genna gardini – performance scale (2017)

CN: Chronic illness; Multiple Sclerosis; graphic depictions of bodies and illness.

‘Performance Scale’ is a poem about Genna Gardini’s personal experience of being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It was adapted into a film by three people close to Gardini and personally affected by MS. The film was created as part of Gardini’s 2016 ICA National Fellowship project MS Independent: Diagnosis.

Written by Genna Gardini
Directed by Gary Hartley
Performed by Amy Louise Wilson
Filmed and edited by Francois Knoetze
A Horses’ Heads Production, created with the assistance of the Institute for Creative Arts.

‘Performance Scale’ was nominated by PEN SA for the 2015 New Voices Award. Read an interview with Genna about the poem here.

Performance Scale
The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind.
Joan Didion, The White Album.

1:

I spent so many years attacking my body,
finding fault in faint abundance, obsessing over every lack
that it didn’t surprise me when I woke up one morning
to discover that it was finally fighting me back.

2:

This was the year you kept killing all the machines you owned
and that is what we refer to as a “running motif”
(and that is what we refer to as “dramatic irony”).

3:

You’ll come to,
conked out on some strange cistern in a Southern Suburbs mall,
your legs hinging against the plastic billboard of the bathroom door,
angled in the jamb like damp cardboard
folded and forced into a full stop.

4:

This is paper as metaphor and limbs as punctuation.
This is the reverse of writing.

5:

You’ll find your phone lying, lesioned, next to you,
a fissure fresh down its crustacean container
like a phantom crack. Like a mime at a wall,
bucking but flat.

6:

You’re tipped against a nurse
whose prophylactic palm pats nerved and certain on your neck.
You have heard her tell the others that they are good girls.
You are not a good girl
because when she sets you straight on the mat, then the scale,
she only says, “Try not to hurl”, then
“You must make a note of your weight”.

7:

The zinging technology of your mouth
steams against the frosted door of the consultation room.

8:

She is warm and alive as an urn at the Church fete
and you are the Styrofoam cup
leaning at her tap.

9:

“Look at it this way, at least you’ll be skinny!”
is quite a funny thing to say to someone
when you think they could be dying.

10:

You began to let your bob grow unbidden,
split and wrought
because if a part of your physicality still chooses to thrive
who are you cut it short?

10:

You make these kinds of jokes.

11:

You are convinced that the nails and hair of a corpse
inch out past conclusion, intrepid as weeds, eternal as worms,
eyeless and edging in all directions, past even the last right
to scratch into life. This is poetry, I thought,
before I was told that I was wrong.

12:

You retract back into yourself, creating the illusion of growth,
moving like a skirt hitched above the knee, balking as if in shock
pressed against the back of the closest ablution block.

13:

At 27, I became blind in one eye
but didn’t realise, because I only notice my mouth.
I thought perhaps a crack had formed between my head
and the cheese-cloth membrane of my disbelief.

14:

Speaking is uncertain and pinpricked.
It is shrouded. It is grief.

15:

Every bad thing that’d happened to me before
was because a man had decided to teach me a lesson
and this is why, after I found out,
I had to reconsider atheism.

14:

You are turning a manuscript into a
fan with the bridging press of pleats.
You are not Keats.

15:

The good doctor made eye-contact with me for the whole beat
which I know is supposed to convey the meaningfulness of the moment
because of my expensive acting degree.

16:

Raisins injected with water.

17:

Thinned the way paint under the slow drip of turpentine is.

18:

I pick this bed because of its proximity to the TV. I am surrounded by women who are in various states of collapse. One spends each day lamenting the canteen’s slopped and unbroiled chicken ala king, sending voicenotes to her daughters to remember to let the cat in. The others cannot walk. I do not want to know them. I do not want to admit that I am one of them. At first, I shuffle, hesitantly, like it’s a character choice, until I realise I am not performing and the gimmick has stuck, gammy. My legs lurch and twitch beyond me.

19:

I look up and there is nothing.

I look down at my own arm, which the nurse has stuck so repeatedly, finding me false and veinless, that the blood clotted before it gathered, like I was a boring meeting they wanted to leave and this might be the exit.

I look up and she is staring straight at me.

