7 May, 2012Issue 19.2Politics & Society

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After the Agony

Sorcha Kurien-Walsh

BritishRachel Cusk
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
Faber and Faber, 2012
160 pages
ISBN 978-0571277650


Aftermath, Rachel Cusk’s account of divorcing her husband, presents itself as something other than an easily digestible narrative. Though she acknowledges that the artifice of “plot” offers a coping mechanism for the pain of such a violent event, Cusk is not interested in neutralising her trauma; such self-love does not interest her. Rather, she insists on examining her suffering in an attempt to make wider sense of it.

Like the Ancient Greek tragedians, whose works are referred to throughout, Cusk exposes the violent currents beneath the superficial calm of domestic life. As a working mother, Cusk had a lifestyle that was unique to her generation. However, she feels that second-wave feminists have failed to achieve their professed goal of correcting gender relations. Prior to her divorce, she identified strongly with a non-essentialist view of womanhood, famously articulated by Simone de Beauvoir, in which a woman is “made, not born”. But the birth of her children brought a change. After enduring the long “pilgrimage” of pregnancy, she began to feel that gender is not an ideological trick played on women but a matter of biology. She had a visceral feeling that the children were hers, that she made them. This shift in belief came into conflict with her decision to become a working mother, a choice that stripped her of her “primitive maternal right”. Her husband’s prominent role as the children’s primary carer gave him an advantage in the post-divorce custody battle. Sitting in her solicitor’s office, knowing that she has given up her right to custody, she still feels the possessive impulse of motherhood. She feels herself to be “enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient, ugly emotion”.

Though Cusk presents a convincing argument for her position, her writing on feminism is marred by her dramatic overstatement. While her analysis of her feelings is subtle and honest, her grandiose declarations border on the absurd. She writes, “I am not a feminist…[a] feminist is supposed to hate men. She scorns the physical and emotional servitude. She calls them the enemy”. Cusk is clearly angry, but one can’t help feeling that her anger is misdirected. To whom does this crude idea of feminism apply? Her definition of a feminist as a woman who hates men is too outlandish to be meaningful. Her analysis of the disappointing outcomes of 20th-century shifts in gender relations is trenchant, but it is too imprecise and extravagant to be entirely convincing. While other marriages break up under the strains of daily life, Cusk blames her divorce on the influence of feminism—an influence which can be retrospectively critiqued once she has acquired the raw knowledge of motherhood. Motherhood is central for Cusk: her eloquent description of it as a distinctly human experience empowers her argument. Unfortunately, Cusk treats all of her experiences with the same humourless certainty:

My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it.

In an infuriatingly hypocritical move, Cusk exhibits the blind self-assurance that she condemns in her husband. This contempt for her husband’s feelings results in a sub-textual suggestion that the strains that drove her marriage to divorce belong not to grand political movements such as feminism, but to the failures of empathy common in every relationship. Likewise, though Cusk claims to hate stories, her own is elaborately furnished with details that are employed to support her own point of view. A broken plate, for example, becomes symbolic of “a new reality”. Though Cusk is superb in her personal descriptions, her more banal devices buckle under the metaphoric weight which she loads on them: a menial trip to the dentist becomes a philosophical treatise on pain. She never doubts her own objectivity, so that, despite the clarity of her prose, Aftermath often subsides into suffocating solipsism. It is not the cult of motherhood that has primacy, but the cult of Cusk.

Cusk’s conviction that her writing can adequately convey her experiences forces the reader into a position of scepticism. There are moments of awkward bathos in which this feeling is particularly intense. On getting a bad haircut in Paris, Cusk asks whether it was a “transformation or a defacement.” Even a sympathetic reader might think this a melodramatic reaction. A sceptic would suggest that Cusk’s discontent lacks concrete analysis, that it speaks of the vague longing common to those whose every material need is met. Cusk asks piteously, “Why had I destroyed my home?” But although her writing veers between topics as diverse as feminism, the weather, and the perils of psychoanalysis, this central question remains unanswered. Perhaps the answer has less to do with gender relations, or even her husband, than Cusk realises. She describes how when married, she would lie in the dark questioning her identity:

[…] in the darkness, in the marital bed, I felt myself wheeling on the edge of a black chasm […] The reality of my room, my home, my life couldn’t seem to anchor me. I was frightened of dying, not because I loved life but because I couldn’t distinguish myself, couldn’t gather together as one entity this self whose existence posited the fact of non-existence.

This pervasive feeling of insecurity might account for her endless self-aggrandising; her “self” only feels secure when bolstered by overstatement. Observing parents in the park, she dismisses them as “well-organised heirs of Christian piety”. Even their safety-helmets provide a metonym for a deep-rooted domestic inanity. Though Cusk knows nothing of this family, she assimilates them into a story of the “ideal” Christian family, a mawkish myth that she bitterly disregards. Her insecurity is also evident in the totalizing impetus which dominates her narrative: there is nothing that she cannot anatomise and then marshal in support of her case. Despite her adamance that this is not a fictional narrative, but rather a form of life-writing, her style—so controlled, so fond of glinting metaphor—seems a forced and highly subjective interpretation of the aftermath of her marriage. Cusk’s husband, for instance, who is unwilling to contact her, becomes a central focus for this narrative control, glibly summed up in one of Cusk’s metaphors:

X talks. X is a talker. He is like a well sign-posted museum: it’s easy to find your way round, to see what he chooses to display.

But Cusk’s own writing is equally well signposted. In her exquisitely detailed metaphors, there is no room for surprise or difficulty. Can any descriptive device encompass an entire person? There is a discrepancy between the surface smoothness of Cusk’s prose and the chaotic “truth” which she wishes to evoke. Her writing is not propelled by analysis of the world around her, but by her own stylistic brilliance. Henry James wrote that if you transcribed a dream, you lost a reader. Cusk’s account of her life—so chilly and self-contained—might as well be a dream. It is just as beguiling and, to the reader, just as baffling.

Sorcha Kurien-Walsh is reading for a BA in English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.