Authors: Rachel Cusk
The technicians were asking us to talk, she said to me, so that they could adjust the sound levels and work out what the problem was. They had told us to just talk about what we had for breakfast today, she said, though there were probably more interesting things we could discuss. She was hoping our conversation
would focus on the problem of recognition for female writers and artists: perhaps I had some thoughts on that subject I could share with her, so that she could make sure to ask the right questions in the interview. The topic probably wasn't new to me, but it might well never have occurred to their viewers that the same inequalities that beset the home and the workplace could dictate what was presented to them as art, so she saw no reason not to give the nail another bang on the head. And it was of course true, she added, that few notable women were ever really recognised, or at least not until they had been judged to be no longer a public danger by having become old or ugly or dead. The artist Louise Bourgeois, for example, was suddenly all the rage in her last years and finally allowed to come out of the closet and be seen, when her male counterparts had been on the public stage all along, entertaining people with their grandiose and self-destructive behaviour. Yet if one looked at the work of Louise Bourgeois, one saw that it concerned the private history of the female body, its suppression and exploitation and transmogrifications, its terrible malleability as a form and its capacity to create other forms. It was tempting to consider, she said, that Bourgeois's talent relied on the anonymity of her experiences; in other words, that had she been recognised as a younger artist, she might not have had
cause to dwell on the ignominious mysteries of her life as a woman, and instead would have been partying and posing for the front covers of magazines along with the rest of them. There are a number of works, she said, executed when Bourgeois was the mother of small children, in which she portrays herself as a spider, and what is interesting about these works is not just what they convey about the condition of motherhood â in distinct contrast, she said, to the perennial male vision of the ecstatically fulfilled madonna â but also the fact that they appear to be children's drawings drawn in a child's hand. It is hard to think, she said, of a better example of female invisibility than these drawings, in which the artist herself has disappeared and exists only as the benign monster of her child's perception. Plenty of female practitioners of the arts, she said, have more or less ignored their femininity, and it might be argued that these women have found recognition easier to come by, perhaps because they draw a veil over subjects that male intellectuals find distasteful, or perhaps simply because they have chosen not to fulfil their own biological destiny and therefore have had more time to concentrate on their work. It is understandable, she said, that a woman of talent might resent being fated to the feminine subject and might seek freedom by engaging with the world on other terms; yet the image of Bourgeois's spider,
she said, seems almost to reproach the woman who has run away from these themes and left the rest of us stuck, as it were, in our webs.
She paused for a moment to look enquiringly towards the camera lights, beyond which the men were gathered in shadowy consultation, their arms full of cables. The director shook his head and she raised a perfectly drawn eyebrow and then slowly returned her gaze to me.
I remember, she continued, as a young girl, the realisation dawning on me that certain things had been decided for me before I had even begun to live, and that I had already been dealt the losing hand while my brother had been given the winning cards. It would be a mistake, I saw, to treat this injustice as though it were normal, as all my friends seemed prepared to do; and it was not so very hard to get the better of that situation, she said, because the boy that is handed all the cards is perhaps also very slightly complacent, as well as having a big question mark in the form of the thing between his legs, which he must work out what to do with. These boys, she said, had the most ridiculous attitudes towards women, which they were busy learning from the examples their parents had given them, and I saw the way that my female friends defended themselves against those attitudes, by making themselves as perfect and as inoffensive as
they could. Yet the ones who didn't defend themselves were just as bad, because by refusing to conform to these standards of perfection they were in a sense disqualifying themselves and distancing themselves from the whole subject. But I quickly came to see, she said, that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife, she said, is closer to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true, she said, that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet if you looked only a little way ahead, she said, you could see that the girls' ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them.
She paused again and glanced over at the director, who gave her a thumbs-down, and gestured for her to continue talking. She carefully tucked a lock of her straight, pale-yellow hair behind her ear and then folded her hands in her lap.
At around this time, she said, I began to discover the worlds of literature and art and I found there much of the information I needed, information my mother had neglected to pass on to me, perhaps in the hope that I would somehow make my way through this minefield in ignorance unscathed and that if she alerted me to the dangers I might take fright and make a misstep. I made sure to work hard, she said, and to achieve the highest results, but no matter how hard I worked there was always a boy there, level with me, who appeared to be less out of breath and to be taking things in his stride; and so I cultivated the art, she said, of nonchalance, and gave every impression of being less well-prepared than I was, until one day I found that this impression had become a reality, and that I achieved even more by leaving a few things to chance and by taking a leap of faith, such as the child takes when the training wheels come off the bicycle and it finds itself cycling unsupported for the first time. I also enjoyed the attentions of men, she said, while making sure never to commit myself to any one man or to ask for commitment in return, because I understood that this was a trap and that I could still enjoy all the benefits of a relationship without falling into it. At a certain point it struck me that I could even have a child, she said, without necessarily compromising myself in the usual ways. But I didn't really want a child, she
said, despite the fact that my friends were having them and could talk of little else, because it seemed to me that there were so many children, she said, and that if I could manage without one then I ought at least to try. It did not seem like enough, she said, simply to pass the baton to the next runner, in the hope that she would win the race for me.
