Joan Didion, “On Morality”

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

My purpose here is to focus on the art of a sentence–not to merely look for what’s pithy or quotable, not to look for what speaks to the day’s news–but, as I was looking back through some of Didion’s books today, because she is in my mind one of the living master’s of the nonfiction sentence, of the elusive, shifting jab, jab, dance of a sentence that aims to sock us in the jaw, I came across this in a short essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. And though she wrote it in 1965, this sentence has something to say to us these days because there’s a whole pile of moral imperatives being lobbed from all directions on a daily basis. But I’ll leave it to you to figure out who our current “fashionable madmen” are.

I love this sentence because though it’s the kind of nonfiction sentence intent on advancing its argument, though it’s a sentence filled with big ideas and little of the minute particulars that often make me take notice, Didion has just enough rhythm, just enough flair, to sink these words into our ears. The three successive thens of the sentence, following as they do that big Because (and I’m sure a nun somewhere in my education told me never to begin a sentence with because), are a large part of what makes this all click shut. Then there’s also those “fashionable madmen”, a wonderful phrase Didion rightly stole from Auden and “the thin whine of hysteria,” a great image which seems just right and like something we can actually hear, as if the sum total of all the editorials, cable-news diatribes, rants on sports radio, and Facebook posts made a noise that tells us exactly how bad our trouble is.

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