The other day, I pulled out the big Everyman edition of Joan Didion’s nonfiction, having been inspired to re-read “Goodbye to All That” by Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. Last night, I got round to it. I remembered the great story about “new faces” (“… there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men..”) but I had forgotten the profound, ab initio alienation.
I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and I knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there — but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.
Later, she puts on a seesaw some suggestive names that are also very specific, familiar to those brought up “in the East” (at that time: FAO Schwarz, Best & Co, the Biltmore clock, and Lester Lanin) and the suggestive terms that are complete abstractions, having figured in her Sacramento dreams of New York (Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue: “Money,” “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters.”). To her,
New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane: one does not “live” at Xanadu.
Nevertheless, she kept putting off leaving, and was almost done in by the place. The sojourn, intended to last just a few months, went on for eight years. Didion finally did leave when her new husband, John Gregory Dunne, decided to relocate to Los Angeles. It’s hard not to think that he rescued her, because she was reduced to spending days in her underfurnished apartment, incapacitated.
I had never before understood what “despair” meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year.
I felt something very like this in Houston, and at about the same age. My solution was law school, in a faraway place. I have not been to Houston since Megan’s graduation from high school, in 1991, and I have no plans to pay another visit in this life. That’s by way of saying that I understand the roots of Joan Didion’s despair to have been her living in the wrong place, an unreal place, a place too imaginary for genuine responsibility.
I went to Houston not because I had ever dreamed of it but because it was convenient: my parents lived there when I graduated from college. I meant to stay only a short while, but I got a job at the radio station right away, and only left the job to which I was promoted when I left for law school all those years later. In between, there was marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and, for a while, despair. I never think about it unprompted. Some of the people whom I knew during that time have, in becoming Facebook friends, ceased to be people whom I knew during that time.
Nobody knows what it is like to live in any town without having actually lived there; but it helps to arrive without the baggage of romantic expectations. Every time I see Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, I understand how hard this must have been, and might still be, for some people.
Something from The Attack of the Blob that seems well worth savoring (and Guess Who isn’t mentioned): of Carol Gilligan, Hannah Fenichel Pitkin writes,
Gilligan speaks accordingly of two competing “voices” in morality: one emphasizing general principles, the other emphasizing personal attention and care, the former more frequent among men, the latter among women. Although it is easy to jump to the conclusion — as numerous interpreters have — that the feminine tendency is more moral, the masculine tendency ruthless or hypocritical, Gilligan holds that a mature morality is the same for all, regardless of gender, that it requires combining principled impartiality with sensitive attention to particular persons and cases. What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality. Morally immature men tend to a defensive, macho pretense at objectivity and impersonal authority, immature women to a reluctance to judge, take a principled stand, or defend their own views in the face of opposition. Reaching morality by different psychic routes, the two genders characteristically find themselves in different places along the way: men too coldly abstracted, women too abjectly adjustable.
This is wonderful. “What differs by gender is not morality but characteristic ways of falling short of morality.” It’s precisely what I mean when I say that there is no important difference between men and women.
Inevitably, The Attack of the Blob has led me to question the meaning of “society,” as applied to a mass of people. Romans invented the word (societas) to describe groups of people who got together to deal with a particular matter, and this sense survives in the names of the Royal Society and the ASPCA. The members of this kind of society can be made known to the society’s leadership, and possibly to all other members as well. There can be no such familiarity among members of “society” in the broad sense. Suddenly, the term seems to me to be worse than useless, because to talk about it is to animate an abstraction.
“Civil society,” however, is an extremely useful idea. It connotes the specific groups that recognize and share conventions and mores. People who live on Manhattan Island — not the same as the group of people who ride the subways in New York City. People who fly in commercial airliners. People who live in a gated community. Even incarcerated people. The conventions and mores of any group develop over time, and when they break down, because too many members disregard them, that particular branch of civil society stops functioning — something only very young people are likely to regard as a favorable development. You learn the rules of a given civil society by paying attention to how its members behave — how they act, that is, when they are doing everyday things to which they may not be paying much attention at all. Every now and then, you will run into a scold, someone who overtly calls attention to someone else’s breach of the rules, but civil society is hostile to few things more than it is hostile to violence of any kind, so the scolds themselves are usually in breach as well, and not only of civil society’s rules. The foundation of civil society is the belief that no one is in charge of it. What looks to one person like an infraction may simply be the way of the future. Civil society does not exist to act.
Everything that you do in civil society sets an example to other members. Setting a good example was highly esteemed among Victorian gentlemen, but they didn’t get it quite right, and moderns were quick to abandon the practice as empty hypocrisy. Setting an example works only if you set out to set an example to yourself, an honestly good example. You may be grateful that “nobody noticed” a lapse on your part, but you may never be relieved.