On Art and Neurology: Siri Hustvedt’s ‘Living, Thinking, Looking’

“I think I was born with a sense of instantaneous connection between the things I perceived in the world and my feelings about those things… my character has served me well… it has made me…. well, an eighteenth –century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in twentieth-century Berkeley.”

— Wendy Lesser, The Amateur

The above came to mind as I read Siri Hustvedt’s new essay collection, Living, Thinking, Looking . Although the women are in many ways opposites—Hustvedt makes her home in New York City, and manifests, at least on the page, none of the abrasive personality qualities that make Lesser, by her own admission, “…blind to the complicated hesitations and byways of a situation; I am a bit like a tank, running roughshod over everything.” Nonetheless, the women share certain similarities: Lesser is 60, Hustvedt, 57. Both are polymaths sharing an intense interest in culture, particularly art. Both are writers working in multiple genres. Both are, in Lesser’s words, 18th century men of letters who happen to be females inhabiting the 21st century. These sorts of polymaths are increasingly rare, as current society offers little reward, financial or otherwise, for cultivating intellectual rigor.

Hustvedt is a “neurological sensitive”: a migraineur, synthesthete and, more recently, a sufferer of full body seizures of indeterminate origin. These symptoms, which she manages with apparent aplomb, have led her to into the higher realms of neurobiological studies. Hustvedt has no formal neurology training, yet her wide reading of the medical literature has turned her into a lay expert. Even to dub her expertise “lay” feels like a misnomer. Her extensive knowledge verges on the professional. She is a frequent contributor to medical journals and an invited speaker at medical conferences.

Hustvedt has also long cultivated an enormous interest in art, writing on artists, artist history, and art criticism. Again, her reach is far beyond the interested amateur or dilettante, her research and consequent understanding much closer to a Ph.D.’s (Hustvedt holds a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia University.) The confluence of art and neurology extend to her fiction, notably her three most recent novels, What I Loved, The Sorrows of An American, and The Summer Without Men.

Living, Thinking, Looking, is an intense examination of Hustvedt’s abiding fascinations with the self, neurobiology, and art. Whatever the subject, be it her family, Goya’s artworks, or a vase of flowers, Hustvedt takes the question of self as her starting point. “I have come to believe,” she writes, “that no single theoretical model can contain the complexity of human reality.”

Divided into three eponymous sections, every essay in Living, Thinking, Looking is considered through a neurobiological lens. Mirroring is a critical part of Hustvedt’s arguments. Part of the mother/infant bond, mirroring begins as the infant mimics his mother’s facial expressions. This early imitation leads a child to an individuated sense of self (think of a toddler recognizing himself in a mirror—an early indication that sense of self is in play.) Mirroring is crucial for human development and never ceases. Although adults do not mimic the expressions of others, we remain acutely sensitive to the facial vocabulary of those around us, reacting accordingly, often subconsciously. From mirroring and self, Hustvedt moves to an investigation of vision and memory processes, how humans create and store memories, the impact of trauma on memory, and notions of the “real” in a highly technological society.

The opening essay, “Variations on Desire”, moves from Hustvedt’s three-year-old sister Asti’s wish for a Mickey Mouse telephone to the mental processes creating desire and allowing us to hold that desire in mind. To want anything beyond basic bodily survival, one must remember the desired object, in this case, a toy telephone, and keep that memory intact. Language, however primitive, is necessary to name the desired object. The notion of viewing oneself in third person—i.e., imagining oneself with the coveted object–is introduced, as is the inevitable sense of loss following acquisition of the desired thing.

A brief essay on ambiguity examines its ephemeral nature and Hustvedt’s wish to adequately capture it and “put it in a book”. Despite its brevity, the essay introduces readers to another of Hustvedt’s interests: the “third” entity created when a viewer interacts with an artwork. (See Stephen King’s On Writing for an excellent example of this relationship via print.) This third entity engages in a “dialogue” with the art maker, noting (often unconsciously) traces of the artist in his or her artwork. Hustvedt writes repeatedly of noticing the last drips of paint, the trace of a hand in a brushstroke. She finds these marks deeply moving, indicative of the person behind the artwork.

