Book Review: A New and Different Way to See Ourselves
"A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind" by Siri Hustvedt
Thursday, January 26, 2017 3:26 PM
When we say we’re drawn in or absorbed by a work of art, what exactly do we mean? How does human perception work? It can be argued that art literally grabs us, tugs at us, takes us for a ride. When we stand before a Cezanne, the rhythms of its colors, lines and movement subtly massage our nervous system. We not only look at a painting or a sculpture, but we spontaneously feel it, too, sensing in our own bodies the artist’s touch on his work — his hands, brushstrokes and moldings.
Sarah L. Kaufman is The Washington Post’s dance critic and the author of “The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life.” © 2017 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
This “embodied” character of our experience is little understood, but it is key to what makes art so powerful, as it kicks off visceral interactions. How fitting then that Siri Hustvedt, an authoritative and independent-minded writer on the arts and sciences, brings the felt experience into her smart, stimulating and hefty new collection of essays, “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.”
It could have been titled “A Woman Looking at Societal Twaddle and Calling Its Bluff.”
Few writers eviscerate bias and flawed logic as elegantly and ruthlessly as Hustvedt, whose many works of fiction and nonfiction include the acclaimed 2014 novel “The Blazing World.”
In it, a brilliant but sidelined female painter takes on art-world misogyny by convincing male peers to exhibit her work under their names. In “A Woman Looking at Men,” Hustvedt picks up that thread, highlighting what she sees as male favoritism in art and literature. But her scope is wide and hungry. In aiming to “make some sense of ... plural perspectives,” as she writes, feminism is merely one of her points of departure.
Hustvedt zeros in on Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois, hairdos and hysteria, memory and imagination. The subtle prejudice against women in the arts and in society at large arises frequently, but her attention to this is part of her larger point about the absurdity of certainty and the fallacy of “decided truths.” She rails against skewed values. Why do we revere the intellect and ignore or distrust the body? Why are the arts and humanities considered more female, emotion-driven and “soft,” while the sciences are seen as male, “hard” — and why is hardness better?
Speaking of hard: Why on earth did Koons’ stainless-steel “Balloon Dog” fetch $58 million? Here, Hustvedt’s dismay at the price of his pooch turns into an impassioned treatise on the true value of art: It “holds within it the traces of one living human being’s intentional creative act for another,” she writes. “It is enlivened and animated in the relation between the spectator and the work.” Her dialogue with Koons’ work, she confesses (with supreme tact), “is not lively enough to sustain a long relationship.”
Bridging the divide between science and the arts is one of her stated aims in this collection. Hustvedt has deep interests in both spheres, yet she finds that artists and scientists have little appreciation for one another. The most consistent way she brings the two disciplines together is to get out of the head, to pull constantly to the body, to our sensing, fleshy self and how it influences our awareness. For example, the virtue of “embodied psychiatry,” a recognition of the patient as an intelligent, feeling person, not merely a collection of data, is at the heart of several pieces about psychology, a subject Hustvedt knows intimately as a longtime patient of psychoanalysis. “Inside the Room” reveals her own transformation through therapy. “The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient” springs from her experience leading writing workshops for those with mental illness. It becomes a meditation on the power of writing — “the flowering of a personal imaginative vision” — as a pathway to a cure. Hustvedt makes a convincing and deeply empathetic case that journal entries, personal narratives — art — should be part of treatment, alongside the science.
What’s exciting about Hustvedt’s work is her desire for us to see the world anew. “Isn’t good thinking at least in part a return to early wonder?” she muses in “The Delusions of Certainty,” a 200-page exploration of the mind-body problem, or the very nature of consciousness. Here, she ponders this thing we call the mind from a dazzling variety of perspectives. Is the mind the same as the brain? If not, where exactly is the mind located? What does it have to do with the body?
“I confess I am on a mission to dismantle certain truisms ... about nature, nurture, genes, twin studies, and the ‘hardwired’ brain,” she writes. (She takes particular offense at using computer terminology for the brain, as if it were a machine, and she effectively dismantles this concept at length.)
True to her word, she expertly flays assertions about biological and psychological sex differences. In guiding us through the nature of perception, she draws our attention to learned conventions — how men and women sit, stand, talk, etc. — that shape our habits, which are “a kind of bodily memory.” We are all creatures of habit and unconscious biases. But what does this mean for the mind, which cannot be detached from its moorings in the flesh? Hustvedt does not resolve her many questions, but her exhilarating conclusion testifies to the virtues of doubt: “Not a single idea or work of art could be generated without it,” she notes, “and although it is often uncomfortable, it is also exciting.” It is doubt, after all, that has the power to free us of delusions.
Most of these essays have been previously published in scholarly journals or delivered as lectures. Some are more readily accessible than others, a fact Hustvedt acknowledges in her introduction. The last of the book’s three sections includes pieces written for academics in various sciences. Yet even in these she returns to the clarity of the body — in other words, to the value of what our own senses tell us.
“All works of art, including the novel, are animated in the body of the spectator, listener, or reader,” she writes. Her work is cerebral but also warm, deeply felt.
“A Woman Looking at Men” is ultimately a look at her many loves — the arts, analysis, the mysteries of perception. Through these lenses, she upholds the individual against the seductions of groupthink. She doesn’t come right out and say this, but the strength and lucidity of Hustvedt’s good thinking calls us to have confidence in our own instincts, to be alert to delusions and inherited traditions, and to realize that many truths are fiction, and only exist to the extent that we believe them.