The Books: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, by Joan Didion

A third excerpt from the essay collection:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

One of Joan Didion’s masterpieces. It’s unlike a lot of her other writing, which can be quite openly analytical. In this, she only has a couple paragraphs of what I would call “diagnosis”, and that comes at the end when we already have been beaten down by the parade of anecdotes which comprise the essay. At the end, she the competent narrator re-asserts herself and tells us what she sees, beyond the surface details. It is for that reason that this is one of her most disturbing essays. I keep waiting for her to jump back in and arrange the narrative, I keep waiting for her to make sense of all of it. But she doesn’t, not until the end, and then when she does, her analysis is devastating. This was written in the spring of 1967, when things were going to hell. The first line of the piece is another echo of the Yeats poem referenced in the title: “The center was not holding.” Joan Didion, in her early 30s, was struck by the influx of runaways and drug addicts pouring into Haight Ashbury – it was front page news at the time. What is going on in San Francisco? Didion went up there to check it out. The piece is a collage of her interactions with various people she meets. The same people keep showing up, giving a sense of the meandering sameness of the “scene” in the Haight. She tries to talk to the cops about what’s going on, but doesn’t get very far. She watches street theatre. She hangs out with Grateful Dead fans. She hangs out at a place called The Warehouse, where a bunch of people are living collectively, and doing drugs. They come from all over. Nobody can really tell Didion what it is they are all after. Is it political change? These people, high as they all are, don’t seem capable of bringing about any kind of change whatsoever.

Life out there in the Haight seems temporary. The kids are all transplants from somewhere else. A very funny and insightful line, so typical of Didion is: “Almost everybody I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future.” She doesn’t do drugs, despite the constant offers of her new friends. She tells them she’s “unstable”. The prose Didion uses to describe the whole Haight scene is almost of a flat affect, no drama: “Here’s what happened. Here’s what I saw. Oh, and then this is what I saw next.” The paragraphs proceed in short square-like chunks, each anecdote self-contained. What can it all add up to?

Didion doesn’t ask that question, not until the end, but you can feel the question throughout. At the end of the essay (which is quite long), she talks about how the media is getting the story wrong. The media is focusing on the clothes, the music, the free-love, the drugs … Didion senses something much darker underneath. She senses a yearn for totalitarian rule, for sameness, which is a brilliant point and something almost no one at that time, in the thick of it, was seeing. It would be only two years before this “scene” came crashing to a halt, some say the 60s (at least symbolically) came to a halt, on August 9, 1969. The yearning for a totalitarian leader, the political and personal naiveté of the hippies, the sense that the middle class had gone off the rails if they were producing daughters who would follow a madman such as Charles Manson … Reading “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, it is not at all surprising that a Manson would emerge from the environment Didion describes.

But Didion didn’t know the end, when she wrote the piece. She was searching for something, searching for some kind of insight as to what those kids were doing hanging out in Golden Gate Park. She didn’t care if it made her sound like a fuddy-duddy to ask, “What is it you all are after?”

The answers she got were either totally inarticulate or articulate in a way that sounds totally insane to anyone who has any understanding of how the world actually works.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a deeply depressing piece. Didion sounds depressed in the prose, too. She doesn’t dismiss what was happening in the youth culture as unimportant or silly or stupid, which was a huge mistake made by a lot of observers at the time. She knew what was happening was important, but she also felt it was deeply disturbed. She felt it had nothing to do with drugs, and sex, and music, although that was what got all the attention by the gaga media at the time. It also didn’t have to do with Vietnam, although that was another misdiagnosis given out by observers. It was a failure of the society to pass on the rules of the game to the younger generation. It was a failure of the society to pass on the necessity of learning how to speak, use language, express yourself. She refers to the kids in Haight Ashbury as “children without words.”

Written from the thick of it, written while it was happening, Didion slices to the heart of it.

It’s hard to excerpt since it is so meanderingly episodic, but here’s one part.

Excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

It is a pretty nice evening and nothing much happening and Max brings his old lady, Sharon, over to the Warehouse. The Warehouse, which is where Don and a floating number of other people live, is not actually a warehouse but the garage of a condemned hotel. The Warehouse was conceived as total theater, a continual happening, and I always feel good there. What happened ten minutes ago or what is going to happen a half hour from now tends to fade from mind in the Warehouse. Somebody is usually doing something interesting, like working on a light show, and there are a lot of interesting things around, like an old Chevrolet touring car which is used as a bed and a vast American flag fluttering up in the shadows and an overstuffed chair suspended like a swing from the rafters, the point of that being that it gives you a sensory-deprivation high.

One reason I particularly like the Warehouse is that a child named Michael is staying there now. Michael’s mother, Sue Ann, is a sweet wan girl who is always in the kitchen cooking seaweed or baking macrobiotic bread while Michael amuses himself with joss sticks or an old tambourine or a rocking horse with the paint worn off. The first time I ever saw Michael was on that rocking horse, a very blond and pale and dirty child on a rocking horse with no paint. A blue theatrical spotlight was the only light in the Warehouse that afternoon, and there was Michael in it, crooning softly to the wooden horse. Michael is three years old. He is a bright child but does not yet talk.

This particular night Michael is trying to light his joss sticks and there are the usual number of people floating through and they all drift into Don’s room and sit on the bed and pass joints. Sharon is very excited when she arrives. “Don,” she cries, breathless. “We got some STP today.” At this time STP is a pretty big deal, remember; nobody yet knew what it was and it was relatively, although just relatively, hard to come by. Sharon is blond and scrubbed and probably seventeen, but Max is a little vague about that since his court case comes up in a month or so and he doesn’t need statutory rape on top of it. Sharon’s parents were living apart when last she saw them. She does not miss school or anything much about her pst, except her younger brother. “I want to turn him on,” she confided one day. “He’s fourteen now, that’s the perfect age. I know where he goes to high school and someday I’ll just go get him.”

Time passes and I lose the thread and when I pick it up again Max seems to be talking about what a beautiful thing it is the way Sharon washes dishes.

“Well it is beautiful,” Sharon says. “Everything is. I mean you watch that blue detergent blob run on the plate, watch the grease cut – well, it can be a real trip.”

Pretty soon now, maybe next month, maybe later, Max and Sharon plan to leave for Africa and India, where they can live off the land. “I got this little trust fund, see,” Max says, “which is useful in that it tells cops and border patrols I’m O.K., but living off the land is the thing. You can get your high and get your dope in the city, O.K., but we gotta get out somewhere and live organically.”

“Roots and things,” Sharon says, lighting another joss stick for Michael. Michael’s mother is still in the kitchen cooking seaweed. “You can eat them.”

Maybe eleven o’clock, we move from the Warehouse to the place where Max and Sharon live with a couple named Tom and Barbara. Sharon is pleased to get home (“I hope you got some hash joints fixed in the kitchen,” she says to Barbara by way of greeting) and everybody is pleased to show off the apartment, which has a lot of flowers and candles and paisleys. Max and Sharon and Tom and Barbara get pretty high on hash, and everyone dances a little and we do some liquid projections and set up a strobe and take turns getting a high on that. Quite late, somebody called Steve comes in with a pretty, dark girl. They have been to a meeting of people who practice a Western yoga, but they do not seem to want to talk about that. They lie on the floor awhile, and then Steve stands up.

“Max,” he says, “I want to say one thing.”

“It’s your trip.” Max is edgy.

“I found love on acid. But I lost it. And now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.”

Max mutters that heaven and hell are both in one’s karma.

“That’s what bugs me about psychedelic art,” Steve says.

“What about psychedelic art,” Max says. “I haven’t seen much psychedelic art.”

Max is lying on a bed with Sharon, and Steve leans down to him. “Groove, baby,” he says. “You’re a groove.”

Steve sits down then and tells me about one summer when he was at a school of design in Rhode Island and took thirty trips, the last ones all bad. I ask why they were bad. “I could tell you it was my neuroses,” he says, “but fuck that.”

