Thursday, December 23, 2021

Joan Didion's usefulness

The great Joan Didion died today at age 87. For many years I've taught two of her essays in my Creative Nonfiction I class, "In Bed" and "At the Dam," both from her crucial book The White Album, published in 1979. I pair "At the Dam" with the first chapter of Phyllis Barber's memoir Oh Say Can You See. Both writers approach the Hoover Dam as subject matter, yet both arrive via wildly different, stylistically circuitous routes. Barber's journey is irrational, dreamlike, feverish, obsessed, lyrical—Didion's is cool, detached, linear, frowning in its intellectual attempt to answer the burning question at the heart of her and Barber's pieces: why can't I rub away the Dam from my memories? Barber's answer involves family and political dynamics—she grew up in Nevada—and dormant fears of atomic annihilation. Didion's answer is profoundly simpler: "There was something...beyond energy, beyond history, something I could not fix in my mind," she writes; we are mortal. At the end of the brief essay she recalls visiting the Dam, strolling across "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. I had not thought much of it when he said it, but I thought of it then, with the wind whining and the sun dropping behind a mesa with the finality of a sunset in space. Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, 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 Bed" is a vastly different essay, and no less stupendously Didionesque. She writes about her awful migraines, coming to grips with them in an era less sophisticated in its understanding of the affliction and treatment than ours. She recounts in vivid detail the debilitating effects of the pain, the social and personal stigmas it bears, the arrogance of doctors, the hopelessness of friends and loved ones to help the sufferer. (In one of my favorite details, she describes her husband, the writer John Dunne, proffering her an aspirin, an offer "the unafflicted will say from the doorway"—that threshold a graphic image of the wide distance between patient and well-meaning onlooker.) At the end of the essay, we come to its reason for existing, a small epiphany arriving subtly, as at the end of "At the Dam." Didion generally arrives at wisdom without much fanfare—it's the logical, though humane, result of her essaying a problem, a knot that intrigues, a subject worth exploring, the reason, it turns out, for writing in the first place. "And once [the migraine] comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it," she writes. "I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that."
Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain. For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings. 
I startle nearly every time at the contradiction inherent in "the usefulness" of migraine, of pain and suffering, the surprise of that discovery, which is so at odds with self-pity, or a kind of poetics of suffering. No, what pain does is allow us to press re-set, to count our blessings. 

I teach this essay for many reasons, chiefly to illustrate for my students how one doesn't have to have lived a statistically notable or dramatic life in order to write a personal essay, that something as common as pain provides enough texture, bafflement, and surprise as does having rescued someone from a burning building, or having lifted a car off of them in the nick time. But I also teach this essay because I will invariably have a student who, rolling their eyes, complains dryly about the cliché at the end, that the maxim I suffer so as to learn has been done, countless times, before. Sure, I concede, but in the moment of writing for Didion that insight likely felt as if she'd experienced something startlingly new, fresh, as if the top of her head had come off with the perception. I tell my students that this is why we write: though there's ultimately little that's new to our personal and communal experiences, they at times feel like vivid yet half-understood messages from afar, the essaying of which might bring us a bit closer to understanding. Didion understood this so well, from the personal to the political to the cultural. Rest in peace.

Photo of Didion: Henry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Images

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