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Joan Didion on Learning Not to Mistake Self-Righteousness for Morality

“When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something … but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”

Joan Didion on Learning Not to Mistake Self-Righteousness for Morality

“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in what remains some of the finest advice on writing and life. But if beneath the world “morality,” as James Baldwin asserted, “we are confronted with the way we treat each other,” then to be a moral human being requires an especial attentiveness to other human beings and their subjective realities. In consequence, any true morality is the diametric opposite of self-righteousness — the very thing that so often masquerades for morality.

That paradox is what Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934), a writer who has spent a lifetime mirroring us back to ourselves, examines with characteristic incisiveness in a short 1965 essay titled “On Morality,” found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (public library) — the classic 1968 essay collection that gave us Didion on keeping a notebook and her timeless meditation on self-respect.

Joan Didion, 1977 (Photograph: Mary Lloyd Estrin)

With an eye to our tendency to mistake for morality what is indeed a “monstrous perversion” of the ego, Didion writes:

“I followed my own conscience.” “I did what I thought was right.” How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on that most primitive level — our loyalties to those we love — what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?

Half a century later, Didion’s point seems all the more disquieting amid our present culture, where the filter bubble of our loyalties has rendered in-group/out-group divisiveness all the more primitive and where we combat our constant terror of coming unmoored from our certitudes by succumbing to unbridled self-righteousness under the pretext of morality. Didion considers how this tendency has made us less moral rather than more:

You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing — beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code — what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work.

In a passage of excruciating timeliness today, as we fling our self-righteousnesses at each other from the two-finger slingshot of what was once the peace sign, Didion adds:

Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular fragment with Mark Twain on morality vs. the intellect, artist Ann Truitt on the cure for our chronic self-righteousness and James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s forgotten conversation about morality, then revisit Didion on grief, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and her all-time favorite books.


The Outsider with the Public Voice: How Joan Didion Mirrored Us Back to Ourselves

“From the first, her work insisted that a single life contained the life of our times.”

The Outsider with the Public Voice: How Joan Didion Mirrored Us Back to Ourselves

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in one of the early masterworks that turned her, over the course of the half-century that followed, into a patron saint of the personal essay and one of the most recognizable and influential voices of our time. In The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion (public library), biographer Tracy Daugherty delves into the wellspring of Didion’s character with a responsible and generous willingness to examine her life, trace her intellectual and creative development, and transmute what he finds into larger insight not only on what made Didion a great writer but on what it means to be one, both for the writer and for the society whose collective memory she or he reflects, preserves, and shapes.

Joan Didion with her typewriter in Brentwood, 1988 (Photograph: Nancy Ellison)
Joan Didion with her typewriter in Brentwood, 1988 (Photograph: Nancy Ellison)

Daugherty writes:

From the first, her work insisted that a single life contained the life of our times.

In framing Didion’s living legacy, Daugherty points to her memoir of barely survivable loss, Blue Nights, and the striking coincidence of Political Fictions — her critique of the American political system’s propaganda machine — being released on the date of the 9/11 attacks:

By nailing the naughtiness of American politics on the day two of its physical symbols were attacked, and by keening ten years later, exploring, as a blind person touches strange new skin, the mechanisms of mourning and irretrievable loss, she had told us who we are, who we were. She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired: the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death. At its best, her prose surfaced suppressed emotions, causing in the reader vertigo, déjà vu, and yes, even the sensation of coincidence: the now and to come, the hidden and known, overlapping like warm and cold Pacific waves. So conceived, coincidence is an evocative word for what we have always been and what we are already losing. It is, like an evening tide, a thick and somber blue: for Didion, the color of our current moment.

In a palpably Didionesque passage, marked by the sort of elegant rhetorical acrobatics reminding the reader of the writer’s presence, Daugherty dissects her singular technique for coloring that current moment:

Didion’s writing is more specific and personal, but like Austen and Tolstoy, she presents a confident speaker with a solid worldview offering verities about human nature and culture. That these verities are not true (or not necessarily true) is beside the point. The effort is to create a social context in which the characters we are about to encounter must be considered, and reveals the narrator’s values. Since views of human nature and culture are notoriously subjective, such pronouncements are meant to be quibbled with, poked, and prodded.

Let me amend my earlier statement, then. That such verities are not true is the point.

