Monday, July 8, 2013
On the Morning After My Twenties - Emily DePrang on Joan Didion
Being an idealist in Austin in the summer of 2001 was almost perfunctory. Y2K had given everybody the morbid thrill of impending disaster followed by the cocky thrill of still being able to buy gas with a credit card. The WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 had definitely done something, maybe, or at least had given the feeling that something had been done. (The passive voice can be useful.) When I sat in an airplane hangar next to a straight-edge punk girl and watched footage of the riots set to “Rage Against the Machine,” I felt they meant something, though I couldn’t have said what. Bush v. Gore had given diverse groups something to fight together, and this was before September 11, when we re-learned fear and obedience and found out exactly to what degree a small, committed band of citizens can change the world.
Tom Petty supposedly said, “I don’t go to Austin. The weather’s too nice, the girls are too pretty, and the dope’s too cheap. I can’t get anything done!” Damn straight. And the nothing that a lot of people got done back then (I moved away in ’04) was a kind of spastic activism (spaztivism?) that burns a lot of energy but doesn’t get a lot done. You know, the kind of activism that can usually be called a “gesture.”
I was an old hand at gestures. I always wanted to be two things: a writer and “good.” I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be but I knew how to be good: gestures. One meal a week doesn’t keep anybody from starving to death, but getting up early on a Saturday to go serve it makes you “good.”
Then, in the summer of 2001, I read Joan Didion’s “On the Morning After the Sixties.” In the space of ten minutes, it reversed my polarities. Suddenly, I knew exactly what kind of writer I wanted to be and I had no idea how to be good.
It’s short enough to reproduce in full. I read somewhere that Didion used to type Hemingway out just to see how the sentences felt, so I’ll type her essay here from the copy of “The White Album” I was reading that afternoon. I’ll do so as a gesture to the many years I thought she was right.
“On the Morning After the Sixties”
I am talking here about being a child of my time. When I think about the Sixties now I think about an afternoon not of the Sixties at all, an afternoon early in my sophomore year at Berkeley, a bright autumn Saturday in 1953. I was lying on a leather couch in a fraternity house (there had been a lunch for the alumni, my date had gone on to the game, I do not now recall why I had stayed behind), lying there alone reading a book by Lionel Trilling and listening to a middle-aged man pick out on a piano in need of tuning the melodic line to “Blue Room.” All that afternoon, he sat at the piano, and all that afternoon he played “Blue Room” and he never got it right. I can hear and see it still, the wrong note in “We will thrive on/keep alive on,” the sunlight falling through the big windows, the man picking up his drink and beginning again and telling me, without ever saying a word, something I had not known before about bad marriages and wasted time and looking backward. That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail—the idea of having had a “date” for a football lunch now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist—suggests the extent to which the narrative in which many of us grew up no longer applies.
The distance we have come from the world in which I went to college has been on my mind quite a bit during those seasons when not only Berkeley but dozens of other campuses were periodically shut down, incipient battlegrounds, their borders sealed. To think of Berkeley as it was in the Fifties was not to think of barricades and reconstituted classes. “Reconstitution” would have sounded to us then like Newspeak, and barricades are never personal. We were all very personal then, sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us are still. I supposed I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise.
At Berkeley in the Fifties no one was surprised by anything at all, a donnée which tended to render discourse less than spirited, and debate nonexistent. The world was by definition imperfect, and so of course was the university. There was some talk even then about IBM cards, but on balance the notion that free education for tens of thousands of people might involve automation did not seem unreasonable. We took it for granted that the Board of Regents would sometimes act wrongly. We simply avoided those student rumored to be FBI informers. We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.
To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation. I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults. That most of us have found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be falls perhaps into the category of prophesies self-fulfilled: I am simply not sure. I am telling you only how it was. The mood of Berkeley un those years was one of mild but chronic “depression,” against which I remember certain small things that seemed to me somehow explications, dazzling in their clarity, of the world I was about to enter: I remember a woman picking daffodils in the rain one day when I was walking in the hills. I remember a teacher who drank too much one night and revealed his fright and bitterness. I remember my real joy at discovering for the first time how language worked, at discovering, for example, that the central line of Heart of Darkness was a postscript. All such images were personal, and the personal was all that most of us expected to find. We would make a separate peace. We would do graduate work in Middle English, we would go abroad. We would make some money and live on a ranch. We would survive outside history, in a kind of idée fixe referred to always, during the years I spent at Berkeley, as “some little town with a decent beach.”
As it worked out, I did not find, or even look for the little town with a decent beach. I sat in a large bare apartment in which I lived my junior and senior years (I had lived a while in a sorority, the Tri Delt house, and had left it, typically, not over any “issue” but because I, the implacable “I,” did not like living with sixty people) and I read Camus and Henry James and I watched a flowering plum come in and out of blossom and at night, most nights, I walked outside and looked up to where the cyclotron and the bevatron glowed on the dark hillside, unspeakable mysteries which engaged me, in the style of my time, only personally. Later I got out of Berkeley and went to New York and later I got out of New York and came to Los Angeles. What I have made for myself is personal, but not exactly peace. Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkeley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America’s three-year executive-training program. Most of us live less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.
It’s so easy, from a postprandial drowse on a leather couch in the sun, to consider apathy the most existentially valid attitude toward life. And it’s so easy, when sentences are beautiful and methodical and frank bordering on shameless, to mistake their content for truth. To a young person manic with good intentions but stalked by the fear that nothing she was capable of would ever do any good, Didion was a bitter relief. “Yes,” she told me in her gentle, steady, non-manic voice, “yes. It’s okay that you’re useless because it’s all for shit. Isn’t it nice to be calmer and more mature than everyone who tries?” She was calling my secret name.
Didion, like lots of writers and like myself, suffered from depression. Not “depression,” as she wrote it, but depression, a disease, one with a cause and treatment and symptoms like assuming that a stranger fiddling with a piano is trapped in a terrible marriage.
Like I said, “On the Morning After the Sixties” reversed my polarities. Suddenly I knew exactly how I wanted to write: nonfiction, the socio-personal, the essay, the careful cadence, the voice that commands quietly, abstract-concrete-abstract-concrete—all that. And I simultaneously stopped knowing how to be “good.” She was right, after all: man is flawed, social institutions are going to be flawed, and if I were honest, it would be awful nice to live “outside history.” I underlined it. I felt both called out and excused.
I still made gestures after that, but less and less. I stopped believing anything I could do would “affect man’s fate in the slightest.” I stopped looking for my barricade. This didn’t exactly help my depression. But medication did, and so did realizing how dumb this beautiful essay is. “Why should the individual make an effort on anyone's behalf unless there’s a good chance of, like, fixing the human condition?”
There’s no such thing as mankind. There’s no such thing as arriving or winning, and there’s no scorecard at the end. But we all run out the clock somehow.
How did I idolize someone who could look at an integrated lunch counter and say, “Meh”?
She wrote real purty.
Emily DePrang is a staff writer for the Texas Observer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Black Book, Fourth Genre, and some anthologies. She won the 2012 SDX award for Public Service in Magazine Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists and is a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellow. She was the nonfiction editor for Sonora Review while getting her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, class of 2011.