Her face is wide and aimed. I pull out my earphones but she is whispering. I say her name. She is mouthing something and I do not know the words but I know that what she is saying is help me and I cannot even help myself

which is why I am plugged into a wall like a faulty Blackberry on charge
which is why I am connected to wet metal that looks like a clothes horse,
which is why I am making so many Joan Crawford wire hanger jokes.
This means help me.

I thumb the call button. The station, which perpindiculates next to us is unlike, myself, without staff. I use the IV as a cane and I call out but the movement of my voice is as interrupted as my legs, cramped, boned by pain. There is a sound here, it rings out, clean and to the side as a scalpel. Panic is a disinfected metal knife, it slices me from myself, each thought going into the brain instead of the mouth, bounced like an email sent to the incorrect address. The prospect of the seizure is thick and electric in her bones, I can see it. The day before, her family had come to visit. Two of them explained how this latest bout was caused of the evil thoughts she allowed to enter her head. She must lose them. My own – which buzzed, a constant cortex, old and reliable as a Cortina that has been veering for years, cutting breaks and ties with whoever passed me by – stay stuck. I wish I had a demon but I don’t, I have my legs and I run past corn rows of beds to find some assistance

20:

towards the end.

joan didion, interviewed by linda kuehl in 1977

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Joan Didion that appeared in The Paris Review No. 74, Fall-Winter 1978. She talks about the performative violence of writing, and of the sometimes paralysing self-consciousness that attends it.

Reading her responses, I identified so personally that at points it felt like she could have been writing my own thoughts, down to the constrictions of that harsh Protestant ethic. But I’m not as strong as Joan. The nausea tends to silence me… except when it’s overwhelming: then, I vomit it out, sometimes all over unsuspecting passersby!

I especially liked what she says about how growing up in a dangerous landscape can affect one’s engagement with the world. I have often wondered whether I would be at all like I am if I hadn’t grown up in the turmoil of ’80s and ’90s South Africa. It wasn’t just about the weather, here.

Joan Didion, 1977. Photo: REX FEATURES

Joan Didion, 1977. Photo: REX FEATURES

INTERVIEWER

You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.

JOAN DIDION

It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

INTERVIEWER

Are you conscious of the reader as you write? Do you write listening to the reader listening to you?

DIDION

Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.

INTERVIEWER

So when you ask, as you do in many nonfiction pieces, “Do you get the point?” you are really asking if you yourself get the point.

DIDION

Yes. Once in a while, when I first started to write pieces, I would try to write to a reader other than myself. I always failed. I would freeze up.

INTERVIEWER

You say you treasure privacy, that “being left alone and leaving others alone is regarded by members of my family as the highest form of human endeavor.” How does this mesh with writing personal essays, particularly the first column you did for Life where you felt it imperative to inform the reader that you were at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in lieu of getting a divorce?

DIDION

I don’t know. I could say that I was writing to myself, and of course I was, but it’s a little more complicated than that. I mean the fact that eleven million people were going to see that page didn’t exactly escape my attention. There’s a lot of mystery to me about writing and performing and showing off in general. I know a singer who throws up every time she has to go onstage. But she still goes on.

INTERVIEWER

Did any writer influence you more than others?

DIDION

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve called Henry James an influence.

DIDION

He wrote perfect sentences, too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes. You could drown in them. I wouldn’t dare to write one. I’m not even sure I’d dare to read James again. I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if some of your nonfiction pieces aren’t shaped as a single Jamesian sentence.

DIDION

That would be the ideal, wouldn’t it. An entire piece—eight, ten, twenty pages—strung on a single sentence. Actually, the sentences in my nonfiction are far more complicated than the sentences in my fiction. More clauses. More semicolons. I don’t seem to hear that many clauses when I’m writing a novel.

INTERVIEWER

You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

DIDION

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

INTERVIEWER

The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

DIDION

Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities. Unless you’re Henry James.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if your ethic—what you call your “harsh Protestant ethic”—doesn’t close things up for you, doesn’t hinder your struggle to keep all the possibilities open.

