“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension,” Joan Didion begins her 1964 essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” one of the twenty essays in her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
“What it means,” Didion continues, “is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point.”
How ridiculous this sentiment sounds fifty years later — “some” unnatural stillness, “some” tension — at a moment when thousands of acres in California lay scorched from two wildfires, the Woolsey Fire, which burned 96,949 acres and 15,000 structures, and the Camp Fire, officially the largest and deadliest fire in state history, which decimated 153,336 acres and nearly 18,000 structures. The death toll is over 90.
Compounding this tension is now nearly two month-long search for motives in the shooting of 12 people at the Borderline in Thousand Oaks, a town that barely missed being consumed by the Woolsey fire. The gunman, an Afghanistan war veteran, opened fire just before midnight on November 7th. Both the Woolsey and Camp fires began in the early hours of the 8th.
The essay, which is a B-side in this collection that famously takes its name from Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” filled with hits such as “Goodbye to All That,” seems, at first glance, just a moody vignette, a torn-out page from one of Didion’s notebooks, describing the Santa Ana winds. The dry winds form over the Colorado Plateau then pick up dust and debris in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert before blowing fast and hot down the western slopes of the Transverse Ranges, a three-hundred mile long series of mountain ridges stretching from Santa Barbara in the west to the Mojave in the east.
But like much of Didion’s work it is really a meditation on the strange relationship between the atmospheric extremes of California and the mercurial inner-weather of human beings at a time in American history when, to quote Yeats again, “...the centre cannot hold.”
“In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” another notable essay in Slouching, in which she profiles a woman who kills her husband by setting fire to his car, with him in it, the Santa Anas again loom:
October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.But what does it mean, this correlation between these winds and the feeling of dread and tension in the air? Does the presence of smoke mushrooming over a ridge miles away during your morning commute, or as you tend to the backyard BBQ, exert a psychological pressure, a literary sense of foreboding? Are humans really this fragile, this susceptible to changes in weather, or is it more a cumulative effect?
Didion ends the opening paragraph of “Los Angeles Notebook” with a curious and troubling answer: “To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.”
A “mechanistic view” of human behavior is what philosophers call a form of scientific reduction, in which all phenomena can be explained by, or reduced to, physical and chemical facts.
From a mechanistic view, people are no different than the plants John McPhee writes about in his New Yorker article, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”:
When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before.From a mechanistic view, depression, anxiety, all of our other emotions, are chemical reactions in the body, as measurable and knowable as the dryness of flammable brush.
Didion’s fascination with a mechanistic view comes to a fine point in her 1,800 word “On Morality,” penned while sitting in a motel room in Death Valley on a day when the temperature has reached 119 degrees:
There is some sinister hysteria in the air out here tonight, some hint of the monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.Didion seems to imply that the hysteria isn’t so much in the air, as it is because of the air, as if a Victorian notion of “bad air” is upsetting the balance of our humors.
The idea that ions effect our moods was in vogue in the late 60s. Didion cites research by an Israeli scientist on the role that positive ions carried by the wind play in making people feel unhappy. “No one seems to know exactly why that should be,” she writes, though that doesn’t stop her from asserting the possibility that it is true.
In the late 70s, researchers in the US claimed that an overabundance of positive ions led to serotonin hyperproduction, known to cause irritation, adrenal deficiency, exhaustion, hyperthyroidism, anxiety and sleeplessness. However, violent crime statistics during periods of Santa Ana winds show little to no correlation, and a 2013 meta-analysis of data from 1957 to 2012 found "no consistent influence of positive or negative air ionization on anxiety, mood, relaxation, sleep, and personal comfort measures."
In the closing paragraph of “Los Angeles Notebook” states the obvious before leading us to a revelation:
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.If we look at storytelling as a mechanistic tool, it is tempting to become wrapped up in cause and effect: positive ions are driving people crazy; wildfires are the result of climate change; gun control will stop the epidemic of mass shootings. Instead Didion finds the edge, and tries to understand what has brought us, individuals, to that point of desperation.
Through her essays, Didion is attempting to counteract the effects of what Henry A. Giroux in his 2014 book The Violence of Organized Forgetting calls the “new authoritarianism.” Under the new authoritarianism “. . . the relationship between personal troubles and social realities are covered over,” leading to a situation where “very little foundation remains on which we can build connections between facts and wider theoretical frameworks in order to strengthen the public’s awareness of power and its operations.”
The center will not hold, literally, because attempts to make sense of violence, poverty, and other social ills are shouted down--scientific evidence is disregarded as just another opinion. Instability is the goal.
Under such conditions, the connection between the personal trauma of a war veteran, the pervasive cultural belief that violence is an ethical and, increasingly, righteous means of solving problems, plus the near-holiness and talismanic power of firearms is characterized by many on the right as a laughable, when in reality perpetrators of mass shootings regularly cite such beliefs. Violence is a way of making people pay for the personal anguish they are enduring.
