The Joan Didion Reading Series was kicked off last Tuesday with Tulane English Professor Michelle Kohler’s lecture “Where She Was From: Joan Didion and the Conundrum of Place.” The series will continue on March 17th and again on April 1st, in anticipation of Joan Didion’s appearance on April 6th, as part of Tulane University’s Great Writers Series.
In her lecture, Professor Kohler discusses Didion’s “Where I Was From,” as a story of things that “do not add up.” As the author herself puts it, it is “The California Conundrum;” Manifest Destiny, the mecca of Liberty, capitalism, the story of a few powerful individuals. Didion’s work is an examination of what Professor Kohler refers to as “one’s own place,” and claims in the end is an ultimately impossible task.
Kohler meditates on Didion’s voice throughout the novel, as confused, “muddled,” sorting, exploring. The author poses riddles, and makes the conscious decision to confuse, not to inform. Didion’s knowledge of California can never be whole, it seems, because she is making judgments and observations from a biased angle, she cannot see clearly because she is amidst it all. As Didion writes,
“Such stories are artlessly told. There survives in their repetition a problematic elision or inflation, a narrative flaw, a problem with point of view: the actual observer, or camera eye, is oftern hard to locate” (p. 30)
Kohler references Emerson and the famous transparent eyeball, as evidence of our inability to have, or in Joan Didion’s case write with, an absolute view of our own environment. She argues that, “without an omniscient narrator we are left with only romantic claims.” And romantic claims as they may be, alive and well in Didion’s “muddled” work are countless moments of her trademark, razor-sharp clarity.
By the end of the lecture, we are left with the question at the heart of Didion’s work: can we ever really know the place we are from? The title alone, “Where I Was From,” identifies an uncertainty that exists within the relationship between our identities and our roots, our past and our present. And if we know anything about Didion, we know that she leaves California and joins the many that continue the story of their lives in New York City. My opinion? We can never really know a place until we have left it
The Joan Didion Reading Series will continue on March 17th at noon and April 1st at 6 pm in Tulane University’s Cudd Hall. Joan Didion will speak at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium on Monday, April 6th at 7 pm. Both events are free and open to the public. We hope to see you all there!