Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays published in 1968 by the writer Joan Didion. The majority of the essays were written for magazines during 1965-1967 on topics ranging from hippies to the the meaning of self-respect. Her essays are personal and full of insights and opinions. The essays comment on lifestyles and on life’s expectations based on the time they were written, the 1960s. Each captures the mood of 1960s America, particularly California as the center of its counterculture. The common theme of things coming undone run through these essays. Didion makes observations on this theme from both a personal reflection, as well as looking at society as a whole.
She struggles with the ideas of a world coming undone in larger society, as well as on a personal level, “…the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” (xi). In the Preface, she states that not all of the pieces have to do “…with the general breakup, with things falling apart” (xiii).
One way or another, things are falling apart, “the center cannot hold.” The United States is in a state of disorder and moral decline that is not going away; the reader feels this sense of breakdown and crumbling and loss of centeredness. Three essays from Didion’s collection: “Los Angeles Notebook”, “Marrying Absurd”, and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” all reveal how the aspects of America (and California) seem to be going through a political or social unraveling in society, where chaos defines normal course of events. Didion sees this chaos and moral decline, even though many people viewed the 1960s as one of “free love” and expression. Her view that “the center cannot hold” is seen in the uneasiness in the Los Angeles air in “Los Angeles Notebook”; the drunk brides in Las Vegas in “Marrying Absurd”; and Susan, a 5 year old who takes LSD given to her by her mother in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”.
This feeling of fear and destruction are part of disintegrating American morals and cultural chaos.Didion characterizes the Santa Ana winds as one of “…a number of persistent malevolent winds…” (218) in her essay, “Los Angeles Notebook”.
She uses winds in other places in the world to help the reader connect on a larger scale; it’s a foehn wind like that of Austria and Switzerland. People feel the Santa Ana wind, which is described as chaotic and even deadly, which brings a sense of worry. “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension” (217). When such a wind blows, “.
..doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about ‘nervousness’, about ‘depression'” (218). Didion is describing the effects of the wind on the people and how it affects their behavior. It is nature’s uncertainty: the dryness ultimately leading to fires. There are scores of accidents in November: “On November 26 a prominent Pasadena attorney, depressed about money, shot and killed his wife, their two sons, and himself” (220). She provides contrast between normal life and insanity. “.
..Every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks” (218). It’s not known why the winds affect people the way they do. Nonetheless, chaos and insanity can hit anyone at anytime because there are no boundaries to it. Neither does anyone seem to know when these winds will occur.
Anxiety and depression precede the winds, suicide and crime seemingly increase. Didion believes the winds are alarming, because anything can happen at any time without warning; no one knows why or how the winds have the effect on people that they do. Didion’s atomization, or disintegration, is conveyed in this essay. While it seems that she is trying to show a cause and effect relationship between the Santa Ana winds and people’s atypical behavior, she’s really trying to show that “…
the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows how close to the edge we are” (221).In “Marrying Absurd”, Didion mocks the Las Vegas quickie wedding industry. She contrasts what is considered the normal image of a wedding to that of a Vegas wedding. Weddings there aren’t done in a traditional way; Las Vegas weddings are cheap and tasteless, just as the city is. The requirements for marriage in Vegas are minimal. All that is needed is for the bride to swear she is eighteen or have parental permission, the groom to be twenty- one or have parental permission, and five dollar for the marriage license (fifteen dollars on Sundays and holidays).
A rush of marriages occur so that men can improve their chances of avoiding the Vietnam War draft; a Presidential Order that said that August 26, 1965 will be the last day in which a man can improve his draft status by getting married. Didion even overheard a girl who could hardly be sixteen, and was clearly pregnant, announce that her quick Vegas wedding had been everything she had ever imagined it would be. People are getting married for the wrong reasons, as well as taking a special occasion, and turning into a venture to be done as quickly as possible. Advertisements for Las Vegas Strip marriages each offer “better and faster service.” Didion pays attention to the different deals that one can find for a marriage and the fact that is is very commercialized.
Furthermore, a wedding usually stays in a person’s memory; however, in Vegas, time is not remembered, because it has no sense of time. When you’re in Las Vegas, there isn’t a sense of when and where you are. A memorable event such as a wedding shouldn’t be held in a place where things aren’t meant to be remembered. This essay is an analogy for American industry, where it takes a traditional, human experience and turns it into a commercial undertaking. Didion obviously finds the marriages unholy and in bad taste. Las Vegas is a place where American traditions are destroyed in favor of pleasure and profit.
In the essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, Didion describes the crazy, disorganized, society of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967 and its lack of a centered way of life. Chaos and disorder rule that place and time. Different stories are randomly shared to elaborate on the feeling of things coming apart. People are not in control. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yates). 1960s California is chaotic and filled with different ideologies, the hippies vs.
the previous generation. The center was not holding. The country was one where “people were missing. Children were missing.
Parents were missing” (84). People were not actually missing, but moved to California to join the hippie movement, of which Didion experiences this chaos. These runaways to California left their steady lives behind in order to pursue what they believed was a place of freedom and love. Instead, most found themselves without a home and looking for their next drug fix. “.
..Children…were never taught and would never now learn the games that held the society together” (84). The center of American society was very quickly starting to unravel; this is once again Didion’s theme of things breaking down from the whole into small disconnected pieces.
The one thing that underwent a dramatic and drastic change in America was everything. The very center which had held America together could no longer hold together. The “center cannot hold” is the theme of social disintegration. There is a loss of values from earlier generations, as well as a disintegration of community. “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.
Once we had seen these children, we could not longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed” (122-123). The sense of apprehension and anxiety indicate that life is full of disorder and upheaval. Unfortunately, not much can be done about it. When Didion says “the center will not hold”, I believe she is conveying, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” People ultimately need to accept unpleasant events and chaos in order to fully live their lives and go on. Even in today’s society, chaos and change are constantly occurring.
Today’s Millennials, or Generation Y, are probably viewed by their previous Generation X, in the same way that the young generation of the 1960s saw their older generation before them.