Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of previously published magazine essays, borrows its title from the W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” Yeats had seen a “ceremony of innocence drowned” in the carnage of the First World War and Irish revolutionary period. For Didion, it was 1965, 1966, and 1967, the years she wrote her pieces, that marked the Second Coming. Factionalization, or what Didion calls atomization, grew in response to escalating casualties in Vietnam, the civil rights movement in the American South, and the burgeoning California counterculture. The essays explore the revelations of the era, returning often to the themes of atomization, morality, and self-respect.
In the preface, Didion writes that the widening gyre was the only pattern that made sense to her at the time. In her essays, culture and idols fall apart into their smallest constituent segments and no longer resemble themselves in any meaningful way. It happens to the disaffected youths streaming into Haight-Ashbury in the title essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It happens in “John Wayne: A Love Song,” as the irascible emblem of the Wild West falls to “the Big C.” In several pieces, she lists sights and scenes without any further exposition. Even old journalism gives way to new.
Some of her essays were so shocking to magazine readers that they looked to her for an explanation of morality, as though Didion herself could put it all back as it was. In the preface, she writes, “Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of ‘filth’ in the Haight-Ashbury.” But Didion comments unevenly about such things. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” juxtaposes images of innocence and perversion in such a way as to comment without providing much more than a verbal snapshot. “On Morality” rejects individual judgment of right and wrong: “Except on that most primitive level—our loyalties to those we love—what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience? (‘Tell me,’ a rabbi asked Daniel Bell when he said, as a child, that he did not believe in God. ‘Do you think God cares?’)” (90).
Self-respect appears thematically throughout Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It’s addressed at length in “On Self Respect,” where Didion defines it as intrinsic worth, character, and discipline. “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character . . . character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs” (81). Frightened readers of Didion’s magazine essays might have seen only peril in the disorder. A case could be made for the opposite: it takes a lot of nerve to fall apart.