The job that I do, she said, gazing at me steadily with her clear, almond-shaped pale-blue eyes, is in many respects a superficial one, since it involves being looked at, and part of the reason I was given it was because of my ability to manipulate my appearance. I have a male counterpart on the show, she said, and he is not required to look attractive, but I am not in the slightest bit interested in that example of inequality. What I am interested in is power, she said, and the power of beauty is a useful weapon that too often women disparage or misuse. My background is principally in the visual rather than the literary arts, she said, because that is where these politics are decided and where the battles of life are mainly fought and it is also, she said, where the nature of male superiority is at its most exposed. For a while, at university, I sat as a life model for the art students, she said, partly to make money and partly to get this subject of the female body out into the open, because it almost seemed to me that even by clothing myself I was inviting the mystery
to take root there under my clothes, and to weave the web of subjection in which later I might become trapped. I myself was taking art history, she said, and for my thesis I studied the work of the British artist Joan Eardley, whose position struck me as an example of the tragedy of female authority, though in a very different way from that of Louise Bourgeois or indeed of the poet Sylvia Plath, who remains as a warning to us all of the price to be paid for the fulfilment of one's biological destiny. Joan Eardley hid herself away on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland, she said, where she documented the savageries of nature, of the cliffs and the tempestuous sea and the sky, always seeming to be standing on the edge of some unspeakable violence or turbulence, she said, as though she were trying to locate the edge of the world itself. She spent a certain amount of time also in the city of Glasgow, where she drew and painted the street children, whose poverty and depressing cheerfulness she was unable to observe entirely without sentiment: she drew them obsessively and also it seems involved herself in their lives, rather as Degas haunted the world of his ballet dancers, she said, with the difference that Joan Eardley was not a man and so her vision appears disturbing and strange rather than familiar and legitimate. Also on her visits to the Glasgow slums she painted certain men, people she encountered on the
streets or in the boarding houses, and again treated these subjects as some of the famous male artists have. There is a painting by Eardley, she said, of a male nude asleep on a bed: he is lying on his side, his grey, bony, undernourished body entirely revealed, in a room that is also unrelievedly grey, and the bed is as narrow and comfortless as a coffin. This painting, she said, is unlike anything else I have seen painted by a woman, and partly because of its large size it seems to take the bleakest possible view of life, so that it almost succeeds in refuting the whole history of men painting women in such poses. The pathos of that sleeping body, she said, its lack of any promise or possibility, is entirely shocking, and indeed the painting caused a scandal at the time, for the resemblance between this man and the victims of the concentration camps with whose images the world had become familiar a few years earlier. Yet despite that scandal â which resulted, bizarrely, she said, in a number of men turning up at Eardley's door and offering themselves as her next nude model â Eardley's oeuvre remains unrecognised and her life, which as far as I can ascertain was without sex and was certainly childless and solitary, ended in agonising illness at the age of forty-two. It was a life without illusion, she said, and it seems to me that it remains impossible for a woman to live without illusion, because the world will simply snuff her out.
In my own case, she said, I have fought to occupy a position where I can perhaps right some of these wrongs and can adjust the terms of the debate to an extent by promoting the work of women I find interesting. But increasingly, she said, this position feels like I am standing on a small rock in the ocean that is getting even smaller by the minute as the water rises. There has been no territory marked out, she said, and so there is no place where I can take a step and find myself still on dry land. It perhaps remains the case, she said, that for a woman to have a territory she must live as Bourgeois's spider, unless she is prepared to camp on male territory and abide by its terms. There are as yet only two roles, she said, that of model and that of artist and the alternative, she said, as the men moving through the gloom began shaking their heads at one another and the director threw up his hands in a gesture of despair, is to disappear into some belief or philosophy and find a shelter that way. She cocked her head, listening while the director spoke to her, and then turned to me with her slender, elegant eyebrows disparagingly raised.
âIt seems extraordinary,' she said, âthat all these men together can't fix the problem, but they say they will have to take the equipment back to the studio to repair it. It is very disappointing,' she said, rising from her chair and beginning to disentangle the microphone cord from her clothing, âand considering the subject
of our conversation, more than a little ironic.'
The third interview, the assistant said on our way back upstairs, would be the last one, and she hoped it was more successful than the other two had been. She believed Paola had booked a restaurant afterwards for lunch, so hopefully I would have the opportunity to relax before returning to the conference. We emerged into the lobby, where Paola was sitting on her stool talking on the phone. She waved and rolled her eyes and the assistant led me back to the sofa where the first interview had occurred and where a man was waiting, though in fact when we got closer I saw that he was hardly more than a boy. He sat lightly on the edge of his seat, dressed in a white t-shirt and a faded pair of jeans and dangling a baseball cap loosely from his fingers, a mildly anxious expression of innocence on his face, like that of a young saint in a religious painting. He sprang up to shake my hand and then waited politely for me to sit down before returning to his place. His brown hair fell in ringlets around his guileless, almost feminine features, and his darker brown eyes were fixed on mine with childlike earnestness.
âI wonder,' he said eventually, âif you have ever thought of what it would be like to live in the sun. I got the idea from your book,' he added. âOne of the characters talks about how he has lived his whole life
in the rain and the cold, and how being in the sun has changed his character. I wondered if it might be the same for you.'
I said it probably wasn't worth thinking about, since living in the sun wasn't something I planned to do.
âBut why not?' he said.