“How do you know what you like?” We were, this writer and I, discussing sex at that moment. The conversation started with us trying to trace back why we found certain things attractive. Glasses, for me. Strong shoulders, for him. But the conversation got franker from there, as we realized we shared the fact that some people we had found attractive clothed and at a distance were much less appealing once we got them alone. We began reminiscing about those shameful moments from your past when you’re in bed with a guy, things are getting interesting, and he has the nerve to ask, “So, what would you like me to do?” Maybe your mind went blank, or maybe you gestured vaguely with your hand, or maybe you mumbled something like, “Oh, I don’t know, just keep doing what you’re doing” and you kind of wanted to die.
- An Experiment in Leisure by Marion Milner. 224 pages. Routledge. $21.99.
- A Life of One’s Own by Marion Milner. 224 pages. Routledge. $16.96. New in paperback.
Not anymore, of course. That was way in the past. Now we’re all sexual sophisticates and greatly fulfilled. But when we were younger, things sometimes went weird. And sometimes that was a good thing. It takes trial and error (and error, and error) to figure out what you like, because you don’t always just know. We think of our desires as being pure and instinctual, never really understanding the influence cultural norms, or what we see on television or in pornography. We feel pulled toward something we consider magical and totally individual, and then we get our hands on it and realize it’s not having much of an effect on us after all. Why were we craving this again?
Since that conversation, the question of what one likes has taken on meaning larger than just sex. It rings through my head at inappropriate moments. Days spread out before you, filled with promise, and you have no idea how to fill them beyond the drudgery of daily obligations. Someone asks, “What would you like to do tonight?” and you have no idea. Maybe your mind goes blank, or maybe you say “Whatever you want to do, dear,” or maybe you default to the same restaurant or the same bar or the same television show. That seems easier, and safer, than admitting to yourself that you don’t know, and don’t know where to go to find an answer.
“What does a woman want?” asked Freud famously and horribly. Marion Milner answered back, Huh, good question. Milner was unable to tell what made her really happy, beyond a few blips of joy that quickly faded after the new purchase or minor accomplishment grew a little stale. So she fished around for ways to find an answer. It seems like a minor problem to have, this not knowing how to answer a simple question. And yet it’s a foundational issue: what you like, what you should do with your time, where you should pour your energy. It’s a problem that feeds into every other tributary of your life, from your job to the way you raise your children. Suddenly you realize that not knowing how to answer the question (beyond a few superficial remarks like “pineapple on pizza” and “those little gold ballet flats at the boutique”) leaves you on the surface of the Earth, easily blown around by the wind or led astray by outside forces.
Milner was a therapist and a painter and a wife and a writer. She published A Life of One’s Own in 1934, and An Experiment in Leisure in 1937. Both books are documentary investigations into an answer to Freud’s question. Milner begins A Life of One’s Own with a list of things she wants, and the first things that come to mind are surface-y things, like red shoes and a haircut. And with that comes frustration that she’s not able to delve deeper. She writes:
What I want is, not when I came to die to say, “I’ve been as useful as I know how” — I ought to want that but I don’t. I want to feel I have “lived.” But what on earth do I mean by that? I mean something silly and Sunday paperish like “plumbing the depths of human experience,” or “drinking life to the dregs.” What nonsense it sounds. I suppose I’ve got a Sunday paper mind. I don’t want a life of service to a good cause, so it’s no good pretending I do. Maybe it’s colossal egotism, but I want to share in everything in the world, the bad as well as the good. The world is so marvellous, I want to grasp it, to partake of it, to embrace it, to feel every part of me vibrating with it.
Milner was writing in the ’30s, and she was often commenting on the hidden and thwarted desires of women, but there is little of the pre-Second Wave feminism dreariness to distract the modern reader. Both men and women still struggle with her goals and wants today, with how to transcend the mundane and the insignificant and find a life of meaning and passion.
In fact, Routledge’s decision to reissue the back catalog of Marion Milner might mean she finally finds an audience on her wavelength. Publishing these books right before World War II could not have done her any favors — the world was entering a time of nationalism and social conformity that would last for decades. It was not a time for championing individualism. Now, of course, our individualism is a source of anxiety: Are we unique enough? Are we living out our dreams fully enough? Are we enough of a character? We preen our individuality, with our handcrafted beers and our limited edition H&M sweaters and curated collections arranged in our one-of-a-kind refurbished vintage china cabinet.
We venerate individuality but somehow we miss the fact that these displays reveal no deep truths, and we are still capable of being swayed by clever marketing and economic fantasies. (And besides, those limited edition sweaters are constructed and sold in the thousands.) If Milner is going to find herself at odds with people obsessed with her obsession, it will be due to the length of time required to recreate her project. A Life of One’s Own covers a seven-year span of time, from when she first began her diary and lists of desires to the point when she felt in touch with her true self. It was a long task of excavation, of learning to ignore outside pressure, of understanding unconscious drives that led her toward self-sabotage, of figuring out why rational thought could not tame her emotional reactions to things. Her prescription is a bit like therapy without the therapy: a cataloging, and an awareness, of the most fleeting of thoughts, and the flashes of mental imagery that seemed insignificant and yet ruled her emotional life in ways she couldn’t grasp. There were dark fears about God, about love, about motherhood, about sex that constantly derailed her, and that no stern talking to herself could solve.
“I found myself continually occupied with the thought of how often, through not realizing the nature and strength of their own desires, men have been wrecked by them,” Milner wrote in Leisure. For the past couple weeks, Milner has been something like a friend — the kind of friend who, by returning to your side stronger, revitalized and with serenity, makes you long for a piece of whatever she’s got as well. She begins her project writing diary entries frustrated and frantic as she grasps for deeper meaning, but she emerges as someone confident and steady. Lucky for me, she documented the path in the form of two books. • 1 March 2012