Siri Hustvedt’s new nonfiction book, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, sometimes feels like three books in one. It is divided into three parts, but each part feels so distinct from the others that I wondered at first if the book should have been published as three separate, slim volumes. The first section contains essays on gender, art, and particular artists and thinkers—these were the pieces that most appealed to my interests. The second section is an extended piece considering philosophy’s mind-body problem, and the third section is made up of talks on topics ranging from suicide to mirror-touch synesthesia that Hustvedt gave at academic conferences.
Combining these seemingly disparate meditations into one thick volume, though, feels like part of Hustvedt’s long project to further interdisciplinary work and thinking. With her deep knowledge of fields in the sciences and the humanities (neuroscience, psychoanalysis, art history, philosophy) and her success at writing both fiction and nonfiction, Hustvedt is well-positioned to address the long-standing divide between these “hard” and “soft” sciences. In her introduction, she confronts the use of these adjectives to separate good from bad scientists and respected disciplines from denigrated ones. She asks, “What constitutes rigorous thinking? Is ambiguity dangerous or is it liberating? Why are the sciences regarded as hard and masculine and the arts and humanities as soft and feminine? And why is hard usually perceived as so much better than soft?” These important questions are revisited and dissected throughout the book.
I was continually surprised and delighted by the ease and comfort with which Hustvedt wrote in the first person about science and art. I’m unaccustomed to reading academic-style work on these subjects that so openly and directly incorporates the author’s opinions. In serious writing about art, it seems that one almost never says whether they simply liked or disliked a piece, and scientific research might as well have a moratorium on discussing the feelings and reactions of its authors. Of course, these opinions always make up a large part of any piece of writing, but in academic works, it is still considered necessary to disguise the author’s particular proclivities or biases under the auspices of objectivity—even though true objectivity is impossible. Hustvedt, influenced by the writing of Søren Kierkegaard, who she says “insists on the first person as the site of human transformation,” dispenses with these illusions of objectivity and doesn’t hesitate to share her thoughts and feelings throughout these pieces.
In an essay called “Balloon Magic,” Hustvedt discusses how men’s art pieces—specifically the art of Jeff Koons, whose piece Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for $58.4 million in 2013—are bought at auctions for much higher prices than women’s. She says in the first paragraph of the piece, “I will confess at the outset of this essay that if I had many millions of dollars to spend, I would buy art, including work by living artists (both famous and obscure), but I wouldn’t purchase a Koons, not because the work has no interest for me—it does—but because I don’t think I would want to live with his art.” These sorts of direct comments, which let the reader know exactly where she stands, are a regular feature of Hustvedt’s essays, and they are refreshing in their clarity and confidence.
Other essays in the first section of the book take up concerns of feminism and art in varying ways. The title essay is a meditation on an exhibit of artworks by Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, and Willem de Kooning that includes only paintings of women. The piece is about the male gaze, voyeurism, and female subjectivity. Later, there is an essay about her appreciation for her favorite artist, Louise Bourgeois, and how Bourgeois’s resistance of feminine norms became incorporated into Hustvedt’s own conception of herself as a writer and artist. Hustvedt also includes a piece about the significance of human hair, especially women’s hair, explained through her experience of braiding her daughter’s hair each night before bed.
Each of these pieces demonstrates Hustvedt’s deep thinking on a wide range of subjects and her facility with language and ideas—her observations always cut to the heart of the subject matter. In her piece about interviewing Karl Ove Knausgaard, she makes it clear that she likes and respects him very much as a writer, but she also questions why his popular autobiographical work, My Struggle, references only one woman writer (Julia Kristeva) among hundreds of writers mentioned. Knausgaard’s answer was “No competition.” Hustvedt examines the source of this belief and processes what it means for her and other female writers to be considered “no competition” by men.
The book is incredibly impressive in its breadth and in its depth. Hustvedt’s interests are wide-ranging, and though some of these essays may seem esoteric or unapproachable because they delve into complex subject matter about which may be unfamiliar to the average reader, her tone is never pretentious or snobbish, and her desire to increase dialogue between the arts and sciences is noticeable in these pages. As she states in the introduction, “If I can be said to have a mission, then it is a simple one: I hope you, the reader, will discover that much of what is delivered to you in the form of books, media, and the internet as decided truths, scientific or otherwise, are in fact open to question and revision.”