A few days later I drop by to see Steve in his apartment. He paces nervously around the room he uses as a studio and shows me some paintings. We do not seem to be getting to the point.

“Maybe you noticed something going on at Max’s,” he says abruptly.

It seems that the girl he brought, the dark pretty one, had once been Max’s girl. She had followed him to Tangier and now to San Francisco. But Max has Sharon. “So she’s kind of staying around here,” Steve says.

Steve is troubled by a lot of things. He is twenty-three, was raised in Virginia, and has the idea that California is the beginning of the end. “I feel it’s insane,” he says, and his voice drops. “This chick tells me there’s no meaning to life but it doesn’t matter, we’ll just flow right out. There’ve been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it’s going to happen.” He lights a cigarette for me and his hands shake. “Here you know it’s not going to.”

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.”

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12 Responses to The Books: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, by Joan Didion

  1. courtney says:

    thank you for this beautifully written post that I need to read this book. I’ve read The White Album and the Year of Magical Thinking but somehow kept putting this book off – no longer.

    • sheila says:

      Yeah, it’s a really good collection. It has Goodbye to All That, and then the John Wayne essay – some shorter ones, too, on Howard Hughes and other notable figures.

      Her take is so interesting, especially about those late 1960s years. She’s isolated from the fray, she looks on with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Same, too, with the women’s movement. She wasn’t much of a “joiner”.

      I love her piece on the freeways in LA – that’s in the White Album – do you remember that one? The whole “Diamond Lane” controversy of the LA freeway system. It’s hilarious, her observation of the bureaucratic decision-making and then the out-and-out chaos on the roads.

      • sheila says:

        And I’ve only read one of her novels – Play It As It Lays – bone-chilling. I have her other novels, just haven’t gotten around to them yet. I prefer her essays and reportage.

  2. Kent says:

    !!!DIDION!!! aka the author of Rainbow Road the screenplay for the Elvis/Babs version of A STAR IS BORN (1976) – A lost American feature film.

  3. JPK says:

    I’ve been enjoying all the great Joan Didion stuff. Thank you!

  4. Bybee says:

    Thank you so much for your Joan Didion posts. I can see what you mean about having a problem with excerpts, but you chose a good one. The last guy, Steve, reminds me of Maria in Play It As It Lays: “I don’t know. Something. Anything.”

    The first Joan Didion essay I ever read was “In Bed”, the one about her life with migraine headaches. This was a class assignment at university. I was hypnotized by her prose. My own head thudded and shimmered sickeningly, reading about her headaches. During the class discussion, most of the students were disinterested or thought that she was “taking on [exaggerating] too much.” I was appalled. I set out to find everything she’d written.

    Interestingly, when The Year of Magical Thinking came out, the opposite charge was leveled against her: in mourning her husband, she was “cold”, she wasn’t taking on [sad] enough. I’m beginning to think the world is divided into two groups: Those who appreciate Didion and those who don’t. So glad you’re in the first group, Sheila.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, man, that migraine piece. Yes! I’ve never had a migraine, but my head hurts reading that piece.

      It’s interesting the problems people have with her. John Lahr has been quite dismissive. I personally don’t think anyone has a right to judge how someone else’s grief comes out. You never know how you are going to react to a loss like that until it happens. Her description of how disoriented she was following her husband’s death … the courage it took to put it all down like that … it’s just wrenching.

      Still haven’t read the book about her daughter, but I will.

  5. sheila says:

    Bill isn’t interested in a conversation. This was his first comment on my site. The sentence he didn’t like comes in the first paragraph. I doubt he read further before firing off his missive, filled with dates to prove his irrelevant point. Or maybe he did read further and he didn’t like my implicit criticism of something he holds dear, the precious 60s generation.

    At any rate, he hasn’t returned, which is eloquent. He doesn’t want to talk. He certainly doesn’t want to listen.

    He’s a dime a dozen on the Internet.

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