Rachel Cusk's Outline Part 2

Dickens did it. Alexander Dumas did it. So did Henry James and Herman Melville. And now the English novelist, Rachel Cusk, is doing it. Cusk might be familiar to previous readers of this blog as I admire her work a great deal. Her latest venture is being published in the Paris Review, in each of the periodical’s issues this year.

Part 2 is the most recent in her forthcoming volume that is currently titled Outline. In the first installment, an English writer travels to Greece to teach a writing course. Seated next to her on the flight is an older Greek man who describes the failure of his two marriages and other family misfortunes. He invites her to take a boating excursion with him the next day.

Part 2 begins as they drive to a small boat harbor outside Athens. They continue their dialogue that, at times, is both amusing and stimulating. She swims far out to sea, all the while ruminating. I want only to comment here on a few of her ideas.

She notes that people can never change completely. Rather she believes whatever changes occur are latent, “had lain dormant, waiting to be evoked by circumstance.” I know well such an experience, although it is infrequent.

Once in a while I will meet a person and engage in the kind of conversation I’ve not had in years. It is quick, clever, witty, sometimes hilarious and usually leads nowhere. Only certain people in certain situations can evoke it. It is unpredictable, but when it happens it is worth the wait.

Cusk also comments at some length on a family she observes as she is swimming in the sea. They are gathered together on a boat. She sees how happy they are or seem to be. But then she knows that what she observes is probably not at all like they really are. When she looked at the family, what she saw was a commentary on her own life. She saw “a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there.”

In another language, this is the familiar actor-observer bias. The actors view the situation from their own experience, while those who observe it, see it from their own. The two can be widely divergent. Similarly, when explaining their own behavior, a person is likely attribute it to external events, while attributing other people’s behavior to personal or internal events.

She remembers a scene in Wuthering Heights. “Looking through the window, the two of them see different things. Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she feels and desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they are.”

In the evening, after their boating trip, they meet for dinner in Athens with another writer. The talk is lively, serious, interesting. They talk about the meaning of the self, a person’s identity. And Cusk comments to my delight: “I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self with you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.” Yes, I exclaimed as I was reading along, I have always believed this was the case.

I am enjoying her story immensely. We are in Greece, in the summer, it is warm, very much so, and the dialogue is pure philosophy. What is next? A visit to an island in the Aegean? A trek up the Acropolis to the Parthenon? A discussion of Plato’s view of poets in the Republic? I will have to wait, although I’d rather not.