SIRI HUSTVEDT, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 552 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies, 63.1



Siri Hustvedt’s sixth collection of essays, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, even deeper than her previous work, explores the gaps between various modes of thinking within different disciplines. Maintaining that “all human knowledge is partial” (xii), Hustvedt integrates findings from phenomenology, biology, neuroscience, cognitive sciences, psychoanalysis, linguistics, etc., in order to investigate profound philosophical questions, such as: Who are we? What is the self? Where do ideas come from? What is the mind and how is it related to the brain, the consciousness, and the body? What role do emotion, memory, and the unconscious play in perception? Hustvedt’s goal is to “interrogate certainty and trumpet doubt and ambiguity” (149), and eventually inspire her reader to start asking questions about the received ideas and cultural truisms. Being a novelist and a feminist, an art admirer and a lecturer in psychiatry, a literary scholar and a public intellectual, Hustvedt attempts to “make sense” of plural perspectives (xiv) on many unsolved problems and complex phenomena, intercepting them with her own experiences, observations, and humor.

The first of three sections, “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” addresses the questions of art and perception. The title essay discusses the work of the three artists—Picasso, Beckmann, and de Kooning—in the larger framework of existing cultural ideas and codes associated with the man/woman binary. Thus, Hustvedt argues that centuries-long equating women with emotions and the body, referring to them by their first name in the books on art and labelling their pieces “woman’s art” (32), while at the same time linking men to intellect and genius, promote unconscious ideas and biases against women that have become part of human perception. Hustvedt’s own in-depth analyses of some paintings, however, disclose that great art escapes gender and sex categories—an idea that repeats itself in other essays of the first section, especially in her discussion of Louise Bourgeois’s work in “My Louise Bourgeois.”

Hustvedt expands her theory of perceptual biases in the following articles of the first part, referring to artists Jeff Koon and Anselm Kiefer, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Wim Wenders. Based on the latter’s piece about the choreographer Pina Bausch, the author investigates “the perceptual chasm” (46) between on-screen and live performances, giving special attention to the concept of the body and its immediacy. In her essay on Susan Sontag, Hustvedt scrutinizes Sontag’s lecture on classical pornography, her “posthumanist” position, and the meaning of the voyeuristic gaze, and comes to her own intriguing conclusion that, like sex, fiction, too, “is an occasion to leave one’s self and make an excursion into the other” (77). In many essays in the first part of the collection, Hustvedt expresses her feminist position and encourages the reader to realize the underpinnings of perceptual biases: how “unconscious ideas about masculinity and femininity […] infect our perceptions and […] tend to overrate the achievements of men and underrate those of women” (81). In her essay “No Competition,” Hustvedt exhaustively elaborates on this premise, illustrating it with a personal story—an incident that happened to her when interviewing the Norwegian writer Knausgaard who dismissed women writers as competition. In the last two articles of the first part, “The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient” and “Inside the Room,” invoking her own experience as a volunteer writing teacher in a psychiatric clinic, Hustvedt draws many parallels between psychoanalysis and the therapeutic effects of creating art. Thus, the author conceives of writing fiction as a “form of transference” (127): both partake of the fictional and the real, both are “intuitive, unconsciously driven, rhythmic, emotional, and often ambiguous” (120), and both take place in “the world of the Between” (133), between the self and the other.

