Civilizations do not crumble in a moment, an hour, or because of an event of one day. Like all decaying things it is a process, in this case driven by the gradual and cumulative effects of mankind’s compromise with the mystery of evil.
It is said that on the 9th of August, 378, on hearing the news that the barbarous, invading Goths had defeated and overthrown the Roman legions in the battle of Adrianople, leaving the body of the Emperor Valens mutilated on the battlefield, St. Jerome dropped his pen in despair and abandoned the chronicles in which he was recording the history of mankind from earliest times.
That was then. This is now.
Joan Didion’s The White Album is a short collection of reflective journalism published in 1979. In it she chronicles and observes events in the late sixties and early seventies. Most of what she writes is set against the background of life in California, the vortex around which the helter skelter world of those years revolved. Its title of course suggests that iconic Beatles album of the same non-name. It constitutes a kind of snapshot of that time, in many ways with darker shades than our rose-tinted nostalgia bestows on it.
Popular imagination deludes itself in thinking this hectic and dreamy era was a liberating one. Didion’s ironic observations, written as it unfolded, lay bare much of that illusion.
Her essays reflect the character of the Sixties, hopeful but hopelessly and dangerously naïve. The cultural climate which we saw forming before our eyes in that decade, and the handful of years in the decade that followed, was anything but a harbinger of peace and love for western civilization. Didion, in this book and in her other collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, chronicles the highs and lows of the hopes and follies of those years. From them we can trace a line of descent to the ills and woes of the early 21st century.
Didion writes about the moment when the culture of death, which now has the official stamp of practically every state jurisdiction within what we call the Civilized Western World slouched out of the Californian desert on August 9, 1969, like the Beast of the Apocalypse. Allowing for calendar reforms, an interesting coincidence of dates in 378 and 1969?
She writes of how people in Los Angles, looking back, believed that the Sixties ended on that date. The tensions which people felt ended; the jitters they were experiencing morphed into some kind of equilibrium – now there seemed to be some explanation of what was going on. But that didn’t help. Things in fact got worse.
That day might not look like more than a symbol for the levels to which our race has sunk in the decades which followed. It can serve as such. But it is more. The forces – diabolical but also driven by hedonistic and corrupt multiple visions of what mankind is – behind that act were also the forces which were being let loose in a benighted military operation in South-East Asia. They were also the forces being let loose at home by the dark, dark reasoning of the American Supreme Court judgment in the case of Roe Vs Wade. That judgment in effect falsely elevated the pursuit of pleasure, the cult of individualism and crass materialism, to the level of a compassionate principle. It has resulted in a blind acceptance of a totally false vision of what human compassion and true freedom are, leading us deeper and deeper into confusion with each decade that passes.
Didion described what those times and that day in August 1969 was like for her – how it was so ordinary and yet strange, how it ended in a nightmare.
“We put Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan) on the record player, and Suzanne (Leonard Cohen). We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, (where she, her husband and their little girl, lived at the time). I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town.
“There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’— this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far’, and that many people were doing it – was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.
“On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed.
“I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
The Cielo Drive murders orchestrated by Charles Manson were a symptom of a wider malaise which had gripped the culture of a generation. This malaise is our sad inheritance from that time.
Another essay in the book illustrates more of this effect. She describes the cult following by young adolescents of the Hell’s Angels movies of the time – where pillage, rape and murder were presented for purposes of entertainment and excitement. Human life was routinely expendable. Didion clearly shows what was at its heart. Her words are full of apprehension about the future.
In a later decade an iconic pop star was to take the name of Manson, much as a Christian or Muslim might take the names of the saints who populate their faiths’ histories. A meaningless gesture? No.
In yet another essay, on the Women’s Movement, she touches on other effects which have flowed from the “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”.
The Women’s Movement for her was essentially Marxist, redefining as it did human nature in purely materialistic terms. While on its popular surface it might just look like a reworking of romanticism, it was anything but romantic. Many movements rife with erroneous readings of our human nature do have an up-side. They point to real problems and injustices and move us to correction. This, however does not negate the inherent dangers in their errors. Of the feminism of this movement, she writes:
“Something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being “stereotyped” in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.”
Or, might we add, forever childless? A “woman’s role” had nothing to do with what “real women” are, want or need. It was all a construction imposed on them. It was the work of their enemy.
“The transient stab of dread and loss which accompanies menstruation simply never happens: we only thought it happened, because a male chauvinist psychiatrist told us so. No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told she should.”
Feminism, in this reading, was turning the male per se into the enemy – or at best, the heartless manipulator – of his life partner, the female. Out of all this came ultimately the denial and attempted obliteration of the real natural distinctions between male and female which we see all around us today.
Didion foresaw this:
“All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.
“One was only told it, and now one is to be reprogrammed, fixed up, rendered again as inviolate and unstained as the ”modern” little girls in the Tampax advertisements.”
The aftershocks and echoes of the event of August 9, 1969, no more than the events of September 9, 2011, or May 25, 2018, when Ireland went the way of Roe Vs. Wade, continue to reverberate around our world – be it in massacres in school classrooms, mosques, Christian churches or synagogues.
The Roman Empire and the civilization which it had embodied struggled on in a decaying state for a another couple of centuries after Adrianople. To St. Jerome the butchered body of Valens was but a powerful symbol of the terrifying truth that a millennium-old civilization was in terminal decline. In those centuries after 378, however, a new light was already shining. That Light, picking up the remnants of that dying culture, cleansed them and revitalised them. Eventually a new civilization emerged, which we now know as the Christian civilization of the High Middle Ages.
If we accept the butchery of August 9, 1969, as a symbol of the sad decline of our own brilliantly scientific and technological – but artistically, philosophically and morally decadent era – to where can we look for a light to lead us out of this darkness? Where else but to that self-same regenerative power which led our forefathers out of their desert?
What then is the lesson we might glean from observing our record of folly and evil? It is that we should call evil what it is and that we resist the temptation to indulge in “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”. Christians recognize a Revelation which assists them in this battle. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us wisely:
“Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”
Edmund Burke may or may not have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Nevertheless, the idea is right. It is certainly true that unless common sense and decent humanity, both of which are highlighted in Joan Didion’s writing in these times, gets a chance to express itself in this world, and unless more of us pay attention to the timeless truths about ourselves, we are destined to continue down this vortex in which human lives are distorted and destroyed in multiple ways.