The Ubiquity Of Received Attitudes

What bothered me was the assumption that because I was a woman in her early thirties, I must be “desperate” for marriage. At first this seemed only irritating; every romantic encounter arrived in the same cumbersome frame I had to repeatedly dismantle. But after a while, the fixedness of this belief felt not merely claustrophobic and repetitive but downright pernicious. Figuring out how you feel about another person is a notoriously complicated business. The ubiquity of received attitudes about what men and women did and did not want seemed to relive everyone of the responsibility to actually examine their desires, leading to some pretty bizarre behaviour.

— Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (p 138)

To Exist Inside The Ungraspable

Marriage today has come a long way from Neith’s time, but one aspect that hasn’t changed at all is its fantasy of certainty… Freedom is unbearable. We opt again and again for the sugarcoated confinements of matrimony, a promise that life will work out just the way we want it — without that promise, false as it may be, the institution’s many encumbrances might be impossible to bear.

I have come to think that one of the main reasons Neith married Hutch is because she suspected that her innate introversion and desire for stability and order would eclipse and distort her fierce autonomy — that, left alone, she actually would, in a sense, become a “dotty spinster,” insofar as that means turning away from the world instead of sating her curiosities by living in it; in her case, a romantic partner was an escape hatch back to reality… For her then marriage was a way towards more questions, more uncertainty…

This willingness of Neith’s to exist inside the ungraspable strikes me as the bravest stance of all.

— Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (p 119)

If A Woman Wanted

If a woman wanted to live in peace and quiet and keep her house neat, without somebody tracking it up, and wanted to make preserves and potpourri of rose leaves, and sit by her window and sew a fine seam, why shouldn’t she? There was always enough who wanted to get married and carry on the race… If a woman liked to play with words and set them in patterns and make pictures with them, and was taking care of herself and bothering nobody, and enjoyed her life without a lot of bawling children around, why shouldn’t she?

— Neith Boyce (1872- 1951), quoted by Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (p 109)

A Spinster Wish


The far-off security of a boyfriend was almost better than having him nearby. I busied myself furnishing my little room, set up a bank account so I could write checks to my landlord and the utility companies, and started to pay off my student loans. Most extraordinary was waking alone, into my own thoughts. I’d plump the pillows and stretch my legs until my body spanned the entire mattress, and I’d lie suspended in that gauzy dreamscape between sleep and real life for as long as it lasted. Once the spell broke, I’d get up and dress and follow the day wherever it went… This is when reference to a mysterious “spinster wish” first appears in my journals — shorthand for the extravagant pleasures of simply being by myself.

November 12, 1995: A long, perfect spinster wish of a Sunday, read all day, took two naps.

— Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (pp 32-33)

Beneath The Surface


And although I, like her, always tried to see beneath the surface, on the basis of a fundamental yet unstated tenet that what lay beneath was the truth or the reality, and, like her, always sought meaning, even if it were only to be found in an acknowledgment of meaninglessness, it was actually on the glittering and alluring surface that I wanted to live, and the chalice of meaninglessness I wanted to drain — in short I was attracted by all the town’s discos and nightspots…How could I explain that to Hilde?

I couldn’t, and didn’t. Instead I opened a new subdivision in my life. ‘Booze and hopes of fornication’ it was called, and it was right next to ‘insight and sincerity’, separated only by a minor garden-fence-like change of personality.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dancing in the Dark (My Struggle, Book 4), p. 23

The Virtues Of Passivity

I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying — it seemed to me — was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become — to put it bluntly — anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 170-171) Outline

Seeing What Was Really There

…And in fact one of the things that happened to me on that holiday, and I believe has not changed since, was that I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years in my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.

— Rachel Cusk, (p. 119) Outline

The Principle Of Progress


In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love. If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming again, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress, saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction and war, for which both of us demonstrated just as much energy and aptitude as always.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 99-100) Outline

A Magic River

I said that when my sons were the ages of those two leaping boys, they were so intimate it would have been hard to disentangle their separate natures. They used to play together from the moment they opened their eyes in the morning to the moment they closed them again. Their play was a kind of shared trance in which they created whole imaginary worlds, and they were forever involved in games and projects whose planning and execution were as real to them as they were invisible to everyone else: sometimes I would move or throw away some apparently inconsequential item, only to be told that it was a sacred prop in the ongoing make-believe, a narrative which seemed to run like a magic river through our household, inexhaustible, and which they could exit and reenter at will, moving over that threshold, which no one else could see, into another element. And then one day the river dried up: their shared world of imagination ceased, and the reason was that one of them — I can’t even recall which one it was — stopped believing in it. In other words, it was nobody’s fault; but all the same it was brought home to me how much of what is beautiful in their lives was the result of a shared vision of things that strictly speaking could not be said to exist.
I suppose, I said, it is one definition of love, the belief in something that only the two of you can see, and in this case it proved to be an impermanent basis for living. Without their shared story, the two children began to argue, and where their playing had taken them away from the world, making them unreachable for hours at a time, their arguments brought them constantly back to it. They would come to me or to their father, seeking intervention and justice; they began to set greater store by facts, by what had been done and said, and to build the case for themselves and against one another. It was hard, I said, not to see this transposition from love to factuality as the mirror of other things that were happening in our household at the time. What was striking was the sheer negative capability of their former intimacy: it was as though everything that had been inside was moved outside, piece by piece, like furniture being taken out of a house and put on the pavement. There seemed to be so much of it, because what had been invisible was now visible; what had been useful was now redundant. Their antagonism was in exact proportion to their former harmony, but where the harmony had been timeless and weightless, the antagonism occupied space and time. The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure morality. If love is what is held to make us immortal, hatred is the reverse. And what is astonishing is how much detail it gathers to itself, so that nothing remains untouched by it. They were struggling to free themselves from one another, yet the very last thing they could do was leave one another alone. They fought over everything, disputed ownership of the most inconsequential item, were enraged by the merest nuance of speech, and when finally they were maddened by detail they erupted into physical violence, hitting and scratching one another; which of course returned them to the madness of detail again, because physical violence entails the long-drawn-out process of justice and law. The story of who had done what to whom had to be told, and the matters of guilt and punishment established, though this never satisfied them either; in fact it made things worse, because it seemed to promise a resolution that never came. The more its intricacies were specified, the bigger and realer the argument grew. Each of them wanted more than anything to be declared right, and the other wrong, but it was impossible to assign blame entirely to either one of them. And I realized eventually, I said, that it could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more, that was the point. There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality even. Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.

— Rachel Cusk, (pp. 80-83) Outline