DIDION

I suppose that’s part of the dynamic. I start a book and I want to make it perfect, want it to turn every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it. That’s very discouraging. I hate the book at that point. After a while I arrive at an accommodation: Well, it’s not the ideal, it’s not the perfect object I wanted to make, but maybe—if I go ahead and finish it anyway—I can get it right next time. Maybe I can have another chance.

INTERVIEWER

Have any women writers been strong influences?

DIDION

I think only in the sense of being models for a life, not for a style. I think that the Brontës probably encouraged my own delusions of theatricality. Something about George Eliot attracted me a great deal. I think I was not temperamentally attuned to either Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf.

INTERVIEWER

What are the disadvantages, if any, of being a woman writer?

DIDION

When I was starting to write—in the late fifties, early sixties—there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O’Connor, of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I’m not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved—I suppose—deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.

INTERVIEWER

Advantages?

DIDION

The advantages would probably be precisely the same as the disadvantages. A certain amount of resistance is good for anybody. It keeps you awake.

INTERVIEWER

What misapprehensions, illusions and so forth have you had to struggle against in your life? In a commencement address you once said there were many.

DIDION

All kinds. I was one of those children who tended to perceive the world in terms of things read about it. I began with a literary idea of experience, and I still don’t know where all the lies are. For example, it may not be true that people who try to fly always burst into flames and fall. That may not be true at all. In fact people do fly, and land safely. But I don’t really believe that. I still see Icarus. I don’t seem to have a set of physical facts at my disposal, don’t seem to understand how things really work. I just have an idea of how they work, which is always trouble. As Henry James told us.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to live your life on the edge, or, at least, on the literary idea of the edge.

DIDION

Again, it’s a literary idea, and it derives from what engaged me imaginatively as a child. I can recall disapproving of the golden mean, always thinking there was more to be learned from the dark journey. The dark journey engaged me more. I once had in mind a very light novel, all surface, all conversations and memories and recollections of some people in Honolulu who were getting along fine, one or two misapprehensions about the past notwithstanding. Well, I’m working on that book now, but it’s not running that way at all. Not at all.

INTERVIEWER

It always turns into danger and apocalypse.

DIDION

Well, I grew up in a dangerous landscape. I think people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather. Sacramento was a very extreme place. It was very flat, flatter than most people can imagine, and I still favor flat horizons. The weather in Sacramento was as extreme as the landscape. There were two rivers, and these rivers would flood in the winter and run dry in the summer. Winter was cold rain and tulle fog. Summer was 100 degrees, 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Those extremes affect the way you deal with the world. It so happens that if you’re a writer the extremes show up. They don’t if you sell insurance.

Reading the complete interview here: Joan Didion, The Art of Fiction No. 71.

the notebook: it’s ok to live life offline

Excerpted from a thoughtful piece by Kayli Stollak, over at Hello Giggles.

Painting by Francine van Hove

Painting by Francine van Hove

Online we tell a golden version of our lives filled with accomplishments, strictly (and often unbelievably) fun times, and a never-ending well of wit. The glorified digital narrative that we construct of our lives worries me like a 1950’s housewife watching Elvis wiggle his hips on TV. Our modern-day record keeping seems wildly inaccurate to the truth of our inner lives. What is happening in our too-much-information-nation? But more importantly, what is happening with us? Behind all the selfies and sandwich shots, who are we?

In order to correct the imbalance of truth, I propose we start writing it down. We share so much of ourselves with the web, but do we take enough time accounting for our private lives in realm that is removed from the world of likes, comments and followers? The idea of keeping a journal is nothing new, but we’re living in a time where we could benefit from taking a personal inventory of who we are, lest we deceive our future selves through our revisionist digital autobiographies.

While our faces are buried in our phones, we risk missing the smaller details in life. If we don’t remember the bad, how can we possibly enjoy the good to the highest degree? With time, I’m concerned we’ll look back at our Facebook timelines and mistake the façade that we presented of ourselves as fact for who we actually were.

As a writer who spends a large (and probably unhealthy) amount of time writing about herself, I often hear the condemnation of navel gazing. Sure, it is narcissistic to think your life is exciting enough to put to paper, but is it really more self-centered than a side-angled pouty pose of you enjoying your fun-filled Saturday night in the club, posted to Instagram with hopes of garnering likes from your followers, confirming that, yes, you are hot? I would venture to say that the former is self-reflective and productive, while the latter is vapidity and belly-button eagle eye-ing at its worst.

