Friday, January 21, 2011


There are times of realization. They can be recorded and tracked. In these days it is often not the question of "Can we?" but "Should we?" Every second we are pushing the realms of the possible further apart.

Trent Reznor recorded The Downward Spiral in the house where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family. I'm not sure why. I can't put myself in that situation mentally--it doesn't click. But an interesting thing to note is how he came to realize that he maybe didn't want to be doing that. Apparently he met Tate's sister and was asked if he was somehow exploiting her death by living in the house she where she had been killed. Something clicked. I'm not saying there are real categories called "better" or "worse" in the world, but things change. "It made me see there's another side of things, you know?" Reznor would say of the encounter.*

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking creates a similar realization in the reader. This is a memoir of the year after her husband died, while her daughter was hospitalized. There's the idea early on that Didion, as a writer, and one can suppose, a reader, would often retreat to literature to get advice or help when faced with difficult situations. This is a book about grief. In turning to the literature about grief she finds some difficulty. It's limited and clinical. In writing this book, she is able to expand that category, because  I can defintely see the book as an aide of some sort. It's a mixture of a textbook and a friend, with narrative added in.

One of the more damning facts about this book is the way it loops around Didion's novels. The scenes in hospitals eerily reflect those that I had just read recently in her Democracy, an eighties novel in which Didion is both the writer who is writing a novel and a character who interacts in the story. For me, there was an unsettling transition between books. It sparked a realization.

Or perhaps a reminder.

When we deal with fiction or, to some extent, entertainment of any kind, there is a certain amount of emotion that we, as the audience, put into the work. Even the emotionlessness of a Tao Lin reading is attempting to make you feel something, I think. I know that there is a lot of feeling that you can hide in the apathy of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The Year of Magical Thinking is a reminder of how stupid and pitiful we humans are for being able to do this. An animal cannot feel anything for a fictional death. And we try to rationalize this by saying that animals cannot feel anything. But this is just another lie.

At the heart of this book is a question about our society today that chooses to hide real emotion. Grief should be private or nonexistent. Sure, you feel bad; we feel bad too. Now get on with your life. Didion, very professionally, is able to evaluate herself and realize that faced with this sort of chokehold, she was forced into magical thinking (the theme which brought me to the book--I'm taking a class on the anthropology of religions, and based on the title, the book seemed a good fit). She does this convincingly and realistically, without resorting to boring the reader with her emotion. It's a book that I'd like to describe, as Barack Obama's first book was described, as "unsentimental," but that wouldn't be right, because the book is all about sentimentality. What is also about, however, is the realization of such. So much of what we see as wrong in the world we try to sweep under the rug. But these emotions, actions, and thought processes are omnipresent for a reason. They're going to exist and happen whether or not you want them. I feel, as perhaps Didion feels, that realizing them lessens the dark side. If we understand what we do and why, we can deal with it better than pretending it can just not be done.

The realization that struck me was one that I would fashion, as I wrote this, into the image of the movie theater. Here we can express as much emotion as we wish--it is even joked at, how even the tough me cry at a good film. And yet we grow as a society to support emotionlessness when faced with realities. The power of fictions should perhaps not be so strong, or improportionally placed. "It made me see there's another side of things, you know?" Reznor said. And I cannot understand why he was doing what he was doing in the first place, but I'm sure he could say the same of me (admitting he's famous and will never know of me). What I can understand is the realization. When you think to yourself, hohum, this is someone's life. This is real. It's more important than I had thought.

Why must we come to these realizations? These dawnings of the obvious truth on our big, huge brains? Animals, it occurs to me, probably realize nothing. Everything is known or unknown. What does that say about us?

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