Jeanette Winterson brought a friend to the stage production of The Year of Magical Thinking. The experience led her to meditate on death, and the language and poetry of death.
Wittgenstein said that "death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience our death"; which is strictly true but not emotionally true. My own feeling is that death is integral to life, but lost to language. When death approaches, when death happens, that event falls outside the scope of what can be said. To write about it is a kind of magic - an evocation, an invocation, a re-membering of what has been dis-membered. The scattered life, now returned to so many atoms, becomes what atoms are - empty space and points of light. I suppose the writers who find a way of saying what resists all saying find a way into the empty space and the points of light, allowing death to be both the wholly private and personal experience it must be, and yet a collective happening.
C.S. Lewis, whatever you think of his Christianity or his politics, achieved this beautifully in A Grief Observed. It is not simply a matter of understanding one's own situation, but a matter of finding the words to express the human situation, without platitudes or patronising. So when Lewis begins: "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear", we are with him, and he is with us.
I have to admit that I struggled with The Year of Magical Thinking because I felt remote from Didion's experience. Vanessa Redgrave is a profound actor, but I found the text too limited - both parochial and sentimental, and lacking in poetry. I am not sure that death can be done without poetry. By which I mean that an intense experience needs an intense language.
And yet, another friend of mine was really moved by the play. It may be that if anything maps closely on to your own experience, then it works. Poetry, I think, does not depend on shared experience, but on shared emotion, the emotion shared between writer and audience. A fabulous actor can pull anything into being, but as a writer, I suppose I ask for the language itself to be authentic - it is not enough that the experience is authentic. Much is deeply felt, but how do we express it?
I came away wishing I had been given one single line as powerful as "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life and thou no breath at all?" But then I need such lines to carry around in my invisible pockets.
I went home and read Tennyson's In Memoriam, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rosetti, certain passages from Wuthering Heights. We all have our own list, I guess.
"We all have our own list" - that's probably true. To make sense of grief, loss and death, one of the book I found helpful was Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. There is something in her coolness that was clarifying. When my Uncle Bernard passed away earlier this year, I was suddenly seized with a need to re-read The Year of Magical Thinking.
I also reach for the poetry of Mary Oliver for comfort. Perhaps like JW's said: "[A]n intense experience needs a intense language". When intense emotions threaten to overwhelm you, there is something grounding in Oliver's poetry. It brings you back to the earth, to nature. It reminds me of something larger and more wondrous than myself.
What else? Thich Nhat Hanh, of course.
Does anyone else have a list of books or writers you return to in the face of death, loss or grief?