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annotation: “At the Dam,” by Joan Didion

This is a first: because of one commenter’s interest in my original post on The White Album, I’m just going ahead and publishing the craft annotation I wrote for school on “At the Dam.” You’ll have to let me know if this is interesting or the opposite. Call it an experiment.

10/14/2017
Annotation 14: Finding the Star Map (or central image)

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

“At the Dam” is an essay less than four pages long, which describes Hoover Dam and its ongoing fascination for the narrator. Its very short length and the scale of its subject (literally, in terms of the dam, and figuratively, in terms of its large pull on Didion) make it an interesting study for me, especially because it deals with place. I found that my reactions to the essays of The White Album varied widely: some interested and involved me more than others. This essay inspired my imagination.

Only five paragraphs: and what work do they do? The first paragraph begins, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Didion goes on to say where she sees the dam appear in that “inner eye”: Los Angeles, New York, while driving; and what it looks like: pristine, gleaming white, vertiginous, shadowed, ominous; its setting: harsh rusts and taupes and mauves. She hears its turbines (a sound as yet undescribed). She wonders how much water is being released (a fascination more generally revealed in an earlier essay in this collection, “Holy Water”). This is all good setting of the scene and the stakes, and includes images.

The second paragraph juxtaposes two ways of thinking about the dam: she compares it to the Mindanao Trench or the stars (baffling enormity), then calls dams “commonplace.” She places the Hoover Dam in history. It “made the Southwest plausible… convey[ed], in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.” This is a short paragraph, but important in that it provides these choices of context. The dam is as vast and inexplicable as the stars; it is familiar; it embodies the American dream, its promise and hubris. This last holds extra significance, because the essence of “America” (here meaning the United States) is one of Didion’s themes in this collection.

Paragraph three develops this idea, “that sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced.” Images include a memorial plaque, a model city, “a toy triangular grid of green lawns and trim bungalows,” bronze sculptures, “Winged Victories guard[ing] the flagpole,” the flag. My favorite is an empty Pepsi-Cola can: how American, and how expressive of disappointment and disillusionment. Someone has littered at this failed American monument, which however still works, in the practical sense.

The fourth paragraph begins, “But history does not explain it all,” and so Didion will have to keep trying. The practical work of the dam–its capturing and transforming of energy into a form more useful to our human society–does not explain it either. She describes touring the dam with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation, and I pause to look this up: it’s the federal institution that manages water and power in the west. In this paragraph, Didion allows “Reclamation” to stand in for the man himself, a metonymy with religious overtones: “‘Touch it,’ the Reclamation said, and I did.” (A typo for “the Reclamation man”? I like it this way.) In this paragraph she describes the physical features of the dam, its workings, and the area around it, emphasizing its weirdness. Sexual overtones, parts where visitors do not go, alien, complete and beautiful, unpeopled; cranes move as if on their own, machinery roars and hums and vibrates. She finishes with the odd statement that the peculiar moment was “so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.” This one made me stop to think.

The fifth and final paragraph makes a final attempt to grasp something “beyond energy, beyond history.” Didion again juxtaposes everyday Americana with the alien world of the dam. And then she fixes on an image: “the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left.” This, she decides, stands in for the dam, “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.” In five paragraphs, she has stated her fascination (obsession, even?) with the Hoover Dam, explored its significances (history, energy, sheer scale) without finding its true significance to her, and then found it at last.

In reading this essay, my personal background inspired an initial gut reaction: Edward Abbey and my father agree that big dams like this are bad for the natural world. But on closer reading, I think that a) Didion doesn’t necessarily deny that truth and b) it doesn’t matter; she is not making a value judgment, but an observation of the dam’s power over her. That dynamo free of man (more metonymy–I’d prefer humankind) is impressive whether we agree with its rightness or not.

“At the Dam” has inspired me to write an essay modeled on hers about a place that matters to me, although I haven’t figured out yet what that place is. I’m okay with this. I’m working on the essay in my head without knowing what it’s about yet, and sometimes they come out this way: I work on them for six bike rides and then come home and the thing bursts out fully formed like Athena (but a lumpy and misshapen Athena that requires editing, of course). I want to model an essay on the form and structure–and length–of hers, and I hope to find its star map. I’ll be on the lookout for such a place in my own personal history; I’m sure it exists.

4 Responses

  1. The bicycle itself may be that place!

  2. ​Thanks for posting this; I’m grateful for insight into the impact of her essay, as well as the inspiration to read it, carefully, myself. And I share your appreciation for both the form and her craft. I can’t wait to see your own version, eventually.

    Time & place is a provocative theme for this annotation, enlisting each reader’s own references in that cause. Here are some of mine…

    Her essay was first published in 1970; acute awareness of “precise intersection of time and space” is also relevant in reading her observations & reflections, which came:
    – at the height of Abbey’s rage & influence, inspiring a generation in the year of the first Earth Day;
    – at a time when her age made her an ‘elder’ amidst youthful social activism, perhaps enabling more contemplation;
    – 16 years before Reisner’s publication of the classic ‘Cadillac Desert,’ informing a generation about the brilliance, corruption & tragedy of the Bureau of Reclamation; its dams, turbines, canals & pumps that fueled wars and ‘progress.’

    Another book reference, coming much later, only 10 years ago: Weisman’s ‘The World Without Us’ researches in some detail how human relics will degrade once we are gone – including dams. The Reclamation man seems to be right; dams will be among the last human things to be reclaimed by natural forces of dust, wind & water. Another resilient vestige will be refineries; and an observer on that guided tour would have impressions similar to Didion’s.

    I find her essay positively drips with tragic irony, both intended (I’m convinced) and enhanced by readers’ wisdom & perspective gained since. It is no coincidence that a ‘machine vs nature’ metaphor is common in social commentary; it is the visceral sense of machine operating outside our reach that she feels in paragraph four. And it is no contradiction to acknowledge the miracle of industry that has created our bountiful affluence, while seeking an honest view of consequence.

    With all the place references you and I may find, in conclusion she has created an iconic image, anonymous in place, a timeless industrial machine as proxy for hubris to be found in all too many places: “free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation” – and “of course… monument to faith misplaced.”

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