joan / joni : ‘nothing is sacred’
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”—so goes the first line of “The Second Coming,” the Yeats poem from which Joan Didion would pluck the name “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
The widening gyre indicates an ending and a beginning but most of all an impending cataclysm. In a 2016 essay with an excruciatingly long title, Graham A. Dampier explains that “in Yeats’s system, the movement of a person’s life, their various reincarnations, and even world history are a continual fluctuation between two opposing conditions: the primary and objective, and the antithetical and subjective.” In Yeats’s own geometric system, the primary and antithetical are represented by two cones, swirling in opposite directions and intersecting. These cones are gyres.
In life, we are all turning and turning in widening gyres, victims of entropy, until we reach the narrow end of the next gyre and begin again. (To explain it in Beatlesian terms: when you get to the bottom, you go back to the top of the slide, where you stop, and you turn, and you go for a ride. Then you get to the bottom and it happens again.) To be clear, it is unknown whether any of us will actually be around when it comes time for a gyre switcheroo. Each gyre is said to last 2,000 years, representing some kind of rise and fall. In the context of “The Second Coming,” think of “that twenty centuries of stony sleep” as the two thousand years before the birth of Christ (“That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”) and think of the “rough beast” that’s finally slouching toward Bethlehem as, you know, the next enormously bad thing that’s going to happen, presumably in the year 2000. Antichrist, anarchy, apocalypse, Dick Cheney, you name it.
All that to say, Yeats was feeling the rumblings of the rough beast in 1919, when humanity was still a ways off from completing its 2,000 year gyratic journey. So you can imagine that nearly 50 years later, when Joan Didion was surveying the Haight-Ashbury from behind her dark glasses, the end felt all the more nigh.
Didion writes a lot about her experience of California in the ‘60s, at a time when there was no narrative to impose, no order to be upheld, no boundaries to respect. “The White Album,” especially, is exclusively about that disorder, and even explicitly about Helter Skelter (the scenario, as Wikipedia clarifies, not the song), which in its own way mirrors Yeats’s fears about how the 20 centuries following Christ’s birth would end.
Not just in “The White Album,” but across several essays, it seems that everything in Didion’s view is decaying. The part of Los Angeles she lived in “had once been expensive and was now described… as a ‘senseless killing neighborhood.’” People are dying. People are showing up unannounced in the middle of her house. A divorce is on the table. In the middle of the room, a kindergartener in white lipstick is tripping on acid. Things are not ideal. It is, to steal from a less relevant Didion essay, as if the whole world can feel the coming of a Santa Ana wind, as if everyone feels heavy under “some unnatural stillness, some tension.”
In the same year as Didion is writing “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (and about to begin the 10-year labor of “The White Album”), Joni Mitchell is two years into her career, living in Detroit (much to the dismay of CBC presenters) and writing songs the general message of which she described as “just happiness.” So, you know, people experience things differently.
Joni’s contemporaneous writing about hippies is somewhat reverential, not of hippies themselves but of the ideals they touted. In “Woodstock,” obviously, there’s an optimistic humanist mantra in “We are stardust / We are golden / We are 50-year-old carbon / And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Joni herself has said she was seen as “queen of the hippies” in what appears to be a lost-to-the-void BBC documentary, but with distance, she’s perhaps a little disillusioned with the age of Age of Aquarius. In a 1991 interview with Stephen Holden of The New York Times, she recounted a then-recent run-in with a hippiedom fanatic.
"I told him, 'Don't be romantic about it—we failed," she recalled. "And he said, 'Well, at least you tried.' And I said, 'But we didn't try hard enough. We didn't learn from history. If any progress is to be made, we must show you how we failed.'”
Her slow realization that nothing much was changing appears in her lyrics, too. On “California,” off Blue: “Reading the news and it sure looks bad / They won't give peace a chance / That was just a dream some of us had.” And on “Come In From the Cold,” which appears alongside “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” on Night Ride Home, she sings about an evolution from thinking “life had some meaning” to “absurdity [coming] over me,” much in the same way Didion writes of her slow realization that there is no meaningful narrative to impose on life.
And in 1994's "Sex Kills," when the Yeatsian apocalypse is all but upon us: "The balance is undone; crazy ions / You can feel it out in traffic / Everyone hates everyone," and "The ulcerated ozone / These tumors of the skin / This hostile sun beating down on / This massive mess we're in." The sun, unmitigated by a threadbare ozone layer, causing those tumors of the skin. The sun, as blank and pitiless as the gaze of a monster, the gaze of a great beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.