Reading Grace Paley after #TimesUp
In 1974, the year I was born, Grace Paley published a short story called ‘Wants’ – you can find it freely online. The story is one of renewal and it’s one that I return to often even though its characters and concerns – women and men, women who love men – might seem to some old-fashioned. It never gets old for me.
The story is two and a half pages long. Paley’s stories were all short, she once explained, because she was a woman with more wishes and responsibilities than those of a writer alone. She was also a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend, an activist, a citizen. Pressed with such demands her time, inevitably, was limited. And ‘Wants’ is a story not only engaged with what a woman wants, but with a woman’s time: with what her wants and her time might have to do with each other.
It begins with our narrator sitting on the steps of the ‘new library’ and seeing her ex-husband in the street. ‘Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.’ A wry, melancholic but nonetheless friendly opening is thus oddly concluded with the sort of inward justification that alerts us to what machinations may have dissolved their marriage: accusations, ripostes, words always barbed, braced, ready for the next charge. And indeed our narrator is met with an instant rebuff: ‘What? What life? No life of mine,’ which she quickly accommodates: ‘I said, OK. I don’t argue where there’s real disagreement.’
In my own marriage, my reluctance to argue where there’s real disagreement has itself been a source of real disagreement. It’s not hard to see why. When I fall silent or turn coolly compliant in the midst of a heated discussion I’m often accused of withdrawing into a cold frigidity or passive aggression. And to the extent that I am, like Paley’s narrator, inwardly constructing my own unstated justifications, there’s certainly such a case against me to be made. But there may still be a case to be made for refusing to make my case. Because who wants one’s marriage to be a battlefield where positions must always be established and sides defended or attacked until a victor has been declared?
Introducing What Do Women Want? (1983), co-authors Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum quote the sociolinguist Deborah Tannen: ‘Boys and girls grow up in what are essentially different cultures, so talk between women and men is cross-cultural communication.’ Sexual stereotypes regarding styles of discourse have tended to hinge on the idea of women chasing conversation in the hope of connection and intimacy, while men are supposedly looking to trade information, solve problems and bring unnecessary chatter to a close. (There are punning parallels to be made here to stereotypical notions of what drives female versus male sexuality, too.) When women make it known that they want to ‘talk’, for example, and yet, men quickly discover, this talking may be open and meandering with no obvious content, direction or end in sight, that’s when men can predictably turn an exasperated cartoon shrug to the camera: you see how impossible they are, how there’s nothing I can do to mollify them . . . what on earth do women want?
This is pretty much the run of things in my own household. What we’re arguing about turns out to be how to speak to each other at all. What is conversation good for? Arguments at least appear to have a sense of direction, and yet an argument, even if won or lost, tends to preserve the disagreement in some form, which may be the inevitable outcome of any kind of intercourse that’s been declared decisively ‘over’ – see also, the history of war. So while arguments can seem a noble quest to bring disagreements out in the open, and hence to an end, it’s equally possible that arguments are provoked by an anxiety about endings. Arguing may be an attempt to ward off the unpredictability of endings by calling time on time.
When thinking about conversation, it’s worth considering a type of conversation informed by a built-in reflection on its own purposes: the psychoanalytic session. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once observed that session endings can be a way for the analyst to insinuate hostility towards their patients, even when those endings are consensual, amicable and agreed upon in advance. Discussing a case study of a female analyst who found it hard to end sessions with a particular client, a businessman, within the allotted fifty minutes, writer and analyst Anouchka Grose remarks that the female analyst suspects herself of having haplessly colluded with her client’s wish for ‘her to see him for love, not money’ because of ‘social conditioning around women and caring. She thinks a male therapist would find it easier to end the sessions.’ Love as unwaged labour is meant to be the special domain of women, after all.
