Reading Matters

Didion’s tone sours her insights in ‘South and West: From a Notebook’

I find myself dipping into Joan Didion’s “South and West,” – I should say, her long-awaited notes on the South (and West), notes taken during a tour back in the 1960s – and coming away feeling irritated with her.

Why does she have to be so condescending, so arch, so judgmental? She reminds me of my younger self when I thought being arch and slightly belittling, even snide, sounded sophisticated, wise. It doesn’t sound sophisticated to me now. It sounds young and immature and very unwise.

Here’s what she says about New Orleans in her book due in early March:

“When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style. As it happens, these particular preoccupations all involve distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned, but in New Orleans such distinctions are the basis of much conversation, and lend that conversation its peculiar childlike cruelty and innocence.

“In New Orleans, they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, never still, as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay. In New Orleans, the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.

“The effect is lively and avaricious and intensely self-absorbed, a tone not uncommon in colonial cities, and the principal reason I find such cities invigorating.”

As I type this, her words sink deeper into my psyche, and I see that she makes valid points. Perhaps it’s her tone that sours her thoughts, sloshes them with something dank as ditch water.