You might be thinking that I’m a little bit obsessed with Siri Hustvedt by now, and you would probably be right. This is how I like to roll with my reading. I read a book and then it reminds me of, or points me towards, or shares a similar thematic genesis with another book, or there’s something in it which makes me think I’d like to read more of that kind of thing and then I follow my nose, like a single-minded bloodhound, sniffing the trail where it leads. Right now that trail is leading me through the various writings of Hustvedt, but later it might lead me through the various writings of Sarah Moss, or writings about the Arctic and Antarctic, or exploration, or deserts or space. Who knows. All I know is, right now it’s Hustvedt and that’s all fine.
Living, Thinking, Looking is a collection of essays by Hustvedt that she’s collected between the years 2006 and 2011 and which can be grouped into those three broad themes: living, thinking and looking. The book is segmented into three sections with the same broad headers. These are, it seems, themes that are of particular interest to Hustvedt, which is not, perhaps, surprising when you read her fiction. Living draws directly on Hustvedt’s life; Thinking explores memory, emotion and imagination with a heavy emphasis on both psychoanalysis and neurology; and Looking explores the visual arts, focusing on some specific artists as well as the meaning of visual art in general. Of the three sections Living was, in my opinion, the most accessible and enjoyable followed by Looking. But that, perhaps, reflects my own preferences.
Hustvedt writes broadly and intelligently on a range of subjects. In the ‘Living’ section, she writes about her family, about developmental psychology, about ambiguity and her experience with migraines. I was shockingly and utterly delighted to encounter this reference to the rarely discussed Alice in Wonderland syndrome, which my son is just about outgrowing and which has had a profound impact on my understanding of the nature of perception:
“There is a migraine aura phenomenon named after Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) story of myriad transformations: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. The afflicted person feels that she or parts of her are ballooning or diminishing in size. The neurological terms for the peculiar sensations of growing and shrinking are macroscopy and microscopy.”
And, okay, I could nit-pick because AIWS is not limited to bodily perception but can inhabit multiple perceptual systems: seeing, sensing, tactile and, even, hearing. In my son’s case it can also affect his perception of time. But that’s nit-picky on my part, and the nit-picking is massively overwhelmed by the sheer joy of recognition that this rare affliction garners in Hustvedt’s rendering of it. It’s a testament to the depth of her interest and reading in neurology, in psychology and, linked to both, philosophy that Hustvedt even knows that it exists and finds it worthy of sharing.
The essays are both extraordinarily intelligent but also, in many cases, quite funny. I found myself giggling as she describes how she came to a sudden realisation that she didn’t enjoy skiing, as detailed here:
“Early one evening, I found myself alone at the top of a steep slope made more frightening by the mini-mountains on its surface known as moguls. I wasn’t a good enough skier to take that hill, but I had boarded the wrong chairlift. There was only one way out for me and that was down. As I stood there at the summit looking longingly at the ski chalet far below, I had a revelation: I understood then and there that I didn’t like skiing. It was too fast, too cold. It scared me. It had always scared me. One may wonder how it is possible for a young woman of seventeen not to have understood this simple fact about her existence until faced with a crisis. I come from a Norwegian family. My mother was born and raised in that northern country and my father’s grandparents emigrated from Norway. In Norway, people say that children ski before they walk, an overstatement that nevertheless brings the point home. The idea that skiing might not be fun, might not be for everyone, never occurred to me.”
But nothing is told without it having a purpose and the purpose of the observation above is to remind us how sometimes we desire things we don’t really want. In musing on the nature of her Scandinavian heritage, Hustvedt makes some startling observations on the ‘othering’ of migrant communities which felt particularly relevant to our current situation:
“While immigrants always revivify the country they enter, their presence also creates conflict. In the United States, where all of us, with the exception of Native Americans, came from somewhere else, superiority was measured in generations. The longer your family had lived in America, the better. In 1972-73, when I lived in Bergen, there were no immigrants in town, and yet with a regularity that never failed to surprise me, and despite the fact that I was a passionate supporter of civil rights, I was attacked for my country’s racism. After the wave of Pakistani immigration to Norway, I returned to find people casually using racial slurs and prey to denigrating stereotypes. In short, they said things that would have been an anathema in the United States. Like their cohorts all over the world, right-wing politicians in Scandinavia are guilty of thinking in terms of us and them, of exploiting ignorance and fear to maintain a fiction of “the nation,” not as a shared geography or language, but nation as blood or background. This is always dangerous, and it inevitably stinks of the ugliest of ideas: racial purity.”
