Joan Didion Is Kind Of A Downer About The Election
Last night, I went to see an event at the NYPL to celebrate the New York Review of Books' 45th birthday. It was a and featuring a distinguished group of six panelists that included scholar Andrew Delbanco, writer Darryl Pinckney, and Joan Didion, the only woman on stage. The idea was for everybody to comment on the election and then speculate about what will happen in the future. Yeah, everyone was smart, many of them widely-admired writers and thinkers, and it was certainly interesting. But thank goodness for Joan.
While people tossed off cheap jokes about Palin and Rove — the past eight years and McCain's campaign were reduced to a gently farcical in-joke — Joan Didion was different. As anyone who's seen her speak knows, she's as physically self-contained as she is in manner: tiny, yes, but also uninterested in taking up much space with force of personality. When she speaks, it's flat, slow, straightforward: she never seems to enjoy hearing herself speak much. Unlike the other panelists, she'd prepared a written statement. Characteristically, it was detached, even cold. She started by describing the "unexpressable uneasiness" she and some others had felt early on in the campaign. Why? "We were getting what we wanted," she continued, meaning, a smart, qualified, decent candidate the Eastern elite could get behind. And yet the frenzy surrounding Obama made her uneasy — both the sense that he was a young person's candidate, "a generational thing we couldn't understand" and the unthinking embrace of "naivete transformed to hope, partisanism as consumerism." Didion bridled at the wanton use of "transformational" and said she couldn't count the number of times she heard the 60's evoked "by people who apparently had no memory that the 60s" didn't involve decking babies out in political onesies.
Didion was at pains to say that she did not think any of this was Obama's doing, nor to his tastes. He would, she speculated "welcome healthy realism" and achievable expectations. In our frenzy, we are doing him a disservice, expecting miracles "at a time when the nation can least afford easy answers." She recalled, the day after the election, an overexcited newscaster declaring that we now possess "the congratulations of all the nations." She likened this to the naivete of thinking we'd be regarded as beloved saviors in Iraq. But, she ended, "in the irony-free zone that our country has become, this is not what people wanted to hear."
Clearly, no one really did. At once, the other panelists were back to comparing Obama's election to the fall of the Berlin Wall (Pinckney), evoking Lincoln (Delbanco), celebrating "the passing away of religious tyranny" (Wills, I believe.) And they weren't wrong, of course, but the palpable self-congratulation in that room by some very fine minds was worrisome and uncomfortable and lacking in humility, and so Didion's measured caution was more reassuring than all the other rhetoric combined.
Afterwards I saw someone I knew slightly. She'd loved the event, found it wise, felt the panel had put into words all her feelings. "Joan Didion was kind of a downer, though," she said. The thing is that Didion, studying current euphoria with such a distanced eye but still able to feel moved, made me feel more optimistic then than anyone else.
That the Eastern elite could get behind. Why is this really ringing bells with me? More important, were these Didion's words or those of the post author? They sound like the dry and remorseless analysis I expect of Didion. I would like to read her prepared remarks - perhaps the NYRB will put them online. Her comparison of the reaction to Obama's election to the horrifically arrogant and self-destructive presumptions about the US invasion of Iraq strikes me as both accurate and prophetic. The irony-free zone that our country has become.
I trust Didion's eye for political truths and her unease does not make me optimistic in the slightest.