Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What matters is how well you walk through the fire

The publicity machine is running with Joan Didion on its back these days, what with a new book on shelves called The Year of Magical Thinking, and like any other venerated essayist worth their salt, their celebrity is just as much a selling point as the writing itself. This would be unfortunate were Didion’s skills not up to snuff, and that’s hardly the case.

An interesting read as a supplement to her new book is “The Case of Teresa Schiavo,” a penetrating essay for the New York Review of Books from June 2005. Much of the case’s less-easily-summarized complexities were snowplowed by soundbites and rhetoric from politicians and activists, mostly, who treated the case as a springboard for their own causes, thus blowing the whole thing completely out of proportion. What was needed most was an injection of editorial clarity, and it’s striking that Didion managed this feat in the midst of her own personal calamities:

The question began with the different ways in which we define a life worth living, but it did not stop there. The question ultimately had to do with whether or not there could be occasions when the broad economic and ethical interests of the society at large should outweigh any individual claim to either the most advanced medical attention (which Theresa Schiavo, outside the one procedure at UCSF in 1990, did not have) or indefinite care. This was the question no one on any side of the debate wanted to hear. This was the question conveniently muffled by talk about “right-to-die” and “murderers” and “mullahs,” about “the freak show,” the “circus.”
Shock and grief do this to you. The vulnerability it creates with such suddenness opens your eyes far wider; everything seems sparklingly, strikingly clear. Didion holds onto this and uses it to stunning advantage; the Schiavo essay is packed superhuman precision and control, vibrating from tremendous emotions submerged just beneath the words. She’s ruthless, without being malicious; conclusive, without subscribing to dogmatism; you know, what journalists should be.

Another fine read from the NYRB archive is the 2003 piece “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History,” which was published in book form later that year as Fixed Ideas: America Since 9-11.

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