"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts -- Joan Didion
Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003
Joan Didion, Sara Suleri, and Annie Dillard problematize the notion of personal writing. In her text, each author deconstructs the idea of an autonomous, decontextualized self. These three female writers depict their selves as fluid, interdependent and not clearly distinguishable from their surrounding communities. This distinctly feminine formulation of selfhood enables them to make the metaphorical leap between the personal and universal, but it also, necessarily, complicates any attempt at categorizing their writing as personal. In their perpetual conflation of the internal with the external, the individual with the surrounding community, Didion, Suleri and Dillard consistently sidestep the personal and the private: autobiography is used in service of some larger point. Their "I" becomes a narrative technique -- a medium through which to explore their broader surroundings. Didion and Suleri portray themselves as symbols of culture, evidence of the times. Dillard, on the other hand, whose subject is not culture but nature, portrays herself not as a sign of her narrative subject, but as a component of it. Whereas Didion and Suleri fuse personal discourse with civic discourse, their physical body with that of their state, Dillard strives towards an erasure of discourse and self-consciousness, a physical immersion into a language-free place.
"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Joan Didion's Writings
Jerzy Kozinski once described Didion as "our quintessential essayist . . . always at the center" (Carton, 308) -- an odd claim about a woman whose writings perpetually articulate the
Didion explodes the notion of an autonomous self sustained outside the range of social experience. She conflates the internal with the external, the personal with the universal; she treats autobiographical facts as cultural evidence. She is constantly "perceiving the larger point . . . making that inductive leap from the personal to the political" (
Just as Didion projects herself onto the era, she projects herself onto the people -- particularly cultural icons -- that define the era. For her, identity is collective. Theorizing the construction of the self in women's autobiography, Georges Gusdorf writes, "The individual does not feel herself to exist outside of interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community . . . [where] lives are so thoroughly entangled that each of them has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. The important unit is thus never the isolated being" (Lovesey, 40). Didion's personal writing portrays this logic of "entangledness"; Didion can appear to be, "always at the center," her "circumference nowhere," because she is perpetually projecting part of herself onto whomever and whatever she observes. For example, in her essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes, Didion moves from celebrating Hughes' and Wayne's embodiment of the American dream of individualism to comparing the men to her husband. Didion first writes that Wayne and Hughes personify a space "where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it" (
Whereas in her essays on Wayne and Hughes Didion moves from the personal to the universal, in "Notes from a Native Daughter" Didion takes us through the reverse process -- she describes herself and then immediately universalizes the description. At one point she claims that her family "has always been in the Sacramento Valley" but then immediately expands the simple statement by turning it into a generalizing assertion about the California mentality: "It is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously begun,
Didion relentlessly translates the events of her life into koans of the times, parables of the period. Things never get too personal because she is constantly making herself public, turning her activities into cultural metaphors. Didion offers us a personal anecdote and then immediately, without missing a beat, zooms out, tells us what that anecdote
Other sections of "I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts
Carton, Evan. "Joan Didion's Dreampolitics of the Self."
Didion, Joan. "Why I Write."
Roiphe, Katie. "Joan Didion: The Journalist who Invented Impersonal Personality."
Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women."
Last updated 3 December 2006