‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’: Siri Hustvedt and the Art of Thinking

Hustvedt reminds us that the making and encountering of art is often embodied, rooted in material and biological and neurological functions.

“Thinking begins with our moving bodies before we learn to speak.”

Siri Hustvedt’s book of essays A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women opens with a discussion of C.P. Snow’s famous essay, “The Two Cultures”. In that essay, he talks about the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” that exists between the sciences and the arts. Hustvedt states that she is “wary of absolutism in all its forms” and admits that while Snow had identified a crucial problem that only seems to have grown from his time to ours, she was also “severely disappointed” with the essay because Snow too revealed an innate bias; “an implacable faith that science would soon solve the world’s problems”.

Hustvedt then goes on to explain her interest in literature, philosophy, and history, the early educational foundation that informs her belief that the sciences and the arts rely on and need each other. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and is the author of, among others, a book of poems, highly-acclaimed novels like the most recent The Blazing World, and various collections of nonfiction including A Plea for Eros and The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves. As a long-term migraine sufferer, Hustvedt explains that she developed sudden “shakes” one day when she got up to give a talk about her deceased father.

In one of the essays in this book, she talks about her “undiagnosed and medically unexplained symptom of a neurological character” and explains in her introduction that her interest in neuroscience grew out of this personal affliction and was largely self-taught: “although my investigations were not formal, I read enormously, attended lectures and conferences, asked questions”. Hustvedt has gone on to write papers and give talks on the subject, some of which are republished here, and she also lectures on psychiatry at the Weill Medical School at Cornell University.

Indeed, Hustvedt’s lists of accomplishments are staggering, considering that autodidacticism is no longer looked upon with admiration in these times when even a university degree, it seems, is seen as insufficient. There’s something relentlessly old-school in Hustvedt’s determination to be self-taught, though the fact that she is a Literature Ph.D. and a critically-acclaimed author living in New York no doubt allows her access to institutions and people that someone in, say, a developing country in Asia simply can’t access. What she does with what she has learned and been able to access, however, is commendable and thought-provoking.

This book is divided into three sections and the first and third sections comprise essays and talks on art, philosophy, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis that were published in exhibition catalogues, anthologies, and science journals, and papers given at various conferences and seminars. Hustvedt brings a wealth of knowledge to her work and she’s a generous thinker. Her essays are capacious spaces for readers to think in, and when animated by the force of her curiosity and enthusiasm, even readers with zero interest in these subjects will be hard-pressed not to be infected by her lively inquisitiveness.

For those who are already able to spend hours writing, reading and thinking about the questions of self-reflection, imagination, and the unconscious, however, these essays will send them both toward further contemplation and outwards, into the world, for more experience and research. It’s impossible not to take notes and look up her references; in fact, getting lost in the sources and artworks and texts she cites is a huge part of the pleasure of reading this book.

Her central argument is that the mind cannot be studied as an entity abstracted from the body, and crucially, that it exists in relation to other people. This often brings her into direct battle with esteemed male thinkers of the Western canon, like Descartes and Hobbes, while countering their arguments with the help of female thinkers who were disparaged in their time and allowed to fall into obscurity, like Margaret of Cavendish who, due to the work of feminist scholars and writers, is now enjoying a bit of a resurgence.

When encountering art, Hustvedt often returns us to a basic fact by asking, “What am I seeing?” She reminds us that the making and encountering of art is often embodied, rooted in material and biological and neurological functions, factors that are still shrouded in uncertainty. “Brains are of a living body”, she reminds us, and “no brain can be isolated”. “Every writer is pregnant with others” is one of the beautiful maxims in this book, and she quotes Vico to repeatedly bring the body back into the rarefied and abstract discipline of philosophy of the mind: “thinking begins with our moving bodies before we learn to speak”. This is Hustvedt’s thesis and informs all of the essays in this book.

