The Unclosed Circles in Life – Joan Didion Anthology

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review and essay on a recent Joan Didion anthology which I recommend to any Didion fan or writer. A couple nuggets worth quoting.

On objectivity:

“There was the sense that…” Soon enough, declarations in this vein would become a signature move in Didion’s work as a journalist. Boldly, she would mix authority and impressionism, the objective-sounding “there was” with the far more elusive “sense”—a transient perception, usually attributable to one perceiving mind. And in so doing, she would come up against one of the key problems in American nonfiction prose in the last half-century. She herself would help to formulate the problem, in fact, and she has never stopped trying—not to solve it, for there may be no solution, but to stay in its challenging presence.

The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?

Reminds me of Jay Rosen‘s line that “objectivity is the view from nowhere”. I always tell people that the best way to be objective is to disclose your biases, not suffocate them.

On the evolution of self, as prompted by Didion’s visit to her daughter’s school:

This pushes her back to all the old questions about how time works to form, and re-form, and deform, the self. How does each new phase of life follow from the previous one? Logically, or through a sudden discontinuity? Do we leave crucial parts of ourselves in the past, and count on forgetting who we used to be? Or the opposite: do we draw strength from the false belief that we’re changing and growing, when in fact we’re stubbornly staying the same?

Didion in her own words:

I suppose that what I really wanted to say that day at my daughter’s school is that we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us as a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.

2 comments on “The Unclosed Circles in Life – Joan Didion Anthology
  • Great stuff Ben, and great quote by Rosen. He was my (amazing) professor for my blogging class, and we did a ground-breaking report on the best blogging newspapers for the class.

    Google “Best Blogging Newspapers” (it’s the first link) if you’re interested.

    Rosen always stressed that the best blogging newspaper writers were those that a) tried to first recognize their bias, and b) made sure they tried to heed the comments that opposed them and address them in the best possible way.

    Which is a great way to strive for an objective discussion.

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