The final line of John Banville's review of Joan Didion's Blue Nights in the New York Times Book Review states: "the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life's worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art." I have found in my lifetime of reading the opposite to be true: art is sometimes the only solace to be found, by providing escape or pleasure, but most importantly, by providing company.
Blue Nights is the story of Didion's craving for communion between the "I" of her individual event of loss and grief, and the "we" of its universal experience. She uses the two narrative voices -- "I" and "We" -- throughout her book to demonstrate the divide, and her book, as a work of art, is an attempt to bridge the divide and bring consolation to the "I", in the company (and understanding) provided by the "we".
Art -- books -- brought me out of the depths of sorrow following the death of my sister (three months before the death of Didion's daughter Quintana) by showing me that although my sister's death was singular and my sorrow unique, the experience of death and sorrow are a burden borne by everyone (certainly everyone of a certain age). Books provided me with the understanding -- "profound" and "provocative" indeed -- that I was not alone in my suffering or in my struggle to figure out how to live following the death of someone I loved and needed so much.
Didion recalls times when she used art to great avail, for example, when quoting Auden's Funeral Blues (in full) as explanation for how she felt after her husband died; she was in the company of Auden as his wailing grief matched her own. Another example is how she used the theatrical production created out of The Year of Magical Thinking to find a measure of comfort: during its production, Quintana was alive once again, and in Didion's company.
Blue Nights itself is a work of availing art in how it so honestly expresses isolation, fear, and despair; despair is most tellingly revealed in the stream of questions peppered throughout Didion's writing. What better expresses the frailty and uncertainty following the death of a loved one than questions and more questions. After my sister died, the questions were how to live, why not me, could I have done more. For Didion, the questions center on how to understand her daughter, how to prepare herself for her own mortality, and who to call in an emergency. These are questions for which there may be no answers. But by just knowing that other people are also asking questions, wrought from a dark and desolate place, we readers find consolation.
Grief experienced individually -- the "I" -- weakens, angers, raises issues of guilt and responsibility, and leaves wreckage in its wake. The joined experience -- the "we" -- affirms our sorrowful experiences as part of being human and allows for a measure of resilience.
Art offers opportunity for resilience by illuminating individual experiences and making them communally shared events. Art does not offer solutions, it offers evidence: evidence of the commonality of suffering, and of survival. Most of us make it through to the other side of grief. We will never be returned to who we were before -- we are changed, perhaps even maimed -- and yet we are still here, whether we want to be or not.
The morning we wake up and notice once again the spreading pink sky of sunrise or look forward to the deepening blue at dusk is proof of our resilience. Art helps us to understand what life offers, both in the fullness of our present sorrow and in the promise of a morning after.
My whole life I've loved to read. And when I needed books -- art -- the most, they gave me the escape, comfort, wisdom, and company that I craved. For one year, I sat in my purple chair read and read and read. Through books, I climbed up from the "I" of my despair to the "we" of renewal, and even joy. Art -- evidenced in 365 books -- most certainly shored me up against life's worst onslaughts. My year of reading proved that books have the power to heal even the most broken of spirits.
I have heard from legions of readers who found comfort in reading, not only in reading my book but all kinds of books. One woman wrote to me to ask for recommendations of books she could read aloud to a grieving friend. The friend had recently lost her daughter and would not leave the dead girl's room but just sat on the bed, still and silent: "I want to offer my friend company and solace in her sorrow. " What a beautiful demonstration not only of friendship but also of faith in the power of art.
John Banville's own works of art (most notably, The Sea, for which he won the Booker Prize) undercut his conclusion that against the worst onslaughts of life, art can offer no comfort or solace. How better to gird oneself than to seek the company of others struggling with grief, sorrow, and remembrance, as his characters do, and to latch on to the story, finding comfort in the reading, or pleasure in the words or perhaps just escape -- and maybe even a bit of shared wisdom.
Thomas a Kempis wrote way back in the 15th century: "Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book." The rest in reading comes not because you are alone, but because in reading, you are never alone. You are always in the company of the one who wrote the book, and of the others who are reading it, and of everyone experiencing what is in the book itself, whether it be joy or sorrow, death or renewal. The same can be said for all forms of art: the company of many in the experience of one. In such companionship is found the availing -- beneficial and wondrous -- power of art.