Rachel Cusk on the Self in Visual Art

Your story “The Stuntman” has two narrative strands. One involves an artist who at some point in his career decides to start painting scenes from life upside down. The paintings you describe are based on those of Georg Baselitz, but D—the artist in the story—and his wife are fictional characters imagined by you. Can you tell me how the story came about, and what made you want to explore the nature of inverted painting in a piece of fiction?

The question of authorship and the identifiability of the self in the visual arts has interested me for a long time. Language is essentially incriminating: writers are identified mercilessly with their works, yet there is an invisibility—or almost a protective cordon—around the visual artist, to the extent that a biographical approach to the visual arts has been and possibly still is seen as basically unacceptable. My reading of Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”—a Renaissance text—years ago set me on a rather awkwardly determined path to find a way of writing about art that stemmed from human character, because I believed that the relationship between visual art and human character was more violent and psychologically revelatory than that between authors and their words. The writing in “The Stuntman” comes out of a deep attempt to imagine the conditions of inversion in painting. I don’t know very much about Baselitz’s life, other than what he documents in the work. By looking at his paintings, which remain historically and politically connected to life, I felt I grasped enough about their “reality” to propose some theories about the move into irreality. I don’t use the license of fiction and imagination terribly often. Embarking from the location of a nonfictional object or objects allowed for a gentle form of imagining—as I say, more of a proposition or a suggestion than an invasion.

The other narrative strand involves a woman, living away from her home country, who is attacked in the street by another woman. I believe that incident is based on something that happened to you. Is that true? And why is the attacker’s gender so disorienting to the narrator?

It’s true that I was brained in the street in Paris, completely randomly, and the difficulty for me as a writer lay in the use of a personal experience that was so anomalous. Generally, I would use myself—as a location—only if the experience seems universal. It took me a long time to figure out the universal in this very singular and personal act. And, in the end, it had to do with the gender of the attacker—I don’t believe I would have found anything to say about being attacked by a man. But I think the sense—indeed, the reality—of being attacked by life, and by the self, is in fact quite general. Once I had confidence in this idea, it seemed legitimate to use what had happened to me, not because it particularly mattered in a personal sense but because it could function as a kind of reference for the things that happen to other people.

The narrator thinks of herself as having a kind of double—a “stuntman”—who experiences the biological challenges of being a woman, and absorbs and confines them so that they don’t intrude on the narrator’s vision of her life. Why does she want an alter ego to cope with her femaleness? Why that separation of femininity from self?

I don’t think at all that it’s something wanted or formulated—it has more the character of an overwhelming realization, that the biological physicality of femininity has had to be annexed in some sense for the autonomous or equal woman to exist. This idea of representing the suppression or denial of physical experience in order to exist in a condition of equality with men seemed revolutionary to me. I know, obviously, that this is a daily reality for women around the world, but to state it in a concrete way as a psychological predicament seemed a step forward.

The story as a whole revolves around ideas about womanhood and art—the representation of women in art and what that does to freedom and agency, the question of whether a female artist can be simply an artist or is always a woman and an artist, and so on. Did your interest in those ideas trigger the narratives, or did the narratives come first and trigger the discourse?

I always think and feel that I’m coming to the end of writing as a useful occupation, which is maybe a suicidal impulse given to female creators. I want to break through, yet I don’t want to destroy, which I suppose is one version of that impulse. I am very conscious of wanting to keep my obedience to literature. And conscious also that to remain true to identity under those circumstances is to exist on a very narrow ledge. Essentially, I try to work out the little it’s legitimate for me to say!

“The Stuntman” began its life as a lecture or a reading that you delivered in Italy in December (and which is, in fact, being published in Italian this month). Did you write the piece specifically for that purpose, or was it already gestating, so to speak?

After being attacked, I experienced a huge withdrawal of writing as an accessible occupation and didn’t write anything for quite a while. Then I was invited to write a long lecture that would be read before an audience, and this seemed to guarantee a strange kind of anonymity, so I accepted. I found a very amenable kind of freedom in that situation. I found I was able to work. But I don’t think I wrote quite what they were expecting! They were very nice about it, though. And I sent it to a couple of friends who had asked about it, and they had a strong reaction to it, so in the end I thought it might be developed into something for a wider audience.

The word “autofiction” often comes up in descriptions of your work. How do you feel about that term, and do you think it accurately describes what you write?

I don’t think that I write “autofiction,” though I admire the people who do, and essentially wish that I did. I think it’s an evolution beyond what I’m doing. I’m perhaps stuck in the past, trying to work out the past. I don’t think I’m in any way as free as the writer of autofiction. I don’t think that anything I do is revolutionary in that way. I have a moral agenda, a willingness to commit myself to morality, that feels extracted at great cost from the “novel,” as we define it currently. The autofiction writer can access that instantly through the legitimacy of the self. So maybe I’m working away on something basically bankrupt. But I enjoy the work and sometimes feel sustained by it—very much so in the case of “The Stuntman.” ♦

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