Salvador by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband spent a few weeks in El Salvador in 1982. It was a dangerous place to be. Salvador is a short book about their visit. The book begins with a passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is fitting, given what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982:

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning “El Diario de Hoy” and “La Prensa Grafica” carry cautionary stories….A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight “desconocidos”, unknown men….Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men … their faces partially destroyed by bayonets….

This is how the book ends:

In the week that I am completing this report, … the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in Sal Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International, …. NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police carrying submachine guns; fifteen leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups opposing the government of El Salvador were disappeared; … [the American ambassador] said that he was “reasonably certain” that these disappearances had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders; … and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had “turned the corner” in its campaign for political stability in Central America.

I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion’s journalism over the years, but have often felt I didn’t understand the point she was making. In an article called “The Picture In Her Mind”, Paul Gleason agrees that her “political meaning” often “remains obscure”. But he has an explanation:

Didion’s journalism from the Sixties and Seventies seems newly relevant because then (as now) American history had taken a few alarming turns, and everyone wanted to know why and what to do about it. While crossing the nation on book tour she heard the same question from every TV and radio host: “Where are we heading?” Today, the questions remain the same. “Why is this happening?” And: “What can we do to change it?” But Didion regarded answers to these questions with skepticism, bordering on contempt. At the heart of grand narratives about who we are and where we are heading she saw self-deception in the face of meaningless disorder. Instead of trying to change the world, Didion was content, as she writes in “South and West”, “to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind”….

Didion had concluded “something about the stories people live by”:

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In Salvador, she reports what it was like to be in El Salvador in 1982, but makes it clear that what people there commonly referred to as “the situation” was too senseless to make sense of.

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Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

The title pretty much sums up the book. In five chapters, the author discusses five dangerous illusions that beset the United States. They’re the illusions of:

  • Literacy — crap like professional wrestling and reality TV and the distractions of celebrity culture in general)
  • Love — the popularity of pornography, especially the kind that demeans women
  • Wisdom — how colleges have been turned into glorified vocational schools
  • Happiness — the “positive psychology” movement that offers false promises and promotes conformity
  • America — how the “greatest democracy” on Earth is actually a militaristic empire in the service of corporate capitalism.

He often exaggerates how bad things are, but the book serves as a good corrective to the idea that this is a healthy nation. Some of the negativity derives from the fact that Empire of Illusion was published in 2009 during the financial turmoil of the Great Recession. For example, Hedges casts doubt on the idea that the Obama administration would make any improvement to our health care system, such as making sure that more of us have adequate health insurance.

Even if he overstates some of the problems, he criticisms all have a basis in reality. A brief sample:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state…. There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what  we do. We are blinded, enchanted and finally enslaved by illusion…..[p. 182].

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode. As the collapse continues and our suffering mounts, we yearn, like World Wrestling Entertainment fans, or those who confuse pornography with love, for the comfort, beauty and reassurance of illusion….And the lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the economic meltdown, or the immindent danger of multiple pollution and soaring overpopulation, are drowned out by arenas of excited fans….[pp. 189-190].

I expect Mr. Hedges would offer our demagogic president’s scary political rallies as further confirmation of his thesis.

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

Here Is New York by E. B. White

E. B. White was a longtime writer for The New Yorker, although he is probably better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He was also a co-author of that little book we were told to buy in school, The Elements of Style, often referred to as “Strunk and White”. In 1948, White wrote a long essay about New York City for Holiday magazine. Even with an introduction by White’s son-in-law, the writer Roger Angell, it makes for a very short book. Today, a more accurate title for Here Is New York would be That Was Manhattan.

As White points out, Manhattan never stands still, so particular places White describes are no longer there. I didn’t think the writing was as astonishingly good as some have said, but White gets the feeling of Manhattan, even today, exactly right. I won’t offer a summary. I’ll just quote one line: “It is a miracle that New York works at all”.