Life changes in an instant / The ordinary instant ~ Joan Didion, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’
Joan Didion’s journalism spared nothing and no one. From the vanities of Havana and the agonistes of former US President William Jefferson Clinton to the 9–11 tragedy in 2001 and those charged of being “straw men” of the ‘Blame America” movement, she engaged them all without pulling her punches.
Her essay ‘Sentimental Journeys,’ a classic of New York’s bon vivant reportage, took the heinous shadow ogling in Central Park and the rape of women there to mean not only violence against the body but the mind as well.
But her most enduring contribution to the world of journalism, in my opinion, didn’t involve the barbaric goings on in conflict zones or the obvious human sufferings one can smell and touch in sweatshops interred in the underbelly of Manhattan.
It involved her unblinking investigation of personal grief — her own, in particular — and the candor by which she described the debris such grief had left behind.
Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be, she said. Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life […] Tightness in the throat. Choking, need for sighing (The Year of Magical Thinking, p26–27).
In page 22, she went on to say, I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
In investigating “the power of grief to derange the mind,” Didion placed herself in the path of a run-amuck train. This is where Didion exposed her innermost self to the ravages of an unforgiving and largely devil-may-care public while in the throes of pain.
It’s the bravest of all the things any journalist can ever get into who was trained to not become part of the story.
Moreover, to stare grief in the face and skin it for what it’s worth in future knowledge and wisdom place Didion in an armistice with the self, a volatile yet necessary condition for journalists when attempting to understand the convolutions found, as Pablo Neruda once mentioned, “between the shadow and the soul”.
I had allowed other people to think he was dead. I had allowed him to be buried alive. And here we see Didion trying to comprehend the incomprehensible: the death of her husband, the American screenwriter and critic John Gregory Dunne in 2003.
All throughout the book, Didion ventured into memory to soften the blows of grief and loss, the more poignant being her time with her husband in a cave at the Portuguese Bend, swimming in the swell of crystal clear water.
Despite her attempts, grief, hopelessness, and a debilitating attitude of insouciance haunted her steps.
I look for resolution and find none, she wrote.
In another place, she said:
I also know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water. Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.
As one author had aptly put it, Didion was “the genius of sadness”. I guess, to some extent, she was. “She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum,” author Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Everything is Illuminated.
But to me, Didion was more than your everyday savant. Her genius lay in her honesty. For nevermore can a journalist of her caliber expose herself without attracting vile criticism than when her guard was down. Willfully. Yet she neither cringed at the thought nor the possibility.
I recall one author who said that grief is the price we pay for love. Didion gave more than what was expected: the decision to live with that grief and face its daily reverberations across every aspect of her life. Perhaps it is because grief itself triggers memory, the same memory which helps us navigate what can only now be an imagined life.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it […] We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference of grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
For 18 years, Didion bore on her shoulders the moment of terror and the meaninglessness of her loss until her death in Dec. 23, 2021. That she was able to look grief in the eyes all those years and pen her most riveting memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, tells me the kind of journalist that she was and had always been: bold and indomitable. The inimitable provocateur.
For no stronger provocation can be had than to provoke one’s self to stay alive, because of rage or love, despite all the reasons to end it.
And Didion showed us how.