The point was this darkness -- call it what you will -- this darkness and disorganisation were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. The etymology of the word 'aftermath' is 'second mowing', a second crop of grass that is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganisation that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilisation, as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomisation. Better, in Mrs. Lewis's view, to live the compartmentalised, the disorganised life and feel the stark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilised unity, racked by the impulse to destroy. (5)
[Clytemnestra] is seeking equality. Children will not be born from equality, not will it empires be built or frontiers expanded, for the pure peace of equality begets nothing. It is all aftermath, predicated on the death of what was before. To beget requires the domination of one thing by the other, the domination of female form by male content; then, in order to nurture what has been begotten, the reverse. Clytemnestra wants no more begetting. She wants the peace of equality but to get it she will have to use violence. To reach aftermath, first there has to be the event itself. (54-5)
The world Creon has inherited is a post-authority, post-familial world: it is aftermath, and Creon has the job of governing it. But how do you make people obey you, respect you, believe in you and in the reality you represent? Creon's idea is that you give commands and then don't turn back on them, no matter what--a strategy the modern parent, presiding over chaos and unrule, occasionally adopts, only to find themselves insisting on a course of action long after its necessity and even its rationality have passed. (103)
Narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. He says, the violence in the Odyssey is a story told afterwards, in a cave. (121)-Z
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk is greedily treated as a 'memoir' by reviewers (see here; here) and puff profiles. While understandable (the publisher's material encourages it), this focus is peculiar because it ignores the guidance of the title (which is akin to an essay or, to be self-referential, a blog post). This focus on it being a memoir is a bit unfortunate not just because it leads to mistakenly conflating Cusk's biography with narrated details. One example is Camilla Long's careless hatchet job ("the book is crammed with mad, flowery metaphors and hifalutin creative-writing experiments").
Unfortunately, these reviewers ignore the central narrative and structural puzzle of the novel (which reads as a series of lengthy autobiographical blog posts). This is odd because the narrative itself calls attention to the issue: "form...conceals truth, just as the body conceals the cancer that will destroy it. (55) The first seven chapters read as would-be-memoir of the aftermath of a divorce; while the first-person narrator makes no effort at fairness (and seems to think it is deeply ingrained but false move when applied to marriage), the narrative and narrated chronology seems fairly straightforward (with meditative reflections on Greek tragedy thrown in). It can't be fully straightforward because the first chapter has (fractal-like) the same title as the book. But the eight chapter "XYZ" is a series of very short vignettes involving three unnamed men (XYZ): one a therapist (Y), but the other two (X/Z) are undefined: are they hints of an affair that destroyed the narrator's marriage, are they post-marital flings, or are they mere possibilities? It's hard to say. Long is probably right that X is the divorced husband at a later date (see for some evidence here), but we can't be sure.
However, nearly all the reviews (except Long's) are silent on the final (ninth) chapter, which is told from the perspective of a Belgian (I think)* live-in nanny, who grew up in a (shall-we-say) unstable family environment and who witnesses the break-up of her host family in England. But that family is -- pace Long -- not the narrator's family. The book ends with the live-in nanny moving to another family in London (also not the one narrated in the first seven chapters). Why do I think the nanny is, in some sense, a different story altogether? For two reasons: (i) the division of labor as seen by her in the home does not fit the division of labor narrated in the first seven chapters; (ii) the emotional/physical collapse of the mom occurs in the nanny's perspective before the divorce and not after (as the narrator implies). Obviously, the two reasons are not decisive; part of the point of the first-person narrative is that the narrator is unreliable in some sense, unwilling to tell us the causes of the marriage's collapse nor quite capable of explaining her own dissolution. The problem is, if we treat the final chapter as the perspective of an impartial bystander, we're still stuck with imperfect access to the underlying facts; the live-in nanny's comprehension of English is so mediocre (she flunked her language test), that she is not a reliable witness. That is, the novel enacts the slipperiness of establishing the narratable 'facts.'