Do male therapists really find endings less vexing? Perhaps. Yet the psychoanalytic situation is also one that invites us to project sexual identities that have less to do with anatomy or social conditioning than with the fluid and transferable characteristics that make sharing possible. Gender, in other words, as a question of what position you’re occupying in a particular discourse – such as who is doing the talking and who the listening. In my own case, for example, I know I’ve certainly tried pushing back the finishing line of sessions with my male analyst. Asking myself why, it’s as if I’ve been protesting the way in which ‘time’s up’ forces me to reckon with the economic nature of our relations. So isn’t it conceivable that, like the businessman, the mystery of what I really, really want (which I usually claim not to know) is no less bound up with a fantasy of what might be signified or promised by ‘free time’? Hence too, no doubt, why I’m just as likely to be the first to announce when our time’s up in the manner of someone pre-emptively ending a relationship before the other gets a chance to.
No matter the instigator, efforts to tie things up are frequently marked by a wish to close down a state of openness and uncertainty about what the other really wants; a state that’s experienced as threatening. As such, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the patriarchal question ‘what do women want?’ might be posed by someone whose purported wish to know may be disguising their wish not to know. A question, after all, calls for an answer, but what if what ‘women’ want is a chance to speak or share unhampered by the demand that they get to the point? Indeed, this suggests why Freud, as happens so often, may be both the purveyor of the problem and its best response. For though it was he who made infamous the question, he’s also the curator of a way of talking and being listened to that doesn’t claim to know in advance what a conversation’s ends are supposed to be. It’s precisely the ‘point’ of psychoanalysis that talking can never really get to it.
In Paley’s story, whatever arguments may have once brought this marriage to an end resume the moment the former spouses see each other again. So it makes sense that the story mostly takes place at the library’s Books Returned desk, where our narrator has gone to return overdue books. For it’s at this juncture that there occurs between our narrator and the librarian a conversation that mirrors the one she’s having with her ex. Once again she’s accused of a past misdemeanour. Once again she accommodates. ‘I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes’ – an explanation we can accept, having just discovered that the so-called ‘new’ library is one to which she has owed these books for fully eighteen years. Indeed, one way of reading the story is as a sort of coming to (time) consciousness on the part of a narrator who has been stuck, unable to progress or move on. And since we know this to be the case with the books she’s been unable to let go of, we can suspect the same about her ex-husband.
So what does it mean for someone to become conscious of time? Perhaps time-consciousness, in Frank Kermode’s apt phrase, is simply the sense of an ending. A narrative sense, then, but also one that might awaken a kind of political sensibility that allows us to glimpse that the way things are does not require us to suppose that they correspond to any natural law that renders them inevitable, but rather to a set of relations and actors that have shaped them in the past and might shape them differently in the future. And one that, at its worst, arouses a fervid apocalypticism such that the end in sight looks a dead certainty.
In any case, given its hold over the imagination, the sense of an ending, while it may endow a sense of time passing, doesn’t assume adherence to chronology. What the perils of a fateful trajectory primarily seem to inspire, in fact, is the wish to move backwards in time. Mostly we long to return to the past out of nostalgia: terror of the present, a horror at the way time changes things, or because the unknown future is frightening. Yet the past needn’t solely be sought out for the security of what’s known.
In ‘Wants’, his version of their story has a definite outline: their marriage ended because ‘you never invited the Bertrams to dinner’. ‘That’s possible,’ our narrator concedes. ‘But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.’ Her version of what she was responsible for back then is thus both more all-encompassing and less plotted, in part because, as she shows, she had no time to notice time passing. Since busyness is rarely an acceptable excuse, however – the people we let down suspect that we do make time for the things we want – she admits her fault. Or does she?
While her admission sounds, on the surface, pretty peaceable, as an anticlimactic wind-up of so much history it also feels like an escalation. Indeed, for her ex, the uninvited Bertrams remain a debt still owed him, as if time was unable to heal the wounds that her lack of time inflicted. These two warring reactions – his aggressive one, her passive-aggressive one – are juxtaposed with that of the librarian who immediately ‘trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean’, once her fines are paid. So it’s the lending library that offers a vision of what it might be like to feel free of the past. With books, she’s forgiven. And what this inspires in the story is renewal. Our narrator at once renews the same two Edith Wharton novels she’d come to return, reflecting that though she read them long ago, ‘they are more apropos now than ever’.
The books are The House of Mirth and The Children, both novels written fifty years before Paley’s story, at a time when women were beginning to organise themselves politically by making their demands and wishes known.
