My rating: 4 of 5 stars
15 years and a few months ago, the biggest news story in America, furiously debated for weeks in mainstream media and in the then-novel blogosphere, was “The Case of Theresa Schiavo,” to quote the title of an essay Joan Didion published in June 2005 in The New York Review of Books. Terri Schiavo was a 41-year-old Florida woman who had been living in “a persistent vegetative state”—during the spring of 2005, you could not turn on the TV, open a magazine, or visit a website without encountering this phrase—since she’d suffered cardiac arrest a decade and a half before. She lived in a care facility, was nourished through a feeding tube, and seemed broadly unresponsive to stimuli. Her husband petitioned to have her feeding tube removed to allow her die, which he believed was in accord with her apparent wish, expressed while she was in good health, not to have her life artificially prolonged if no recovery was possible. Her parents disagreed; they claimed that Mr. Schiavo did not have Terri’s best interests at heart and that there was no reason to cut short her life, especially since, in their view, she was responsive to their attention. Courts got involved, and then the familial conflict became national politics, a proxy battle in America’s endless culture war.
For context, this happened shortly after George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. The polls had been close, and many pundits had suspected he might lose; understandably, they cited his failure to win the popular vote in the previous election and the global outrage created by his militarist and millenarian foreign policy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bush’s campaign, however, successfully turned out Christian voters with a “values” appeal—opposition to gay marriage was its centerpiece—and Bush won not only the electoral college but also the popular vote. After his triumph, chastened commentators warned of the administration’s attempt to create a “permanent Republican majority” based on activating infrequent white Christian voters who had the numbers to swamp the liberals. The vanguard of opposition to Bush, therefore, shifted from the anti-war sentiments of the early 2000s to an increasingly belligerent rationalism and secularism typified by the New Atheist movement, an insistence on the separation of church and state that accorded public authority to science over supernatural revelation or subjective values—nothing less than a return to the Age of Reason in a time of evangelical fervor.
The Schiavo case offered these forces an opportunity for combat. Bush and the Republicans moralized over the absolute sanctity of every life (give or take an Iraqi civilian), while liberals fulminated over the secular right to self-determination and human flourishing free of imperious religious strictures (never mind the eerie echoes of eugenicists past, with their own rather restrictive views on what counted as a life worth living). There was plenty of bad faith—literally—to go around. As Didion points out in her article, Schiavo’s dilemma was subliminally recast in the public sphere as a sick allegory for abortion, with Mr. Schiavo as the unlucky “mother” forced by zealots to bear the burden of his child-wife, or else Terri as the defenseless bundle of cells nevertheless nascent with the breath of the Lord, a casual miracle unseen to the dead eye of progressive physicians and atheist activists. Now that everything in public life has shifted, the culture war continues, but the battlefield is unrecognizable: the rationalists and the Christian conservatives today find themselves strange trench-mates in a shared war against the woke left-liberals, who have for their part joined with Bush’s other old allies, the bellicose neoconservatives, in a bid to defeat right-wing populism—which just goes to show that if you define yourself by your politics, time will eventually make a fool of you, if you haven’t made a fool of yourself already. I didn’t know that then—I was only 23—so I fought on the side of the anti-Christian soldiers, which is to say that I blogged at livejournal.com, narrowly in support of Mr. Schiavo’s petition and broadly against what I naïvely took to be a burgeoning theocracy.
I also barely knew who Joan Didion was. I’d been an English major, but not one much interested in postwar American letters. It’s possible, then, that the NYRB piece on Schiavo was my introduction to Didion, and I was too self-righteous at the time to allow it to make any good impression. Who was this awful woman? She seemed to side with the conservatives! Her essay, first, discredits Schiavo’s husband—Didion raises the possibility of abuse and generally portrays him as indolent, callous, and self-serving—and, second, disparages the left-liberal view of human life at large:
Yet even if we had managed to convince ourselves that this case involved the right to die, a problem remained. No one even casually exposed to religious teaching believes any such right exists. “So teach us to number our days,” the Episcopal litany asks, “so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” This is a prayer for the wisdom to accept that death is inevitable, not a plea for control over its timing. “Control” itself, when it comes to the natural processes of life and death, is seen as an illusion, an error we learn through life to relinquish. This is by no means a view confined to Christian fundamentalists. It is a view shared by anyone whose ethical principles or general idea of how life works have at any point been touched by any of the world’s major religions.
