Joan Didion on self-respect

I’ve just re-read an essay by the American writer Joan Didion on self-respect.

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others โ€” who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett Oโ€™Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

This is a bit of a problem. The world is shouting very loudly that we should make ourselves unique, work on our #branding, tell our story and build our reputation. And indeed this seems to make sense. There are a lot of us about.

But if we Gen Xers and Millenials are intent on building our brands and telling our stories, Didion warns to at least not get trapped into it too early. On the 24 year old singer, Joan Baez:

Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person. And, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her.

It’s heartening to know that it would be disastrous to be too good, too soon, and that it isn’t actually necessary to have a reputation at all.

Published by Rachel Wheeley

Comedian, podcaster, based in London, UK

One thought on “Joan Didion on self-respect

  1. If, as Joan Didion writes elsewhere in that essay, there are devastatingly well-lit back alleys where we keep assignations with ourselves, she is there in mine, preternaturally awake and alert, my own steel-rimmed mental Auntie Joan, scorning my need for the approval of others, and my attempts to blame failures on the disapproval, or lack of interest, of others. Oh, Auntie J, gimme a break, pleease! I’m only human after all.

    If I have a criticism of ‘On Self-Respect’, it’s that there’s not enough psychology in it. It’s the doctrine of the stiff upper lip expounded in perfect, unforgiving, sharp-edged prose. Maybe it took an American to say it; no Brit in possession of it could, perhaps, explain it, or think it worth explaining; if you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and that’s all that matters. But how to get it? Buck one’s ideas up? Pull oneself together?

    And yet, there are clues: she writes of the ‘willingness to accept responsibility for ones own life.’ Which is almost a rejection of psychology, when you think about it. The search for causes and effects in the psyche; for self-knowledge. We assume that’s a good and necessary quest. Could be wrong. Or, truly complete self-knowledge could involve accepting the limits of all those parental, life-circumstance causes and effects. Scary, Auntie Joan.


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