Posted by: roamingolivia | November 24, 2010

Joan Didion and the modern age


I love Joan Didion. I don’t mean “I love her” in a kind of cutesy way. I actually really think she is an incredible writer. Her Year of Magical Thinking changed the way I think about relationships, and what it means to be a writer, and life. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was powerful, and remarkable, and I think an interesting and potentially difficult stance to take at the time. I have a book that compiles three of her books on my bedside table. I don’t always read it, but I always enjoy it when I do.

Today I became aware of the internet/blogosphere phenomenon that was the posting of her “Letter from ‘Manhattan’” on the New York Review of Books website. I can’t really tell when it went up, but it was widely commented on this week, so I assume recently. Whatever, it is really interesting, with amazing gems about the self-obsessed culture that was growing at the time, becoming that thing we know and love, whilst also being a scathing review of Woody Allen’s new-at-the-time film Manhattan. Whether you like or have seen the film or not, I think it’s possible to understand that she identified a trend in the culture at the time, which has continued to grow:

This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school.

(There are many memorable parts of this review, and it is not long, so you should just go read it now.)

But one part at the beginning chimed with a conversation I’d already had with my flatmate that morning. Here’s the part:

This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.

This morning, I was discussing with N__ the fact that I am dissatisfied with having a social (and arguably creative) life that is so often passive. I really like to see good performances of Hamlet or a modern production of Don Giovanni, but I really struggled with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I blogged about it earlier but am too embarrassed to even bother trying to link to it; my novel(s?) failed within a few days.

There are several reasons for that. I am really busy (really). I just moved, so my brain is in a weird, transitional and consequently very shallow state. But I think one other reason, which I hadn’t really identified, is that I am so passive in my creative/cultural life. So I want to start having more interactive activities. I have discussed this at length with many people I know in London, and in Milan; I want to start a literary salon/discussion club, where basically I invite friends to come teach me things they know about, and to have discussions with friends on interesting topics. I am working toward doing that.

But what about art? And what about consuming art? I understand the trend that Didion is identifying – this idea that you need to not just consume art or view art, but that it needs to be the “right” art, and you pick up what that is not based on your own preferences, but based on your peer group and the social cues you’d like to give off. This trend is interesting, considering the other critique of the film is that people are spending an hour a day talking to a trained therapist/analyst, and thus getting to “know” themselves much better than they ever have in the past. So why, with all that self-knowledge, are people not encouraged or even curious to find out what they like and what they can do? It is a confusing trait. Why wouldn’t they use that self-knowledge in the pursuit of really solving some of the big issues? Learning more about the outside world?

There’s an easy answer, of course, and that is art is an industry, and it plays into our vanity/narcissism by telling us that viewing the right exhibit is different than wearing the right shoes because it makes us, by extension, more cultural or more creative. That’s not necessarily true.

(I realise there is another category of narcissism and consumerism – i.e., you can be consumerist and not necessarily narcissistic (right?), or you can be non-consumerist because you’re a narcissist, or you can be consumerist because you’re narcissistic (and I use that term in a purely non-technical way). But this is a blog, not a real essay, so I’ll leave it vague.)

But isn’t my own idea that I should be participatory instead of passive a flip side of this vanity/narcissism? Not that I am planning to stage Hamlet alone anytime soon, but if I tried to do so, it would be foolish – I should leave it to the professionals. And if I am only interested in quality, I should probably spend more time at poetry readings than on poetry writing; I am not necessarily a natural poet. Or a novelist. And yet I think it is worth continuing to try writing because I enjoy it, and I think it is worthwhile, and I think most of all that it is difficult, and I think that is good.

I don’t really have any conclusions, but I am interested for thoughts on whether you are also craving participatory culture, objecting to passive consumerist art, or whether you have found a happy medium. Basically – how can I have a less narcissistic and/but less consumerist life, whilst learning more about the world and finding things I enjoy? I think one answer is to carve out time for it – for non-public displays of real attempts to learn. I can read in my house, or go browse books for hours like I used to in college.

But then I’d have to give up my prestigious art-viewing activities.

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