I recently re-read Joan Didion’s seminal essay “Goodbye to All That” (1968, pub’d in Slouching Towards Bethlehem) as I’d thrown it higgledy-piggledy onto my syllabus at the last minute a couple of months ago. To my great surprise, I also was actually able to ‘teach’ the essay to my students this past week. Let’s say that, as in most things, my students were able to communicate that they liked it, had feelings about it, so on and so forth, but didn’t necessarily make the leap to any sort of astute analysis.
But when I closed my attendance-book & told them to have a good holiday & headed to my office, where I would spend the following 1.5 hours waiting for the next commuter train to return to Cambridge, I realized that perhaps Didion’s essay should primarily be something that one experiences rather than dismantles. I first read “Goodbye to All That” the first summer after I’d moved to Boston, as I made my way through the gargantuan Everyman’s Library edition of her collected non-fiction. I had been sweaty and depressed for nearly three months, as everyone I knew had gone elsewhere for the summer & I’d been unable to find a job in the greater Boston area. I would sit on my back deck for 5 or 6 hours a day reading ravenously & having post-noon beers whenever I felt like it. I didn’t eat much that summer and I certainly didn’t do a great deal, either, except manage to consume 35 or 40 books in a 12-week span and find myself appallingly tipsy at 3PM three or four days a week.
I was 23 years old, which, as Didion remarks in her essay, is an age in which you are wholly convinced that “nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before”—the intensity of being trapped in a precipice between total narcissism and the chaos of feeling that you’re now part of a great universe in which your own importance steadies and earns its keep but goes largely unnoticed, as you’ve become a respectable fish in a very very daunting pond. Or at least that’s how I see it. Because at 21 or 22 or 23 maybe you’ve really, truly moved away from home for the first time & have to reckon with the brute fact that no one meets anyone anymore, or that, as Didion has it, there can no longer be any “new faces” or “new parties.” Everything becomes a palimpsest of an emotional experience or a cocktail or a subway ride that threw you previously and no longer carries its power or its novelty.
The essay has been called the ultimate elegy for the passing of youth, and though it is many things, it’s hard to imagine what it does better—except perhaps to imagine the love affair that New York City might inspire, the affair that Didion amusingly says is not only for the very rich and very poor but one that reminds us that New York is “a city for only the very young.” This love, Didion says, is not meant in “any colloquial way”—“I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.”
Of course I was violently out-of-love with Boston. In point of fact, I hadn’t ever loved it and grew increasingly weary of the prospect of 5+ years trapped here for a PhD. Boston & I have made our peace to a limited extent & there are days where we get along, but the point is, that summer I thought that nothing could possibly be better than to be living in New York with a young Joan Didion—living in a room with only a mattress on a floor and wandering through packed streets all day long. There was some door closing at that time for me, something that Didion captures so pristinely, as though she’s managed to concentrate the sense of possibility that we hold on to in our youth and produce a perfect glimmering pearl of it:
“I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name ‘Debbi Lyn’ or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100cal girl, and none of it would matter. Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about. […] I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes and none of it would count.”
Perhaps this was why I felt it was perfectly ordinary to drink a 6-pack by 2:30 and to smoke a half-a-pack of cigarettes in a couple of hours and to walk aimlessly around Boston Common until I found a place where I could lie in the sun and wallow in a sense of increasing self-effacement or cry as I stumbled, raw, through The Golden Notebook, and not care if anyone saw.
And I suppose the essay hit me all over again this week because, even though I’ll be 25 in just over two weeks, there was a return of that sense that “something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” It was as if I’d forgotten the tedium of the every day—again, as Didion says of NYC, “it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there.”
But of course this is where we come to the catch; the tragedy. Or perhaps the real tragedy of losing one’s youth (something Didion doesn’t necessarily remark upon) is the moment in which you grapple with the fact that your overwhelming sense of loss will always only be a tragedy to you and to no one else. That nothing is really, truly a “tragedy,” because that requires magnitude—something the individual will probably never honestly have. And so you wake up and continue on in the newfound recognition that “not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
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- mustachepanache said: My mouth has been seeking these very words.
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