When she published “The Case of Theresa Schiavo,” Didion was on the eve of her second coming as a great American writer, this time a popular one: in the fall of 2005, her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, was released and became both a bestseller and an instant classic. Didion writes with her characteristic spareness and economy about the grief that followed the sudden death from a heart attack of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the benumbed dread caused by a contemporaneous, near-fatal succession of illnesses suffered by their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, who would in fact die at age 39 after the book’s completion but shortly before its publication.
I didn’t like memoirs—I still don’t, for reasons I’ll explain shortly—so, despite its ubiquity, I didn’t read The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. The hype did persuade me to pick up Didion’s classic, career-making 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. A few pages of that book, though, convinced me that the Schiavo article was no anomaly: Didion was some kind of stylized right-winger, condescending to hippies and communists, extolling John Wayne, and writing paeans to a “self-respect” every image of which she drew from colonial and settler mythologies:
It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke out about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. (“On Self-Respect”)
Back then, I was self-righteous enough to be on Twitter, which, thank God, didn’t exist yet. (Self-righteousness compensates for lack of self-respect, as the Twitterati daily demonstrate). We’ll get back to God in a minute, but for now let me say that I wasn’t reading the book closely enough. How did I miss the passages that reveal Didion to be not some holy roller, but an open nihilist seeking a center anywhere she can find one? Of the lost children of Haight-Ashbury, for example, she writes in the title essay:
This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.
A failure of nerve: what to the advocate of self-respect could be worse? The game is a game, but we still must play.
I found a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking in the neighborhood the other day and decided to read it at last, years after having made my peace with Didion, a peace occasioned by my discovery that, whatever one thinks of her contributions to journalism, Play It as It Lays is one of the great American novels. The Year of Magical Thinking is not a great book—though I’m not the person to ask since, again, I dislike memoirs. I have not yet outgrown this perhaps callow opinion. Memoirs, it seems to me, use all the techniques of the novel—they are formally indistinct from novels—but they prey on readers’ feelings and inhibit critical response with an implicit taunt: This really happened. Are you going to criticize my husband’s and daughter’s deaths? I’ve always felt that memoirs are machines for laundering aesthetic defects through actual catastrophes no one can judge without being thought heartless. We are free to laugh at the death of Little Nell but not at the death of Quintana Roo—quite rightly!—and without imaginative freedom what is the point of literature? This inherent defect of the memoir form is a hard truth, and it would be insulting to the tough-minded Didion to avoid stating such sullen and obdurate verities if one is actually persuaded of them. Then again, Didion is not a realist. Back to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the book I’d rather be talking about, this time from “On Keeping a Notebook”:
So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. […] But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”
This—the belief that the mind makes the world in encountering it—is the conviction not of the journalist nor of the realist novelist but of the Romantic poet, and if a Romantic poet writes a memoir, it might be worth reading. For Didion, anyway, there is no one besides the self that might make the world, being as it is the product of heedless accident. “No eye is on the sparrow,” she twice writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, a phrase that reverses the providential guarantee of Matthew 10:29 and Hamlet 5:2. Drawn to the thought that her dead husband might return, that there was something she might have done to have spared him his fatal heart attack, she is afflicted by the titular “magical thinking,” an affront to her otherwise “cool” acceptance of harsh reality: “She’s a pretty cool customer,” the social worker at the hospital observes after watching her appear to absorb without histrionics the fact of her husband’s death.
