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

Even in more abstruse moments, when Siri Hustvedt’s forays into the further reaches of neurobiological theory demand multiple re-readings, this is a journey through rarified air, where lesser mortals, lacking PhDs or science backgrounds, rarely go.

Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays

Publisher: Picador
Length: 400 pages
Author: Siri Hustdvet
price: $18.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-06
“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.

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