Slouching Towards Bethlehem #Two — Joan Didion

Acrylic and ink on canvas.

Acrylic and ink on canvas.

This is the second version of this painting. The first one is watercolour and ink on watercolour paper.

See! The first Didion.

See! The first Didion.

Both paintings have their charm, but I do really like the pop of the acrylic. I also don’t have to frame the canvas.

I do think I spent more time on the typography for the first painting. Maybe I spent more time on the first painting overall. I’ll admit it, ok!

Halfway through the acrylic piece I really thought it was a goner. When Mack came over last night, I looked up at him and said, “this looks like shit, right?” I hadn’t done the ink splatter yet so he said that he still liked the first painting better. Oh man, did I show him. I added the splatter (I have to get some stain remover for my carpet) and he said that he liked the new one best.

But really, I almost gave up on this one. There was a point where I was slouched (like my word choice?) over the painting while the tears rolled down my cheeks.  I don’t know, maybe I’ve been a little emotional lately.

Living alone, I still compare myself to Didion. She writes about living alone in New York in “Goodbye to all That” (an essay that is part of the Slouching Towards Bethlehem collection).  I really love that essay because she is not only talking about living in New York, but being young in general. The feeling you get in your early twenties that you can do no wrong.

Ok, I wrote an essay on “Goodbye to all That.” If you’re curious you can find it below:

“I am not that young anymore”: Falling Out of Love and Growing-up

In Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”

In Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That” New York is treated as the object of an idealized love. At twenty Didion travels to New York to grasp the dream that she had held in her head growing up on the West Coast. Rather than staying the planned six months, Didion stays for eight years. In the essay she writes of a slow disenchantment with the city. In her youth Didion enjoys newness, and impermanence. She “could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of it would count” (684). When the newness of the city wears off, Didion begins to see that “some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all” (685). After getting married Didion returns to Los Angeles. When friends ask about the move she answers that New York is no longer affordable, but what she really means is that “I was very young in New York, and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more” (688). Even though Didion’s experience is centered around New York, the experience is about youth and disenchantment. Didion offers herself while simultaneously writing on a truth that is startlingly relatable.

Didion counteracts the indulgence of a personal essay with stories of her naiveté. For her first three days in New York Didion spends the time locked in her hotel room while fighting off a high fever. She does not think of calling a doctor, “because I knew none, and although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come up–was anyone ever so young?” (682). Didion constantly reverts back to her unworldliness which coincides with her fresh perception of New York. When she is told that there are no ‘new faces’ at parties Didion laughs and all she can see is fresh snow, lit up Christmas trees, and a new dress (682). At twenty-eight in a city that has grown familiar, Didion stops “believing in new faces and began to understand…that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair” (687). At this point Didion’s naiveté has worn off, but she is left with a sense of despair (688). Didion’s ability to acknowledge her anxiety in a new place, and her admittance of her innocence and consequent disillusionment is engrossing. Didion is forgiven for writing about herself because she recognizes her shortcomings.

Didion uses imagery to reveal her New York. The majority of Didion’s images are centered on the streets of New York. On her ride into town she watches “for the skyline but all I could see were the wastes of Queens and the big signs that said MIDTOWN TUNNEL THIS LANE and then a flood of summer rain” (682). New York is given a bitter-sweet quality with the image of Queens and the overbearing signs. Didion uses the parallel of positive and negative images throughout her essay:

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring…I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume. (683)

Lexington Avenue might not easily be imagined but it is doubtful that the taste of a peach, or the smell of garbage could not be conjured up. Didion clearly spreads her experience of New York out on the page. What Didion experiences can be imagined. Her love and disenchantment become our love and disenchantment.

Didion furthers the element of inclusion by using “you” and “us”. Lopate describes this formal technique as “the movement from individual to universal” where “the concrete details of personal experience earn the generalization” (xl, Introduction). Didion uses the “you” in a confidential manner. Didion writes that, “those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along” (682, italics mine). Right away a transformation is foreseeable. She continues, “part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York” (682). The illusion that Didion is writing directly to an individual reader is given. She is telling you, and not the masses. Didion’s use of “us” has a slightly different effect. She writes, “I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South” (684, italics mine). The scope is even narrower when she writes of “us who have been young in New York” (685). The use of “us” is meant to communicate the feeling of New York. The “us” represents an invitation to a feeling and a time.

“Goodbye to All That” is successful as a personal essay because the wall between writer and reader is removed. Didion constantly admits that she was young and naive, and so the common boastful nature of living in New York is removed. The picture that Didion paints of New York is apart from what we learn about the city from movies and books, and because of this detachment Didion’s New York becomes the clearest reality. Didion’s use of pronouns draws us into her personal experience and the experience of being in New York and young. What makes Didion’s essay particularly successful is that youth is something that everyone experiences. New York can be removed from the essay, because it is not really about the city.



Work Cited

Didion, Joan. “Goodbye to All That.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. 681-688. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.” The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.

xxiii-liv. Print.


This entry was published on Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 12:29 pm. It’s filed under Artwork and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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