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Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Woman Looking at A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women | Slate Magazine

Photo: Katy Waldman
"Siri Hustvedt’s preening essays take their author’s own brilliance as their main subject." says Katy Waldman, Slate’s words correspondent. 

Photo: Maddie Edgar

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.”

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women:
Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind

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.

Source: Slate Magazine