her choice of details and unique descriptions make this collection of essays interesting and enjoyable, her opinionated commentary is more suited for novels or an auto-biography than conventional journalism. Many of the essays in Slouching Torwards Bethlehem even seem slightly autobiographical because Didion relies so heavily on her own memories and opinions regarding California.  Stephen Kern, in his book The Culture of Time and Space:1880-1918, discusses the beliefs of Sigmund Freud—one of the early European modernists and one of the fathers of psychology—who argued that the earliest memories are formative but are hardest to access because they are repressed. According to Freud, unhealthy obsessions and feelings of anxiety or depression can be relieved by releasing and analyzing memories from the subconscious. Didion’s access to her earliest memories comes from her exploration of landscape and of scenes. She untangles her earliest memories by writing down her thoughts about scenes, shaping her details as she deems appropriate, and in doing so, addresses her fear of change—her fear that the years are eroding the Californian culture that she pines for.  Her writing unravels nostalgia, longing, and an uneasy sense that her vision of California—which she identifies with as “home”—is being slowly replaced by gaudy, mass-produced culture. Ultimately, Didion is “the heroine…surveying the grounds of her country place” as “the mechanical monster,” replaces the culture she understands and she loses touch with who she used to be (Didion, 148).  She reflects in Notes of a Native Daughter:

“Perhaps in retrospect this has been a story not about Sacramento at all, but about the things we lose and the promises we break as we grow older; perhaps I have been playing out unawares the Margaret in the poem:

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for (Didion, 186).”

Didion’s subjectivity, enhanced by Romanticism and Modern Journalism, renders Slouching Torwards Bethlehem an exploration not just of changing cultures or of separate observations, but of who she is and who she used to be.

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Wolfe: Capturing Subculture Through the Details

Tom Wolfe, a member of the New Journalism movement, in his novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, catalogs the experience of Ken Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters, as they travel across the country in a bus doing acid, speed, and other drugs in search of new experiences. Wolfe “tried not only to tell what the Prankster’s did, but to recreate the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it, without which their adventure cannot be understood (Wolfe, Author’s note).” He achieves this goal by capturing their moods and their drug trips—portraying the world as he saw it through their eyes. He displays the wildness, the pranksters’ vivid experiences, and the quasi-religious aspects of their journeys. While Wolfe has been criticized for artificial style, he attempts to capture the experience through the writing style which he adopts as he guides the audience through the counter-cultural world.

Walter Kaufman, who wrote a detailed account of existentialism, characterized the Russian existentialist Dostoevsky’s writing in a manner that perfectly describes Wolfe’s stylistic choices. Kaufman notes that “The atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s Notes [From Underground] is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring (Kaufman, 15).” Dostoevsky wrote with intensity, focusing in on the pain and stubbornness of the main character to make his points about the problems with conformity. Wolfe’s development of the scene in relation to the characters, rather than an emphasis on the characters alone, creates the tone, drawing the reader in. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test intense colors and fluorescent light permeate the reader’s consciousness, forcing the reader into the Merry Pranksters’ drug induced perspective, allowing Wolfe to place the culture in its historical context.

Although Wolfe only took acid once before writing the book, he writes as though he actually experienced the drug induced sensations. With splashes of dizzying color, he paints the merry pranksters’ world in “explosive beams of sunball red and sunball silver-white” enhancing each scene with synesthesia and vivid images (Wolfe, 95). His writing centers primarily on conveying the atmosphere and thoughts which drive the members of the counter-culture, through his use of strange grammar, repeated words and phrases, and unusual punctuation. Through his stylistic choices Wolfe recreates life as seen by the pranksters, holding true to the characteristics of New Journalism and Realism. “The realist impulse as Tom Wolfe described it, is to show the reader real life, ‘Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do! (Eason, 193)” Ultimately, Wolfe writes to describe the culture of the “Beautiful People” for the middle-Americans, for the people who would not even consider doing drugs— for the “mothers all over California, all over America [who] got to know the beautiful people letter by heart” and in whose hearts “instinctively [goes] up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades- dope (Wolfe, 135).”

