Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 5 Reading

The White Album – Cydney Garbino

Cydney Garbino

Eye of the Story

Winter 2016

The White Album is my favorite reading we’ve done in this program so far. I had never heard of Joan Didion, prior to this quarter. My interest in her work has sparked since reading this book and I can hardly wait to read more by her. I have had a growing interest in the art and culture of the 1960’s since first hearing about the Black Panther’s and the Beats in my middle school humanities classes. I was initially intrigued by the prospect of dropping right into that time period and getting a feel for the events and vibes of that era from someone who lived it. What I didn’t think I’d get was that feeling similar to the one described by Sebald in Rings of Saturn of having lived her experience exactly has she lived it, which isn’t a completely unique reaction, I’m sure. The first essay, sharing the same title as the book itself, is what sparked the closeness I personally felt.

What truly caught my attention in this essay was a thought from the opening in tandem with number 7, in which she talks about the list taped to her closet door, in its entirety. In essence, what she’s talking about come down to two things. The first being a longing for control over our own destinies through a linear narrative and how that particular notion of how life plays out is ultimately not reality. The second being, in order to get to that point, we have to own our imperfections and come to terms with the fact that there will always be something missing so long as we strive for an exact ideal.

Didion claims, “[w]e live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience (11.)” This shifting phantasmagoria, a nightmarish circus, is a spot on description of the infinitely unpredictable nature of the reality which we choose to not think about, for sanity’s sake. For Didion, lack of control in a world where everything seems to have certain elements of order and structure is equal to chaos.

The list further perpetuates this notion. “It should be clear,” she says, “ that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative (35.)” This list is her safety net, keeping her from chaos.

Holy Water. Reading. Jackie Pleus.

The White Album, Joan Didion.

                                                                                                                                     Jackie Pleus

 

 

 

            In her opening paragraph she describes effortlessly the intricacies of where the water she will drink that night or the next day are and what they might be doing at that time, whether it be climbing a mountain or aerating down the Owens steps. She makes clear the focus of her fascination with the movement and control of this entire process, “An obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale.” Pg 59. Didion outwardly connects water to power and the need for control. She yearns to be in charge of pressing the buttons and sending the messages to release an order of water, by playing this certain hand of god, she seems to find purpose in her life. I think this fascination also speaks to her emotional state of confusion and overwhelming fear. In the world of dreams water generally represents the subconscious and current emotional states. Instead of waterways that are naturally occurring such as oceans and lakes she dreams about man made conduits assigning specific roles and meaning to the water.

 

            “I recall being deliriously happy.” Pg. 60. Didion’s chapter of Holy Water is one of her most personal essays in The White Album. It gives us a peak between the lines of the story she tells herself and shares with us throughout the book. The intense satisfaction that she finds in thinking about the awesome power of California’s waterways seems to give her life meaning through the conduits of control and movement. Her essays describe a myriad of scenes, diving into each of them in search of some sort of universal meaning, or logical reasoning for the actions of the characters. Didion explores their values and processes of thought with her investigative journalism, identifying meanings that pertain only to certain lifestyles and situations. These when taken out of context often lose relevance and significance, as seen in her chapter, Notes Toward a Dreampolitik. Didion’s self-proclaimed obsession on the waterways of California seems as deep and vast as the ocean itself.

 

            She uses water to talk about many of the major themes throughout the book including her notes on the intricacies of the class system. “The symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable.” Pg 64. As with many other ideas she discusses Didion first introduces what isn’t, by painting a picture that is perceived true by certain people, allowing the reader a plausible alternative to a more overarching truth which she brings up next. Her conclusion of swimming pools pertaining to control resonates with me, by furthering the idea of containment of a force, which by all means should never stilled. This also shows her need for control in an alternative way, “Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control.” Pg. 65. Most people are soothed by the idea of control that is emulated by their swimming pools, but Didion doesn’t dream about stagnant concrete puddles, she dreams about controlling the entire water system of California. She dreams of movement. Holy Water speaks abstractly about her physiological condition of looking for a narrative and her need to find meaning in life. The fact that she is so taken by the idea of having power over millions of people’s water supply shows us just how chaotic and helpless she actually feels inside.

