Is Death Good or Evil?

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The determination of whether death is good or evil often depends on perspective. Diana Taylor’s position in False Impressions is one in which death of a public personality is portrayed as a group experience which, depending on the popularity of the deceased, is expressed in a public manner. While many mourners did publicly display their feelings of loss, many more mourned privately. When death occurs closer to one’s inner circle, such as was the case in Joan Didion’s After Life, the grieving process seems much deeper. Didion did not only discuss her feelings after the death of her husband, she involved her readers through the process beginning with their final evening together. While both perspectives shed light on feelings one may experience but remain reluctant to share, both authors share the good and evil in every death resulting in the question of which is more prevalent—good or evil?

Diana Taylor.  Communal grief, according to Taylor, seems to be an emotion which results in individuals experiencing a deep feeling of personal loss in spite of no direct involvement, contact, or personal intimacy with a decedent. Whether that sense of loss is a result of some internal belief that the mourning is how one is expected to publicly respond is a question which likely cannot be answered here. 

Focusing on the world-wide attention which the death of Princess Diana drew, Taylor calls on her own sense of mourning and her resulting self-questioning as to why she should feel such emotion at the death of an individual of whom she was not personally familiar.  “What’s Diana to me, that I should weep for her?  This was an odd mirroring effect—one Diana crying for another” (Taylor, 134).  

As Taylor questions her own personal feelings, she then questions the feelings of those international mourners who seem to be uncontrollable in their expressions of grief.  In a sense, it seemed that the mourning by those individuals was based more in fantasy than in reality; that, somehow, the very popularity of Diana in reality prompted a fantasy relationship between the mourner and Diana as she touched the hearts, rather than the lives, of her fans.  In Taylor’s section, The Hauntology of Performance, she differentiates tragedy among different cultures and borders. “The ‘drama’ of Diana’s death and the ‘theatricality’ of her funeral elide rather than clarify the ‘trauma’ of border crossings as specters traverse ethnic or national boundaries.  What counts as drama in one context gets demoted to a mere incident elsewhere.  The Diana specter becomes visible and meaningful as it dances within various scopic, political, and economic repertoires –and vice versa . . . [t]he specter, the spectacle, and the spectator are all dancing at this funeral.  Maybe because it’s so hard to get a handle on, a spec-ere (to see) that phantoms, fantasy, and performance have traditionally been placed on the opposite side of ‘real’ and ‘historical’” (Taylor, 140-141).

The reality of Princess Diana became fantasy for the world as she became an icon of all that is good—charity, empathy, love, and purity. Diana shared those wonderful traits with the world which, ultimately, elevated her to the status of other adored icons:  Evita of Argentina and Eleanor of Castile, for examples.  “Diana’s funeral, weighed down in splendor, outdid those that had come before.  But repetition was not simply a mimetic return to former displays of pomp and circumstance.  Rather, the pomp associated with the past served to monumentalize the present” (Taylor, 140). The pomp and splendor of their final send-offs displayed to the world the value of their lives and the status of which they were to be remembered:  the fantasy that, these women—individually—worked to touch the world and the lives of all those within it and the reality that they would be deeply and personally missed.

Joan Didion.  Individual grief is a process which must be experienced rather than explained, according to Joan Didion.  The trauma of this ultimate loss is one in which the individual who suffers through it must pass through the stages of shock into fantasy and, ultimately, into the reality of change.  

In coming to terms with the death of her husband, John, Didion reflects on her impression of the moment of realization and compares it to her past interviews in which her subjects reflected on the “normalcy” of the moment—“the clear, blue sky which started the day before the plane fell; the routine errands being ran before tragedy struck; the children normally playing on the playground before the snake struck” (Didion, 1). Didion takes the reader step-by-step through her final evening with John:  their return home and interaction as Joan fixes John’s dinner—their conversation, their meal, his final words, and her interpretation and reaction—and, specifically, the routine of their evening and her lack of ability to predict that anything was the matter.

