The middle section is a 200-page presentation of the various kinds of neurobiological work now being done on the age-old mind-body problem. It is this part of the book — the one that concentrates on the astonishing efforts being made to understand the mind as distinct from the brain — that most seriously commanded my attention. What clearly intrigues Hustvedt, the inspired student of science, is the exciting uncertainty that underpins this work. Here, she “trumpets doubt and ambiguity, not because we are incapable of knowing things,” but because “doubt is fertile.”
In service to this thesis Hustvedt gives us an encyclopedic tour of the investigative research being done by the neurobiologists who spend their lives addressing subjects that fit under such headings as “Brains: Hard or Soft?”; “Nature/Nurture: Minds and Pop Culture”; “Heritability and Twin Tales”; “Machines, Emotions and Bodies.” The resultant essay reads like the work of a talented teacher who has the drive and the ability to organize and present — in an exceptionally clear, clean, even limpid voice — a monumental amount of abstract information. It’s hard to overstate the pleasure and the comfort that such demystification provides the scientifically uninitiated; it does indeed make the world feel larger, more expansive, more alive to the touch. I have only one caveat: In awe, no doubt, of the formidable task she has set herself, Hustvedt is compelled to let us know how extensively she has studied by invoking the names of almost everyone she has ever read, thereby making the essay often seem, unnecessarily, as though it has been written by someone who swallowed a library whole in order to lay claim to authority.
While Hustvedt is avowedly devoted to making artists and scientists value each other’s way of taking in experience, in this collection science and the scientific persuasion ultimately take pride of place. I thought it a shame that she didn’t trust the humanist in herself enough to insist that the scientists acknowledge the part of the mind-body equation they routinely ignore. She does tell us that as long as scientists see the body as “mostly a thing, an object of study to be dissected, measured, and analyzed . . . subjective realities and references” — that is, the psychological forces that drive and shape us — “are necessarily eliminated.” Then, instead of arguing this vital point, Hustvedt adds lamely, “These, too, have something to teach us.”
Such sentiments appear again and again throughout this book. Hustvedt repeatedly gives herself over to the language of science — which, when applied to the right subject, is illuminating, but when applied to the wrong one can be jarring. For example, she walks into an exhibition of paintings of women by Picasso, de Kooning and Beckmann and, wanting her reader to be right there with her, she begins: “Contemporary neurological research on emotion is attempting to parse the complex affective processes at work in visual perception.” On occasion, this approach can seem so off the mark as to offend. Take the essay on suicide.
“It is a sign of the times that neuroscientists are looking for the genetic causes of suicide,” Hustvedt tells us. “The findings that suicide victims have reduced levels of the neurochemical serotonin and its major metabolite (5-HIAA) as opposed to those who died for other reasons have drawn the most attention.” Of course, she demurs, it goes without saying that while “human beings are surely made of cells,” a simplistic reduction to “genes, neurochemicals, and synaptic connectivity . . . cannot tell us anything about a person’s thoughts when she makes the decision to kill herself.” Nevertheless, Hustvedt, in thrall to abstractions, wonders in a speculative voice: “What does it mean to kill yourself, to kill your ‘self’? What is being attacked and/or escaped from? There is no consensus about what a self is. Its contours change or even vanish, depending on your particular perspective — philosophical, psychological or neurobiological.” This stunned me. Surely, I thought, no one who has ever stood over the actual body of an actual suicide has ever wondered what it means to kill the self.
I, for one, have known my fair share of women and men whom I have loved and could not save from self-destruction because they felt compelled to not live. To stand, even for a moment, at the edge of that emotional abyss into which the candidate for suicide stares daily — and to be aware that it is only a matter of time before he or she dives in — is to be in the presence of one of the great mysteries of human existence; one that language, especially the impoverished language of science, cannot demystify.
Hustvedt acknowledges as much, though hers is an intellectualizing sensibility. I think she is happiest — and makes the reader happiest — in the presence of the great abstractions derived from the analytic intelligence. What is missing from the pages of her book is only an equal abundance of felt life.