 

            “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” Pg. 64. Didion’s interest in the entirety of California’s waterways over a swimming pool also speaks to being a true Californian. Knowing the true harshness of this incorrectly blanketed state of complacent paradise seems to console her. It gives her meaning in a world of such blatant unconsciousness.

 

Seminar Quesitons:

What does water represent to Didion in the chapter Holy Water?

How does the emotional tone of this character compare to the rest of the book?

What meanings does Didion find in the control used by the California water systems?

How does Didion differ from the basic second generation Californian?

Close Reading: Joan Didion’s “The Women’s Movement”

Writing in 1972, Joan Didion found feminism distasteful. Surely some feminist readers of her essay, “The Women’s Movement”, found her distasteful as well. Unlike many, Didion is able to log her complaints about the movement with nuance, assessing its weaknesses with strong examples and dry humor. She doesn’t bother to shroud her own identity anywhere in The White Album; as a result, this assessment of “Women’s Lib” is unmistakably her own, conveyed in how she writes as well what is written.

Didion seems generally skeptical of progressive movements headed by white people. In an earlier essay she views the student activists at San Francisco State University warily, doubtful of their intentions. “Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious…Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerillas (39).” “Minority” activists, as Didion calls them, are invested in their causes by necessity (…it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals” [110]). White activists are able to pick and choose their outrage, able to try on causes and identities with little investment, like picking something from a catalogue. Didion sees it as inherently capitalist, wrapped up and sold as fashionable Marxism.

Second wave feminism strikes the author as overly simplistic. “To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism” (113). Meanwhile, these “social idealists” have a long list of hyperbolic complaints but no solid goal, “the popular view of the movement as some kind of collective inchoate yearning for ‘fulfillment’ or ‘self-expression’, a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas” (110). When ideas do manifest they’re still undefined, capitalistic and aspirational. The activists gloss over ambiguities, going so far as to call for sexist Western fiction to be destroyed. Anything offensive is immediately without merit, a view that doesn’t sit well with Didion.

These tenants are reductive and infantilize women. Feminism’s main complaints with the status quo, reduced to dishwashing and catcalls in Didion’s estimation, are not only trivial but classist. On the issue of catcalling, she notes “(This grievance was not atypic in that discussion of it seemed to always take on unexplored Ms. Scarlett overtones, suggestions of fragile cultivated flowers being ‘spoken to’ and therefore violated by uppity proles’)” (113). It’s almost as if you can see Didion shrugging off these complaints, suggesting that some people have real problems. “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children” (116). She takes down the movement’s strawmen just as hyperbolically as they are presented to her, a tactic that is undoubtedly intentional, to criticize their glorification of victim mentality. Why not take enough time to think and realize that you can turn off the television or stay at hotels with more than doughnuts on the room service menu, or avoid pointed shoes? Truly oppressed people don’t have such options.

Didion values sincerity and finds very little within second wave feminism. She resents their use of meaningless words and how they ignore words with great meaning. Shulamith Firestone asserts that second wave feminism is “the most important movement in history” (109). Phrases like “rap session” and the “click! of recognition” are thrown around. What the hell is a “consciousness raising”? Time wondered if they were hurtling into a time of “fewer diapers and more Dante”, yet when the movement’s constituents found themselves in the media “they were being heard, and yet not really. Attention was finally being paid and yet that attention was mired within the trivial” (113).

Above all, Didion isn’t feeling sixties feminism because it is dismissive and unrealistic, escapist. “The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real, generative possibilities of adult sexual life somehow touches beyond words” (118). They seek “fulfillment” yet eschew men and sex, family and children. And yet reproduction is the most biologically fulfilling possibility, home and family life the most fulfilling in society’s estimation. Feminism’s unfulfillable goals ignore reality. “These are converts who want not a revolution but ‘romance’, who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life” (118). We return to capitalism again, wanting things not because they are attainable, but because the system leads us to believe that “romance” and “fulfillment” are real, and that we are entitled to them at all times.

