Saturday, May 23, 2020

Joan Didion's 'On Morality': The Extremist Test

There's a Bob Dylan lyric in Highlands that always makes me smile: "She said, "you don't read women authors, do you?"" I typically don't. Despite what I'm sure would be Moonbeam and Steinem's insightful CNN-style psychological "analysis" to the contrary, that has less to do with the Holy Uterus than the fact (and it is a fact) that women rarely write anything I'm interested in reading. It's the same with standup comedy. I'm not all that interested in a narcissistic "female perspective." I'm not required by social law to interest myself in such things, either. Because, you know, I'm a man. Sue me. But only after you read a volume or two on middle age suicide and the male prostate.

I mercifully digress.

There is one very significant exception: Joan Didion. I bought We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a non-fiction collection, with Orwell's. She's fantastic. Slouching Toward Bethlehem's essays/articles are on par with Mencken's, if less vitriolic and venomously entertaining! On Self-Respect and On Morality are worth finding and devouring.

Here's an excerpt from On Morality, written in 1965. That's significant, as you'll see. Crusading moral certitude isn't new. We were hatched in that fire; it's part of the American DNA and what makes us particularly susceptible to propaganda and makes this technologically amplified conflict between our moralistic ideological religions so dangerous. Didion's Lionel Trilling quote deserves its own space and I literally squealed when I saw she used the word, "agitprop!" And the last paragraph? Ooof! We need a test for those infected with the Extremist Virus. Joan Didion has it:


"There is some sinister hysteria in the air out here tonight, some hint of the monstrous perversion to which any idea can come. "I followed my own conscience." "I did what I thought was right." How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murders? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on that most primitive level—our loyalties to those we love — what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience? ("Tell me," a rabbi asked Daniel Bell when he said, as a child, that he did not believe in God. "Do you think God cares?”) At least some of the time, the world appears to me as a painting by Hieronymous Bosch; were I to follow my conscience then, it would lead me out onto the desert with Marion Faye, out to where he stood in The Deer Park looking east to Los Alamos and praying, as if for rain, that it would happen: “…let it come and clear the rot and the stench and the stink, let it come for all of everywhere, just so it comes and the world stands clear in the white dead dawn.”
“Of course you will say that I do not have the right, even if I had the power, to inflict that unreasonable conscience upon you; nor do I want you to inflict your conscience, however reasonable, however enlightened, upon me. (“We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes,” Lionel Trilling once wrote. “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow man the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”) That the ethic of conscience is intrinsically insidious seems scarcely a revelatory point, but it is one raised with increasing infrequency; even those who do raise it tend to segue with troubling readiness into the quite contradictory position that the ethic of conscience is dangerous when it is "wrong" and admirable when it is "right."

“You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing—beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code—what is "right" and what is "wrong," what is "good" and what "evil." I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of "morality" seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation…There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to "believe" in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in the New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with "morality." Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there. -1965-”

—Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, On Morality