Slouching Towards Bethelehem by Joan Didion

Read some time ago Joan Didion’s extraordinary set of essays Slouching Towards Bethlemem1, a book filled with the sense of dislocation and anomie that seems so essential to the experience, at least in literature, of America itself.

The most penetrating of the set was that which lends its title to the book2 and I marked one particular section out of that essay, and out of the book as a whole:

[in discussion of Haight-Ashbury in summer 1967] But the peculiar beauty of this political potential, as far as the activists were concerned, was that it remained not clear at all to most of the inhabitants of the District, perhaps because of the few seventeen-year-olds who are political realists tend not to adopt romantic idealism as a life style. Nor was it clear to the press, which at varying levels of the competence continued to report “the hippie phenomemon” as an extended panty raid; an artistic avant-garde led by such comfortable YMHA regulars as Allen Ginsberg; or a thoughtful protest, not unlike joining the Peace Corps, against the culture which had produced Saran-Wrap and the Vietnam War. This last, or they’re-trying-to-tell-us-something approach, reached its apogee in a Time cover story which revealed that hippies “scorn money — they call it ‘bread’” and remains the most remarkable, if unwitting, extant evidence that the signals between the generations are irrevocably jammed.

Because the signals the press were getting were immaculate of political possibilities, the tensions of the District went unremarked upon, even during the period when there were so many observers on Haight Street from Life and Look and CBS that they were largely observing one another. …

Of course the activists — not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic — had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children that the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there was were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Cula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb. [bold emphasis added]

They feed back exactly what is given them. … [pp. 121-123]


From the closing paragraph of the preface:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writes are always selling somebody out.

  1. Flamingo 1993, first published Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1968. 

  2. An entirely intentional choice. As Didion states in the preface:

    “[Slouching Towards Bethlemem] is also the title of one piece of the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was the for me both the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was important to me. And after it was printed I was that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general that a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of the “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on having finished the piece “Just in time”, because “the whole fad’s dad now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point. 

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