I suspect that inconsistency and insincerity are not the only reasons Didion reacted against “the women’s movement”. Their beliefs go against her own, beliefs deeply held that she champions through writing. She sees a kindred spirit in Georgia O’Keefe, who “…seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it” (129). The way this version of feminism saw it, “Cooking a meal could only be ‘dogwork’ and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s forced labor”. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their ‘freedom’” (113). She doesn’t name her own domestic values within this essay, but other hints can be found in The White Album and throughout her greater body of work. She recoils at the lifeless, impractical-and worst of all, uninhabited- governor’s mansion, remembering its former incarnation as a home to be lived in and enjoyed, with a kitchen to cook in. Her references to her family within The White Album, as well as the books she wrote in reaction to the death of her husband and her daughter show she did not reject family life, though hers was not always so traditional (“We are here on this island in the Pacific in lieu of getting a divorce…[133]). She loved them, yet she was never trapped with or dependent on them.

Whether we agree with her or not, Didion’s beliefs are not unexamined. Perhaps the sexes have always been divided and had difficulty understanding each other. Or perhaps “women as a class” was an invented construct, successful in its divisive intentions. “That many women are victims of condescencion and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package” (118). Didion considers herself to be one of those “other women” and urges us to pay close attention to what we choose to buy.

2/5/16 – Mike Pezzillo – Close Reading of The Rings of Saturn

Saturn, Circles, and Orbis Tertius

“What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” Pg 80

My impression is that, for Sebald, an illustration of the present can only be complete when taken in relation to the whole of time and space. His method of utilizing fact and fiction manages to achieve, if not a “true” picture of reality, then an accurate representation of it, something that simple “truth”, with all its temporal trappings, is unable to provide.

“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?” Pg 125

Part of the problem here is, as Sebald says, a problem of perspective. In this case, I believe it is the human perspective which is faulty, more than the historical. In some stranger-than-fiction kind of way, all ground, every hill is indeed a “mountain of death”. All soil is composed of things that died long ago, gave their lifeforce up to be reintegrated. Life and death hold specific space in the human mind, one can only assume, as a result of our individuated perspective on our “selves.” The very reason we use to puzzle these things out is the very thing that causes us to look at our own impending “personal” mortality as something tragic, something inescapable, and at the same time, as something that might in some way be avoided, if one can only think, believe, say, or do the right thing. Our reason may even tell us that this pursuit is logically flawed, that there is no escaping death. And yet, this only serves to motivate mankind to try to approach the problem of death from a different angle. Perhaps, we say, this finite “Me” character can be made infinite through glories achieved, or through one’s children. But these are living legacies in themselves and persist only as long as language, speech, art, and man himself continue to persist.

“No last sigh, no last words were to be heard, nor the last despairing plea: Lend me a looking-glass; if that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives. No, nothing. Nothing but dead silence. Then softly, barely audibly, the sound of a funeral march. Now night is almost over and the dawn about to break. The contours of the Sizewell power plant, its Magnox block a glowering mauseoleum, begin to loom upon an island far out in the pallid waters where one believes the Dogger Bank to be, where once the shoals of herring spawned and earlier still, a long, long time ago, the delta of the Rhine flowed out into the sea and where green forests grew from silting sands.” Pg 175

Time unravels everything, undoes the majority of man’s works in this life. The remnants may stand for some time, may hint at the splendor and grandeur of mankind, but in the end, neither his grand works or his greatest acts of destruction will remain for long. Time washes everything clean, and comes back around for another go at it.
One must ask: for what do I continue to toil, for what holiday, to what day of rest is my  work heir? And again, to what end? What “glowering mausoleum” will stand for my tired bones and weary arms, my grand, impossible imaginings that have so consumed my limited life on this earth? What strange games will remember me, whose soft thoughts will swaddle my errant soul once this charade has come undone? If there is nothing lasting in the world, is any of it worth a damn?

