First Lady of Prose to Speak at Tulane Tonight

Renowned essayist, memoirist, novelist, screenwriter Joan Didion will read selections from her work tonight at 7 pm in McAlister Auditorium at Tulane University. Doors open at 6 pm, and the event is free and open to the public.

I’ve recently read Didion’s The White Album, in which every essay is incredibly fresh and well-crafted. In the title piece, she progresses from her own psychological “alienation” experienced “shortly before [she] was named a Los Angeles Times ‘Woman of the Year,'” into her fascination with The Doors, particularly with Jim Morrison (14-15). As she admits, “on the whole my attention was only  minimally engaged by the preoccupations of rock-and-roll bands (I had already heard about acid as a transitional stage and also about the Maharishi and even about Universal Love, and after a while it all sounded like marmalade skies to me), but The Doors were different, The Doors interested me. The Doors seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation” (21).

Her connection to Morrison’s lyrics enhances the revelation of her own emotional solitude. One might expect a 60s narrative  to purport the benefits of acid as eye-flinging, presumption-wringing, fire-singing transport. Yet Didion rejects the “marmalade” sugar-coating reality, and presents The Doors as individuals with personal mental depth. When Morrison arrives late to a rehearsal, Didion notes that “the curious aspect of [his] arrival was this: no one acknowledged it” (24). This is not the “I am he as you are he as you are me as we are all together” scene; instead, she zooms in upon an active force in the 60s counterculture, comprised of persons who maintain their individualities, but seem to struggle against their image as band; that is, their image as one entity. As Didion says, “there was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever. It would be some weeks before The Doors finished recording this album: I did not see it through” (25).

Didion advocates her own psychological privacy by subtly representing a group who records, tours, lives as a group, but remain separate in significant ways. And it seems that that contradiction between individuality and entity induce a certain level of madness, especially as Morrison “studies flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowers it to the fly of his black vinyl pants” (25). It is as though Didion smirks to her readers, my life may have been “maintained for the present by a variety of defense mechanisms including intellectualization, obsessive-compulsive devices, projection, etc, etc,” but at least I never pyro-ed my crotch (14).

Indeed, Didion successfully crafts her own inner contradicitons into a relevant cohesive Album. No where is this mastery more beautifully symbolized as in the fluidity of “Holy Water,” which details Didion’s “reverence” for water and its astounding mobility (59). As she affirms, “the water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is.” She goes on to visit “the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project” in Sacramento, where she learns that “so much water is moved around California by so many different agencies that maybe only the movers themselves known on any given day whose water is where” (60).

The metaphorical resonance of water’s proprietorship enhances the fluidity of Didion’s identity as writer: the diverse essays in this collection present Didion as mother, psychiatric patient, political journalist, wife, traveler, movie correspondent, funeral attendee, etc. Just as water is compartmentalized, claimed by different vendors in different locations, so, too, is “Didion” self-sectionalized— and it is her ability to flow effortlessly through a variety of selves that makes Joan Didion the widely-accomplished writer she is. Is it any wonder then that she “wanted to be the one, that day [in Sacramento], who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile?” —that she “want[s] it still? (66)”

Didion’s visit marks the continuation of the annual Great Writers Series, sponosered by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. She is the Series’ third honoree, following Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison.


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