I am lucky that, despite Catholic schooling and the standard slut-shaming discourse in the playground, I have felt no shame about the fact that I have enjoyed sex with many different people. It was not a consequence of low self-esteem or loneliness; it was intentional. I wasn’t just after the physical pleasure of sex, but the ability to know people in this specific way that was so different from the manner in which it is usually spoken about.
On telly and in magazines one-off sexual encounters were disgusting or stupid or comical, but in real life I often found them profound. They were sad, too, but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t that I was ashamed or felt used, or any of the rest of it. But it seemed outrageous, shockingly melancholy, that you could have just one experience of knowing someone’s body. How sad beyond words to be so close to someone – to study them, adore them – so briefly and then never again.
What I wanted really was to be with every beautiful person in the world, not just once but as many times as it took for us to exhaust our interest in each other. But I would learn to accept, and even enjoy, the loss of people: understanding that their elusivity was a part of why they were important, and realising that I could not pursue every avenue that attracted me.
I am at an age now when people make decisions, irreversible ones, about how to live. A greedy person like me naturally recoils from taking any path that necessarily shuts down alternate possibilities. I want to live in every way there is, but I can’t. It’s becoming too late fully to ignore that fact any longer.
I am thinking this week of women artists, and the sacrifices they must bear to make a life in which their work is possible. I have been reading the wonderful autobiography Self-Portrait by Celia Paul, which recounts her early life as an artist and her relationship with Lucian Freud, with whom she spent ten years and had a son. Paul writes about the isolation she requires to produce her paintings: “One of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, loving someone, yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way. I think that generally men find it much easier to be selfish.”
In the life of a woman artist, as in any life, there are losses that one has no control over. An anonymous article published by Longreads recently went viral – written by a successful woman author who recounts an abusive husband (and jealous fellow writer) who robs her not just of safety and comfort but of her financial security. She tells of her husband and so many others resenting her for having too much – that is, for having a writing career as well as a family and good looks. Similarly, an interview with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien from 1978 resurfaced this week, in which she tells Michael Parkinson: “But my actual work, I think, is a bit of a threat to men… I have had to pay that price in my life.”
In Celia Paul’s book, there is a pivotal and moving moment where Freud paints her no longer as a teenage muse, but as an artist in her own right: “I felt honoured that Lucian should represent me in the powerful position of the artist: his recognition was deeply significant to me. But underlying my pride, I felt wistful that I was no longer represented as the object of desire.” She has gained her independence, created her own artist’s life, but there is loss there still, loss always.
“Having it all” is a phrase inextricably associated with “career women”, juggling being a high earner with having a family, staying slim and sparkling all the while. Taken in its more prosaic literal form, of course, nobody can “have it all”, whatever that means (except perhaps some astronomically wealthy people, who will in any case suffer from spiritual paucity just by virtue of being rich in a world like ours). To create anything necessitates exclusion, what you leave out is as important as what you choose to include. This is so in creating a life for yourself as well as art. That we will lose, throughout our lives, is inevitable. So I am trying to think more about the losses I am able to choose.
I am fairly certain that I will not have children, for instance, not because they’re inherently incompatible with being a woman artist but because I know myself well enough to know that my energy wouldn’t stretch that far. Most of my power is expended on staying alive, which to me has always felt an inordinately arduous slog – owing to my various mental aches and pains. The little capacity I have left is spent on writing. A child wouldn’t have a look-in.
Certain kinds of other intimate relationships are impossible for me, too, the kinds that require genuine and total interspersion of lives. I am too precious about my life to share it completely. It isn’t that such dynamics are unattractive to me or that I am temperamentally unsuited to them, but that I want them less than I want to be who I am meant to be. I suffer from these losses, sometimes with great regret and anger. Sometimes I am terribly lonely in a way that I know I could avoid if I really wanted to; but things come of the suffering, too, the life you choose emerging through its cracks.
In Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, the narrator, a writer, reflects on the choice to end her marriage: “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go – to Amgash, Illinois – and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.” Ruthlessness for a woman artist may be less the “splinter of ice” in the heart that Graham Greene referred to, but rather a talent for excision, the ability and desire to refuse certain bonds, attractive as they may be, lonely as we may sometimes be in their absence.
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people