Didion’s points, however subtly or coolly or circuitously delivered, have always been precise — a precision crafted with crystalline clarity of intent, the craftsmanship of which Daugherty captures perfectly:

Even as Didion frets about narratives in tatters, she is weaving narrative. She is carefully plotting a story, manipulating details, with a clear direction and a sense of who’s in charge — Joan Didion, jittery, uncertain, but vivid and speaking with a distinctive Western voice. Her collages are not stitched of random scraps. Her roads do not dead-end. Her narrative breakdowns are mirages. Every piece fits, often in more or less conventional patterns.


On the page, Didion’s sensibility is individual, “passive,” “strange, conflicted,” as well as communal. She attempts to speak for us all through the apparently self-defeating strategy of grounding her authority in weakness. In the confessional tradition of Montaigne, Didion admits her limitations and befuddlements up front, so readers feel they are in the presence of an unusually honest speaker. “I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind,” she says in The White Album. “I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” This self-deprecatory statement is also a brassy declaration. Rhetorically, its function is to establish the narrator as someone with a unique consciousness, someone whose disengagement places her in a better position than anyone else to plumb contemporary life. She is an outsider whose singular, untainted perspective allows her to assume a public voice. Our responses to her persona tell us less about the woman behind the books than about ourselves.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

Perhaps because of how deliberate Didion has always been about details and how controlling of narrative, the task of probing the details of her own life and weaving them into a truthful narrative “leaves obvious potholes for a biographer,” as Daugherty puts it. And yet he takes it on nonetheless, approaching it with the same scrupulous intentionality as his subject did her prose:

In choosing Didion as a subject, I am offering a particular slant on literary biography. In the spirit of saying “exactly what you are getting,” let me lay it out. There is the biographer who promises explanations by threatening to reveal a subject’s secrets, who promises to dish. I am not that biographer. Nor will I live and die by psychological theories. When presented with the private correspondence, diaries, journals, or rough drafts of a writer, I remain skeptical of content, attentive instead to presentation. It is the construction of persona, even in private—the fears, curlicues, and desires in any recorded life—that offers insights. A writer forms her stories, but the opposite is also true. This is especially the case with Joan Didion, whose prime subject is the nature of narrative and who has often said she does not know what she thinks until she writes it down. The “women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are,” she once wrote. Her work does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms. Any serious work about her should seek to do the same.


I take my cue from her long and varied career: Her life illuminates her era, and vice versa. If this were not so, a biography of Joan Didion would serve only prurience. Writing is the record we have of our time. Just as certain memories burn brighter with age — the day we were taken to get our first haircut, the day we left home, the day we got married — so, too, do the pages of our contemporaries, the marks they have made of our lives, cast us more vividly as immediate circumstances vanish and the record’s uniqueness comes more to the fore.

In the remainder of The Last Love Song, Daugherty accomplishes precisely what he sets out to do. Complement it with the excellent recent biographies of Susan Sontag, E.E. Cummings, and Albert Camus, then revisit Didion on self-respect, grief, keeping a notebook, Hollywood’s diversity problem, and her all-time favorite books.


Joan Didion on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: A Masterpiece from 1968 That Could Have Been Written Today

“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Over and over, Joan Didion has emerged as an enchantress of nuance — a writer of deep and dimensional wisdom on such undying human issues as self-respect, grief, and the passage of time. Didion has a particular penchant for unraveling issues of social friction and discomfort to reveal that they are merely symptoms, rather than causes, of deeper societal pathologies.

Take Hollywood’s diversity problem, of which the world becomes palpably aware every year as the Academy Awards roll around. (Awards are, after all, a vehicle for rewarding the echelons of a system’s values, and the paucity of people of color among nominees and winners speaks volumes about how much that system values diversity — something that renders hardly surprising a recent Los Angeles Times survey, which found that the Oscar-dispensing academy is primarily male and 94% white.) Nearly half a century before today’s crescendoing public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue with unparalleled intellectual elegance.

In an essay titled “Good Citizens,” written between 1968 and 1970 and found in the altogether indispensable The White Album (public library) — which also gave us Didion on driving as a transcendent experience — she turns her perceptive and prescient gaze to Hollywood’s diversity problem and the vacant pretensions that both beget and obscure it.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Didion writes:

Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.