So at the ‘liberating’ Books Returned desk, we’re recalled to an earlier emancipatory moment, and to the period when the pace of change was accelerating for everyone, though for women, as Wharton showed, most especially. Indeed, the historical consciousness we find in Wharton’s fiction suggests that women could begin representing their own desires once they’d become conscious of the desires of their time. And they became time-conscious in large part by reckoning with the conditions of their own desirability – by noticing, for instance, how their place in the marriage market, along with that of so many other consumer objects, was tied to a sense of their built-in obsolescence.
Despite her poverty, her rumoured wantonness and her wish for not only status and money, but love, The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart remains marriageable while young. All such prospects are lost to her, however, as she ages. While in The Children, a man in his late forties ceases to want the grown woman with whom he’s been matched as he finds himself falling for a teenage girl – though it’s the novel’s irony that a man of means, leisure time and scant responsibilities possesses none of this girl’s maturity (‘Judith’s never been a child – there was no time’).
In our own times, predators are big news: elevated to the loftiest positions on the one hand, hearing their time’s up on the other. Yet looking back over one hundred years of the women’s movement, from the first wave of feminism, when Wharton was writing, to the second wave when Paley was finding her ‘more apropos than ever’, reminds us that these times are by no means the first in which women have sought to call time on the exploitative nature of heterosexual relations. Nor, as that history shows, does a rising consciousness of one’s situation and a consequent determination to end it mean the future won’t repeat the past. But we can still hope that the present clash in the ongoing battle of the sexes might afford its combatants a chance to pause, reflect and learn from their shared history. Not least because, if the sense of an ending calls forth a historical consciousness, it can cause us to question those things that may have passed previously unnoticed, by appearing inevitable, natural, obvious . . .
For instance: what do men want?
It looks all too obvious in the case of the older man predating a young girl – the most indecorous version of what it’s often said men really want. But that charge not only unfairly smears all men, it also fails to probe, as Wharton did, the confusions that abide within stories of wanting. Because what if we were to turn Freud’s question on its head and suppose that what both women and men want is not to know what they want; a chance to be surprised? On this account, the predatory male may desire the ingénue precisely for her fantasised ignorance. Though if he finds himself consistently chasing the new, believing that passion can only dull with familiarity, then he has mistaken his object. For in wanting the unknown but pursuing the unknowing, he encounters nothing new, but rather locates in another’s sexual ignorance a means of shoring up his own narcissistic image – the image that an older woman threatens, by knowing too much.
In ‘Wants’, after watching our narrator renew the books she’d come to return, her ex-husband seems suddenly hopeful that he too might get a second chance. We sense this when he recalls a ‘nice’ time they had together at the beginning of their marriage. But his nostalgia only has the effect of renewing their disagreement:
That was when we were poor, I said.
When were we ever rich? he asked.
Oh, as time went on,
she says, they were a family that didn’t want for anything. Which isn’t his memory: ‘I wanted a sailboat . . . you didn’t want anything.’ It’s the kind of line that sounds like it knows what it wants: to bring things to a close. Whereas our narrator, though her irony is unmistakable now, still keeps her line open: ‘Don’t be bitter,’ she tells him, about that sailboat, it’s ‘never too late’. And ‘with a great deal of bitterness’ he, for the first time, agrees: ‘I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better. But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.’
To win an argument, as we know, you must have the final word (and you must believe there can be finality in words). As such, he seals his victory by following word with decisive deed: ‘I sat down on the library steps and he went away.’
Yet time, we find in ‘Wants’, can never be fully determined, no matter how decisively one tries to end things. Thus the ex-husband’s judgement – ‘for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing’ – only provokes where it intended to close down. ‘Now, it’s true, I’m short of requests and absolute requirements. But I do want something,’ our narrator reflects, continuing to converse with herself even after he leaves. She wants, she realises, ‘to be a different person’, such as the type of person who returns library books on time. She’d wanted to be a good mother, an effective citizen, an ender of wars. She wanted and still wants love:
I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn’t exhaust either man’s qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.
While he might think his wants are obvious, his reasons straightforward, on that there remains between them real disagreement. Soon after, this is how the story ends:
Well! I decided to bring those two books back to the library. Which proves that when a person or an event comes along to jolt or appraise me I can take some appropriate action, although I am better known for my hospitable remarks.
