A WOMAN LOOK­ING AT MEN LOOK­ING AT WOMEN

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED - KEVIN RABALAIS

Siri Hustvedt Scep­tre; $32.99

In nov­els such as What I Loved 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.

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