Sublimity and Human Fallibility: Didion, ‘At the Dam’

So much has been written about Joan Didion that it seems superfluous to give any detailed accounts of her life, here (Lily Anolik’s brilliant recent article about her published in Vanity Fair is a brilliant way to get to know more about her.) Born in California in 1934, Didion is known for her fiction but mostly for her non-fiction, often in the style of New Journalism, that is, journalism that reads like a novel. Like other contemporary writers of new journalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and others), Didion wrote about American culture and American life often in the first person and with a tangibly present personal style, voice and vision.

Perhaps, her very short essay ‘At the Dam’ is one of the best entry points into her work. The 1970 essay is about the Hoover Dam, built in the 1930s and located between Arizona and Nevada in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. However, what is really the subject of the essay is not so much the dam itself but Didion’s affective experience of it and the way in which the dam keeps returning to her in her memories.

As the essay progresses, Didion explores a number of possible reasons why the dam has left such a mark on her, and the second paragraph of the essay gives several clues:

I used to wonder what it was about the dam that made me think of it at times and in places where I once thought of the Mindanao Trench, or of the stars wheeling in their courses, or of the words As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen. Dams, after all, are commonplace: we have all seen one. This particular dam had existed as an idea in the world’s mind for almost forty years before I saw it. Hoover Dam, showpiece of the Boulder Canyon project, the several million tons of concrete that made the Southwest plausible, the fait accompli that was to convey, in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.

In her consciousness, the dam becomes associated with sublime thoughts about immensity and eternity. But the dam also evokes nostalgia for American myths of progress and an awareness of their fallibility. The dam and its surroundings are evocative of human endeavor and tragedy (ninety-six men died building this first of the great high dams), but it also transcends human nature. And this is where Didion’s essay crystallizes its vision:

But history does not explain it all, does not entirely suggest what makes that dam so affecting. Nor, even, does energy, the massive involvement with power and pressure and the transparent sexual overtones to that involvement. Once when I revisited the dam I walked through it with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation. […] We saw almost no one. Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed. The gratings on which we stood vibrated. We watched a hundred-ton steel shaft plunging down to that place where the water was. And finally we got down to that place where the water was, where the water sucked out of Lake Mead roared through thirty-foot penstocks and then into thirteen-foot penstocks and finally into the turbines themselves. “Touch it,” the Reclamation said, and I did, and for a long time I just stood there with my hands on the turbine. It was a peculiar moment, but so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.

The sensuous force of the dam (so well conveyed through Didion’s expert manipulation of rhythm and sentence structure) can be felt in those lines. The dam—a product of man—ultimately takes on a life of its own and ironically, in so doing, it makes the poignancy of human ephemerality all the more tangible:

Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.  


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