This short and intense book recounts the year of ‘magical thinking’ experienced by its author, Joan Didion, after the death of her husband, fellow journalist John Gregory Dunne. What she refers to as ‘magical thinking’ is the belief that thoughts alone have the power to bring about effects in the external world, and that unrelated events are causally connected despite there being no plausible reason behind it. This leads the magical thinker to draw conclusions that inevitably involve the acceptance of the supernatural.
Author of renowned non-fiction, including the essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Joan Didion, who died in 2021, was a pioneer of New Journalism, an innovative non-fiction genre that employed literary techniques. For instance, a writer may recount their personal experience as reportage rather than in a genre usually associated with fiction, such as a novel.
Death, melancholia, ageing, mortality, meaninglessness and human connection are major themes in Didion’s writing. After her seventy-one-year-old husband died of a heart attack just as they sat down to dinner, she proceeded to write this non-fiction masterpiece to capture the most minute details of her grieving process.
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
“Siamo esseri umani imperfetti, consapevoli di quella mortalità anche quando la respingiamo, traditi proprio dalla nostra complessità, e così schizzati che quando piangiamo chi abbiamo perduto piangiamo anche, nel bene e nel male, noi stessi. Come eravamo. Come non siamo più. Come un giorno non saremo affatto.”
Didion makes the insanity she felt she felt overcoming her a central theme of the book. She confesses that her expectations of grief were overturned by her actual experience of it: she did not expect the grasp of insanity to be so literal. For months, she kept expecting her husband to return, aware of and yet incapable of accepting reality.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.”
“Il dolore risulta essere un posto che nessuno conosce finché non ci arriva. Noi ci aspettiamo (sappiamo) che qualcuno che ci è vicino potrebbe morire, ma non spingiamo lo sguardo oltre i pochi giorni o le poche settimane che seguono da presso questa morte immaginata. Fraintendiamo la natura anche di quei pochi giorni o settimane. Ci potremmo aspettare, se la morte è improvvisa, di avere uno choc. Non ci aspettiamo che questo choc sia obliterante, disarticolante per il corpo e per la mente.”
Published in 2005, The Year of Magical Thinking won the US National Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is considered a landmark text within the literary body that treats the topic of melancholia. This theme is characterised by the experience of detaching oneself from mundane, everyday life to enter a removed space instead — whether literal or metaphorical — from which the subject gazes at the ordinary state of things and is, through that distance, able to grasp its strangeness. Space and time freeze in what could be called a state of stasis.
“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.”
“Il dolore è diverso. Il dolore non tiene le distanze. Il dolore arriva a ondate, parossismi, ansie improvvise che ti tagliano le gambe e ti accecano e cancellano la quotidianità della vita.”
A STATE OF STASIS
Didion refers to her experience of melancholia as one where she was able to see, and forced to reckon with, what she deems to be meaninglessness itself. The silence and stasis overtake the space where her husband, and their life together, was before.
‘‘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 between 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.”
“Non abbiamo modo di sapere che lo stesso funerale sarà anodino, una sorta di narcotica regressione in cui ci affidiamo alle cure degli altri e siamo completamente assorbiti dalla gravità e dal significato dell’occasione. Né possiamo conoscere prima del fatto (ed è questo il cuore della differenza tra il dolore come lo immaginiamo e il dolore com’è) l’interminabile assenza successiva, il vuoto, l’esatto contrario del significato, l’inesorabile successione dei momenti in cui ci troveremo ad affrontare l’esperienza della mancanza stessa di significato.”
A BREAK FROM THE ORDINARY
Didion highlights how the experience of grief relates to ordinariness and triggers a break from it. She points to how life can change in the instant, in such a way that the most mundane action can intertwine with the shattering experience of death. Death, and the stasis of melancholia, Didion suggests, are closer than we think, a menace humanely unavoidable. We try to keep it at bay until the passing of a loved one shocks us. Didion also uses images of the most ordinary objects, such as shoes, as reminders of the loved one’s absence: the ordinariness of these objects becomes connected with the other-worldliness of death.
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
“La vita cambia in fretta.
La vita cambia in un istante.
Una sera ti metti a tavola e la vita che conoscevi è finita.”