“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion in “The White Album.” The essay was a daring assessment of how, between the years of 1966 and 1971—“a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself”—Didion was adrift despite a flurry of activity as a professional writer, mother and godmother. And yet, for an essay that begins with a declaration that we need stories to live, it ends with the admission that in reflecting on her experience, “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
It’s fashionable these days to label as postmodern any pastiche text that eschews a meta-narrative, that jumps across locations and burrows into peculiar topics and lists. “The White Album” is as pastiche as they come: clear memories emerge, weird patterns are noted, diagnoses related, even grand jury testimony is quoted. And yet, what does it all add up to? Didion won’t say, but this perplexing text was her manner of making sense of her works and days, without smoothing over the cracks or softening the edges.
Accounting for life’s labors and confusions is hardly a new preoccupation. Somewhere around 750-650 BCE, a poem was composed, probably by someone named Hesiod, seen as the first poet to emerge as a distinct voice and persona in Western literature. The poem is traditionally called “Works and Days” and it lays down the kinds of truths brothers are wont to give their siblings, especially ones who had taken them to court: Life is hard, so you need to work.
Accordingly, the poem provides an astounding amount of unsolicited advice on farm management, the weather and the seasons, what to wear, when to sail, how to treat the poor, and what to look for in a wife. Also: don’t show your naughty bits to the fire if you’ve just had sex, never leave the ladle in a mixing bowl, don’t let a boy of twelve years sit on a tomb as it will unman him, and never let a man bathe in a woman’s used bathwater. It’s hard to know how seriously to take those superstitions.
But if we tell ourselves stories in order to live, we use them also to frame our disappointment in the world. Why is life so hard? Because of the petty caprices of the gods. Because Zeus was angry that humans discovered fire, so he had the gods create Pandora, a lovely but treacherous female who unleashed unceasing trouble on the world. Or perhaps because of the five successive ages of humans Zeus created, we—from Hesiod to Didion and back again—are the worst of all: the world is cruel and violent and is going end in an utter collapse of moral values.
Is this what passed for “wisdom literature” in archaic Greece, or is it some kind of joke? The annals of scholarship show a remarkable concern for salvaging the unity in this mess of a poem, including affirming, as Gideon Nisbet had in “Hesiod, Works and Days: A Didaxis of Deconstruction?”, that yes, it was all part of a joke, and Hesiod was very much in on it. But why should we care about unity? Is life not messy, and complicated? Can a “how to” book really tell you how to live it?
At the writing of “The White Album,” Didion was facing the dissolution of mythic settler narratives of the old, rural California in the face of emerging and fragmented trajectories and identities, which themselves were not any more grounded in justice or fairness. As Michiko Kakutani writes, the narratives Didion is interested in provide order, but they also reveal how illusory and fragmented that order really is. It is, in the end, just a story, and we must all make sense of our works and days, with the help of—or in spite of—the stories stuffed in our heads, even as we doubt the premises of all the stories we had ever told ourselves.
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