Brilliance and Blind Spots:
Rereading Joan Didion in This Hard American Winter of 2020
Gabrielle Bellot on the Seminal Essay, "On Self-Respect"
In 1961, shortly after having been hired by Vogue, Joan Didion—then in her late twenties—composed one of the essays she would become best-known for, a short, yet surprisingly capacious meditation on self-respect. “Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception,” she mused in the piece, which was simply titled “On Self-Respect,” and would later appear in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her seminal collection of essays from her Vogue years. It is difficult to truly lie to ourselves, Didion reflected, because what helps in our lies to others will fail with ourselves; if it may seem easy to imagine the magic that might trick someone around us, there are far fewer spells in our grimoires that can truly deceive ourselves.
Didion knew this well, and coming to understand that we are flawed, she suggested, was like becoming an adult, like shedding the “innocence” of her childhood naivete. Respecting oneself, for her, required that we learn that we do not deserve any and everything—and that what we think about ourselves is more important than what others think of us. Even just subconsciously, we often have some sense that the things we tell ourselves to survive are true or false, stars that will lead us out of the night’s deserts or illusions, ignes fatui, of the heart, that we desperately wish were real; to survive with dignity, she suggests, we must face those midnight deserts earnestly, honestly.
“The charms that work on others,” Didion continues on this theme, “count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions… The dismal fact,” she says near the end of her paragraph in a simple but powerful coda, “is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others.” Didion then follows this up with a lovely, powerful passage about what self-respect really is:
There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.
Here, Didion lays to rest the idea that self-respect is a kind of spiritual panacea that takes way all of our problems. Instead, it is something we must find internally, a treaty we make with ourselves to accept who and what and where we are.
At the start of 2020, I find myself thinking so often of Didion’s subtle, simple, but striking essay: how it captures something of the zeitgeist, something of the strangeness and uncertainty of 2020, in ways both good and bad. What does it mean to practice self-respect in a year that already feels tumultuous and terrifying in its uncertainty? A year where we have already been pushed, irrationally, to the brink of an international, even global, war, both with other countries and with the climate? A year in which the specter of war still looms over everything because we cannot predict what horrors our mendacious, mercurial President will create next? A year Yeatsian in its already having fallen apart, even if we try to ignore the widening cracks?
How do I respect myself in a country that shows no respect to the rest of the world?
Rereading Didion’s work at the start of a year that already feels so precarious, I find myself having mixed feelings. The essay is both powerful and flawed. It is for everyone, and it is as deft as it is delightful; at the same time, it is clearly not written for everyone. Being able to see both its beauty and its blind spots—just as Didion says we must try to do for ourselves if we are to truly respect ourselves—is what makes “On Self-Respect” essential today. Its flaws are part of the reason the piece remains so relevant, a glistering diamond flecked with blood.
Didion’s essay—quietly seductive, enscorcelling, even—is a masterful testament to what was then a relatively novel form of nonfiction: New Journalism, or, more broadly, creative nonfiction. New Journalism sought to reshape how readers imagined the news. It used the techniques of fiction—narrative, narrative structures, point of view, deep characterization—to present nonfiction stories, so that reading a piece of New Journalism might, at times, feel indistinguishable from reading a short story or novel. These pieces weren’t afraid to be memorable for their style.What does it mean to practice self-respect in a year that already feels tumultuous and terrifying in its uncertainty?
Remarkably, Didion crafted the piece to fill magazine space after another writer failed to deliver something on the same subject. She had little time; the issue was about to go to press. She “improvised” it in “two sittings,” as Tracy Daugherty noted. If that were not enough, Didion, as Vogue later revealed, composed “On Self-Respect” “not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.”
Some of Didion’s entrancing sentences are due to the influence of Allene Talmey, her editor at Vogue, whose perfectionism helped shape some of Didion’s style. Talmey was tenacious, insisting that her writers find “shocking” verbs and precise, concise language. “At first she wrote captions,” Talmey said of working with Didion. “I would have her write 300 to 400 words and then cut it back to 50. We wrote long and published short and by doing that Joan learned to write.”
Unlike some visionless editors today—those who, to my chagrin, seem to believe that charmless, indistinguishable, highly Americanized writing is all that can ever work on the Internet—Talmey did not force Didion to write mechanically; instead, she taught the Californian to find unique, even poetic paths in her work by using succinctness as a constraint. Didion’s lyrical imagery is as much a testament to her skill as to Talmey’s strict, yet open editorial ethos.
The beauty of the essay, though, is also due to its insights, which are somehow both accessible and complex all at once. “To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth,” Didion writes near the end of the essay, “which, for better or for worse, 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.” Self-respect allows us to live freely and fully.
