Flip the terms

The first paragraph of a somewhat rambling think piece about Joan Didion snagged my attention.

EVEN NOW, even in this century, decades past the pictures with Corvettes and cigarettes and sunglasses, even after her manner, with its uneasy admixture of condescension toward the world and delicacy toward the self, became case study for how to be slightly dangerous and stylish and aloof as a writer without the compensatory aid of masculine bravado, there is always murmuring about Joan Didion.

Um, ah. That’s quite a tidy summing-up of why I don’t like Joan Didion. I think that admixture is exactly the wrong one to have, because it gets everything reversed. The condescension (or doubt, or critical view, or skepticism, or caution) should be for the self, and the delicacy (or interest, or openness, or curiosity, or attention) should be for the world.

I don’t like writers or thinkers who are more interested in their own selves than they are in all the rest of the world combined. They’re laboring under a misapprehension. No one person is more interesting than all the rest of the world. Not even Shakespeare, not even Keats – and I can say “even” about them because they both were insatiably interested in the world. Same with Montaigne – he was always talking about himself, yes, but not with “delicacy” but rather with a clinical, experimental kind of interest that combined well with his fascination with the world. I don’t like precious, exquisite little droplets of self-obsession.

I don’t like Corvettes or cigarettes, either.


  1. Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says

    Well that’s kind of funny. I had to treat myself as my own worst enemy and look at the world with suspicion. I’m not sure that is a person whose opinions I would find interesting or useful.

  2. Al Dente says

    I don’t like Corvettes or cigarettes, either.

    What’s wrong with corvettes? They were used as anti-submarine ships during World War II. Actually they were really too small and too slow to be optimum ocean convoy escorts, but they were cheap to build and maintain. They were superseded by frigates (called destroyer escorts in the US Navy), which were much more effective ASW ships.

    Agree with you on cigarettes, nasty, stinky things.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    I imagine the people with the attitudes you promote would not be the ones to write books. Didion and her husband/inseparable partner John Dunne were literary luminaries who helped define an era, along with Jack Kerouac and even Hemingway. In order to chronicle the zeitgeist, it seems that one must have a certain detachment that some might read as condescension. To observe, one must be in a position to observe, and floating above it all provides a perspective that one cannot obtain down in the trenches. It’s a different perspective, to be sure, and less accessible but no less important for its distance. The writer who makes observations about society must have a certain sense of independence, a confidence and balance, in order commentate and analyze and evaluate without being overtaken and consumed by the subject matter. The danger is a type of clinical detachment, of course, which makes the writer’s works less accessible. Didion’s enduring popularity and icon status demonstrate how accessible her creativity was, and I admire that.

    Yes, cigarettes are horrid, but those who use them are self-medicating, so I can sympathize. As I hold my breath while walking by.

  4. says

    Blanche – wut?

    First of all, why would people who are more interested in the world than they are in themselves not be the ones to write books?

    You seem to have ignored or forgotten (or perhaps just disagreed with) what I said about Shxpr and Keats and Montaigne?

    What’s a “literary luminary”?

    Why are you lumping Didion & Dunne with Kerouac & Hemingway?

    Also – Kerouac didn’t write, he typed. (That’s stolen from I forget which literary luminary – maybe Edmund Wilson.)

    What do you mean “Didion’s enduring popularity”? Is she enduringly popular?

    What do you mean “icon status”? Who says she’s an icon? Of what?

    That whole comment looks like the answer to an exam question, of the type that tries to cover lack of knowledge with an attempt at showily authoritative writing.

  5. Ysidro says

    But Al Dente, I would think a properly maintained cigarette boat wouldn’t smell any worse than any other vessel. The real problem is all the smuggling they’re used for. Oh sure, the Coast Guard uses them too but it wouldn’t be necessary if they weren’t already being used to transport contraband.

    Really, we’re better off without them.

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