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 untila 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’.

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