The supposed objectivity of man’s reason and the subsequent fallibility of his perspective result in a confused and possibly misinterpreted impression of reality. For Sebald, the things that last are those things which come back around in their orbits, those things that have a sort of resonance which both attenuates to a higher vibration and simultaneously spells their doom. The only real things, he seems to say, are those which are supremely finite, harried by mortality.

”Perhaps there is in this as yet unexplained phenomenon of apparent duplication some kind of anticipation of the end, a venture into the void, a sort of disengagement, which, like a gramophone repeatedly playing the same sequence of notes, has less to do with damage to the machine itself than with an irreparable defect in its programme.” (Pg 187-188)

Circles, spheres, orbits, suggest to us an infinity. And yet, it may just be that idea of the eternal which makes life seem so unbearable, so painfully boring at times. But how to reckon time, if not by progressive circles, iterative orbits? The fact that our circles intimate an end, or at least a change of significant magnitude could be precisely this “defect” in the programme of life itself.

From Borges perspective, this is illusory and meaningless, just as so many terrestrial observations are, owing to the propensity of humanity to attempt to compartmentalize experience and objects through classification.

“They [Tlonians] know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them.” (Borges, 25)

This is so much mysticism to us as westerners, who find our perspective on ourselves finitely anchored in individual pockets within a greater universe of objects, and yet it must be even more so when comparing our terrestrial understanding of the universe as a “system” to that of the inhabitants of Tlon, whose temporal/spacial beliefs preclude the idea of linear time as a reality and of a universe of “things”.

“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” Pg 23-24

Sebald, through his revolutions, is divining the nature of the universe, and, in Tlonian style, realizing himself to be an inseparable part of an immutable whole, the boundaries of which can only ever be suggested, but never truly fathomed. The eye cannot see itself.

Circles, infinite circles, speak of the doom of time, the downfall of cities, of cataclysm and the slow burn of an entropic sun. The clutch of time, the fear of time, are what excite our mortal tendencies and our perspectives. And yet, it must be recalled that in the fabled country of Tlon there is no such thing as time, no such thing as other, and the only reason to speak is solely for the renewal of wonder.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

1. The Rings of Saturn

By WG Sebald

1998 The Harvill Press

2. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

by Jorge Luis Borges

From

Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings

1962

Macsen Baumann “A Brief Analysis of The Getty” TWA Essay, 2/4/16

A Brief Analysis of The Getty

Of the many compelling narratives explored by Joan Didion in The White Album, her essay on the J. Paul Getty Museum struck me especially. In keeping with the themes of the work as a whole, The Getty is short and outwardly impartial, with profound insights contained within its story and form.

Didion begins the essay with a description of what can be called the reality of the eponymous villa, which is that it is a “giddily splendid […] commemoration of high culture” that is “so immediately productive of crowds and jammed traffic that it can now be approached by appointment only” (74), the second point being an irony that resolves in the last paragraphs of the essay. Didion then cites reviews by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that derisively compare the Getty to “nouveau-rich” dining rooms in upscale California communities. Immediately following this section there begins an exhausting critique of the Getty that comes not so much from Didion but from the critics and inhabitants of the upscale dining rooms, by proxy.
In this section there is a clever distance between the author and what is written, with many key words and phrases surrounded by quotation marks, almost sarcastically. This disassociation of the author and the text begins to build the confusion that ends up pervading the conclusion of the essay.

On page 76, partway through the first paragraph, Didion moves away from this critique and shifts into what are apparently ideas of her own: that the Getty glorifies “opulent evidence of imperial power and acquisition” not for the sake of “bad taste” but instead to tell us “that we were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were” and that this statement is what so deeply offends (or disturbs) the elites that criticized the Getty.

