by Nic Rowan
When Joan Didion died last December, she left precise instructions for her burial. She was to be interred at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine following a brief and private funeral according to the rite of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The service was to take place as soon as the church would allow, and only family and close friends were to be present. Hers was the third and final Didion-Dunne funeral, the first where she was not burying either her husband or her daughter. It was a chilly day in April, and the proceedings were, in the words of Dean Patrick Malloy, “remarkably dour.”
At that point the cathedral had been closed to the public for more than two years, which could not have helped the mood. But even when it is open, Saint John the Divine is a gloomy place. Outside, broken saints are missing from their niches and inside, burn marks are scarred onto the walls along the nave. Everywhere scaffolding holds up a roof that was never finished and is already falling into ruin. Significant renovation ceased in 1941 and is not expected to resume. Didion loved the church, likely because its crumbling edifice conformed to her practice of faith. “I did the ritual. I did it all,” she wrote after her husband John Gregory Dunne died, knowing well that chanting the psalms and singing “In paradisum deducant angeli” was not wholly because of a trust in God’s mercy but more a desperate attempt to maintain order through the old rites. Similar considerations prompted her to shun the 1979 revision of the prayer book for her own funeral. In the older rite, Malloy acknowledged, as he recalled assisting at the service, the rhythm of the words carried with them “a reality that the mere meaning of words cannot possibly convey.” By that he meant older generations of Episcopalians held a reverence for the English language, and the English language was Didion’s true faith.
The faith has not been kept. On Wednesday, Didion’s publisher, Knopf, hosted a “celebration” of her life at the cathedral, along with an assemblage of eulogists including Justice Anthony Kennedy, Jerry Brown, Venessa Redgrave, as well as David Remnick and a cohort of New Yorker staff writers. No one spoke particularly well or for very long. Patti Smith performed an old Bob Dylan song. The whole thing was over in less than two hours. The audience—it would not be right to call it a congregation—was strictly business. It included mainly people who could claim Didion as a rival, influence, or colleague: Fran Leibowitz, Greta Gerwig, Liam Neeson, Donna Tartt, Anjelica Huston, Charlie Rose, and many other hangers-on from her social scenes in New York and California. Forty-five minutes before the event began, the doors of the church were thrown open to the public, and some passers-by wandered in off the street. The evening was, many people said afterward, exactly the sort of grotesque gathering Didion might have relished.
This was by design. The celebration, after all, was a publishing house’s attempt at making the myth of Didion as the Last All-American Writer. Malloy spoke of her rather abstract commitment to the church. (He was careful, however, not to frame any of his words as prayer.) Brown praised her interventions in questions concerning the state. Remnick assured the audience that her work will last because Didion still “reaches young people with an emotional and intellectual immediacy” that may yet produce more great writers. And, as if to prove his point, he offered as evidence Jia Tolentino, one of the New Yorker’s star millennial contributors. “There will never ever be another Joan Didion,” she declared, and it was no wonder that she thought so. Tolentino seemed unable to speak in anything but abstractions and superlatives, and ended her ramble with the proclamation that we are all only “miniature figures against the centrifugal forces of history.”
Only Kennedy, who grew up with Didion in Sacramento, seemed interested in her single, defining trait. “Joan was always looking for Eden,” he said in a cracked voice. “She knew, probably, that she couldn’t find it.” Still, the doomed search ran through all of Didion’s work. For her, the past was always more noble and completely inaccessible. She believed that especially for Americans, a fall from grace was irredeemable, but the impossible struggle to regain it was “the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of popular songs.” As Didion saw it, she may have been the Last All-American Writer of her generation, but there will always be a Last All-American Everything, performing the prescribed rituals of mourning for his greater forebears.
While the audience streamed out of the cathedral after the memorial, I looked up at the temporary plaster ceiling. Nearly fifty years ago, Didion wrote disapprovingly of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, which was “finished” in 1964 by a bishop who had been defeated by Saint John the Divine, which even then was a decaying mess. “This came to my attention as an odd and unsettling development, an extreme missing of the point,” Didion wrote of Grace’s completion. “At least as I had understood the point in my childhood.” Now Didion is a physical part of that point, although I don’t envy her. Her remains are interred in one of the bricks supporting a church on which construction may never resume and whose own members have lost the ability to try.
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