Not that Didion’s cool ever came from blithe indifference to suffering; she registers her protest between the lines of her calm and collected prose, her buried, muffled howls at the agonies of chance and the cruelties of society. She is an ironist, registering the gap between what the “I” wants and what the world is, and registering too that the world’s “is” might, even in its disappointments, be little more than a refraction of the “I.” Another conservative moment from the 2000s: her slightly petulant rebuke of the mass youth movement that backed the candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008:
Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
I heard it said breathlessly on one channel that the United States, on the basis of having carried off this presidential election, now had “the congratulations of all the nations.” “They want to be with us,” another commentator said. Imagining in 2008 that all the world’s people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.
This was received with scorn and bafflement at the time, but it now seems prescient about the aforementioned wokeness:
It became increasingly clear that we were gearing up for another close encounter with militant idealism—by which I mean the convenient but dangerous redefinition of political or pragmatic questions as moral questions.
Didion thinks that cruelties might be remediated pragmatically and provisionally, but not through the strenuous exercise of collective moral passion, which lead to gullibility at best, and guillotine and gulag at worst. Obama’s favorite living American writer, by contrast, would seem to be that anti-Didion, the pious, didactic Marilynne Robinson, who celebrates the moral fervor of the New England Puritan diaspora that built the Midwest, a spiritual geography rather different from Didion’s, which wryly exalts by contrast the stern libertarian ethic of the “peculiar flawed strain who had cleared Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri” on their way to Sacramento, as she puts it in “Notes from a Native Daughter.” (To his credit, Obama hung a medal on Didion anyway.) One more quotation from Slouching Towards Bethlehem:
You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing—beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code—what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. […] 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. (“On Morality”)
Skepticism, necessity, and the social code: that’s all we get down here on earth. As the poet said, “The imperfect is our paradise.” Didion was never anything so banal as an atheist, since atheists tend to think, as Didion does not, that the sterile epistemic hygiene of the scientific method can found an ethic and serve as the basis of a state. Didion is instead a nihilist, which is why she is a conservative in the deepest sense: she does not believe there is any fortification to erect against the storm save tradition and the heroically steadfast and disillusioned passivity—passivity even in activity—it drills in its pupils. That and the discipline of art, whether the art of dressing a table or the art of inditing sentences that feel as if they’d been graved in steel. Now at last I will quote at length from The Year of Magical Thinking:
As a child I thought a great deal about meaninglessness, which seemed at the time the most prominent negative feature on the horizon. After a few years of failing to find meaning in the more commonly recommended venues I learned that I could find it in geology, so I did. This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most acutely in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away. […] I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albóndigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then.
The nihilist aesthete becomes an Episcopalian housewife without a hint of contradiction. I enjoyed, if that is the word, The Year of Magical Thinking. It is brisk and moving, all the more moving for the emotion it withholds. I don’t understand how it became a popular success, since much of its effect seems to rely on readers’ knowing enough about Didion’s persona to wonder how she’ll cope with two simultaneous and devastating personal tragedies; perhaps common readers who enjoy spectating at the calamities of the rich and famous are charmed by its air of ruined glamor—Didion lived a life where jetting to Hawaii seemed as easy as boarding a city bus. The point, in any case, is that dread and grief will come to all, rich and poor alike, a theme adumbrated by her surprising self-portrait of the artist as optimistic naïf foiled and fuddled by affliction, not quite the image we get from her other books. I have happily not known the grief as yet, the confusion in the suddenly empty apartment, but I have felt the dread in hospital corridors, and she captures it with grave and terrifying authority. Writing from his own corridors of dread in The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, John Leonard, in an almost senselessly incandescent appreciation (her sentences, he says, “come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves”), calls this book The Black Album.