In “My Strange Head: Notes on Migraine”, Hustvedt examines her fundamentally “unamerican” view of her headaches. The prevailing American notion of illness utilizes battle language: one should attack illness by all means possible, be they drugs, yoga, elimination diets, or a “good attitude”. Inability or refusal to go along with these prescriptions leads to character assassination, particularly in illnesses like Migraine, which are poorly understood by non-sufferers and not necessarily visible to the untrained eye.

As a lifelong sufferer of severe migraine, Hustvedt has accepted her headaches. They are not an external enemy, but a part of herself. In this, she is reminiscent of Andrew Levy, whose fine A Brain Wider Than the Sky: A Migraine Diary should be required reading for doctors in training, migraineurs, their friends and family. Like Hustvedt, Levy has come to accept his debilitating migraines as part of himself, even feeling they contribute to his artistic abilities, a sensibility dating back to Hildegard of Bingen.

Both Hustvedt and Levy discuss their migraine auras in depth. Auras are warning events preceding migraine, a neurological cascade of bodily events including visual disturbances like flashing lights, scotoma, (blurred spots in vision) and, in Hustvedt’s case, hallucinations. She writes longingly of the time she hallucinated a small pink man on her bedroom floor, accompanied his small pink ox. Hustvedt watched them in fascination for some moments before they vanished. She often wishes for their return.

“Playing, Wild Thoughts, and a Novel’s Underground” discusses the unpopularity of psychoanalysts as novel characters, with Hustvedt looking closely at her own creation, psychiatrist Erik Davidsen of The Sorrows of An American. The essay also takes up novel writing. Hustvedt sees much of novel writing, and the ways novels or their characters can take off, leaving the writer behind, as neurologically based: “The truth about the unconscious process is that the book can know more than the writer knows…” Later she writes:

“When you write or paint or compose, things happen that you don’t understand. I have often felt that writing fiction is connected to dreaming, a state of altered consciousness, during which material I didn’t know was there begins to assert itself… which may help explain the bizarre feeling I have had on occasion that a text is writing itself… this phenomenon is rooted in the now-indisputable fact…that most of memory, perception, and emotional processing takes place beneath our awareness…”

Hustvedt’s extraordinary neurological sensitivity is also evident in “Sleeping/Not Sleeping”. As sleep approaches, she hallucinates both aurally and visually; this is natural to her. But when insomnia beckons, she quotes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, then says: “And so, like many insomniacs before and after him, he picks up a book and begins to read.”

Hustvedt is fascinated by what Sartre called apprehension of the other, though not in the Existentialist fashion; hers is not a horrified apperception. Rather, it is a genial wonderment. In “Outside the Mirror”, she describes the experience of a self looking outward, unable to view herself save parts: her hands typing, for example. But not her face, which she can only see in a mirror. “Nevertheless,” she writes of her reflection, “I think my body image sometimes lags behind my real body.” See Joan Didion’s comment in The Year of Magical Thinking: “For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age.This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized my image of myself was of someone significantly younger.”

I doubt Didion would take comfort in her thinking having a neurological basis. Nonetheless, how we appear to ourselves is a neurobiological event, working at times in collusion with our loved ones, who perhaps also fail to see us as we truly appear.

The “Living” section includes two essays on Hustvedt’s Norwegian heritage. Her mother was born in Norway, her father in Minnesota. The family lived in Northfield, Minnesota, at the time an enclave of Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans. Hustvedt’s first language was Norwegian, and she can follow both Danish and Swedish. The family spent much time in Norway with relatives, leading Hustvedt to an outsider position—American, but not quite. And like most bi-culturals, she gets flak from both sides.

The book’s “Thinking” section commences with “The Real Story”, a wonderful disquisition on the problems with memoir, false memoir, and novel writing. Hustvedt objects to fiction being called a lie, a lightly covered variant on true events. While writing her own novels, her sense of a sentence being “wrong” is strongly dictated by its feeling like “a lie”. Such a sentence does not fit, must be altered or deleted to reflect Hustvedt’s sense of truth in her work. Hustvedt observes that most memoirs purporting “the truth” read like novels, complete with dialogue and description impossible to actually recall precisely. The plethora of these sensationalist memoirs clearly irks Hustvedt. She finds them reductivist, simplistic, plainly inaccurate even as she realizes the hunger for sensationalist stories dates to the advent of print. But this in turn leads to an examination of memory, the how the brain encodes certain kinds of memories, and how that, in turn leads to the creation of a book—real, claiming to be real, or fiction, pure invention.

