Siri Hustvedt is probably as well known for her non-fiction writing as her novels. In this book she aims to pull together both the arts and sciences in her essays on the human condition. There are three parts to this collection, comprised of new and older essays. The first section, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, focuses on artists and writers such as Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The second, The Delusions of Certainty, is a longer piece, thankfully broken into manageable sections, which looks in detail at the mind/body debate. The final section, What Are We?, is concerned with psychology and philosophy.
This isn’t the lightest of reads, but neither does it claim to be. I read the book over a two month period, dipping in and out but reading it in order. There is a line of continuity throughout as Hustvedt refers often to several of the same thinkers throughout, often utilising the work of seventeenth-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and several others including Freud and Janet. There are lots of interesting ideas presented in this volume, though some I had more interest in than others.
Perhaps because I am more interested in the arts personally, I found the first section the most interesting. Hustvedt writes extensively on bias in the way we look at the arts, the way that men present women in artwork, but also how female artists are regarded. For me, one of the most memorable of her essays is that on Louise Bourgeois. Hustvedt writes of her own experience of studying Bourgeois and her thoughts on her art, and also of the fictional character, Harriet Burden, who features in Hustvedt’s own novel, The Blazing World. Bourgeois was an unconscious influence upon this character, the author only realising to what extent as she wrote the essay. She also talks about the way that women are labelled where men aren’t, the creation of categories such as ‘woman’s art’ or, in my field, ‘women’s literature’. We don’t talk about male art or male literature in the same way.
The Patriarchs disappoint us. They do not see, and they do not listen. They are often blind and deaf to women, and they swagger and boast and act as if we are not there. And they are not always men. They are sometimes women, too, blind to themselves, hating themselves. They are all caught up in the perceptual habits of centuries, in expectations that have come to rule their minds. And these habits are worst for the young woman, who is still thought of as a desirable sexual object because the young, desirable, fertile body cannot be truly serious, cannot be the body behind great art. A young man’s body, on the other hand, the body of Jackson Pollock, is made for swagger and for greatness. Art hero.
Hustvedt presents her arguments with confidence, isn’t afraid to criticise the flimsy opinions of others. It is refreshing to read her ideas within the context of her own experience. When she writes of her own neurological condition, or shares anecdotes of her time as a volunteer writing teacher for psychiatric inpatients at a New York clinic, this adds weight to her ideas. I put trust in her, that she had thought carefully and formed well-rounded opinions based on facts and experience. This isn’t the easiest of reads but it will certainly make you think.