The words of Getty himself are then presented, following a concession about whether or not Getty’s intent for his museum matches Didion’s perception of its message, a further hint at the removal of the author from the text. With further quotations, Didion offers Getty’s refutation of his critics in which he takes (or at least claims to take) an anti-elitist stance. Didion grabs hold of Getty’s use of the word elitist in order to begin constructing the essay’s climactic insight.

This insight is one of what Didion calls “social secrets”, and it is hinted at in the very beginning of the essay. We are told that the Getty is immensely popular in the first paragraph of the first page, and are then immediately presented with a detailed account of its seemingly universal panning. This contradiction is seemingly ignored until Didion breaks through to clarity in the end of the essay, though the pieces of this epiphany are set throughout. Didion uses Getty’s words to attach the term elitist to the Getty’s critics, and then reverses the same words to imply that Getty fits a similar description. This confusion of contradicting opinions and observations is then ascribed to, rather than explained by, Didion’s assertion that “On the whole, ‘the critics’ distrust great wealth, but ‘the public’ does not. On the whole, “the critics” subscribe to the romantic view of man’s possibilities, but “the public” does not.” (78) This insight is very much a part of the particular flavor of 1960s cultural disorder and social upheaval that is depicted in The White Album as a whole, and in this way it slides seamlessly into the conceptual narrative that surrounds it.

Adderley Dannley-Bearden “In Order to Live” TWA Essay 2/2/15

Adderley Dannley-Bearden
Schrager
“Eye of the Story”
1 February 2016

In Order to Live

Examining the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Joan Didion, in a collection of essays from her book The White Album, seeks to identify her own personal turmoil during that era and how the combined incidents of people, politics, architecture, music, and status quo influenced her psychological affair.

On the first page, in an essay which the book is titled after, Didion explains to the audience from the very first sentence how “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (11). These are the types of stories, not found in books persay, but the ones we formulate on a daily basis. They are the assumptions we make about someone’s shirt or their lunch, maybe their family. Constantly trying to find reason and solution for the knowledge we do not have. Didion goes on to say:

“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience” (11).

She addresses the audience with the frequent usage of “we” as if to include them in her dilemma. Didion wants to acknowledge, or perhaps prove to herself, that she is not alone in her experience, therefore she makes it a universal experience. By saying “we live entirely” on a narrative, is another way of saying we are dependent upon it.

Didion states that the 60s were a time period where she began to question, or doubt, “the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself” (11). Feeling like life was a production and that every encounter or conversation followed a specific script, Didion admits to improvising. If she was given a script, she must have lost it, and could not adhere to the cues, nor the plot. Didion admits to only knowing what she saw: “flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience” (13). Seeing her own life in the 60s through a series of discombobulated imagery which had no evident meaning, Didion found herself still craving a narrative, still wanting to believe in the narrative’s accuracy, something to help her make sense of the events around her.

The 1960s leading into the early 70s was a period of inexplicable transition. From Didion’s other descriptions about being in a studio with The Doors to talking about the logistics of book publishing with Elderidge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panthers, Didion allows the scope of her existence at that time to envelope the audience. Simply based off those two examples alone, it might be safe to infer the era was not one for scripts, nor did its citizens deign to follow them as strictly as Didion may have presumed.

While reading “The White Album”, I found myself relating with Didion’s need to formulate a narrative, especially after viewing The Nine Muses directed by John Akomfrah. The combination of found footage and original material had my brain in overdrive, trying to piece together a narrative when we were told not to make an attempt. The film had a lot of intent but whether or not we were supposed to–or even allowed to–understand what was being projected is unknown. I think the same idea could be lended to Didion’s idea about narrative. I am unsure whether or not you are meant to understand what is occurring in your life until it has come and gone.

I live most of my life by assuming narratives, but the problem with narratives, specifically your own, is that they cannot be trusted as you are experiencing them. Didion had to come to terms with that when she looked back on her life in order to write her books. She needed to be able to reflect upon the narrative from a later viewpoint and how the observations and assumptions she was making about the time period and about herself in the midst of the mansions, the Reagans, and the feminist movement, were mostly premature.

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