There is a great deal of looking going on in Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women. The first section scrutinizes various artists, Hustvedt’s time in therapy, her stint teaching writing at a psychiatric clinic, Susan Sontag’s 1964 lecture about porn, and– wonderfully—Karl Ove Knausgaard, in a silky rumination on literary sexism that seethes with feminist (and personal) pique. The second chunk of the book, “The Delusions of Certainty,” is a 200-page investigation of the mind-body problem that ranges through philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience in order to blur neat distinctions between reason and emotion, nature and nurture, matter and spirit, and masculinity and femininity. Synthesizing an astonishing mass of material, Hustvedt argues that the Cartesian split between psyche and soma has led us to discount powerful interrelationships among, for instance, our senses, intellect, mood, and biological disposition. It’s heady stuff.
Hustvedt, who declares that “my philosophical leanings have caused me to embrace an embodied, motor-sensory-affective relational mammalian reality,” stakes out the position of mediator. She is both a novelist and a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell; her book attempts to bridge a chasm between science and the humanities. “I have come to live in the gulf” of “mutual incomprehension” that separates “physical scientists” from “literary intellectuals,” she writes, quoting the physicist and author C.P. Snow. Her methods are mostly associative. She juxtaposes research from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab (on robots that navigate the environment without a central control) with Diderot’s vision of swarming bees in D’Alembert’s Dream. She revives the Aristotelian image of the mind as a wax tablet and Dante’s portrayal of consciousness as an “inner book” to frame the contemporary, cog-sci model of the brain as a computer.
These connections can be fascinating. Roaming freely in biology, philosophy, and pop culture, Hustvedt draws a link between Richard Dawkins’ “selfish gene”—out to survive and thrive at all costs—and Schopenhauer’s insatiable will, and then remarks that both evoke the “capitalist hero, hoisted up by his proverbial bootstraps, aggressive, selfish, but oh so clever and rich.” I loved her glosses on Darwin, which align the naturalist with the “tender empiricism” and Romantic mutability of the poet Goethe.
These are pages intended to catch the shape of a writer’s thoughts—the tome remains more of a notebook than a series of persuasive essays, with all the indeterminacy and occasional solipsism that form entails. Hustvedt is prone to such musings as “It has become obvious to me that framing the mind is crucial to many kinds of research,” and “Human beings are surely made of cells.” She has a way of raptly declaiming banalities as if she were the first to ever think of them. “Naming and conceptualization are vital to understanding,” she informs us solemnly, “but meanings in language are not fixed.”
To the extent that this book advances an argument, it is this: that “every story implies a listener, and we learn how to tell stories to make sense of a life with … others.” For Hustvedt, fiction (and therapy) inhabit “the realm of both ‘I’ and ‘you’—on what I call the axis of discourse or in the between zone.” “The between-zone,” she continues, “is established long before we learn language in the back-and-forth gestural, musical, and tactile exchanges between our infant selves and, usually, our mothers.” This highfalutin notion—that the preverbal commerce of babyhood establishes the rhythms that pulse beneath our conscious selves, that “before we speak, we are creatures of relational music”—is at the center of her theory of knowledge. Knowledge, to her, is the convergence of thought, emotion, imagination, and memory: something fuller and deeper than what lies at the end of a train of intellectual reasoning. Hustvedt rejects the sterile rationalism of the dualists. “Meanings,” she insists, “are also found in the muscular, sensory, emotional realities of the human body.”
Because knowledge is dialogic, rooted in the “kinetic melodies” of a “conversation” we don’t remember, our minds depend on other minds, and Hustvedt can take aim at the cliché of the solitary philosopher: “A man sits alone in a room and thinks,” she observes. “This image remains central to the history of modern Western thought. How the man happened to find himself in that room is not often part of the picture.” The novelist, by contrast, “is in that room with others, not only the real people who have shaped her unconscious and conscious imagination, but also fictive people and the voices of hundreds of people now dead who left their words in the books she has read.” The gender swap here is no accident: The same binary that privileges intellect over passion and spirit over substance also glorifies men at women’s expense. Hustvedt sees patriarchal self-regard as stultifying, female receptivity as fertile and generous: “Writing is always for someone,” she reminds us.
