Mourning in Greek

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes a lot about reading and being unable to read. There is a particularly moving passage on wandering about her apartment stacking piles of Daedalus neatly, the closest she could come to organizing her life. For all the reading she does, however, little of it is in fiction. Her husband is depicted several times re-reading novels “to see how they worked” (including, touchingly, one of hers, which he was reading with admiration on December 5, 2003—Didion’s birthday and just three weeks before he died) but Didion turns to psychology and etiquette.

On one important occasion, however, she deliberately turns to literature for consolation, deciding to re-read Alcestis:
“I remembered the Greeks in general but Alcestis in particular as good on the passage between life and death. They visualized it, they dramatized it, they made the dark water and the ferry into the mise-en-scene itself.” (150)
She writes so well about this play—in which Admetus, soon to die, seeks a substitute and his wife volunteers to die in his place—that I wish she wrote more about literature. Her discussion of the difference between the play and her memory of it (from having studied it in high school) captures the odd way that we distort texts to suit our own needs and meanings. This turn to the Greeks for consolation struck me as it’s something that Virginia Woolf, too, did. So, I went back to my own manuscript and found this discussion of what Woolf finds consoling in Greek literature:

In her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” Virginia Woolf depicts the Greeks as facing grief with an image of the very military heroism she typically deplored: “They could march straight up, with their eyes open; and thus fearlessly approached, emotions stand still and suffer themselves to be looked at” (CR1, 34). Her depiction of the Greeks as hunters of their own timid emotions combines a residual Victorian admiration for courage with her modern interest in psychological self-knowledge. What Penelope, Antigone, Electra, and Clytemnestra all show is the power of inconsolability, the fidelity and courage of a mourning that never ends. What they say is without irony, unlike the First World War poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon for whom “it was not possible…to be direct without being clumsy” (CR1, 34). The modern response contrasts with that simple, original bravery: “In the vast catastrophe of the European war [that is, WWI] our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel” (CR1, 34). These modern fragments, unlike the Greek, are distortions and diminutions. In the continuing, extended mourning period after the War, Woolf proposes the words of the Greeks as an alternative to irony, pomposity, and mawkishness. The mourning here is distinctly anti-Victorian in its rejection of sentimental soft-focus weeping and its emphasis on the violence preceding grief.

So, Didion finds something very similar to what Woolf finds in ancient Greece: a culture able to face death as both utterly normal and completely devastating.

(Happy Belated Birthday to Didion, whose book, you've no doubt heard, is now in development as a one-woman show.)