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Joan & Joan: Writing Vulnerability and Frailty

Vulnerability can, of course, be experienced physically as well as emotionally, or even both at the same time. But it seems that whilst physical vulnerability is accepted as inevitable, emotional vulnerability is often presented as something to be overcome.

Art by Ely Yu

“[S]he is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her…She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand.”

— Joan Didion, Slouching for Bethlehem (1968)

I have been thinking about vulnerability and frailty in the work of Joan Didion and Joan Baez.

In her 1968 essay, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”, Joan Didion wrote on folk singer Joan Baez, her apparently naive approach to political action, and her capacity for vulnerability which, according to Didion, allowed Baez “to ‘come through’ to all the young and lonely and inarticulate.” Didion cast a critical eye over Baez’s revolutionary ambitions, as she did over all revolutionary politics. However, she was unusually sympathetic to the folk singer, perhaps charmed by Baez’ awareness of the charisma of her own naivety and vulnerability. Whilst “Where the Kissing Never Stops” exemplifies the cool, concise, and detached prose Didion is known for throughout her work, Didion would later approach the vulnerability she identifies in Baez — in particular with her intimate 2005 memoir on the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. Both the Joans find something within this vulnerability: a frailty inherent to their humanity. 

“Where the Kissing Never Stops”, included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, continues Didion’s examination of the disaffected youth of America in the 1960s, and what Didion sees as their futile search for a sense of salvation. The essay deals specifically with Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Carmel Valley, California, and neighbouring conservative families’ attempts to shut down the school, which they thought might demoralise younger generations’ involvement in the Vietnam war, and, in Didion’s words, “lead to ‘Berkley-type’ demonstrations”. 

Always sceptical of revolutionaries, Didion is critical of Baez’ political naivety. In Didion’s eyes, Beaz’ political participation was limited to instincts: as Didion wrote, “to encourage Joan Baez to be ‘political’ is really only to encourage Joan Baez to continue ‘feeling’ things.” And yet, Didion suggests that the naive aspect of Baez’ character was one that attracted a kind of apostolic following. Her allure, according to Didion, is this childlike openness and vulnerability, rooted in her way of “hang[ing] on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder…of her own or of anyone’s adolescence.”

I first recognised Baez’ vulnerability in her song “Diamonds and Rust”, written following a phone call with her long-term ex-lover Bob Dylan. The lyrics make a lot of sense if you know a little of Dylan’s character. When I found the song, I related deeply to Baez’s words, and to her feeling that her emotions were trivialised by someone’s attempt to intellectualise them, so as to make them appear unreasonable. Baez recounts her frustration with Dylan’s indifference towards her, and his efforts to reason his way out of showing any kind of vulnerability. This frustration reaches its apex in the lyrics: “Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic / then give me another word for it / you who are so good with words / and at keeping things vague”. In baring herself completely through the song, in making herself vulnerable, Baez reveals her frailty She cannot, despite Dylan’s aloofness, be unaffected and continue on after this phone call; “we both know what memories can bring / they bring diamonds and rust.” With her accusatory, almost mocking tone of Dylan’s rationality — “you who are so good with words” — Baez seems unconvinced by Dylan’s unaffected exterior, perhaps believing him to be in denial of some inherent human frailty. 

Vulnerability can, of course, be experienced physically as well as emotionally, or even both at the same time. But it seems that whilst physical vulnerability is accepted as inevitable, emotional vulnerability is often presented as something to be overcome. 

I was both listening to “Diamonds and Rust”, and reading The Year of Magical Thinking, when my boyfriend Toby went to hospital in February. He had bad pneumonia in his left lung with further complications. He is usually a pretty cool customer. Not so much a stoic, but he takes thoughtful time to respond to questions, and seems unaffected by silences, so it is strange to see him vulnerable and frail like this. He probably had pneumonia for weeks earlier, and was smoking too many cigarettes. In January his breath was warm and wheezy. He told me about a dream he had of his lungs, seeing them as a cave, with inside a baby’s rattle aflame and rocking in the dark, shaking off its little embers. 

“Like the death rattle,” Toby said. He went back to work a few days later. 

Didion took a turn towards vulnerability in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which recounts the year following the death of her husband John Dunne. Finding herself in a vulnerable position after losing Dunne suddenly to a heart attack, Didion confronts a frailty within herself, which she struggles to reconcile with her public persona of a cool, calm, and unaffected figure. Moments before Didion is told her husband died in hospital, she hears the doctor being advised, “It’s ok, she’s a pretty cool customer.”. Didion questions her coolness, and wonders, or perhaps fantasises, about “what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” Didion’s “cool customer” persona is not one conjured just by the media, but also by her own writing. Despite the many horrific scenes Didion witnesses in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album,  she is always unmoved and unfaltering; unaffected, she is the capitalist ideal. 

I remember noticing Didion’s cynical attitude towards sentimentality, in how she quoted Baez’s journal in “Where the Kissing Never Stops”: “[m]y life is a crystal teardrop”. Later in the essay, Didion refers to this phrase again, describing Baez as “the girl whose life is a crystal teardrop”, but her tone here is almost sardonic, using the metaphor as a way to highlight Baez’s naive, emotional, and instinctive nature; her way of “feeling” over thinking. The Year of Magical Thinking, however, similarly sees Didion’s characteristic rationality overcome by feeling. Didion coins “the vortex effect”, to describe her recurrent experience of seeing reasonable lines of thinking spiral out into formless, chaotic whirlpools of memory and emotion. Somehow, the naive and emotional nature which she recognised in Baez as a deficiency, became one that would ultimately overpower Didion’s rational mind, and lead her to a year of magical thinking.

In an essay titled “Joan Didion: Becoming Frail”, Matthew McLennan relates this emotional vulnerability that appears in The Year of Magical Thinking, to her confrontation with the physical body’s frailty, provoked by her husband’s sudden and unexpected death. For McLennan, Didion becomes vulnerable as she comes to realise the conflict between one’s ontological obligations to others, and the physical precarity of one’s life and body.

Whilst I cannot say that all emotional vulnerability might be obviously linked to physical vulnerability, the very primal fears of physical and emotional vulnerability must at least run parallel. Thinking of the vulnerability of the body panics me. I think of the scene in that old surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, where a woman’s eye is sliced open with a straight razor in about two seconds. In reality, it wouldn’t even take a razor — you could probably take an eye out with a cotton bud.  

“It leaves a mark,” cool customer Toby said of his own frailty. And “it” could be anything: pneumonia or some other non-physical disappointment. But it does, always, leave a mark.