The second section is a long essay on the mind/body dualism, and though it is a lengthy essay that runs over 200 pages, it’s also the weakest section of the book. It’s dry and repetitive. Hustvedt is synthesising a lot of information from various disciplines here, from the sciences to the humanities, and it’s an admirable effort, but much of it reads like Philosophy 101, and some other parts are dense and complex and hard to engage with if you don’t already have a working knowledge of neuroscience and a familiarity with the language of hard science. This is ironic, as Hustvedt takes a few cheap shots at academics and professionally-trained experts for the impenetrability of their prose and language. She seems to work under the impression that her prose will naturally be livelier because she’s a novelist. However, when she’s writing about neuroscience, her prose can be dense and impenetrable.

One can conclude that when it comes to writing about specialised subjects, the prose will seem impenetrable to readers who aren’t well-versed in the subject matter. The language is complex because the ideas are complex and perhaps even unheard of to some readers. As such, reading becomes challenging. Even Hustvedt isn’t immune to having to use language that seems clunky to a non-specialist reader like me; although I reckon if I spend a considerable amount of time and effort reading and studying neuroscience, certain sections will become clearer to me. This section suffers from not quite knowing who it’s written for and is thus muddled and muddling. I’m guessing a lesser-known author would not have been allowed to get away with including this second section/essay in its current form in the book because a lot of the points here are pithily explained in the shorter essays in the third section.

It’s understandable, based on the title of the book, that Husdtvedt wants to counter prevalent thoughts and ideas as accepted truths and stage a philosophical intervention that doesn’t devalue the body, because the body is almost always associated with excess emotion and the feminine. This desire to get away from our basic origin, that we all come from another human body, is for Hustvedt a symptom of the valorisation of the masculine, and an indication of the limitations of a lot of thinking by male figures venerated in Western culture. As a result, it’s inevitable that Hustvedt has to cite a number of white men in order to argue with them.

But throughout the book, there’s zero engagement with non-white thinkers and philosophers, much less any thinkers who aren’t from the West. In discussions of Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology, one waits in vain for Frantz Fanon’s name to come up, even in passing, as an example of a thinker who had disturbed the assumption that the universal subject is always a white male. Fanon’s contribution to the understanding of the effects of colonisation and racism on the psyches of the vast majority of the population (who are, it must be said, not-white) is crucial, but presumably, it needs no mention in a book by a white woman looking at white men.

In an aside on the eugenics movement that grew out of Sir Francis Galton’s views, Hustvedt claims: “The eugenics movement that grew out of Galton and continued into the twentieth century had many faces, including progressive ones. The American birth-control advocate, Margaret Sanger, for example, was a staunch supporter of eugenics.” A truly remarkable statement to simply leave as is, considering black thinkers like Angela Davis have strongly critiqued Sanger’s “progressive” position in the context of bourgeois white feminism and its antipathy to poor women and women of colour, a political position which is a part of the eugenics movement and cannot be divorced from it.

But while Hustvedt is willing to point out that she drew symbolic meaning from the images of Angela Davis’s hair — “Was the brilliant Davis a subliminal influence on my decision in the middle of the 1970s to apply a toxic permanent wave solution to my straight, shoulder-length blond hair, a chemical alteration that was literally hair-raising?” — she is less inclined to actually engage with Davis’s remarkable contributions to scholarship, even as she might admire her looks and image and draw meaning from it. Likewise, the only non-white people who appear in the book tend to be studied as objects, like the Cambodian women who were studied for their “hysterical blindness” after having witnessed the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge. In this way, even someone as intelligent and generous-minded as Hustvedt replicates the eternal problem of white, Eurocentric philosophy: that people of colour can show up as “friends” or as images that white people can read as symbols or metaphors, but rarely as fellow philosophers, artists, and writers.

Having said that, I enjoyed where Hustvedt’s mind travelled as I followed her thinking throughout the book. I looked up many references and took copious notes. But it is the mind of a white, upper-middle-class, university-educated woman living in the States, and there are the usual limitations. Keeping these limitations in mind, and excusing the fact that many of these pieces could have been tightened and streamlined, avoiding repetitious ideas to be presented throughout the book as though each appearance was its first, there is much to think about in this book. It’s intelligent and forceful and forces people to reckon with their accepted assumptions, and that’s no small feat.

RATING 7 / 10