The question at the heart of the Joan Didion auction

One afternoon in the mid-1990s, a few years after my grandmother’s death, I sat cross-legged on my mother’s bed and watched her open a small box of trinket, inside which was a naval ensign and a sash engraved with golden letters. Even at that young age, around 13, electric shock was not lost on me. Looking inside, I felt its charge. Which was strange, I thought at the time: these two military remains, preserved for over 50 years, belonged to a man I had never met, a man who drowned at sea during World War II. It wasn’t even related to him. What relevance could these elements have for me here and now? Until now I had heard very little about Adam Pilarz, let alone about his courtship with my grandmother in the early 1940s, before his tragic death. And yet, in that tactile moment, five decades later, none of it mattered to me. Because as soon as I picked up that naval ensign, the past was no longer forgotten in a box; it hummed into my hand, conscious and alive.

I begin with the story of my grandmother from distress because the folktales that shape us often start at home. I was reminded of this truism only a few weeks ago, scrolling through article after article of the personal possessions belonging to a writer many of us are desperate to know about, but perhaps still struggling to understand. When the auction of Joan Didion’s belongings broke down, the media such as the New York Times he hailed the highly publicized sale as a “unique opportunity to acquire a piece of his legacy”, as if the act of buying something from his estate could be a way to acquire a piece of his soul. Each object tells a story. But what happens when an artifact becomes a conduit to something much bigger? What happens when an everyday object becomes something more than just a stuff on a shelf, when transubstantiated beyond expectation?

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I began grappling with these existential questions a few days after my husband’s death in 2018, when I was left in a world of his belongings, reflecting on the symbiosis between the random paraphernalia and the subjective stories they convey, the memories and emotions they convey. transmit. On one bewildered afternoon in the first weeks of my grief, I sat on the edge of our bathroom and held his battered toothbrush as if it were some kind of magic wand that could transport me into the not-too-distant past. And of course he didn’t, in any physical way. But the act of holding it came pretty close to the mystical incantation, that electrical charge, that he expected to find.

It would take my husband’s death to reflect on what the 19th-century anthropologist James George Frazer called “sympathetic magic”: the spectral transference that he claimed could occur between person Y stuff, the first somehow impregnating something of itself in the second. I thought about it again on the day of Didion’s trinket sale, going through her everyday belongings, household items that seemed to evoke the ghosts of her past: stained Le Creuset pans and a small mound of seashells and pebbles. Examining my kitchen, I took Mental note of all the furniture I own that, like Didion’s, carry a similar load: my grandmother’s church pew, a reclaimed oak pew I used to climb on when I was a little boy; and my late husband’s creaky captain’s chair, a swivel antique that occupied the corner of his Stoke Newington flat, and in which I chose to sit when I wrote my first book after his death.

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