The essays are always enlightening, intelligent and, in sections, somewhat dense. Hustvedt draws on her extensive reading of philosophy, psychology, psychotherapy and neurology to draw out an understanding of the world and human experience which is insightful and carefully persuasive. In some cases this can make the essays a difficult read and I found myself struggling to wrap my head around it, despite Hustvedt’s attempts to universalise the subject matter. It is a book to be read slowly, not necessarily chronologically, and perhaps dipped into and out of at will. I am not ashamed to admit that I skipped much of an essay titled ‘Freud’s Playground’ partly due to its impenetrability but largely due to my own ambivalence towards Freud which it’s apparent Hustvedt does not share. If I were to mention it, I am sure she could write lyrically, intelligently humanely on the subject of our differing preferences.
Her strongest essay, in my view, in the Thinking section is ‘Critical Notes on the Verbal Climate’ which examines the language used in the Bush era and the way it perverted and manipulated people’s genuine fears, particularly in the post 9/11 America. The book is worth reading for this one essay alone, and it, too, is instructive in the current political climate with Brexit (I still shudder to hear the phrase ‘take back control’), increasing nationalism and isolationism and the spectre of Trump looming over us. In recent political campaigns the use of language has been more powerful the simpler and less nuanced it has been, and whilst Hustvedt writes about Bush much of what she observes remains true today:
“Bush’s endless repetition of the word freedom has swayed people who take comfort, not from an abstract political notion of protecting universal individual liberties under the law, but from a tribal mentality much older than the Enlightenment and the institutions in this country that came from it, one that re-emerges when people sense danger from the Other, when the barbarians are howling at the gates. Fear is a powerful and mobilising emotion that leaves little room for Kantian cogitations. No one in New York who saw the devastation wrought on September 11 would argue that those who planned and executed that horror aren’t dangerous, but the Bush administration has manipulated the terror we all felts that day to ostracise many of the people it is supposed to represent. The Other in Republican rhetoric isn’t limited to the radicals who murdered three thousand people in this city. Bush dehumanised them from the beginning. Over the years the language of the Right has repeatedly exploited the real divisions in this country between Americans who live in a secular, urban world and those who live in a religious, often rural one. By casting liberals as effete and feminised (Schwarzenegger’s “girlie men” as well as the absurd denigration of John Kerry’s ability to speak French) and godless (Republicans circulated a flyer during the last campaign claiming that liberals would ban the Bible), the Other has effectively become not only the rest of the world, but more than half the country.”
In the final section, Looking, Hustvedt discusses art, focusing on both specific artists and art in general. It’s apparent that it’s a subject which enervates her, about which she has a significant passion. Whilst I was not familiar with all the artists she mentions, it did whet my appetite to go out and experience some art and I appreciate the passion, as well as the critical eye, she brings to the subject. It is always interesting reading a true appreciator’s view on art, particularly when most of my family conversations start and end with my husband’s proclamation that it’s only art if he looks at it and likes it! In places the essays, here, became a little repetitive, perhaps as Hustvedt is trying to elucidate a particular understanding of the meaning and purpose of art, but the repetitiveness was more endearing than annoying, almost like she was picking at a scab that wasn’t quite ready to come off. There’s a sense that she’s exploring for herself, as much as aiding the reader’s understanding.
Living, Thinking, Looking is an expansive and, at times, difficult book. It is intensely intelligent, the workings of a mind which is prone to explore and educate, which is curious and driven and expressive. At times I felt like I was slogging through it, at others it felt like a joy and revelation. There’s a lot of philosophical and scientific terminology and Hustvedt does an excellent job of referencing those high-brow sources without ‘dumbing down’ or patronising the reader. It’s not always accessible, but in the main it is. Hustvedt, always intelligent and warm in her fiction is similarly so here. Reading her essays has elevated Hustvedt even further in estimation; don’t be surprised if this isn’t the last book by Hustvedt I review.
Living, Thinking, Looking is published by Sceptre