The Rise of Narrative and The Fall of Persuasion

I “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This must be the most overly admired sentence by the most overly admired writer of our time. It is the renowned opening of Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album,” a canonical document of high-end alienation, and it long ago achieved fortune-cookie status. Didion was making the unsophisticated point that we abhor incoherence and so we attempt to defeat it by ordering it with interpretation. “We interpret what we see.” Yes, yes. “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.” We certainly do, though this is still a long way from an interesting view of knowledge.  The problem, of course, is that the phantasmagoria keeps shifting. No sooner has Didion stabilized the mental situation than incoherence again rears its ugly head. It turns out that stories may not settle the matter. “I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling. I suppose this period began around 1966 and ended around 1971.” There follows her account, so adamantly cool as to be overheated, of the grand convulsions of the 1960s, which in her telling turns out to have been a lot of fun: she is in a recording studio with the Doors (“Manzarek ate a hard-boiled egg”), she hangs out with Eldridge Cleaver, she shops at I. Magnin for the dress (“Size 9 Petite”) that Linda Kasabian will wear at her trial for the murder of Sharon Tate and the others at the house on Cielo Drive owned by Roman Polanski (“[he] and

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