A few days before Christmas and roughly a week before New Year’s Day, Joan Didion died, prompting me to return to one of my favorite books, Didion’s achingly beautiful The Year of Magical Thinking.
The book is grounded in the groundless process of mourning and takes us into Didion’s grief following the sudden death of her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne.
Didion had the unique ability to make a book about personal mourning that was written in 2005 eerily prophetic in a social context and just as applicable to America in 2022.
In a sense, for the last several years, the whole country has been caught in a mood of magical thinking, which Didion writes in hindsight was her own mindset in the days and weeks following her husband’s death.
“Anthropologists will talk about magical thinking,” Didion told a Boston Globe reporter during a 2005 interview about her book. “It’s the feeling that you can control events by wishful thinking: ‘The volcano will not erupt if we sacrifice such-and-such.’ ‘John will come back if I don’t give away his shoes.’”
A virus will not exist if we do not test for its presence. Sickness can be avoided by foregoing vaccines. The mechanisms of American democracy will magically prevent tyranny. Human innovation and ingenuity will triumph over climate change, because they just will. The free market will straighten things out, as long as we gut the government and don’t tax the rich.
Magical thinking often happens when our sense of normalcy, of ordinariness is suddenly and tragically uprooted without us having a chance to process the transition from normal to something outside of our familiar conceptions of what is normal and abnormal.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion wrote that “it was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding” her husband’s death that “prevented me from truly believing that it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy …
“‘It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,’ people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on the insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: ‘Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.’”
Didion’s 2005 classic informs two of this year’s pop cultural moments that I indulged in the days and weeks before New Year’s Day — Netflix’s dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” and “And Just Like That,” the “Sex and the City” reboot on HBO Max.
“Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic character, experiences her own Didion-esque period of magical thinking after her husband and longtime lover Mr. Big, played by actor Chris Noth, suddenly dies from a fatal heart attack induced while on his Peloton exercise bike. In the very first episode.
There are moments when Bradshaw returns to the apartment the couple shared expecting to see her husband in the flesh, perhaps still on the Peloton, which takes on totemic qualities (if only she had enticed Mr. Big away from the bike with a quick jaunt to the Hamptons instead of delaying the trip to go to Charlotte’s daughter’s recital, maybe he’d still be alive, Bradshaw wonders).
Big’s death also sent die hard “Sex and the City” fans into a collective conniption, with some taking to Twitter to broadcast their own grief-induced magical thinking (“MR BIG WAKE UP PLEASE IM BEGGING YOU,” tweeted @helcnsharpe; “#ANDJUSTLIKETHAT i’m not ok,” tweeted @shelly32122).
But the more grandiose and dangerous kind of magical thinking happens in the HBO Max show’s milieu. There are clear (albeit subtle) references to pandemic trauma, but the viewer would be hard pressed to see signs that we’re still in a pandemic (this is a world of neither masks nor breakthrough cases, where everyone seems to be magically double and triple vaccinated, coolly and insouciantly unbothered by a mere virus while styled by Patricia Field).
Magical thinking asserts itself in the producers’ insistence on adhering to the frail facade of normalcy despite the pandemic’s ongoing trauma. I guess the show’s creators figured that the story angle centered on Carrie’s hip surgery and the impediment of age to her ability to pull off her uniquely effervescent high heel game were traumatic enough.
By the way, you’d also be hard pressed to find any symptoms of systemic racism or income inequality that are too ugly (we only see a lack of diversity in Charlotte’s friend group or Miranda’s cultural uncouthness around her Black professor).
When confronted with national trauma, we 21st century Americans will always insist on hewing to our frail facade of normalcy, of ordinariness. And the binding mechanism is primarily entertainment, which nowadays is one of our greatest and most dangerous exports.
In the Dec. 26 New York Times, I marked with a blue pen traces of our cultural influence.
A vast indoor amusement park called Magic Kass, patterned to resemble Las Vegas kitsch, recently opened in the occupied West Bank. Developers are hoping that they can entertain Israelis and Palestinians into forgetting their ancient conflict. “The developers hope to turn a geopolitical hotspot into a hot ticket,” the Times’ Isabel Kerchner writes. “‘Everybody stands in the middle of the piazza and says, ‘Wow!’,” the CEO of a nearby luxe shopping mall told her.
On page six, ironically enough, a serious story about Russia’s plans for Ukraine focuses on Volodymr Zelenksy, a television actor and comic who was elected the country’s president in 2019. “At a time when Russia has built up forces on Ukraine’s border and fear of an invasion is running high, Mr. Zelenksy has surrounded himself with people drawn from his comedy studio, Kvartal 95. Few have any experience in diplomacy or warfare.”
In Netflix’s “Don’t Look Up,” a meteor hurdles toward earth, promising an extinction level event in less than a year from when scientists discover the threat. But instead of provoking constructive alarm and solidarity, the scientists’ warnings only become fodder for social media memes, temporary sexcapades, money-making schemes, light TV show banter and Trumpy political slogans (“Don’t Look Up” being the creed of asteroid-deniers everywhere). Spoiler alert: The movie ends, as the asteroid makes its final plunge into earth, with a very banal, pleasantly ordinary dinner party. The scene is gut-wrenching because it is so accurate and one dreads the possibility of its prescience.
Magical thinking, both in the personal context of mourning a loved one and in the social context of responding to national traumas and threats by propping up the corpse of a dying culture, might also be a form of the uncanny.
The uncanny, Freud wrote, arises from civilized people’s inability to reconcile our desire for immortality with the truth of our mortality. A helpful online primer on the Freud Museum London’s web page explains that the psychoanalyst’s theory “was rooted in everyday experiences and the aesthetics of popular culture, related to what is frightening, repulsive and distressing.”
Repressed fear, when it arises in our everyday reality and punctures our sense of normalcy, takes the form of the doppelgänger, or the double that embodies the clash between civilized culture’s irrational drive to live forever and the reality of death. Think zombies.
Or Betty White. The beloved 99-year-old actress and Oak Park native died on New Year’s Eve, less than a month before her 100th birthday. In a culture of eternal youth, we turned White into an object lesson in how to be young forever, how to impose your will — by dint of Hollywood good looks, charm and personality — on the forces of time and nature. Why is it that in order to value our elders, we have to bastardize them, dumb them down, make them young or hip or cool?
In America, now more than ever, it seems there is no more growing up, which is swiftly catching up with us. Meryl Streep’s character who plays the narcissistic, nihilistic, juvenile Trumpian President Janie Orlean, tells one of the scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio: “We’re the adults now.” Scary times indeed.
How do we exit this uncanny valley? Didion, one of this country’s greatest literary truth-tellers, was, no doubt, influenced by James Baldwin, who might have pointed the way (the quotation is pulled from an essay on Baldwin by Eddie Glaude Jr.):
“Escape,” Baldwin cautioned, “is not effected through a bitter railing against this trap; it is as though this very striving were the only motion needed to spring the trap upon us.
. . . Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden. From this void —ourselves — it is the function of society to protect us; but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us — ‘from the evil that is in the world.’”
Going into the new year, it is not enough to resolve to do better in our current cultural and political framework. We have to create a new one.