An Eighteenth Century Woman of Letters

In “Excursions to the Island of the Happy Few”, Hustvedt writes about her unusual reading background—neurology, art history, psychoanalysis—and the places, “islands” this reading has taken her. Islands, here, are the places experts reside, deeply immersed in a chosen field to the exclusion, even ignorance of others. When Hustvedt is seated beside a neurologist on a plane, their conversation startles her. Clearly an expert in Alzheimer’s Disease, he has never heard of mirror neurons, a major discovery in the field, or of Søren Kierkegaard, whose Either/Or rests in Hustvedt’s lap.

“The truth is being an expert in any field… takes up most of your time, and even with heroic efforts, it’s impossible to read everything on a given topic. There was an era before the Second World War when philosophy, literature, and science were all considered crucial for the truly educated person… That world is gone forever, and mourning it may be well be displaced… but its loss is felt, and a change is in the air, at least in some circles.”

Hustvedt is eager to move from isolated islands—the land of the niche–toward a more interdisciplinary, holistic approach to thinking. Given the scope and diversity of her interests, this is no surprise. Yet she notes that even when good faith efforts are made to bring disciplines together—meetings of art historians and neurologists, for example–the end result can be a hash of misunderstood terminology and defensive postures.

“On Reading” is another wide ranging essay, from interpretation of the symbols I am typing to what you are reading. Neither of us, until this moment, have given much thought to what we’re doing: I am reaching for the correct keys, you are reading the symbols—letters—I’ve typed without considering the letters themselves. You are reading what they signify. When Hustvedt’s daughter was three years old, she pointed to a space between words on a page and asked what “the nothing” meant. This is an amazingly perceptive question from a small child, one her adult mother found difficult to answer.

Hustvedt makes an interesting point about reading: the reader must be open to the book in her hands. Often, she writes, we wish a book were different, place the wrong expectations on it, then blame the book. Hustvedt describes an angry reader who wrote her after A Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves was published. The reader sought a book about caregivers, not the neurologically impaired.

“Openness to a book is vital, and openness is simply a willingness to be changed by what we read.” Book reviewers, take note.

“Critical Notes On the Verbal Climate”, written in 2005, could not be more timely. Hustvedt was writing of George Bush’s appropriation of words like “freedom” and “loyalty” during the Iraq war. She compares Bush to Martin Luther King (you can imagine how Bush fares) and the ways rhetoric may be warped to sweep people from critical thinking into propagandist waves of patriotism. “In a free society,” she writes, “nobody owns the truth…. we must choose our public words judiciously and imaginatively. If we don’t, we are in danger of going blind in the lowering fog of New Speak that has enveloped us.”

The book’s final portion, “Looking”, is a collection of works reflecting Hustvedt’s longtime interest in art and art history. She delves more deeply into idea of viewer and artist creating a threefold communication: the viewer, the piece being viewed, and the discourse created therein. The opening essay, “Notes on Seeing”, is a numbered list of ideas about sight and visual comprehension. We have all mistook strangers for friends, or perhaps even mistaken ourselves for strangers when unexpectedly spotted in a mirror. We react to colors before language catches up to our sight and assigns names to what we’ve seen. Hallucinations are again mentioned: those of insomniacs and of people losing their vision, whose brains fire neurons compensating for the sensory loss, creating vivid visions.

“Looking” is devoted nearly entirely to essays analyzing artists from Kiki Smith to the comparatively unknown Richard Allan Morris. Hustvedt is a sympathetic art critic. Like Joan Accocella, she writes glowingly of work she loves, carefully about work she doesn’t. But lesser artists and artworks are few in this section: Hustvedt prefers to consider the great, serious art makers of past and present. And while the world divides unequally into those who require art and those who don’t, Hustvedt may remedy that tilt slightly, for her writing about art is far more accessible than academia’s more impenetrable contributions.

Of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, she writes “Bourgeois can take you to strange and hidden places in yourself. This is her gift.” Hustvedt confronts difficult art, like Kiki Smith’s “Tale”, a stark sculpture of a nude woman, on all fours, head dropped forward. But what arrests the viewer and deeply offended Philippe de Montebello, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is the long “tail” of excrement trailing from the woman’s anus. Hustvedt is undaunted, recognizing the work as part of Smith’s interest in bodily excreta and their containment—or lack thereof.

