Books

Paying A Shiva Call With Joan Didion

Last night, at the elegant Symphony Space, I attended a mass shiva call for the inimitable, venerable Joan Didion. Read More

By / December 1, 2011
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Last night I attended a mass shiva call with the inimitable, venerable Joan Didion. Let me explain.

We treat our artists as some curious mix of heroes, gods, and prophets. To an extent, artists have supplanted the place of religious leaders in their ability to provide the veneer of guidance. This places a heavy burden on our artists, leading some to proclaim, “I am not your guide.” Some people believe artists to exist on a different wavelength, whether because of their talent in their craft, or their ability to perceive deeper, with clearer insight. While often true, we do a disservice to discount the courage it takes to make certain artistic choices. Not every artist chooses to plunge into the depths of negative experiences and emotions. It hurts, often without a any respite; pure pain, and hence it requires bravery and courage. (When Didion, last night, was asked where was the redemption in her latest books, she said with complete clarity, “There is none.” Plain and simple.) It is a psychic battle with death, instead of some battle to the death. This type of exploration takes it toll. In some sense, artists will go where we cannot, or will not.

Didion, in her latest heartbreaking work of staggering genius, confronts death the only way she knows how: beautifully, with courage, and alone. Didion’s Blue Nights represents less a dialogue with a reader and more a courageous act of self exploration (often bordering on self-laceration) on the themes of trauma, the inevitability of loss, memory, parenting, and survival without much hope in which we the readers act as observers. Much of her new book explores the pains of parenthood; or the inherent ambivalence of parenthood. No matter what any parent attempts, they cannot completely protect their child.

Death presents a unique conundrum to the artist. An exploration of death, the ultimate loss, the ultimate unknown would – ironically –  take a lifetime. Moreover, intuition guides humans away from exploring that never ending abyss of our finitude. Yet, true artists create in destroying these boundaries set up for our safety, in diving in, without a net, into the mire of sadness, of fear, and of loss and death. Joan Didion, with her The Year of Magical Thinking, and now, with her quasi-companion book, Blue Nights, continues to serve as one of our greatest contemporary explorers.

Yet, something about this type of exploration contrasts starkly with the Jewish way of mourning. Jewish mourning, for all its multi-faceted complexity works upon a structure of progress: the initial grisly cry out, the burial, the eulogy, the thirty days of strict restrictions, the eleven months of Kaddish, all leading, hopefully, to a healthy inculcation of the loss, while allowing the death, no matter the magnitude, not to enslave a person. (The Rabbis of the Talmud use harsh words for those who cry too much over their dead. Though this strikes us as insensitive, it contains wisdom, for if a death captures our lives then we cease to live. Of course, this serves as a hope more than a command, but hope matters.) Besides the hyper-structured aspect of the mourning rituals, Judaism, traditionally, urges mourning as a public act, as a dialogue, whether with God, friends or family. Interestingly, many who move away from traditional Judaism still find the mourning rituals as the most cathartic of Jewish rituals. It provides order to an orderless time, meaning to the most meaningless and absurd aspects of life, and forces a person to vocalize, to discuss the immensity of the loss, but also the beauty of a life.

None of this passes judgment on Didion’s courageous and brave choices, and the divide between ritualistic public mourning, and the artistic movement inwards, turns artificial when we realize that millions of people took solace, and will continue to take solace from Didion’s solitary efforts. Even Didion herself, somewhat of recluse living legend, attests to the comfort the sharing of these books has upon her. Last night, listening to her speak, answer questions, laugh, tell jokes, tear up, and interact with the audience, I couldnt help but feel that I was attending one great big hug of a shiva call to Mrs. Didion. Didion, came on stage in her fashionable outfit (swathed in a cashmere violet pashmina, wearing a white skirt, with black stockings, dancer shoes, and a black sweater top. A delicate piece of paper wrapped in cool clothing, still as sharp, witty, and piercing as ever) to a kind standing ovation. I could feel the audience’s palpable love for Didion, for her heroic ability to peel back the layers of her soul, to lay her life bare, to do what we cannot do ourselves. People came from Washington and Hartford to pay their respects, to say thank you, to give back to a writer whose given her readers comfort, a salve for our loneliness, a guide for grief. Like a regular shiva call, both Didion, and the crowd fumbled for words, for away to express the complex, deeply emotional relationship between author and audience. Didion attempted her best to engage, to provide answers, but ultimately, what shone through, was the intense desire for the audience to simply say, we love you, you are not alone.