Didion’s meditation on the Santa Anas also nails the current cultural division over climate change. The personal tragedies of the nearly 100 people who lost their lives in the recent fires, and the thousands of Californian’s whose homes and communities burned to the ground are characterized by our president as the result of negligent forest management by the Forest Service.
What’s vital about Didion’s work now more than ever is that her antidote to such willfully anti-scientific and anti-intellectual stances is not to explicate the theories but to describe just how unstable reality is. “The center was not holding,” she begins the title essay of Slouching--literally.
What to do in the face of such mayhem and instability?
In Linda Kuehl’s 1978 interview with Didion for the Paris Review, she asks, “You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why."
It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.Most writers I know resist framing writing in terms of trickery. And yet, to approach a discussion of the causes of violence requires some amount of misdirection. We must move the reader from a position of self-righteousness to one of vulnerability, where we are open to wrestling with our own participation and complicity in the horrors.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion famously begins “The White Album.”
What story do we tell ourselves about this moment, as evacuees return to the burned-out husks of their homes and begin to rebuild? As three hundred mass shootings take place in a single year? It’s hard not to think mechanistically. It’s hard not to think that we are plants deprived of air, plants drained of moisture and made brittle, combustible. So how do we find breathing room, soil to thrive in?
Didion’s work provides no easy answers to these questions. She could not have anticipated back in 1968 that in the future the vast majority of us would carry around in our pockets devices that constantly bombard us with tragic news, and hateful speech, and, yes, ions; that we would have a President whose main political tactic is to fill the airwaves with abusive, incoherent ravings that embolden those who proudly occupy the edges and threaten those on the margins.
When I think of answers, of solutions, I think of my children, 12 and 8, and how they are the inheritors of these conditions. I think about how anxious they are when they hear of another mass shooting on the radio; how my son asked me “Dad, are the bad guys coming here? Will they come here?” I think of how scared my daughter gets when the sky goes dark and the wind picks up because once, years ago, a windstorm toppled huge trees onto our house. I think of how powerless I am--we all are--in face of these forces, mechanisms that have been wound up and now set loose.
I think of Didion’s meeting with Jeff and Debbie, 15 and 16 year old runaways, in Golden Gate Park, which she describes in a brief scene in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” They had come to the Haight to find jobs and a place to live. Didion buys them hamburgers and Cokes and interviews them. They complain about being made to go to Church and do chores. Debbie complains that her mother made her wear skirts that were longer than any of her other 7th grade classmates. Jeff complains that he had to iron his shirts or be grounded from going out on the weekend, and that he was hassled for wearing his hair too long. All pretty standard. And yet something in the air, something in that moment in history, made running away seem reasonable.
Didion is deeply troubled by what she sees. “...[w]e had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing,” she writes. “Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.”
What are these rules? Who made them? What is this game? What forces are pressing on these young people? What can be done to help them?
Perhaps what she means is that we have neglected to take seriously just how susceptible we are to the Golden Dream, to believing in a version of reality ruled by magical thinking, where the weather is always sunny, where everyone is free to live lives free of tragedy.
Having tragically lost her husband and daughter in the same year, Didion is as keenly aware as anyone of this dream, and has spent the last several years chronicling that loss of innocence. During her book tour for Blue Nights, a memoir reflection on the loss of her daughter, I saw her speak at an old theater in Washington D.C. She was very prickly with the crowd, especially when they asked her questions about where she got the strength to persevere in the face of so much loss.
Afterwards, waiting in the book-singing line, I decided I would ask her a question that had been on my mind for many years: Did she know what happened to Jeff and Debbie. By the way she was curtly signing books and barely making eye contact with fawning fans, I worried that she would find my question an annoyance, but I asked anyway. “Ms. Didion, do you know what happened to Jeff and Debbie?”
She stopped signing my book and looked up. Her face, which had been so hard and distant throughout the event had completely changed. It was softer and her eyes lit up with the presence of a memory. She said, “You know, years ago I was on a call-in talk show and a woman called in. It was Debbie. She said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I am ok.’”
I don’t know why, but as I walked away towards the back of the theater, signed book in hand, I began to cry. In the midst of so much loss and broken dreams, someone had made it through.
Still, whenever I think of this story, I cry. I cry, I think, because of how mechanistic and determinate it all feels, how the fires in the hills and in ourselves sometimes must run their course, burn themselves out. I cry because of how powerless I feel to stop the pain that I know will inevitably come.
“We know it because we feel it,” Didion writes of the mood-altering Santa Anas. “The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.”
Part of the sickening dread in the air right now is that the story we are telling ourselves is that there is nothing to be done about the winds and fires, nothing to be done to save those teetering on the edge from bursting into flame and taking others with them.
And yet we continue to hope that the new year there will bring some renewal, some coming to our senses; that our rituals of gathering and celebrating will turn the hearts of the despots; that our promises and resolutions will stick; that the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem will somehow birth a miraculous change in the arc of history.
As naive as this hope might seem, Joan Didion, one of our most clear-eyed, unsentimental writers, opens us up to the possibility that despite our fragility all will be well; that out of the fire come stories of endurance and grace.