So, it’s a happy ending: she returns the books not only punctually, but ahead of time. Yet as endings go, it hardly sounds conclusive. There’s a risk, for instance, that she could be lapsing back into the perverse logic of claiming to know too much about what has determined her own history. Because what changed her exactly? She implies it’s her ex-husband’s accusation of passivity that jolted her into appropriate action. But when we first encountered her on the steps at the beginning of the story she was already taking those overdue books back to the library. So even by then something had shifted.
She’s also, as we discover only towards the story’s end, already remarried, which puts a somewhat different complexion on the matter of who has stayed stuck in the past and who has managed to move on. In which spirit too, perhaps, we can encounter the ‘hospitable remarks’ our narrator claims she’s ‘better known for’. For what are we to make, in the end, of the conversational style we’ve been observing throughout the story via her various acquiescences and accommodations for the sake of non-confrontation? One possible implication is that this putatively feminine style has been vanquished by the classical motif of man’s propensity for heroic action – action that depends on knowing exactly what one wants. But since it’s those open and inviting ‘hospitable remarks’ that are the story’s actual last words, a question, is left hanging as to which of these behaviours – action or conversation – has been the real agent of change. Because isn’t hospitality, as a form of admission, of letting others in, the more likely, in the long run, to make a lasting difference to a disagreeable situation? Viewed accordingly, refusing to argue where there’s real disagreement, while it can be a cover for aggression, may also be a way of playing for time: the time it takes, for example, for real changes to emerge, or the free time beyond the finishing line when relations, being no longer subordinated to the laws of instrumental reason or economic exchange, seem fashioned not for money, but for love.
#TimesUp, these days, in part because there’s seldom been more grotesque proof of patriarchal oppression than President Trump. But since Trump is not a man of reason, no argument can topple him. This is something Trump seems to have grasped early on when claiming at one of his rowdier campaign rallies: ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’ He might be right. As a man whose aggressions and appetites appear open and unapologetic, many of his supporters have thrilled to his transgressions. Much as, no matter how much he lies, his brashness has an air of frankness for those who perhaps feel they’ve been suffering for too long under an abstruse system of political correctness that has not allowed them to say what they think, do what they like or want what they want.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Trump excites people, arousing, as he does, not only the fanatical ardour of many who say they want him, but the impassioned disgust of those who say they don’t. So it’s worth pondering whether this frenzied ‘love him or loathe him’ fascination for Trump can tell us something about what we all might want. Or to put it more provocatively, what if, when it comes to predator Trump, it’s we, his audience, who are the real predators, perversely relocating our deepest want – for less certainty about who we are, how we got here and what we ultimately want – onto the altogether unknowing? What we may have fallen for, in other words, could be ignorance. Although ignorance of the wrong kind. For Trump, as witnessed in his nostalgic and vengeful distortions of history, can offer nothing new, no hope, only despair. But even a mistaken object of desire can suggest something of what it is we might really want. So what we perhaps want, at a time when there seems no time to waste, not for any of us, not even for the millennial young, is another way of wanting, another way of experiencing time passing, another way of writing history.1
‘There is a roof on our language that holds down our love,’ George Saunders has written. ‘What has put that roof there? Our natural dullness, exacerbated by that grinding daily need to survive. A writer like Paley comes along and brightens language up again, takes it aside and gives it a pep talk, sends it back renewed, so it can do its job, which is to wake us up.’ It’s the idea of literature as a space of hospitality. And in a world like ours, where disagreements are raging, stances are hardening, and where in both private and public, in both sex and politics, an atmosphere of intimidation stalks whoever fails to know in advance exactly what positions to take, it’s a blessed relief to imagine there’s still somewhere we can go that remains open, accommodating, ready to admit new possibilities. Every time I return to ‘Wants’ I read it differently. On every reading I find it timely. But it’s a story that strikes me as more apropos now than ever.
1 In an essay contrasting perversion and desire, Adam Phillips suggests these two forms of wanting give onto different ‘ways of writing history’ (see ‘The Uses of Desire’ in One Way and Another).
Photograph © Chris Felver / Getty Images, Grace Paley, 2000