Lawrence and Didion: Two Paths to the Same Destination
Brian Baskin, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002
I was struck when reading Lawrence first by how much his tone and style reminded me of Didion, and then later how his message seems remarkably similar. In many of his pieces, including "The Lemon Gardens," he explores the meaninglessness and degeneration of Western culture, while she does much the same for California.
The crucial difference is that Didion provides an introductory essay, "The White Album" as a window into her thoughts, then consciously attempts to remove herself from subsequent essays in order to fulfill her role as a journalist, who lets events speak for themselves. Lawrence provides no formal introduction, but makes a determined effort to insert himself into each experience to fulfill his role as a traveler, whose role is to both observe and contemplate, either for himself or for the benefit of those who could not be there to see what he sees.
Consider one passage from each author:
I counted the control knobs on the electronic console. There were seventy-six. I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all. Bobby Krieger picked at his guitar, and said that he needed a fuzz box. The producer suggested that he borrow one from the Buffalo Springfield, who were recording in the next studio. Krieger shrugged. -- Didion (25)
He shows me the paper. It is an old scrap of print, the picture of an American patent door-spring, with directions: "Fasten the spring either end up. Wind it up. Never unwind." It is laconic and American. The signore watches me anxiously, waiting, holding his chin. He is afraid he ought to understand my English. I stutter off into French, confounded by the laconic phrases of the directions. Nevertheless, I make it clear what the paper says. -- Lawrence (33)
Both passages take a subject the leader has been lead to believe is significant in some way, and then through an anticlimax brings the reader crashing back to earth. The difference lies in how the subject became known to the reader in the first place. Didion assumes the reader already knows who Jim Morrison is, and the comedy comes from the reader's knowledge. Lawrence's joke comes by first portraying the signore as representing something ancient and strange, then has this man wanting the most ridiculously ordinary of things.
What's the overall effect of the two different approaches? Both have similar points, but is their message changed by the way they go about exploring it? Are they necessary to their genres – must the journalist always pretend to be detached, and does the traveler need to serve as a guide?