Tulane English Professor Dissects Didion’s Psychology

Louise Hornby’s lecture on “Repetition, Time, and Loss in The Year of Magical Thinking” last Tuesday, March 17, marked the second event in the Joan Didion Reading Series. Over 30 local high school students attended, as well as Tulane students and faculty, and members from the community. The next, and last, event before Didion’s visit to campus is a roundtable discussion to be held on Wednesday, April 1, at 6 pm in Cudd Hall.

Professor Hornby emphasized the method by which Didion continuously re-begins her memoir in order to avoid complete feelings of loss; The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the year following the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. By refusing to finish the narrative that starts the night John dies, Didion convinces herself that she could have done something to save him; so that her memory becomes the ever-shifting filter through which she interprets the events of that night, attempting to manipulate (and re-manipulate) facts to change their final outcome. It is not until she receives an autopsy nine months later that she discovers that John “appeared to (or did) experience…a sudden massive coronary event,” and realizes the impossibility of saving him (6). This causes a disturbance in Didion’s magical thinking, by which Didion’s desires for the past to deliver a different future are dismantled.

Infusing Freud’s ideas from Mourning and Melancholia (1915) into her discussion, Professor Hornby explored the psychological functions of Didion’s narrative. If mourning is the successful transferal of attachment to a lost object onto a new object, then melancholia affirms mourning as an end in and of itself, whereby the grieving individual cannot abdicate her love for the lost object. That is, mourning is healthily linear, whereas melancholia is pathologically cyclical. Didion, absolutely, is melancholic throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, and it is not until she accepts that John is not coming back–that she cannot and never could bring him back–that she is able to relinquish her attachment to his physical presence. As Hornby put it, she ceases to “preserve within herself the externally-lost object,” admitting finally her inability to re-create a narrative that concludes with his physical return; she accomplishes a “necessary failure.” Only then is she able to begin telling the story of her life as an individual expressing the inclinations of “I”, rather than through the lens of her coupling with John, through the dangerously present “we” (9).

Joan Didion will read selections from her work on Monday, April 6, at 7 pm in McAlister Auditorium. Doors open at 6:00, and the event is free and open to the public. Didion’s visit commemorates the continuation of the annual Great Writers Series, sponsored by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English; past honorees include Salman Rushdie and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.

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