Friday, January 18, 2008

Things fell apart

... and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
- Yeats, The Second Coming

Joan Didion's classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published 40 years ago, just as American culture and politics were coming apart and the conformist liberalism nurtured by the Great Depression and World War Two caved in. Her perceptions of the Boomers (a half-generation younger than she) were uncannily on-target and ring true all these decades later. The famous title chapter, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," dug into the hippie culture of Haight-Ashbury right around the Summer of Love (1967) and discovered anomie and profound social disconnection. But don't miss some of the other essays as well, about California dreamin', the concluding gems on places, and the sublime "Personals," especially the two on self-respect and morality - or what she called the "insidious ethic of conscience." *

What would become so characteristic of the Boomer style - the morality of private conscience versus a social ethic - was pioneered by people - the first "hipsters," the Beatniks, activists, people fascinated by hobos and the "bluesmen" - born in the 1930s and somewhat older than the first Boomers. The 1930s were the only truly radical decade in American history ("radical" in the European sense). But those who came of age in the 1950s found little attractive in the totalitarian cults of the 30s. Postwar expanding opportunity deflated political impulses, which became rechanneled instead into a radicalism of personal style, with a strong esoteric tinge - all very different from the earlier American taste for the plain and obvious. In full flower - Didion's book is a snapshot album of that moment of flowering - it would lead to an anarchy of petty and sometimes violent competing authoritarianisms, most obviously in the form of "lifestyle" and religious cults, but also the student and "new" Left and the Black Power movement. This indeed informs the Boomers' most characteristic political trait, their taste for fringe ideas and converting them into irritating crusades. Later, in middle age, the Boomer obsession with such culty ideas would turn into such causes as "global warming" and, in some respects, the war in Iraq.

Didion's point is reinforced by a thought from Lionel Trilling:
Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.
Didion firmly rejected the cult of private conscience and the incessant attachment of "morality" to every desire or need. Lest we think this makes us better people, we should remember that people rarely carry out the worst evils purely from self-interest. Such evils are always strongly tinged or even determined by a fanaticism and one-ups-man-ship often labeled "idealistic." The cult of fake absolute morality lies at the root of much of what's wrong with the Boomers, or at least their politically active wing. It's not totally new in American culture; moralistic streaks are obvious in older generations, evidenced by certain Presidents like Wilson and Carter. But never have pet zealotries become so widespread and democratized as they have in the years since 1965. It was then that, as she put it, "the whine of hysteria" came to be heard in the land.

Here we can also better understand the nature of the moral sickness, often mislabeled "moral relativism," that afflicts the Boomers and their children. The problem is not moral relativism. It is rather, too many competing moral absolutisms. The media, by serving up a fresh set of moral absolutes every day, compound the problem. It's like atonal music - the center does not hold, and there's no "key" to come home to. It's every key at once.

The arts have also bowed to cults of inner and private fantasies. Didion's deadpan-witty "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind," about the decline of Hollywood movies, skewers the then-new, now-old and tiresome, system of auteur-ship that replaced the older studio system. What it allowed was directors and producers to film their private fantasies, but not necessarily good movies. Perhaps they're worth making, but not always worth watching.
So. With perhaps a little prodding from abroad, we are all grown up now in Hollywood, and left to set out in the world on our own .... Whether or not a picture receives a Code seal no longer matters much at the box office. No more curfew, no more Daddy, anything goes. Some of us do not quite like this permissiveness; some of us would like to find "reasons" why our pictures are not as good as we know in our hearts they might be. Not long ago I met a producer who complained to me of the difficulties he had working within what I recognized as the [old studio] System, although it did not call it that. He longed, he said, to do an adaptation of a certain Charles Jackson short story. "Some really terrific stuff," he said. "Can't touch it, I'm afraid. About masturbation."
Didion's politics might be described as "eclectic-liberal." But her book is essentially conservative, inasmuch as it implicitly holds culture as more important than politics. Some of her pieces (hint!) are quiet satire, an inherently conservative form.** Didion's work is often bracketed with that of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson - the "new journalism" of the 60s and 70s. But while she was writing in and about the same period, her style is engaged but definitely third-person. She's sometimes passionate, but not the intensely subjective, in-the-midst-of-it, writer trying to erase the line between herself and her subjects.

The Boomers often still flounder in their playpen of narcissism, so well captured by Didion, and many of them will apparently never leave it. They'll grow old first.

POSTSCRIPT: And when they're sixty-four, and older, what will things look like? Take a peek with Megan McArdle.
* This perception of the post-1965 free-fall of American culture and politics informed her title, taken from the famous poem by Yeats. The poem is frequently alluded to and short enough to read in its entirety in a minute or two. Yeats penned it in 1919, just after the First World War.

The kulturpessimismus that engulfed Europe in the 1920s and 30s took a while longer to sink in here. The fad for existentialism and nuclear-holocaust anxieties of the late 40s and 1950s were the first signs of it. But until the mid-60s, American society still largely retained the nineteenth-century faith in reason, progress, and humanity that had been killed off in Europe.

** So quiet, that in fact, some readers have mistaken Didion herself for a hip-ironic-mocker of California. But of course, if you read the book, you'll learn that from she's from California - the Central Valley - and thus the real McCoy. Perhaps Slouching Towards Bethlehem is, at bottom, the diary of a Sacramento girl come to San Francisco and New York to wonder at the hippies and ask some embarrassing questions.

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