Tuesday 19/06/2018 - 06:05 am


A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt – review


2016.12.13 05:28

 Behind this ambitious collection of essays on art, creativity, sexuality and the mind is CP Snow’s old question: why is there such a wide chasm between the world of literary intellectuals and that of empirical scientists? Snow, married to a novelist and with friends working across all disciplines, was critical of the limits of rigid specialisation – a problem Hustvedt recognises from her own life: “In the last decade or so, I have repeatedly found myself at the bottom of Snow’s gulf, shouting up to the persons gathered on either side of it.”

Drawing on insights from the humanities and the sciences, Hustvedt divides the book into three parts. The first section focuses on a range of male artists, extending from Picasso to Mapplethorpe and Almodóvar. In one of my favourite essays, she examines Pina by Wim Wenders, which is essentially an “artist’s gift to another artist”, a homage by Wenders to the fabulous Pina Bausch. It is here that Hustvedt delves into an analysis of art and perception, asking how we judge works of art and creativity. Our criteria changes constantly as we move from one culture to another or one historical period to the next and yet we tend to assume that what constitutes “good art” is not only universal but also timeless and immutable. Now and then, Hustvedt’s voice rings emotional, almost lambasting, but it is clear that she prefers questions to answers, keen to open up new spaces of free discussion, inviting the readers to see things from alternative angles but ultimately leaving the answers to them. “The history of art is full of women lying around naked for erotic consumption by men,” she says. “Those women are mostly unthreatening, aren’t they?”

Among the best essays are the ones in which Hustvedt skilfully weaves her personal stories (about her mother, her daughter, her own childhood) with the state of the world, academia and technology. With the advantage of her knowledge of psychoanalysis and fascination with the “writing self”, Hustvedt digs into the mother-daughter relationship, the journey from girlhood to womanhood, the construction of gender patterns and experiments in sexuality. “Girls have more leeway to explore masculine forms than boys have to explore feminine forms.” Combining familiar observation (eg, braiding her daughter’s hair before sleep) with Freud’s interpretation of Medusa and her snaky mane or rereading of the folk tale Rapunzel, Hustvedt slips effortlessly between the spheres of culture, society and self.

The book then digresses slightly as it moves on to inspect the delusions of certainty. Hustvedt inveighs against the dualistic framework of “body versus mind”, which has been a central teaching in western philosophy for many centuries. Although she is right on her criticism of the psyche/soma split, she might have referred further to the rich academic literature (postmodern, post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-colonialist) of the late 20th century, in which the same teaching has been absorbed. I also found her criticism of several thinkers, such as Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, rather unbalanced and unfair.

It is the third and the last section of the book, partly composed of the lectures Hustvedt has given in different countries, where her voice once again reaches a wonderful intensity. Here is a writer who has much to say about the world to the world. Even though the book’s range is commendably wide, particular thinkers and writers appear again and again, such as Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, and the English poet and philosopher Margaret Cavendish, who is yet to attain, at least in the non-English speaking world, the fame she so deserves.

Hustvedt’s voice fluctuates as she moves between different subjects of interest and you might find yourself disagreeing with a few of her conclusions but it is obvious that hers is a great mind that is constantly exploring, searching, “becoming”. She describes herself as a “perpetual outsider who looks in on several disciplines”. It can be a lonely feeling to be a perpetual outsider, to settle down on a threshold of in-betweendom, but it is the best position for inventiveness, perceptiveness and wisdom – all three of which can be found in abundance in this volume.

Hustvedt’s new book is an impressive collection of essays by a novelist who clearly loves the humanities, the sciences and the ancient art of storytelling. But Hustvedt is not only a writer. She is also a passionate reader and therein lies the secret of this book – in the fundamental and incessant act of reading, rethinking, reconnecting.

I am worried that some critics might approach this hefty volume with resistance and unfair criticism, particularly in the UK where we are still to reform our derogatory notion of the “public intellectual”. But it is time for fiction writers to step out of their imaginative cocoons and start speaking up about politics, nationalism, religion, tribalism and many other subjects shaping contemporary debates. It is by no means an easy endeavour since novelists tend to be introverted creatures. But we writers coming from “wobbly geographies and non-democracies” such as Turkey, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt never really had the luxury of being apolitical. It is my contention that, increasingly, European/western authors will feel the same urgency to speak up about the world today. Against this background, Hustvedt has provided us with an impressive collection that celebrates critical thinking. “I hope you, the reader, will discover that much of what is delivered to you in the form of books, media and the internet as decided truths, scientific or otherwise, are in fact open to question and revision.”

Wise counsel indeed – wiser in the pro-Trump, pro-Le Pen, pro-Erdoğan, pro-Putin, pro-populist demagoguery world. Here is a great book that invites reading not from cover to cover necessarily; you might just as well start in the middle and go backwards, leap forwards, read some sections once, others a couple of times, not only to “look at a woman writer looking at men looking at women”, but also to look within, deep inside the recesses of our minds, so as to recognise the fascinating complexity but also the heartbreaking fragility of human existence.

 A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt is published by Sceptre (£20). To order a copy for £16.40 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Write a Comment:
* Name  
E-mail  
Title  
* Comment
* Enter the word on the picture