Correction: January 1, 2017
A picture credit on Dec. 18 with a review of “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women” misspelled the surname of the photographer. The picture of the book’s author, Siri Hustvedt, was taken by Marion Ettlinger, not Ettinger.
I must confess that A Woman Looking spoke to me on a profound, intimate level. This is in part due to the apparent similarities between me and Siri Hustvedt- we are both feminists who love art and also love science in a world which emphasises that these two passions are mutually exclusive. What Hustvedt suggests in A Woman Looking is that it is the similarities between these two areas we should emphasise and that a cohesive, inclusive approach towards art and science could help fill the gaps in both disciplines. One of the unfortunate similarities shared by both art and science is a general inhospitality towards women. This critique is not new, it has been emphasised by women from Suffragettes to Guerrilla Girls and recent research has highlighted the difficulties faced by women in STEM careers, however the fact that this remains an ongoing concern only highlights that further discussion is necessary. Discussion is what Hustvedt provides, balanced yet concerned, coherent but also impassioned. This critique of entrenched sexism is a recurrent theme in each section of the book and is one of the most important elements of her work.
The first part of A Woman Looking focuses on art. This section of the book is a fascinating insight into Hustvedt's relationship with art and the artists who produce it. There is also a wealth of historical detail here and commentary from others in the field which gives a great sense of depth. Much of the focus is on male painters who often created art focused on, indeed obsessed by (often violently like Picasso, who liked cutting women up) women, but yet exist within a world which marginalises the voices and experiences of female artists. However, all my favourite women are here including Angela Carter and a whole essay dedicated to Louise Bourgeois. This essay is really a love letter to a woman who obviously inspired Hustvedt (as indeed she inspires me) with an in-depth dissection of her life, her fear of her own anger as exposed by psychoanalysis, and her continued efforts to create, explore and develop a world which wanted nothing to do with her for much of her career and only recognised her talents when she approached the twilight of her years.
The second part of A Woman Looking is an interesting journey into the chasm between mind and body and an attempt on Hustvedt's part to bridge this gap. Within the Delusions of Certainty, Hustvedt explored concepts of the self and consciousness as they have been understood through the ages. She also dissects the mind-body problem, exploring the potential differences between the mind and the brain and what this may have to do with the body. The motivations for these distinctions are examined with acute precision, as are the inborn psychological traits of masculinity, nature and nurture and the concept of 'brain wiring'. Hustvedt doesn't have all the answers, nor does she claim to, but the topics covered within this essay are examined and explored with an inquisitive, questioning eye which encourages the reader to examine their own thoughts and beliefs. This is the strength of Hustvedt's non-fiction work in my opinion: whilst she may raise more questions than she answers the journey to knowledge and expansion of understanding is always thrilling.
The final section of A Woman Looking focuses on lectures given by Hustvedt on topics related to who we are and how we perceive ourselves. What is clear in this section is that Hustvedt doesn't shy away from the complex or the controversial. She discusses biochemistry, neuroscience and suicide with ease and grace, providing a clear opinion informed by extensive research, but also acknowledges different points of view. Hustvedt also discussed philosophy, imagination and how this relates to brain function in a stimulating, thought-provoking narrative.
Some may say that this book could be shorter and indeed it is a weighty tome; however each chapter is a separate essay and so it is more than possible to dip in and out as you please. Hustvedt's writing style is lyrical, interesting and inclusive. She has an excellent ability to translate not only complex theories but also her own thoughts into accessible, engaging essays. In short, I loved it; it is clear that Hustvedt is a force to be reckoned with and in this book she makes her passions and obsessions clear to see; this is not a woman who will be defined by the boundaries of disciplines, rather she has shaped her own understanding of both art and science and produced a fabulous, creative and rigorous critique of both arenas. What is clear throughout A Woman Looking is that Hustvedt has a fervent, indeed almost zealous passion for learning, reading and thinking across the breadth of the arts, humanities, science and politics and has used her knowledge to great effect here.
For those interested in reading more by work by the author you could try Living, Thinking, Looking a collection of essays exploring what it means to be human. For fiction lovers you could try The Blazing World or The Summer Without Men.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.