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Can the Center Hold? It Never Does

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here we go again. Something is slouching in the general direction of Bethlehem, or whatever passes for “Bethlehem” these days, and as the slouching proceeds, a lot of people are saying that the center is coming undone.

America has suffered “a hollowing out of the political center,” one writer says. Another notes that revolution is “creeping closer as the political center collapses.” The New York Times is on the case, publishing a column helpfully titled, “The Center Cannot Hold.” Times readers get the reference.

What they get, of course, is a line from a William Butler Yeats poem that, over many years of earnest post-collegiate flogging, has been stripped of bark and flower, leaving it a bare ruined choir.

More than Yeats, however, it’s Joan Didion who deserves credit for this endlessly recycled trope about an uncentered center. Didion’s 1968 essay collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” borrowing another phrase from the same poem, is a cultural landmark much beloved by the sorts of people who write opinion pieces and headlines. (“Bare Ruined Choir” is a book title stolen from another poet, Shakespeare, by another journalist who gained fame in the 1960s, Garry Wills.)

The essays in Didion’s book are uneven. (“On Morality” reads like Didion counted each disobliging word until she hit the contractually agreed upon sum.) But the good ones are very good. What’s more, they’ve shown impressive stamina. Most of Didion’s commentary on American entropy seems as astute now as it was a half century ago.

It’s worth asking why.

“Of course not all of the pieces in this book have to do, in a ‘subject’ sense, with the general breakup, with things falling apart,” Didion writes in the preface to her book. Maybe not. But if you’re inclined to see unraveling, Didion gives you plenty of what you came for. She chose the title, and chose to begin the book with the Yeats poem that stalks us still. You won’t find a middle to cling to here.

Indeed, the uneasy anchor of the book is the title essay, the collection’s longest, which occupies the physical center of a slender volume. It’s the void at the core of Didion’s creation.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is great journalism today. It must have induced chills when it was published. At a time when others went to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in search of flower power, as if such a thing could exist, Didion descended in 1967 with another purpose in mind. “San Francisco,” she writes, “was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies’.”

Perhaps there was peace and love to be found. But Didion chronicled social disintegration with a side of youthful brutality, presaging the Manson murders that took place 380 miles and two years down the road. She quotes a pamphleteer who chronicled the hippie scene on mimeographed sheets.

Pretty little 16-year-old middle-class chick comes to the Haight to see what it’s all about & gets picked up by a 17-year-old dealer who spends all day shooting her full of speed again & again, then feeds her 3,000 mikes & raffles off her temporarily unemployed body for the biggest Haight Street gangbang since the night before last. The politics and ethics of ecstasy.

Didion provides no context for the violence, no judgment on the horror. It’s just an event that occurred in a particular time and place — Haight Ashbury, year of the Summer of Love.

Eventually, after Max and Sharon and Tom and Barbara get pretty high on hash, and the Grateful Dead show up with groupies to spare, or share, and various characters trip or eat or simply surrender to the collective confusion, Didion gets down to business. “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum,” she writes. “Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed.”

Having fled the world of adults, Didion’s children constructed an alternative filled with hopes and feelings and attitudes (and drugs) but lacking coherence, direction, rigor, order — a future. Wandering the psychedelic labyrinth, Didion eventually arrives at her story’s end, her ultimate lost child. She is guided to a girl named Susan who likes ice cream and wants a bicycle for Christmas. Susan is wearing white lipstick and reading a comic book on a living-room floor. She is 5 years old and high on acid.

In a documentary about Didion — it’s called “The Center Will Not Hold,” in case you had hoped otherwise — she is asked what she thought of that eerie scene. She pauses before offering this: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that if you're doing a piece.”

It’s a horrifying revelation, a jolting, sickening, aftershock, decades removed from the original quake. It turns out Didion was not a detached observer. She was an enthusiastic witness. Watching centrifugal forces pulling at the center, she rooted for the unraveling. Crashes make good copy.

Yet Didion’s perceptions were genuine, her focus on children shrewd. Her fragile subjects, and her insights about them, give her essay a disturbing, undiminished power. Indeed, the plight of youth might be what links the uncentering of 2020 to the anomie of 1967. It’s not just the rapier politics of race and resentment, the disorientation of high-speed culture or the pervasive, species-wide threat — more biological than nuclear at the moment. It’s their harrowing effects on a young generation reeling from overdoses of debt and doubt.

To be young in America in 2020 might be more perilous than it was in the late 1960s.  The federal government keeps some migrant children in cages, awaiting processing. Others it stole from parents, then passed on to new homes without leaving a forwarding address. A bad trip.

Children born in America are also under duress. The cost of education is exorbitant; the dominion of drugs, conveyed by doctor’s prescription, pervasive. In 2015-2016, 18% of children under age 12, and 27% of adolescents ages 12 to 19, had used prescription drugs in the past 30 days.

George Wallace and Richard Nixon, who in 1968 both sought to carve up the nation for political advantage, have been supplanted by Donald Trump, who combines their most vicious instincts and venal appetites. Trump’s racial aggression, his most authentic contribution to public life, is felt most keenly by the young. The most common age of white Americans is 58. For black America, it’s 27. For Hispanics, 11.

As older whites cling to power, climate change bears down on the young — who wonder what, exactly, they stand to inherit. Nihilism, the unbranded version of Trumpism, is manifested in a deathly enthusiasm for carbon, by the president’s sabotage of any attempt to ameliorate its effects, and by his eagerness, even impatience, to release additional toxins, both chemical and metaphorical, into the world. The president amuses his followers by publicly attacking a teenage girl from Sweden whose sole offense is a desire for a healthier planet.

Between the bomb and the war, the Weathermen and the drugs, the youth surveyed by Didion came to their untethering honestly enough. But a generation coming of age today under planetary stress and political demagogy has every reason to suspect that the center has no place for it, and may well not hold its own. Investing their hopes in an odd and angry old man from Vermont seems as plausible a strategy as any.

So will the center hold? In truth, it never does. It collapses, reemerges, reconstitutes, adapting to new forces and new realities. The humans who occupy it, or orbit around it, evolve as well, recalibrating to align themselves to an emergent nucleus. That’s how societies keep from dying. At least until the center neither holds nor reconstitutes, but implodes altogether.

It’s no doubt hard to recognize such a terminus when you come to it. But in its death throes, I like to think that the center shimmers for a brief and shining moment, like gold.

To contact the author of this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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