Hustvedt writes extensively about photography, focusing on how photographs echo or deny more fallible memory. The camera serves as a corrective to memory’s lacks in its unvarnished ability to capture traumatic or violent events. She draws from Barthes’s Camera Lucida, with its description of looking at the dead in photographs, to evoke what is now gone, and Sontag’s work on violence. Hustvedt notes that photography, like any other media, may be used to mislead; Twin Towers photographs, which are loaded with meaning for New Yorkers, are often used to “patriotic” ends. She visits Sontag’s assertion that photography has hopelessly blurred the real from the imagined, manipulated, or created image, that many of us report events as being “like a movie”, when in truth dissociation is a coping mechanism for dealing with horror, whether watched or experienced. She takes issue with Baudrillard’s notion that Americans now live in a unreal culture whose touchstone for fantasy is Disneyland.

“In an era of reality TV, celebrity culture, and ever-growing digital technologies, has modern life, as Baudrillard would have it, dissolved entirely into simulacra?”

Hustvedt thinks not. Further, Baudrillard’s argument is an old one, one brought about in every generation. In For the Time Being, Annie Dillard catches this idea brilliantly, writing “Already in the first century thinkers thought the world was shot to hell.” Even more counter to this notion of losing “the real” to technology is the brief essay “This Living Hand”, where Hustvedt describes her experience of drawing, an experience sometimes referred to as an alpha state—the brain having achieved a happy, wordless realm of creativity and “flow”.

Hustvedt is particularly fond of Gerhard Richter’s work, of his painting on family photographs, and of French artist Annette Mesager, who has retained what Hustvedt feels is a child’s sense of play. In “Necessary Leaps”, Hustvedt describes her apprehension when asked to curate an exhibit for overlooked artists. After consulting a painter friend, she finds San Diego native Richard Allen Harris, who, at the time of Hustvedt’s 2005 visit, had literally painted himself into a corner, so crowded was his studio. Unable to paint for lack of space, he resorted to drawing.

Hustvedt’s essay on painter Margaret Bowland is deeply affecting. In the exhibition Hustvedt reviewed, Bowland had painted a lovely young girl named Janasia in a variety of poses and scenes. Janasia is African-American. Bowland chose to paint her in white-face, often surrounded by racist or sexual icons: watermelons, in a bikini, wearing a cotton crown. The implications are as inescapable as the horrific scenes from New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in Katrina’s wake. It can be happening here, now. It still is happening here, now.

“Why Goya?” is a penetrating analysis of why the “Black” paintings and “The Disasters of War” series retain the ability to shock viewers and impact artists. Hustvedt points out Goya’s continuing influence, even in an era saturated with violent imagery. While immunity to the horrors available via daily news coverage is always a risk, Goya’s works continue to hold viewer attention. Hustvedt finds this compelling in that the works are painted, predating photography’s precise impartiality. Many of Goya’s works blur background and sky, pushing viewers to the central images of suffering, bloodshed, and death. Neurological studies confirm that viewers of violent subject matter are hardwired to recoil, reacting physiologically, from images of physical dismemberment, no matter the media they appear in.

The final essay, “Embodied Visions: What Does It Mean To Look At a Work of Art?” sums up Hustvedt’s enduring interest in the experience of self, art, looking, and the neurological processes underlying these actions.

Why, Hustvedt asks, are some driven to write or paint when others are not? Further, while art is not necessary to human survival, many artists feel making art is necessary to their well-being. Hustvedt uses the term “intentionality” to describe this drive: making art as a planned endeavor. She cites Joseph Darger’s epic “The Vivian Girls”, a mammoth undertaking clearly meant only for himself, all 15,000 pages of it.

I once read an interview with Margaret Atwood where she described her interest in science as “brain food”, Living, Thinking, Looking is also brain food—indeed, it is about the brain, and demanding of one’s complete faculties. Even in more abstruse moments, when Hustvedt’s forays into the further reaches of neurobiological theory demand multiple re-readings, the book is a journey through normally rarified air, where lesser mortals, lacking PhD’s or science backgrounds, rarely go. The book itself is a visit to the island of the happy few, one well worth the trip.

RATING 8 / 10
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