But it is hard to say who exactly this particular collection is for. As searching and seductive as the essays occasionally can be, they are also absolutely maddening. For someone convinced that the truth is not just apprehended by the intellect but also felt, remembered, and imagined, Hustvedt makes little effort to welcome readers with her prose. “Rather than charting correspondences between two distinct realms, psyche and soma, we can look for meanings in a lived body that is socio-psycho-biological, with each hyphenated segment mingled into the others, rather than neatly stratified,” she writes. I can tell you what those words mean, but I don’t know if I agree with them: They conjure no answering echo in my history or emotions, and I can’t animate them with the deeper understanding Hustvedt celebrates.
The thing is: It is also difficult to imagine experts finding her rehashings of other people’s work particularly enlightening. I fear that either her editors stopped reading after a few hundred pages or didn’t want to say anything about her twistier sentences because they anticipated being sneered at. Still, windiness I can forgive. Obscurity I can forgive. More off-putting is the author’s preening self-regard. To read all 500 or so pages of this volume front to back is to be critically radicalized, such that mild marginalia in the first half intensifies into furious exclamation points and scribbled insults in the second half, and by Part III the reviewer is in a constant struggle to collect herself and appreciate the various smart points this extremely vexing person is making.
Hustvedt will take every opportunity to congratulate herself on her cleverness, as when, searching for a personal example of how morality can’t be easily reduced to mental processes, she describes eviscerating some poor speaker’s “simplistic” paper at a conference. (“I experienced mingled feelings of triumph and guilt,” she recalls, “triumph because my barbs had been on point and guilt because I had clearly flustered and embarrassed the man.”) I lost count of the number of times she quotes her own work, name-drops famous friends, relays compliments she’s received, or draws our attention to the idiocy of some rival. Transported by her own intellectualizing of other humans, Hustvedt frequently loses sight of the humans themselves. Writing about a group of Cambodian women who went blind after seeing their families captured, she breathlessly suggests:
The transformation from witness of horror to a patient with functional blindness can be described as symbolically perfect, a kind of waking dream-work, if you will. The women’s bodies have become ambulatory metaphors of unbearable experience, not unlike the emotionally salient, concrete images of our dreams.
If you will. These women are not metaphors, but Hustvedt casts them as little more than phantoms in her reverie. Likewise, there is a lot of performative contemplation here, during which the occasion for and specifics of the chin stroking seem to matter less than the fact that the author is stroking her chin. Take the essay “Much Ado About Hairdos.” “All mammals have hair,” Hustvedt begins in a characteristic rehearsal of the obvious, making a show of seeing the familiar anew. “Hair is not a body part so much as a lifeless extension of a body. Although the bulb of the follicle is alive, the hair shaft is dead and insensible.” The piece vamps like this for a while, and then arrives at an insight: “The liminal status of hair is crucial to its meanings.” And also: “Contiguity plays a role in hair’s significance.” I submit that these observations are interchangeable, that the point isn’t what weird shit Hustvedt has to say about hair but that she, with her uncommon penetration, is saying weird shit about hair. I believe she wants us to exclaim: “What a gift to watch this supple intelligence apply itself to as quotidian a topic as hair!” The most aggravating part is that “Much Ado About Hairdos” makes some spellbinding moves. Hustvedt compares Rapunzel’s long braid to an umbilical cord, and then to the string that mother and child play with during Freud’s fort-da game. But setting aside her alienating tone to appreciate such inspired leaps proved beyond my powers. I blame my relational mammalian reality.
Hustvedt’s title makes much of her status as gimlet-eyed observer. She seeks to turn the tools of scientific examination upon the examiners, and analyze the analysts, and criticize the critics. Yet too often the object of her investigations ends up being her own excellence. For all the looking that transpires in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, there isn’t enough seeing.
A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt. Simon & Schuster.
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