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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Ironies for Our Time
A review of Joan Didion's Democracy.
Vintage Books. 1984. 234 pages. $13.
is chair of the English Department at Assumption College in Worcester,
Massachusetts, where he teaches courses in writing and literature.
For six months or so, a recurrent phrase has run through my mind as I've read the news from Iraq. The phrase is unfortunately ironic, its source now twenty years old: Joan Didion's Democracy. It's an astonishing novel which, like fine wine, has improved with age; indeed, it should be required reading for anyone intending to vote this November -- regardless of his or her party affiliation. The phrase that returns to me time and again could serve as a caption for nearly every story coming out of Iraq: this violence "reflect[s] the normal turbulence of a nascent democracy." In the novel, the phrase is launched from the mouth of Harry Victor, a US senator and presidential hopeful, during a "fact-finding mission to Jakarta," a press conference, actually -- scheduled so that the wire reporters can make Friday deadlines at the New York Times and Washington Post. The phrase is Victor's description of "rumored" rioting in Surabaya, compounded by "rumors" that "not only an American tourist but a German businessman" had been killed in the riots. It is the year of living -dangerously, 1969.
Thirty-five years later, that "normal turbulence" continues (readers of the June issue of Peacework, for instance, will be acquainted with John M. Miller's outline of US complicity with the ongoing violence in Indonesia -- and we can expect such "turbulence" to continue in Iraq for a long time to come.
At a reception held for him in Jakarta, Didion's Harry Victor says "over and over again that Americans were learning major lessons in Southeast Asia." But the novel's putative hero, Jack Lovett, a "consultant in international development" whose career has consisted of "unusual posts at unusual times" (how do you spell CIA?) can think of "only one lesson Americans were learning... A tripped Claymore mine explodes straight up." A few minutes later, Lovett will speak more directly to Victor's ostensible mission: "I believe some human rights are being violated out on the verandah."
Didion has always been tuned to ironies, to the small details that suggest the big picture, to the personal or family moments that represent the national temper, and Democracy provides these pleasures and more. The novel's large themes are woven together beautifully: the risks of constructing a narrative that will explain or render coherent something as amorphous as the American national character, the mass media's assault on memory, our culture's historical reliance on Christian missionaries as a commercial and political vanguard. And then there are our sacred myths: that a person as politically and economically privileged as a US senator can remain "just a private citizen," that fundamental technological changes do not change the political system signified by the signifier "democracy." Abstract as some of these ideas may sound, Didion raises questions through immediate and compellingly dramatized scenes.
In Democracy, Didion has crafted a novel of suspense, and of reticence -- that now too-rare mark of emotional and spiritual value. Sympathizing with her characters, Didion allows us to sympathize with them also. In the following scene, her use of repetition helps us understand more deeply the psychological state of her protagonist:
"In this context I always see Inez Victor as she looked in a piece of WNBC film showing a party on the St. Regis roof given by the governor of New York, some kind of afternoon party, a wedding or christening or an anniversary, nominally private but heavily covered by the press. On this piece of film... Inez Victor can be seen dancing with Harry Victor. She is wearing a navy-blue silk dress and a shiny dark straw hat with red cherries. 'Marvelous,' she is heard to say repeatedly on the clip.
As we chart the nuances of the word "marvelous," we see, little by little, through the public mask that a woman like Inez must wear, and then Didion gives us the big payoff, with Inez's refrain seeming to comment directly on her husband's patently false assertion.
Years ago, speaking about US films, the comedian Mort Saul argued that "It matters who gets the girl... because the girl is America." His idea applies to Didion's novel, as well. True, Inez Victor marries the public man accountable to the people, but her relationship with Jack Lovett begins when she is still a relative innocent, shortly after World War II -- and it is more than a flirtation. Will "the girl" ultimately be "won" by a man who says things like, "Either Jefferson was right or he wasn't.... I happen to believe he was," or by the secretive CIA agent who says little and whose very existence will be denied by a government dedicated to the preservation of myths?
A delight to read, Didion's novel raises important
questions. It deserves a larger audience.