And because this is Didion — a writer of extraordinary subtlety and piercing precision, who often tells half the story in the telling itself — she paints a backdrop of chronic superficiality as she builds up to the overt point:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” someone said to me at dinner not long ago, and before we had finished our fraises des bois he had advised me as well that “no man is an island.” As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. “What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,” I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.

She recounts one event particularly painful to watch — a staged debate between the writer William Styron and the actor Ossie Davis. Davis had asserted that Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the black protagonist falls in love with a white woman, had encouraged racism. With her characteristic clarity bordering on wryness, Didion notes: “It was Mr. Styron’s contention that it had not.” She sums up the evening with one famous spectator’s response:

James Baldwin sat between them, his eyes closed and his head thrown back in understandable but rather theatrical agony.

Didion reflects on what that particular event revealed — and still reveals — about Hollywood’s general vacancy of any real commitment to social justice:

[The evening’s] curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.

The unwelcome presence of doubt is, of course, the fatal diagnosis of all systems that warp reality and flatten its complexities by leaving no room for nuance — systems like the Hollywood of that era, which has hardly changed in ours, and the mainstream media of today, who tend to depict the world by the same “dramatic convention” of clickbait and sensationalism adding nothing to the actual conquest of meaning.

Reflecting on Hollywood’s “vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals,” Didion recounts the particular pretensions she observed at a national convention of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycees — a leadership and civic engagement training organization for young people — held at LA’s Miramar Hotel:

In any imaginative sense Santa Monica seemed an eccentric place for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce to be holding a national congress, but there they were, a thousand delegates and wives, gathered in the Miramar Hotel for a relentless succession of keynote banquets and award luncheons and prayer breakfasts and outstanding-young-men forums… I was watching the pretty young wife of one delegate pick sullenly at her lunch. “Let someone else eat this slop,” she said suddenly, her voice cutting through not only the high generalities of the occasion but The New Generation’s George M. Cohan medley as well.

It bears noting that this took place a decade and a half before the Jaycees began accepting women as members, so any female presence at the convention was invariably allotted to such pretty young wives — including this one, whom Didion proceeded to see “sobbing into a pink napkin.”

Illustration from ‘How to Be a Nonconformist,’ 1968. Click image for more.

But what makes Didion’s essay doubly poignant is the way in which she gets at — obliquely, unambiguously — how Hollywood’s chronic biases permeate the rest of society. Having gone to the Jaycees national convention “in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America,'” she found instead a mirroring of Hollywood’s superficial and performative approaches to social justice issues. Didion writes:

At first I thought I had walked out of the rain and into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.

Nearly half a century later, one can’t help but feel pulled into the very same time warp — Didion could have written this today:

They knew that this was a brave new world and [the Jaycees] said so. It was time to “put brotherhood into action,” to “open our neighborhoods to those of all colors.” It was time to “turn attention to the cities,” to think about youth centers and clinics and the example set by a black policeman-preacher in Philadelphia who was organizing a decency rally patterned after Miami’s. It was time to “decry apathy.”

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time enough for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and the steam rise off the heated pool outside and listening to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest and whether the “solution” might not lie in on-campus Jaycee groups. I thought about this astonishing notion for a long time. It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.

Reading Didion’s astute observations many decades later, at a time when so many of us feel just as “personally betrayed by recent history,” reaffirms the The White Album as absolutely essential reading for modern life — not merely because its title is all the more uncomfortably perfect in light of this particular essay, but because every single essay in it directs the same unflinching perceptiveness at some timeless and timely aspect of our world.

Complement it with Didion’s reading list of all-time favorite books and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.


Joan Didion’s Favorite Recipes

Chicken hash for Patti Smith, parsley salad for forty guests, and other edible fragments of a life that feminized the literary myth.

I have a voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks, particularly ones at the intersection of cuisine and literature — from vintage treasures like The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook and Found Meals of the Lost Generation to loving homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and those real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to creative twists like Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction. How irresistible, then, to devour the recipes and menus that Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers of our time, holds most dear. “Part of Didion’s innovation was to feminize the literary myth,” Nathan Heller wrote in his beautiful essay on the writer’s living legacy — and her relationship with cuisine was an epicenter of that revolution.