I do not mean to suggest that it is not a memoir (I don't care); nor that it is not a meditation on feminism, the novel introduces the theme repeatedly at the start of the novel, and transformative experience;** nor that it is not an extended analysis of divorce from the vantage point of parents and children ("I have two homes...and I have no home" (64-5)); nor that it does not raise complex questions about the ethics of writing about people known to the author.+ But here I want to close with a reflection on the title. I have to admit that when I first read 'aftermath,' I thought of it as saying, after numbers or after counted order, that is, (a species of) disordered meaninglessness. At times the novel affirms this thought: in reflecting on marriage, the narrator writes, "It is not to dismantle but to conserve it that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant. It will come apart, that image, and what remains not a new or different image but a pile of pieces that mean nothing at all." (69)
But in the novel we are reminded of the etymology which refers to a seasonal moment after mowing. And the temporal framework is circular. Soon again there will be sowing and another harvest. As the narrator's teacher (Ms. Lewis) insists the aftermath is the unwanted -- by the propertied farmer -- grass after the harvest, which then needs to be mowed too in an eternal return. It is the yearly reminder of the denial that nature does nothing in vain; that from the perspective of man's estate of nature guarded by a benevolent divine there is, in fact, no sufficient reason for this presence and subsequent activity. It is necessary, but pure waste.
Paradoxically, this perspective, the official story on aftermath, is introduced by an authority figure (the teacher) who herself seems to advocate for a reversal of values (namely to treat aftermath as the site of freedom and creativity). That is to say, the novel articulates the battle between at least two takes on the nature of marriage, which throughout is treated not just as the ground of traditional political unity (peace by one name, institutionalized violence by the other), but itself also as a site of order, where in one conception one becomes complete in it, whereas in the other, one is annihilated by it. One is tempted into thinking that these are attributes of the same substance.++
Near the end of the book (with a nod to Plato),*** aftermath is equaled with the post-violence survival narrative. It's a backward looking. Reconciliation need not involve truth. If we listen to its etymology, narrative reconciliation is a renewal (we tell again in order to give birth to something new that represents the old). It is tempting to see in aftermath a form of therapy (and throughout the novel we're invited to do so), but even so, I am more inclined to see it as a means to exert control. Why? Not just because the narrator tells us on the first page, in commenting on one of her daughter's love of jigsaws and the other's building of silent card houses, that she sees these activities as 'attempts to exert control.' Aftermath is a way to control the narrative, not just about the failed marriage (and perhaps the causes of failure), but also to keep a sense of order while the narrator is presenting us with evidence of her engulfing dissolution (anorexia, depression, numbness, alienation, etc.)--she seems close to being destroyed by a species of post traumatic stress. From that perspective the whole narrative is an act of self-definition required by a state of emergency. This last thought is a bit fanciful, I admit, but on the opening page we are told that An argument is only an emergency of self-definition.
That is, we philosophers tend to tell ourselves that arguments are means to compel agreement; I am not the first to note the role of argument as a means of forcing the other into submission or silence. The novelist replies that argument is a means, an exceptional one, to self-definition. And, indeed, arguments never succeed at silencing others; but if we own arguments (as Socrates urged), they make explicit who we (ahh) come to be. To the novel's credit we are left unsure if that's a viable route.
*Peculiarly, Lang treats it as Bulgarian. But the geographic hints we get all point to Belgium: "High speed trains crossed the flat countryside nearby in great bounds, Paris to Antwerp, Zurich to Brussels..." (129) Other odd mistakes include the claim that the narrator "won’t do chores herself" (see here). Long is not all wrong of course; I agree with her that the long description of the removal of a molar, “a large tooth,” on the day of the separation is a symbolism we could have done without.
+As my most loyal readers know I have been thought to be portrayed by a Dutch novelist.
++"I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence...for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people." (21)
**"In Greek drama, to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death, the death that is change. The vengeful mother, the selfish father, the perverted family, the murderous child--these are the bloody roads to democracy, to justice. The children belong to me: once I would have criticized such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. where had this heresy gestated? It was part of me, where had it lived for all these years, in our egalitarian household?" (9)
***It's worth reflecting on the idea that what the prisoners in Plato's cave see are the reflected shadows of tragedies. Strikingly, marriage is treated like being in the cave, too: "when couples talk, everything they say means something else. Their talk is referential, but the reality it refers to is hidden from view. You see the shadow, but not the object that casts it." (57) Here it is unclear if the couples know what their talk refers to.