Dwight Macdonald in his essay Parajournalism or Tom Wolfe and his Magic Writing Machine, claims that Wolfe represents a new genre of writing known as “parajournalism [which] at its best [makes] no pretense of factuality but sketch[es] with humor and poignancy urban dilemmas that one recognizes as real(Macdonald, 225).” He goes on to note that characters within this style of writing “are not persons, but personae, (‘artificial characters in a play or novel’—or in parajournalistic reportage) which have been manufactured for public consumption with their enthusiastic cooperation. Notions of truth or accuracy are irrelevant in such a context of collusive fabrication on both sides; all that matters to anybody…is that it be a good story (Macdonald, 231).” While Wolfe did write The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with the cooperation of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Wolfe tries to capture a greater truth through his stylistic choices and his characterization of the drug-culture. Although Macdonald criticized Wolfe for his gaudy commercialization of counter-culture based on sensationalistic writing, as David Eason points out, the New Journalists were actually characterized by their use of “the image-world as a background for the significance of counter-culture, political campaigns and conventions, prison rebellions, executions, and other spectacular events (Eason, 191).” Wolfe insists in the author’s note that he was attempting to capture the “subjective reality” of the counterculture, the cultural and social impact interwoven with actual experience.

While it would be hard to call The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test true objective journalism, Wolfe was not purposefully turning the Merry Prankster’s into what Macdonald calls “kitsch,” or manufactured culture, but instead hoped to capture the atmosphere in the greater context of history and society. Wolfe’s portrayal of sub-culture through his development of scene lends truth to the culture he depicts. Macdonald also critiqued Wolfe’s unusual style. Noting that the Wolfe’s writing “is amusing if one reads it in the way it was written, hastily or loosely, skipping paragraphs, or pages when the jazzed up style and mock-sociological pronouncements become oppressive…Since elaboration rather than development are Wolfe’s forte, anything you miss will be repeated later, with bells on (225, Macdonald).” In some ways, Macdonald’s assessment holds true, because Wolfe’s writing often seems unnecessarily repetitive and detailed. However, without Wolfe’s distinct portrayal of the scene, the average middle-American reader would have less of an authentic idea of what it felt like to be there. Wolfe’s repetition of words and crazed use of punctuation enhance the reader’s understanding of the experience. While one could still glean the same story from the book without Wolfe’s unusual stylistic choices, the story seems more authentic because of them. Wolfe does not remain objective, but he does capture the true nature of the movement through extensive detail.

Wolfe holds a few views that are similar to the existentialists of the post-enlightenment and romantic periods in Europe. His approach to the Merry Pranksters parallels proto-existentialist Kierkegaard’s take on general society and organized religion. “Kierkegaard attacks the proud tradition of theology, ethics, and metaphysics as a kind of whistling in the dark, as self-deception, as an unrelenting effort to conceal crucial decisions that we have made and must make behind a web of wholly secondary, and at times invalid, demonstrations. (Kaufman, 17)” Wolfe often condescends to the pseudo-religious aspects of the counter-culture, examining them in-depth, but finding them lacking in substance beyond their extensive drug use. Wolfe repeatedly compares them to the beginnings organized religion. He “remembers puzzling over this…something so religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it, there was just a group of people who shared unusual psychological state, the LSD experience (Wolfe).” Wolfe goes on to indicate that other religious groups started out in nearly the same way—with individuals experiencing ecstatic revelations and sharing their experience with others. He claims, that “for all the Pranksters, as [he has] tried to show, the events in this book were both a group adventure and a personal exploration,” with many achieving insight on both levels (Author’s note, Wolfe). Although Wolfe recognizes the lack of lasting substance in many counter-cultures, Wolfe hoped to capture the significance and historic role of counter cultures. Wolfe’s sensationalistic writing makes it seem as though he is capitalizing on the “kitsch” factor of counter-culture in order to sell novels to middle-America, but Wolfe also seems to believe in the genuine experiences that each prankster went through. However, he also notes the void left after the drugs are removed from the scene. Wolfe’s criticism of the validity of the movement is similar to Nietzsche’s criticism of the enlightenment, which could be considered a counter-cultural movement. Nietzsche felt that the dogged rationalism of the enlightenment, which replaced Christianity, left a void similar to that of the drugs for the Merry Pranksters. For Nietzsche, scientific thought replaced Christianity without providing a new moral code. For the Merry Pranksters, the lack of drugs and shared LSD experiences, made their movement meaningless beyond the transcendental phrases which they spouted at every opportunity.

Wolfe writes for the middle-American, bringing understanding for a culture which they cannot comprehend. While he clearly writes to entertain, he also writes to inform, establishing the role of counter-culture in society, and demonstrating its impermanence as well as its cyclical reoccurrence. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test reflects Eason’s belief that “social reality may indeed be bizarre, but it poses no threat to established ways of knowing and communicating (Eason, 194).” Whereas other books at the time portrayed the drug-culture as the ruin of society, Wolfe indicates that counter-culture appears again and again, but is conquered by the mainstream each time.

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