Joan Didion Is Still Alive
so are you and so am I
Yesterday the winds of social media brought me to Brainpickings article titled “Joan Didion on Self-Respect” which, given my complete and utter lack of it for myself, I gravitated toward like a kid toward ice cream.
Maria Papova, who is a Soviet born badass and makes Brainpickings, pulled an essay from Didion’s 1968 essay anthology “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” called ‘On Self Respect.’
Ho’ baby, what an essay.
Highlights of the highlights in Brainpickings:
To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.
Reminders abound of our own inadequacies, reflected in the fun house mirrors of the digital and real alike, making for each of us not a bed as much as an overflowing house, hoarded beyond the brim with our own failings and darkness, all the ways we have failed each other and ourselves. Going to bed is, at present, my only reprieve from the daily self flagellation, the reminding myself of how much I have let down everyone around me.
There’s a voice in me now that says ‘stop playing the victim.’ I hate that voice, but alas he is there. He says - stand up, be a man, don’t you see what ol’ Joanie is saying? She says get up and have some god damn self respect! Have a cigarette if you need one, maybe drink a scotch, ride a horse, whatever you need but stop wallowing.
I wonder if ol’ JoanieD would agree.
I also wonder about JoanieD as a character on Jersey Shore, surrounded by GymTanLaundry bros and gals, smoking her cigarette, spitting pithy truths for all to hear.
Note to self: Consider writing fan fiction of Jersey Shore with Joan Didion as a character.
Anyways, she continues:
Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.
Interesting. Keep talking…
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.
I feel both sides of this, intensely and annoyingly so. There is anger about the truth of it, a questioning of why I can’t respect myself when others tell me there is so much to respect, so much to love. And yet that has never seemed like much use, as far as useful habits go. Quite the contrary, in fact, I have found that act of disrespecting oneself, of waging war against the self, a way of pushing oneself past the point of comfort, decency, and possibility into the great and mystical land of the impossible, the land where the greats of history dare to go and reap the benefits for all to see. This is what I’ve quested for since a youth, to achieve the impossible, that which no one else thought could be done. Where it has gotten me is a subject for my biographers, several of whom I have already contacted, none of whom have yet to respond to my calls.
Note to self: reach back out to biographers, this time with more vigor and aplomb.
Note to self: Look up aplomb and make sure it means what you think it means.
Really, though, I feel all of this in ways that inspire the gentle parts of my own self to move toward something else. If I cannot love myself, perhaps I can at the very least start by respecting myself. In doing so, I’d finally stop believing and living by the mantra Woody Allen (may he RIP) blabbed through at the beginning of Annie Hall, citing Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member.”
Fun fact about that quote: Marx originally cited it as the reason why he was leaving a country club in Beverly Hills called The Friar’s Club. For that and more, check out this absurdly detailed and well cited investigation on quoteinvestigator.com. What a world we live in.
Perhaps then, ‘the work’ as my friends in the self-help world say, is to learn to respect yourself? I am not sure and am definitely not brave enough to try and do such a thing here in the public square (note: I’ve shared this blog with two people), but I know that this is a start and that’s a whole lot.
I’ll end with a final quote from the Didion piece:
It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.
I am done running, though that reminds me, I do have a few letters that need responding. And so it goes, on and on and on.
Today is Joan Didion’s birthday. She’s 85 years old, a legend among us.