Book review: Siri Hustvedt is A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

Bridging the male-dominated world of science versus the humanities, Siri Hustvedt brings a unique perspective in her questions on life and the universe.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt is published by Sceptre.
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Fifty-seven years ago, in his lecture The Two Cultures, the English physicist-turned-novelist C P Snow bemoaned the "gulf of mutual incomprehension" that existed between "physical scientists" and "literary intellectuals". The American writer Siri Hustvedt isn't a fan of the bulk of Snow's lecture. However, she opens her persuasive and thought-provoking new book of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, with a reference to it because the problem Snow identified has, she declares, "only grown more urgent in the last half-century".

“The fragmentation of knowledge is nothing new,” she explains, “but it is safe to say that in the twenty-first century the chances of genuine conversation among people in different disciplines has diminished rather than increased.”

Hustvedt is particularly well placed to make this observation. Her cerebral life began in the "soft" territories of the humanities. She has a PhD in English from Columbia University – her subject was the work of Charles Dickens – and she's best known as a novelist. Her first, The Blindfold, was published in 1993, and her most recent, The Blazing World, was long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

She's also a poet, essayist and memoirist; the works that fall into the latter two categories (four previous essay collections and The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves) edging further and further into the "hard" realm of the natural sciences.

An autodidact, she has spent years learning about physiology, with a particular emphasis on neurobiology directed by her own experience of suffering seizures for which doctors found no physiological cause. As such, she now also publishes papers in scientific journals and lectures in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University.

Hustvedt is clearly a “complicated woman”, which is the “perspicacious” description afforded her by one of her students when she taught writing to psychiatric inpatients at the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City. She straddles boundaries between disciplines that traditionally aren’t bridged, and in doing so she experiences first-hand the prejudices and assumptions of received beliefs that exist on both sides of the humanities/sciences coin.

“Because I write fiction and non-fiction and have an abiding interest in neurobiology and philosophy (still mostly male disciplines), I embody the masculine/feminine, serious/not-so-serious, hard/soft divide in my own work. When I publish a paper in a science journal or lecture at a conference in the sciences, I find myself on male terrain, but when I publish a novel, I stay squarely in female land.”

This quote comes from one of the most entertaining essays in the collection, which takes its title from the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s reply when, while she was interviewing him, Hustvedt asked why, compared to the multitude of male writers referenced, the only female writer he mentions in his work is Julia Kristeva. “No competition,” was his reply, from which Hustvedt infers “that for him competition, literary and otherwise, means pitting himself against other men.”

The irony, of course, Hustvedt points out, is that Knausgaard's works are something of a "journey into femininity". He writes about his "feelings", his experiences of the domestic sphere, and he cries a lot in My Struggle. Hustvedt isn't destabilizing the power of the Norwegian writer's work, instead she's pointing out a "contextual problem," both in terms of his own perception, and that of the wider public's reception, of his work.

“What if it were a woman moaning about motherhood and its frustrations,” she asks, “a woman filled with resentment about preparing dinner and doing the laundry, or a woman wishing she could just be alone for a while and write?”

Giving weight to her insight are the anecdotes in which she grounds her argument, opening the essay with three examples of first-hand experience: the male journalist who insisted her husband (the novelist Paul Auster) had "taught" her psychoanalysis and neuroscience, even after Hustvedt had insisted that Auster had little interest in either subject; the male publisher who, having read her third novel, condescendingly told her, "You should keep writing"; and the female fan of The Blazing World who asked if Auster had written the sections of the book that belong to one of the male characters.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women is split into three sections. The Knausgaard essay appears in the first part: 11 essays loosely linked by an examination of "the perceptual biases that affect how we judge art". Hence the reappearance of the issue of gender-related inequalities, whether here in relation to a Norwegian misery memoir, or the literature written on Picasso that "continually turns grown-up women into girls,": all the women in his life, whether lovers, muses, friends or peers infantilized through the use of their first names only.

Other standouts for me were My Louise Bourgeois, an essay on the French-American artist predicated on Hustvedt's long-held belief that "the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object"; the rather lovely Much Ado About Hairdos, which weaves the memory of braiding her daughter's hair before bed each night with Freud's interpretation of Medusa and the fairytale Rapunzel; and The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient, a fascinating account of Hustvedt's experience working at the Payne Whitney Clinic.

In many ways the trajectory of the collection as a whole mirrors that of Hustvedt's own ongoing education. She begins with essays on art, literature and psychoanalysis. Then comes a 200-page essay on the mind/body problem, The Delusions of Certainty, that is best read as a summation of the studies she has pursued since pushing the boundaries of the humanities. The sheer number of writers' and thinkers' work referenced – from Descartes and the 17th-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish, through Sigmund Freud, to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (interestingly, Freud fares better than Pinker) – demonstrates considerable scholarship.

Then, in the final section of the book, What Are We? Lectures on the Human Condition, we're able to enjoy the fruits of this labour: eight talks given at academic conferences, and one piece written for an anthology published by an academic press, all of which prove Hustvedt a critical thinker par excellence.

There’s an examination of hysteria that takes its title from the case history of a Cambodian woman – she had witnessed her family taken to their deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime, cried for four years and then, when she finally stopped, went blind – that suggests comprehending such incidents requires “an upheaval in our understanding of what mind-brain actually is”. A consideration of suicide that asks the groundbreaking question, what does it actually mean to kill your “self”, “What is being attacked and/or escaped from?”

Meanwhile, in another, she scrutinizes that question oft asked of novelists, “Where do you get your ideas?”, via a philosophical analysis of the queries, “What does it mean to have an idea? What is an idea?”

What quickly becomes clear as you read this collection is that Hustvedt is more interested in questions than answers. This isn’t a book of absolutes; instead she’s a dynamic enough thinker (and reader) to find the points of intersection between disciplines, and the breadth of plural perspectives available, the most fertile soil.

It’s fitting then that the final piece – originally given as the keynote lecture at an international conference on Søren Kierkegaard’s work in Copenhagen – plays with the philosopher’s “formal, often novelistic strategies … echo[es] his pseudonymous poses, and … demonstrate[s] that his philosophy also lives in the prose style itself, in its structures, images, and metaphors.” Thus, in what is the final paragraph of the book, Hustvedt reminds us that: “Philosophy may arrive in the form of a novel. Story, vivid metaphor, emotion, sensuality, the particular case – none of these is an enemy of philosophy.”

While there’s no denying that Hustvedt demonstrates admirable command of myriad subjects – her investigations embodying the idealized dialogue she and Snow agree is sadly absent from the majority of intellectual endeavour, and for the most part diplomatically so, her prose is always clear-sighted and subtly radiant – she’s still a better novelist. This, I suspect, is something she knows.

Having described the novel as “a form of almost enchanted flexibility […] an extraordinary vehicle for ideas”, she can invest her creations with urgent philosophical inquiry.

However, as a self-taught natural scientist with such broad interests, she’s fated to remain “a perpetual outsider” always looking in.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.