There is certainly something addictive about sadness, though I can’t quite put my finger on it.
I know that I frequently dwell on the past. I know that at times crying feels cathartic, and at others it does not. I know that, should I find myself blunting my sorrows with wine, I will inevitably end up calling my cousin Nikki or my friend Phil. I’ll tell them about the man I’m in love with, or about how he doesn’t love me back, and they’ll offer the tired explanation that I’m merely infatuated, or that the man is a married professor and over twice my age. That I continually find myself entertaining such deluded fantasies suggests my own predilection for the very things that depress me.
Whenever I read Joan Didion, I sense a shared attraction to sadness, or at least a tendency to return to it.
Some months ago, I ventured to re-read all of Didion, a task that recalls me to a hermit state, but provides me with inexplicable pleasure nonetheless. Didion always has a way of tugging on even the firmest of my heartstrings; that is, she can make my sadness feel clarifying or, at least, productive.
Rather unorthodoxically, I started with one of Didion’s later works, “Blue Nights,” a memoir that meditates on motherhood and the death of her daughter. When looking back at cards from her daughter’s funeral, Didion notes: “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment was when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”
Likewise, my personal mementos have given rise to similar understandings of memory. When I look at certain photographs, for instance, I try to convince myself that the boys in the picture frames, the boys I once loved, no longer matter — but they do and they will. Their images remind me of my own shortcomings: how I gave too much love, how I gave too little, how I couldn’t be present in the moment, leading me to print their photos to try and remember what they look like, who they are, who we were together.
In many ways, my photos actually deteriorate my memory. To keep a photograph at one’s desk, after all, is to learn quickly to ignore it. It is a practice so many of us do, a method of entangling our memories with the humdrum of daily life.
Yet, at least for Didion, words often seem to make up for the area where photographs and memory fall short.
In a 1976 article for The New York Times, entitled “Why I Write,” Didion states: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
I, too, once believed in the security of words, and I still often do. A few of my old journal entries suggest that I, like Didion, once held onto a conviction that my writings could show me to my mind or, better yet, protect me from my fears. “Tomorrow, bring a PB&J for lunch. Or something American!” I decided at age nine, then reflexively scrawled in my journal. Sometime later I penned in cursive, “Note to self: Don’t stay too long in the men’s underwear aisle at Nordstrom.”
For a while, my words made me work. But at some point or another, this golden rhythm was broken; my thoughts began to feel more and more like vapor, vanishing before I could put them into words.
In 2007, Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” won the National Book Award for Fiction. Her book illuminated what I was then, and am now, experiencing: the frailty of words. Among other things, Didion’s work made clear how words, like people and memories, are inevitably lost.
On the subject of her husband’s sudden death, Didion says: “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.” Though it may appear deceivingly obvious, her book taught me that words are not thoughts; words are words. Therein lies their deficiency.
Perhaps the reason I am so mesmerized by Didion — other than the fact that we are both, to our cores, Californians — is because she has most closely approximated my own troubled tempo of life with her haunting lyricism. She has shattered any fixed understanding I have about language and loss, about the relationship between memory, time and words. Whether I accept it or not, Didion has heightened my consciousness as a queer individual, insofar as her writing tends to occasion a radical intimacy with (and radical alienation from) my own body and thoughts.
In Didion and in sadness there is something quite reliable. I see lines from a Didion book like a horizon — flat, something I can set a drink on, a surface for my emotions. Similarly, I think of my sadness as stable, and I have invested my time and energy in it accordingly.
No matter the case, there is a certain nebulousness about the kind of melancholia that seduces me. What I experience when reading Didion is equally attractive.
This year, Didion’s seminal collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” turns 50. Among the book’s many famous one-liners is the opening statement of Didion’s final essay, “Goodbye to All That.” She observes, “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” Half a century later, Didion’s words still feel as real as ever. I began this column with a plan and expected to finish it with some closure, some understanding of what it is that I find so alluring about sadness. There were times when my writings could draw up such neat resolutions, but now, those times seem long gone.
Ryan Nhu is a junior majoring in English and law, history and culture. His column, “Saving Ryan’s Privates,” runs every other Wednesday.