As a supporter of the Didion documentary, I was treated to a copy of the author’s personal cookbook — a florilegium of sorts, assembling handwritten recipes, culinary clippings from various magazines and books, and menus of meals she served while entertaining at her home, to guests like Patti Smith (chicken hash with roasted yellow peppers and baguettes) and Richard Roth (baked ham with mustard and Alice Waters’s coleslaw).

Tucked into the recipes and menus are subtle clues to Didion’s life and social circle — sometimes amusing (parsley salad for 35 to 40?), sometimes poignant (fewer and fewer guests listed on the menus as the years roll by), always deeply human (cross-outs, inconsistent punctuation).

Recipes, by their very nature, are also strangely reflective of Didion’s stylistic signature as a writer — a directness at once unembellished and undry.

Here are a few favorites.

(for 6)

2 lbs lean stew beef.

brown + put in stewpot w/ 1 c bouillon, 2 qt water, clove, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic, 1 chopped onion.

Simmer 1 hr.


4.5 peeled + grated beets,
1 cut-up potato (large)
3/4 head shredded cabbage.
Juice a couple of beets. (Brown Sugar)
Dill weed.
Simmer another hour.
Serve with bowl of sour cream.

(Serves 8)

2 (9 oz.) pkgs. frozen artichoke hearts
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 cup butter
dash white pepper
1 t. onion salt
1/2 t. prepared mustard
3/4 t. salt
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup reserved artichoke liquid
1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 egg slightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 T. dry bread crumbs

Heat oven to 450 F.
Cook artichokes according to pkg. directions adding lemon juice to water. Drain, reserving 1/2cup liquid. Place artichokes in a single layer in a 9-inch shallow casserole.

Sauce: melt butter, add spices and flower, stir until smooth. Gradually add artichoke liquid and milk. Cook, stirring, until thick. Remove from heat, add egg and half of cheese. Blend. Pour over artichokes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, bread crumbs and paprika.

Bake for 15 minutes.


Sauté 1 onion, chopped, in 2 T olive oil, until soft.

Add 1 c rice, stir to coat, add 1/3 c white wine, let evaporate — add, bit by bit, 5 cups broth (1 can beef broth plus water to 5c).


For 1 pound of crabmeat:

Melt 4 T butter, sauté 1/4 tp 1/2 cup chopped celery and 3 chopped scallions. Stir in 1/2 t dry mustard, 1 T flour, cayenne and salt. Add 1 container heavy cream, thicken a bit, stir in crabmeat.

Pour into baking dish, finish with dried bread crumbs, Parmesan, and paprika. In oven 15 minutes, finish under broiler until brown.


For a pound of pasta,

a cup and a half (about one ounce) of basil leaves, loosely packed
a handful of parsley leaves
1/8 ¼ cup pine nuts
several garlic cloves
a teaspoon of red pepper flakes
a quarter ½ cup olive oil

Blend together, gradually adding oil and then mixing in pepper flakes.

(for pound of pasta)

1 stick butter, 1 t red pepper flakes, 1 c vodka, 1 8-oz can tomato sauce, 1 tomato, 1 c heavy cream

(For 12)

  1. Melt 1 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in saucepan + cook until golden. Line 12 cups with this caramelized sugar + let it set.
  2. Scald 4 cups milk with long piece of vanilla bean. Meanwhile, beat together 6 eggs, 4 additional egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar.
  3. Remove vanilla bean + trickle hot milk into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture with care over caramel in cups.
  4. Place cups in pan of hot water + into 350° oven for 20-25 min, until point of knife comes out of center clean. (water must not boil.) Chill + unmold.


2 1/2 cups Bisquick
3 T sugar
3 T melted butter
1/2 cup milk

Knead 8-10 times —
Roll 1/2 in thick — cut — ungreased pan — 10 min at 425°.


8 bunches Italian parsley
Blend 16 T olive oil with one head parsley until smooth
Blend in 4 T balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
When ready to serve place parsley in 1 1/3 C grated parmesan in bowl, toss with dressing

Complement with a reading list of Didion’s all-time favorite books and her sublime meditations on grief and self-respect, then treat yourself to The Modern Art Cookbook, Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic gastronomy, Patti Smith’s lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and a few favorite recipes of favorite poets.


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