Joan Didion’s The White Album, published in 1979, is a beautiful and powerful piece of writing. It functions on myriad levels: at once a logical argument, philosophical exploration, diary and historical report. The first line of The White Album is also the most important: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It serves as an introduction, but could serve just as well as a conclusion. The need to tell stories in order to survive is what drives the essay.

The White Album takes place in the late sixties and early seventies, a turbulent time in Didion’s life. On the surface, the work seems to be a diaristic approach to a synopsis of the decade. She takes us through her experiences, the disjointing of the text into 15 unrelated chapters signifying the mounting paranoia, disillusionment, and chaos.

Didion is attempting to draw strings through an entire decade of her life—a decade which threw her into the center of a tumultuous society and spat her out grasping for meaning. I think the essay is an attempt to make sense of things, to understand chaos, coincidence, and meaninglessness. Her personal reconciliation with chaos coincides with the chaos of the sixties, and we are provided with a deeply personal look into an era which is often represented through collective belief, experience, and culture. Didion’s perspective is a testament to how different things can be than they appear, as we are drawn through her torment and paranoia in a time which is so often seen as happy, peaceful, and energizing. She overloads us with detail: sometimes incredibly specific, such as her description of Ray Manzarek eating a boiled egg; at other moments distant, glossing over months at a time. This information overload is connected to the era’s growing media obsession, with Didion mentioning newspapers, television, and radio over and over again. She takes us through her visits to jail, periods in hospital, and entanglement in then-current events.

The aspects of The White Album I am most interested in are its philosophical and logical implications. I believe that with her piece Didion is disproving the traditional logical belief that an argument containing contradictions in its premise must be discarded. Didion cannot ‘discard’ the premises, as they are in fact her life, and to deny their truth would be to deny her reality. This application of logical principles to her life is reminiscent of Hegel, who believed that his theory of logic could be applied not only to every logical concept, but also “everything true in general.” The first three quarters of the text can be read as a fleshing out of Hegel’s dialectic. Again and again, Didion reaches a thesis, believing she knows something to be true, and has her belief dissolved by the following antithesis. The third stage in Hegel’s dialectic is the synthesis, the integration of opposites into a truth. Didion grasps at this but inevitably demonstrates that in life synthesis is rarely achieved. We see this in the first paragraph, when Didion states that “We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.”

Again and again, the thesis and antithesis clash. Her theory about Huey P. Newton is destroyed when she realizes he is not “an historical outsider confronting the established order at its most petty and impenetrable level” but in fact a “Kaiser”, in this case meaning both an emperor and a member of the Kaiser health plan. Her theory about the rioting students is dissolved when she finds the campus united and optimistic. Linda Kasabian’s nurturing personality is at odds with her role in the Manson family. Didion is being named Woman of the Year while in hospital recovering from an attack of vertigo and nausea. Despite this contradiction, she cannot dismiss the ‘argument’—it would be dismissing herself, her own identity. She must synthesize, discover who Joan Didion is, when the way she sees herself and what everyone else sees are at complete odds.

I, too, found myself trying to reach synthesis as I read The White Album, wanting to integrate the highly personal quality of the text with its detached writing style and logical notes. Didion recreates the phenomenon she is speaking of in the reader. As I read, I wondered who Joan Didion was. The form of the piece forces the reader to go through this same process. The breaking apart of the text means you must find some way of linking the chapters if you are to accept The White Album as one piece of writing. The bringing together of the chapters is not easy, as they jump in time and content, often beginning on a completely different subject than where she last left off. Didion echoes this with the title, naming the essay after The White Album by The Beatles- an album known for its disunity. The investigation of how humans process chaos which underlies The White Album is quite nicely summed up at the end of the first paragraph when she states: “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” She depicts her life through its most poignant moments, which are never truly capable of accounting for the whole thing. Writing will never be quite as real as life.

This masterful integration of form and function reminds me that, after all, Didion is doing what most writers do—writing about writing. Applications of philosophical theory to her work remain questionable because The White Album is blatantly non-objective. Didion tells us this herself, stating that she “was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw.” The White Album is making statements about writing, about why Didion needs to write, what it means to her, and why it is so powerful. Is Didion making a case for writing? Not necessarily; but I believe that she is making a case for storytelling. It is storytelling which provides the solution to Didion’s conundrum. She does not come to sensical conclusions about what the sixties meant, she does not come to understand herself, nor does she find absolute truth. But she does manage to unite all of the opposites which plague her, by writing them down in The White Album. Didion shares with us that she never manages to figure out what all of it meant, stating in the last lines of the piece that:

“I also know that in 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to ‘continue my writing.’

“Writing had helped him, he said, to ‘reflect on experience and see what it means.’ Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Logically, the events cannot be connected, yet she lived them and presents them here, together as one. What unites them is the very fact that they are being told. By doing this, Didion suggests that synthesis is not about finding ultimate truth, or about fully reconciling contradiction. For her, it is about knowing that she doesn’t know. Multiple things can be true at once, and humans are multifaceted. Synthesis is about accepting this and being able to move on. She has already told us, in the first line of the essay, that it does not matter if the story makes sense— it matters if it is told. The White Album is a story told in order to live.

Calla McInnes is a sophomore in the Visual and Critical Studies Department. She hails from Canada.