I was too young to read it in 2005, and maybe I am still too young. But I did read “The Case of Theresa Schiavo” back then, and I also read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or some of it, and was too young to see what I do see now. When she defends the Christians against the rationalists at the end of the essay on Schiavo, she is only reprising her life-long war with the meliorists on behalf of tradition, less any particular one than tradition as such, the age-tempered alloy that stiffens the spine in hard circumstance. What has changed between 1968 and 2005 comes at the essay’s beginning, not its end. To understand, we have to go back to the start of her literary project. The piece that opens Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is a withering description of a vulgar, deluded California striver later convicted of murdering her husband, perhaps falsely. Didion pitilessly anatomizes this delusive dreamer’s background:
Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie, in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio. For this is a Southern California story. She was born on January 17, 1930, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of Gordon and Lily Maxwell, both school teachers hers and both dedicated to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church whose members observe the Sabbath on Saturday, believe in an apocalyptic Second Coming, have a strong missionary tendency, and, if they are strict, do not smoke, drink, eat meat, use makeup, or wear jewelry, including wedding rings. By the time Lucille Maxwell enrolled at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington, the Adventist school where her parents then taught, she was an eighteen-year-old possessed of unremarkable good looks and remarkable high spirits. “Lucille wanted to see the world,” her father would say in retrospect, “and I guess she found out.”
Is this irony or merely sarcasm? These lines are echoed in their cadence but reversed in their meaning by Didion’s 2005 evocation of Terri Schiavo’s life before her brain injury, here rendered, despite its superficial similarity to the lives of Didion’s other tasteless American dreamers, with Tolstoyan sympathy and clarity rather than corrosive Flaubertian hauteur:
Theresa Marie Schindler was born on December 3, 1963, to prosperous and devoutly Catholic parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, in a Philadelphia suburb, Huntingdon Valley. Robert Schindler was a dealer in industrial supplies. Mary Schindler was a full-time wife and mother. They named their first child for Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic who believed the Carmelites insufficiently reclusive and so founded a more restrictive order. We have only snapshots of Theresa Marie Schindler’s life before the series of events that interrupted and eventually ended it. According to newspaper accounts published in the wake of those events, there had been the four-bedroom colonial on the leafy street called Red Wing Lane. There had been the day the yellow Labrador retriever, Bucky, collapsed of old age in the driveway and Theresa Marie tried in vain to resuscitate him. There had been the many occasions on which her two gerbils, named after the television characters Starsky and Hutch, got loose and into the air-conditioning unit in the basement.
St. Theresa: absence of the rational mind may be rapture, not vegetation. Bucky, Starsky, Hutch: every life is worth at least attempting to retrieve. Didion is no politician; she’s not so crass as to alter her fundamental convictions with the year, the decade, or the presidential administration. But the tone has changed, and tone for so dedicated a writer is, if not conviction itself, then the way conviction is held. If she sounds startlingly reverent of life, it is life not in the abstract but the particular: this life, however its “you” or “her” necessarily has to pass through the inventions of the “I” to become intelligible. Despite her memoir’s title, she worries more about “self-pity” than “magical thinking”: “The question of self-pity,” italics in original, is the book’s fourth line. She concludes that self-pity is both inevitable and forgivable:
I remember despising the book Dylan Thomas’s widow Caitlin wrote after her husband’s death, Leftover Life to Kill. I remember being dismissive of, even censorious about, her “self-pity,” her “whining,” her “dwelling on it.” Leftover Life to Kill was published in 1957. I was twenty-two years old. Time is the school in which we learn.
The last sentence is a line from Delmore Schwartz, but I think of one of Mina Loy’s Futurist aphorisms, a favorite phrase I’m sure I’ve quoted on this website already: “MAY your egotism be so gigantic that you comprise mankind in your self-sympathy.” This comprising accounts for what had so scandalized me in “The Case of Theresa Schiavo.” The years and the losses taught Didion—not morality, God forbid, and not even exactly “empathy,” that current watchword of the mediocre moralist. They taught her, rather, that every self is grand enough to merit pity, pity in the high and pitiless style, when seen from the inside. The “I” is already “you,” and well worth mourning. Her eye was on the sparrow.