An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing. (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”) Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer. Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.
Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following question: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write? Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does. He copies; he does not write. He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator. He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.
Not only does Bartleby never write. He does not even seem to read. The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”
And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office? Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story? Why not Nippers? Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.
One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers. There are indeed references to poeticism in the text. John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth. To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.
There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story? Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing. What is the story about?
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.
Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee. He does exactly what he is paid to do. Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.” He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.” He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do. This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc. Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.” Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension. The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.
One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination. Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying. It is a form of “passive resistance.” It is a slippery slogan. It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.
The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story. One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.” Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office. Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock. The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer. The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby). One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby. This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.
Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee. He super-agrees with the terms of the office. He over-adheres to the policies of the office. Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus. Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.
Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby). Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies. He copies the office and thus undermines the office.
The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description. He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness. The logic of super-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity. Kierkegaard was such a super-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being. Kierkegaard’s super-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers. Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.
This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office. Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel. If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible. His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.” Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity. At the core of his passivity is an active dimension. He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations. His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras. He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”
What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?
The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business. Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ. [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.] The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”) “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.
Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience. These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination. We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”). Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance. His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.” This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.
Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism. A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice). He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant. “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp. Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders. They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.
A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.” The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin. (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?). Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust. It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness. It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals. In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.
This is a book that is drenched in red.
There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins. A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel. “I love meat… [I] especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19]. Little commentary is required; what is said is clear. The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us. Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” .
I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”
Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings. That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos. As if it were a “red kite” , she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God. She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”
In other words,
1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.
We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:
1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.
The color red may connote the blood of animals. It may also connote shame. One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” . In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.
Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” . Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here. Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” . And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely? There are many. That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain? That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits? She never tells us. She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” .
Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue. She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA. Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies. Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library. She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” . And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place. So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.
The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.
Dr. Joseph Suglia