‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’ by Siri Hustvedt
In novels such as What I Loved and The Blazing World and the memoir The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, Siri Hustvedt initiates deep philosophical and psychological inquiries with essential questions. “What is happening?” she asks in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, her fifth and latest collection of essays, as she inspects a work of art. Then, later in the book: “What am I seeing?” With her typical rigour and careful intent, Hustvedt ventures into subjects as diverse as Picasso, Dickens, Pina Bausch and the mind–body problem. Little escapes her scrutiny. She examines pornography, gender politics and psychoanalysis, offering theoretical and personal essays that attempt to narrow what CP Snow deemed the “gulf of incomprehension” between the sciences and the humanities. Throughout, she reminds us that the simple questions are never simplistic.
These 21 essays open a dialogue among seemingly disparate fields, revealing what one can learn from another. The book at once inspires and forces us to grapple with uncomfortable complexities. The Booker Prize long-listed author and lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College chronicles not only her years as a volunteer writing teacher in the locked ward of a psychiatric clinic but also her time in psychoanalysis and the condition (mirror-touch synaesthesia) that causes her to experience the sensations of others. She also highlights the impetus behind her own award-winning fiction.
“We are inexorably led to the fundamental question,” Hustvedt writes. “What does saying ‘I’ and ‘you’ have to do with who and what we are?” This type of question remains central in Hustvedt’s work, but here she plunges deeper into her investigations than ever before. Her ideas demand great focus, but as pay-off she offers an education in the arts and sciences, even as she asks us to interrogate commonly held beliefs. “Why are the sciences regarded as hard and masculine and the arts and the humanities as soft and feminine?” Hustvedt asks. “And why is hard usually perceived as so much better than soft?”
Early in the book, Hustvedt writes about the nature of book reviewers: “Unlike most readers, who are not asked to comment formally on the books they read, reviewers are more comfortable when they feel superior to the text they are reading, when it does not intimidate them or call into question their dearly held beliefs about the world.” She calls everything into question. “Openness to revision does not mean a lack of discrimination,” she writes. It’s invigorating to be in the presence of an author whose agile mind and lucid voice force us to reconfigure our understanding of art and the intricacies inherent in the way we live.