Didion, Clad in her Armor
Last night, the cover of the latest New York Review of Books — VICTORY!, with a cartoon of Obama in the center, and promises of articles by Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney and others — made me happy for a moment... until I began reading Didion’s article. Then I went: Oh yeah. This.
Didion was an established writer by the time I began to read serious literature, well-known for her essays, and I enjoyed White Album and others in my twenties but began feeling disappointment in my thirties when I read Salvador. I thought: “Does she only have irony? Is that her sole tool?” After reading all of Norman Mailer’s messy attempts to be engaged with the world, Didion’s ironic distance felt dry and useless.
In the Review she writes about how, in the Obama era, irony is supposedly out. Her essay proves otherwise. She casts an ironic eye less on Obama than on the support he engenders:
Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.
I couldn't count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people's babies dressed in Obama gear.
Was innocence ever prized in this campaign? Youth, yes, but innocence? As for the consumerism and snapshots, well, maybe she needs new friends. I received no snapshots of babies in Obama gear during this election season. My friends were too busy, among other things, campaigning for Obama. Being engaged.
She goes on:
I couldn't count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade's war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see.
Must be tough to be one of Didion’s friends — to hear your words later mocked in her essays. Yet wasn’t Obama, certainly on the most basic of levels, transformational? Wasn’t he inspirational? It feels so small, her objections. She stands back, like in the famous David Levine caricature, holding her cigarette aloft, clad in her irony, while the world celebrates. It’s an easy stance because the world is full of fools and she quotes some of them. A commentator who said other nations now “want to be with us.” That’s how she ends her essay:
Imagining in 2008 that all the world's people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.
Maybe this was not the preferred way of looking at it because “wanting to be with us” came from a commentator after someone else’s election, while “greeted with flowers” came from the highest officials in the Bush administration before their own invasion. The first, though clumsily phrased, was based upon evidence we could actually see: people around the world celebrating Obama’s victory. The second was based upon evidence the Bush administration didn’t let us see and which they wanted to see: Their policy dictating their evidence, rather than vice-versa. Maybe that’s part of why Didion's way is not the preferred way of looking at it.
Irony isn’t out; it’s simply, as always, an easy way out.