The second part, “The Delusions of Certainty,” is a two hundred-page meditation on the mind-body problem “that has haunted Western philosophy since the Greeks” (xv). It is a very erudite, scholarly, and, therefore, more challenging for a broader audience essay. In it, Hustvedt indicates that she is “driven by a sense of urgency, in part because the unsolved problems of the mind and body are often treated as if they were behind us,” when in fact they are not (156). So, the author’s mission is “to dismantle certain truisms that have been flying at [her] from left and right for years, truisms about nature, nurture, genes, twin studies, and the ‘hardwired’ brain” (156). In “Delusions of Certainty,” Hustvedt criticizes Descartes’s dualism, his very influential “belief that mind and body are two different substances” (144); Hustvedt denounces writers and journalists, Jonah Lehrer and Steven Pinker being among them, who “reduce scientific findings to convenient bite-sized pieces” and present hypotheses and half-truths as facts, turning “the speculative into the known” (178). Hustvedt is also skeptical of such ongoing fads as evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence (AI), and the computational theory of mind (CTM), because she does not believe it is possible to separate the mind from the rest of the body. Instead, Hustvedt advocates a more holistic, “corporeal” (338) approach to the mind-body split, supporting her position with the examples of various psychosomatic disturbances and phenomena, such as false pregnancy, placebo/nocebo, mirror-touch synesthesia, hysteria, seizures, etc., that suggest a certain indivisibility between the psyche and the soma. The author explores how “ideas, beliefs, wishes, and fears transform bodies” (205) and why emotions have been largely neglected in the sciences and medicine. Hustvedt does not claim to have all the answers; rather, she encourages her reader to think more critically and start asking questions and doubting the ideas taken for granted. Hustvedt conceives of doubt as a very noble feeling: “Doubt is not only a virtue in intelligence; it is a necessity” (340).
Section three, “What Are We? Lectures on the Human Condition,” continues exploring the questions of the self and the nature of subjectivity. Most of the essays in the final part of the collection were developed from the talks Hustvedt had given at academic conferences, and, therefore, again address a trained audience. In “Borderlands: First, Second, and Third Person Adventures in Crossing Disciplines,” the author promotes to procure multiple perspectives on the current problems and unresolved phenomena, in line with the lengthy essay that precedes it. Hustvedt insists on the importance of ‘I’ in academic papers and claims that a third-person objectivity is an illusion. It is in the essays of this last section that Hustvedt’s own philosophical position, which can be termed as ‘intersubjectivity,’ starts to sound more and more prominently. Although Hustvedt gives a definition of the notion of intersubjectivity already in the “Delusions of Certainty,” the essays primarily dealing with the concept are in the final part of the collection. “Intersubjectivity refers to our knowing and relating to other people in the world, our being with and understanding them, one subject or person to another, and how we make a shared world through these relations” (242). Hustvedt reiterates that “there is no self without an other, no subjectivity without intersubjectivity” (357). A person, a self, is literally of an other, being generated inside a woman’s body; and, moreover, “no one becomes a person in isolation”; “We are beings embedded in a world” (392). The relationships between people are fundamental for experiencing the world and defining what these experiences mean.

In “Why One Story and Not Another?,” “Becoming Others,” “Subjunctive Flights: Thinking Through the Embodied Reality of Imaginary Worlds,” and “Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Truths of Fiction,” Hustvedt, among other topics, contemplates the nature of imagination and the mechanisms of literary creation and engages with author-reader intersubjective collaboration. Hustvedt reveals that she becomes her characters when writing in their voice; to her, “[t]o write or to read a novel means becoming others” (377)—an idea that was first expressed in the first section’s essay on Sontag (77). Hustvedt also emphasizes the crucial role of the reader in the creation of textual meaning. In “Remembering in Art: The Horizontal and the Vertical” and many other essays of the present collection, the author explores the connection between memory and imagination and engages with the artist-viewer intersubjectivity. In her essay on suicide, Hustvedt considers various views on the problem of self-murder and what it means “to kill your ‘self’” (418), differentiating between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ of the subjective experience.
The last essay in the collection, “Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Truths of Fiction,” demonstrates Hustvedt’s fascination with the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and his influence on her own work. In it, the author again stresses the importance of the first-person narratives. In her theory, the truth of fiction “can only be communicated by an I to an I” (487), from one person to another through indirect communication. “It consists of many small truths” (505) perceived subjectively by each single individual; therefore, as Hustvedt argues, “[e]very book is read one person at a time” (487). The author and the reader work in intersubjective collaboration, and every interpretation is, therefore, unique, fresh, and creative.

Everyone will definitely find something of interest in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, as the collection ponders a wide range of topics, from art and literature to memory and the models of the mind. The essays can be read separately as well as consecutively. The book may not provide the reader with the definite explicit answers to the mysteries surrounding the notions of perception, consciousness, or the self, but it will definitely stimulate intelligent questions about the nature of knowledge itself. Hustvedt hopes that her reader “will discover that much of what is delivered […] in the form of books, media, and the Internet as decided truths, scientific or otherwise, are in fact open to question and revision” (xx). Engaging multiple perspectives, findings, and outlooks, Hustvedt manages to implicate her own ideas and personality, as well as the subtlety of wit.


Diana Wagner (Marburg)