I’m not recommending you go all “dear diary” and start documenting your daily rhythms by laboriously chronicling what you ate for breakfast, the jerk who cut you off on the freeway, or what your plans are for the weekend—if that works for you, do it, but there’s no need to pen a three volume memoir. What I’m championing is the process of jotting down your feelings, thoughts, conversations, inspirations, events that meant something to you now that you might benefit from reflecting on in the future. This is a dose of honesty for you today, in five months, in ten years, at 97. To look back on after your next break up, when you’re contemplating marriage, on your graduation, before a big interview, or simply on a rainy day.

Your notebook should be far from the manicured image you pimp out on Instagram, Facebook, OKCupid, etc. In Joan Didion’s 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, written before our over-stimulated minds were flooded with technology and its never-ending distractions, she explained, “We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées, we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

For me, a piece of ‘mind string’ is the harmonica chords to ‘Piano Man’ scribbled in my notebook from 2008. A stranger might assume a bizarre Billy Joel fixation, but when I revisit them in my journal, the mess of notes and the triggered sound insist on memories of a motorcycle trip through Spain and feelings of maddening love. All you need is sentence, a word, a thought, and suddenly you remember who you actually were.

If I skip forward in my notebook to 2009 I stumble upon a string of doubts, the point where this love began to unravel. The same way the smell of sunscreen can instantly bring back memories of summer,  a list labeled “Pros and Cons” reminds me of the creeping anxiety I felt for planning my future. My Facebook timeline, however, tells a different tale of a giddy girl with bangs who enjoys raves, beaches, and doing the limbo.

Didion advocated for the importance of preserving a part of yourself that in time you can return to. She wrote, “It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not… We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what screamed, forget who we were.”

Notebooks are fantastic tools for keeping in touch with our former selves that go far beyond the sculpted image we present on the web. I love delving back into my journals from middle school to the present, not because I’m a fan of the person I see there, but rather because I understand the benefit of knowing her.

francine van hove 02

Painting by Francine van Hove

I want to yell at my thirteen year-old self to please take off that padded bra andstop being in such a rush to grow up. I want to hold my fourteen year-old self and explain to her that you are the company you keep and the sooner she starts loving herself the better. I want to bitch slap my sixteen year-old self, she was one angsty girl. I want to tell my seventeen year-old self not to mistake lust for love and to please stop talking to that boy in the band that told you he learned how to play “Brown-Eyed Girl” for you when, in fact, your eyes are green. I want to stay up all night talking to my twenty year-old self, feeding off her energy and drinking up her thirst for spontaneity. I want to see the world through her eyes, she reminds me to believe in magic. I want to whisper in the ear of my twenty-three year-old self, and tell her that soon enough she will see that it really was a means to an end. I want to tell my twenty-five year old self to trust her gut and not settle, I want to remind her what love looks like and tell her that this is not it. But I can’t tell her any of that. All I can do is learn from her mistakes, be reminded of what to hold meaning to, take note of her intuition, celebrate the coincidences, and enjoy all the beautiful moments and connections made.

Although I already know how most of the stories end, it’s important to track the progress I’ve made, reminding me who I am and who I was. To draw my own attention to the larger patterns my tendencies and predilections make when I can see them from a bird’s eye view. A notebook can serve as a wake up call on what I may be rightly or wrongly romanticizing and what I may be purposefully forgetting. Notebooks give us a shot at staying honest and in touch with ourselves, something I think we should strive to be in this digital age.

Read the full article HERE. Thanks to Stella for sharing it.

joan didion – on self respect

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who we are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals 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.

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. 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. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samara and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbably candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for reelection. Nonetheless, character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-yaer-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 out 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 donnee.

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. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

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 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 meeting the next demand made upon us.

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.

__

This essay first published 1961 in Vogue; reprinted 1968 in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, included in Didion, Collected Works (Norton, 2006).

joan didion on connecting the dots

“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. 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.”
— Joan Didion, The White Album

joan didion on life and death

joan didion“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”

~ Joan Didion,  from a commencement speech she gave at the University of California in 1975.