A few years ago, I researched poet William Butler Yeats for an English assignment. I countlessly read and reread his poem “The Second Coming”, and since then I have not given his poem much thought until I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of Didion’s most famous essays, many of which are set in 1960s California, her native state. The title is taken from a verse from Yeats’ poem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Didion chose her title to capture the grand scope of how she feels about the era and her life, a time in which “things fall apart”.
As a twenty-year-old still finding herself, Didion’s writing widens my eyes to the world – its beauty, ugliness, and character. I not only discover parts of myself but see how people, places, history and the era we live in affect our spirit.
Didion writes in her essay “Goodbye to All That” about her time in New York, “One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”
It is true. Everything seems heightened in my twenties, whether it is the stakes of the future, my own or the world’s, or my experiences. I am entering adulthood and learning about the world more than ever before.
While Didion wrote her essays in the 1960s, many of their truths are timeless. Sometimes moments appear idyllic, and other times things fall apart. So, we write. We write to process, remember and move on.
In Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook”, she explains why we must write things down to help us “remember what it was to us”, the moment, the people, the experience. She says that when she writes, for example something at seventeen, it helps her remember herself at seventeen. It helps her “keep in touch” with who she was, and that is “what notebooks are all about”.
Keeping a notebook has helped me isolate what it is that inspires me and remember the moments, albeit the seemingly perfect ones or those amid chaos. I admire that as Didion dissects her life and history, her criticism and praise are neither in contempt or disillusion but in truth.
Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook”, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not.” Perhaps that is why in another essay called “On Going Home” she writes about a time she returned home and looked through her drawers and found remnants of her childhood.
Didion says: “Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly room to room. I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread its contents on the bed.”
While home for the summer, I emptied my drawers, dumping their contents on my bedroom carpet. I found a collection of ticket stubs from the theater, a bracelet my roommate gave me, and just like Didion, a bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen. The belongings remind me of the people I have been, and some I’ve kept as memorabilia whereas others I’ve let go.
There is a time for everything, and each moment reveals something not only about ourselves but our generation and ultimately what it means to be human.
After reading Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I have a new understanding of Yeats’ poem. If we can look on the world and on ourselves with eyes that can see the good and the bad, see their worth, we can understand the spirit of humanity.