Didion’s next point is essential: that we must not let the expectations of others determine our worth, or who we are, how we are shaped, what paths we walk. To do that is to live a walking death. This is wrong, Didion argues, because we must find self-validation if we are to have self-respect:
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 notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give….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.
As women, we are expected, so often, to give, to live in the contours of others’ expectations. We are expected to smile, to please, to quietly and unquestioningly exist, to not step out of line by raising voices or points.
When we fail to exist as this sexist ideal, we are branded with scarlet terms, like the one our inarticulate President favors: nasty woman. If you are a trans woman, to boot, your womanhood may be questioned as well; if you are interrupting a man in a meeting, you must be a man yourself, the transphobic paradigm goes. We can be “good” women, or not women at all.
To have self-respect in our oh-so-progressive world, then, is to risk being attacked with misogynistic epithets, or to risk not being labeled a woman at all. We’ve come so far, in some ways, yet here I am, writing the same words so many others have before me, because these same words still need to be shouted today.
For all its power, Didion’s essay is also problematic, though subtly. It is written with a casual “we” that implies that all readers can accept its conclusions, and while using a universal “we” is not bad if done with nuance, the issue is that Didion assumes that all readers will essentially see the world the way she does. The essay is less overtly for those readers who cannot be sure that they can always trust their self-perceptions, as Didion never seems directly aware that people’s perceptions can differ drastically.
Didion’s essay began by reflecting on a seemingly trivial event—not getting into Phi Beta Kappa. I think of the pain of deeper events that force us to practice self-respect: of those of us who live paycheck to paycheck, of those of us who have been kicked out of home and must fend for themselves, of those of us who live in a nightmarescape of agonies or uncertainties. Self-respect is possible in all of these cases, but the stakes and difficulty for obtaining it differ, and I wish the essay considered readers with harsher circumstances more clearly.
I think, too, of what Esme Wang, for example, wrote of so disarmingly and devastatingly in The Collected Schizophrenias, of the “bleak abyss” of fear that being unable to trust one’s perceptions can create. Wang writes boldly of something akin to Didion, of having self-respect by being real about what the schizophrenias are and what it means to take a stand and not succumb to that abyss of terror—but Didion seems unable to understand that her advice, while still applicable, is more complicated for some of us.
The most striking example of this tendency appears in a passage that invokes Native Americans in a way that, due to the comparison’s negativity, seems to imply that Native Americans were not the essay’s implicit readers. Didion’s essay casually presents Native Americans as a symbol of hostility in a comparison that feels jarringly tone-deaf. “In a diary kept during the winter of 1846,” Didion writes,
an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me.
This passage is complex, and I was startled the first time I read it. On the one hand, Didion is using “Indians” as a comparison drawn from Cornwall’s notebook to make a broader point about having “character” in the face of risk. Cornwall, moreover, was Didion’s family on her mother’s side, and Cornwall was literally describing what happened. And, to be sure, Didion would write more compassionately about civil rights in America in later essays, as in some of those collected in The White Album.
On the other hand, however, Didion is doing much more. She is casually associating “Indians” with wildness and danger, a tendency that harkens back to old racist, colonialist assumptions in which people like me—anyone non-white—represented danger. Native Americans are deployed here not as human beings, but as a simple symbol of danger that Didion casually assumes her readers will both understand and embrace. And what is most telling is that Didion seems entirely unaware of this; she is not out to expressly denigrate brown and black people, but to denigrate us, instead, by her casual use of demeaning tropes. She could have chosen any image to represent hostility and hardship; that she chose this one, so loaded with old, vile assumptions, is telling. It doesn’t matter that the story comes from Didion’s family history; a writer more aware of how loaded it is to use brown people as a metaphor for violence, for something white people must overcome, would have chosen a different image. The casualness of the choice is precisely why it is dangerous.
These things, collectively, make Didion’s essay seem distant, even somewhat solipsistic; it is about her world as a white writer, which she assumes represents everyone else’s. The passage is certainly not representative of all of her writing on race, but it’s still worth noting. Ironically, this is what makes her piece so apt in 2020: that, for all its gemlike brilliance, it represents a subtle but salient failure, perhaps a subconscious one, to truly see the breadth and diversity of the world.
Despite this, it’s difficult not to want to love the essay. It makes me re-see the value of respecting myself, of learning to validating myself by gaining the strength to exist apart from the praise or attacks of others. As old-fashioned as the term is, it makes a case for that abstract thing, character. “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,” Didion writes beautifully at the end. “Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
Through self-respect, we find—eventually, hopefully, even if it is harder for some of us than others—what James’ protagonist cannot at the end of “The Turn of the Screw”: something true and firm that we can trust, because even if the image we see may scare us, we at least know it is real. I want to cling to this in a year that has begun so unsettled and unsettling. Self-respect—however we may find it—is how we begin to survive it, and how we begin to learn to truly respect others, in turn.