The second phase Didion introduces to her reader is the fantasy of whether this final event was, in fact, predicted, or at least suspected, by her husband.  She recalls a discussion several weeks prior to his death wherein the two of them were out at dinner. His habit was to bring index cards for noting interesting thoughts to be, perhaps, later incorporated into his writing. As he had run out of the cards, he asked Didion for hers and jotted down his thought. The next day, as Didion brought the card out for her husband, his reply was that, “You can use it if you want to” (Didion, 3). Joan then began her hindsight questioning of the meaning behind his statement: whether he had a premonition that he would not be finishing his book and, therefore, the quote would be free for her own writing. She questioned why he had forgotten to bring the cards at that time when such practice was habitual for him; whether his forgetfulness was his attempt to alert her to her future. 

This second phase that Didion alerts us to introduces us to the notion that the imminence of death can be sensed by the soon-to-be decedent, that, somehow, if we only wait for and properly interpret the clues presented us that we will somehow be able to make the most of those final moments or, even, possibly prevent the occurrence.  Her fantasy phase seems more a self-imposed punishment for failing to observe and discern meanings.

Didion’s final stage brings about the reality that the event did, in fact, occur, that the loved one is forever gone, and that life as is then known will be forever changed. Didion separates the sense of loss from true grief by comparing the death of other loved ones, such as one’s parents, to the debilitating feelings of hopelessness when the lost one is someone for whom you would not have expected death to arrive. “I had been expecting . . . those [parents] deaths all my life. They remained, when they did occur, distanced, at a remove from the ongoing dailiness of my life . . . Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life” (Didion, 5).

Comparing Public Mourning to Individual Grief.  Taylor exposes us to the probability that the public, widespread mourning, such as that witnessed at the death of Princess Diana, is more a fantasy loss in that the mourners seem to be affected by the death of their ideal than of the individual, since they likely had no personal or direct knowledge or intimacy of the deceased. “The fantasies in play may be linked to so-called universal and eternal anxieties about a glorious life, an unexpected death, and the fall of the great.” (Taylor, 142).  Didion, conversely, discusses the personal impact—the grief rather than the mourning—which is associated with the loss of a loved one, specifically one for whom death is not anticipated to occur before one’s own.  “Grief is different.  Grief has no distance.  Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life” (Didion, 4). 

The understanding and acceptance of loss when one loses an icon or a loved one for which one’s own life revolved completely around naturally goes through a series of stages:  the shock and disbelief that the individual is no longer with us and will no longer impact our lives; the fantasy that, somehow, the death could have been prevented by the individual mourner had they merely paid closer attention and acted proactively; and the final state in which reality sets in that the death is final and the mourner must readjust their daily life to accommodate the loss.

In conclusion, death is neither good nor evil, and it is both good and evil. To the person lost, their life represented an impact on the world or on an individual which would be remembered and cherished. Their demise may not be good, but its end cannot be deemed evil since it is an inevitable result. Similarly, particularly to the person(s) remaining who must accept that loss, death is evil in the sense that their treasure is forever lost to them but good in the sense that they had the blessing of experiencing the impact of that lost individual. 

Works Cited

Didion, Joan. "After Life." The New York Times 25 September 2005: Web: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/magazine/25didion.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Friedman, Lawrence M. "The One-Way Mirror: Law, Privacy and the Media." Washington University Law Quarterly (Vol. 82, 2004): 319-342.

McDonald-Kenworthy, Nancy. "Voice from the Void: A Widow’s Words. An Analysis of Joan Didion’s Memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking." 18 April 2006. www.GriefsJourney.com. 18 June 2013 <http://www.griefsjourney.com/gj/Didion%20Essay%20Analysis4-18nmk.pdf>.

Taylor, Diana. "False Identifications: Minorities Populations Mourn Diana." Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003. 134.