Review: Siri Hustvedt – “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind”

I’d like to start this review off by stating that I skimmed appx. 25% of this book, as I found some contents to be – to quote David Foster Wallace – hellaciously unfunny.

I’ve not really read Hustvedt before, so this is my first foray into her stuff.

“The truth is always gray,” the artist once said, citing a platitude that is also a color key.

I mainly enjoyed the bits on gender, pornography, and on Knausgaard’s vile statement where commented on the fact that he almost only wrote about male writers in his “My Struggle” with “No competition”…and the essay on suicide, but sadly not much else, really.

This piece was funny:

If Fifty Shades of Grey is testament to anything, it is that millions of middle-class, heterosexual women enjoy pornography with an S&M bent, even if it arrives with sentences such as, “My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old” and “Holy Shit” as frequent textual punctuation.

There’s not much fun in this book, which I think is exactly what Hustvedt intended.

Emily Dickinson wrote poems alone, radical, brilliant verses that burn my consciousness every time I read them. She sent some of her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an important literary critic of the day. He was not unsympathetic to her work, but he did not understand he was reading the work of someone who had reinvented the English language. He could not recognize her new music. His impulse was to correct her, smooth out the wrinkles. He told her she was not ready to publish.

Go, Dickinson!

To examplify why I think Hustvedt’s greatness in this book evades me – if it’s there, naturally, which it cannot be for all, I think – here’s an example:

Husserl was profoundly interested in logic and mathematics, and he wrestled with Frege, but he criticized scientific formulations that left out lived experience and relied exclusively on an ideal mathematics in the tradition of Galileo. Nagel’s “objective” phenomenology of the future is one he argues should “not [be] dependent on empathy or the imagination.”199 I would say this is not possible, that empathy and the imagination cannot be siphoned out of phenomenology and the desire to do so demonstrates a prejudice against feeling, which is part of a long rationalist tradition that denigrated the passions. Husserl faced the same problem. He did not advocate a purely subjective or solipsistic theory of consciousness—the idea that each of us, human or bat, is forever stuck in his or her own body’s perspective and can never get out of it. In his late writings, in particular, Husserl offered an idea of transcendental intersubjectivity. What is this? 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. Reading Husserl is not like reading Descartes, Nagel, or James. Husserl is knotty and difficult. I can say, however, that Husserl’s idea of intersubjectivity necessarily involves empathy, and that for Husserl empathy is an avenue into another person.

Names, names and more names. I mean, I adore Sarah Bakewell’s book on the existentialists of the 20th century (and Hegel + Husserl) but the above just descended into boredom. To me. Still, I’m glad that Hustvedt delved more into the philosopher Merleau-Ponty than Bakewell did at times; still, this essay is another thing entirely than Bakewell’s book.

I’ve got to shout-out Hustvedt as she brings up gender issues:

In my experience, the line that follows “I don’t read fiction but my wife does” is: “Would you sign the book for her?” In other words, a novel can taste bad before it is eaten simply because it has been written by a woman. Of course, I often wonder what those men are doing at my reading in the first place. Why didn’t your wife come? A young man, a writer himself, once said to me, “You know, you write like a man.” He was not referring to the books I had written in the voice of a man, but to all of my work, and this statement was intended as a high compliment. Women are not immune to this prejudice either. A young woman once approached me at an art opening to say, “I never read books by women, but a friend of mine insisted I try one of yours, and I loved it!” I did not feel particularly grateful. A literary editor in New York, Chris Jackson, admitted rather sheepishly in a blog that he could not remember the last time he had read a novel by a woman.

All in all: bits and pieces were good.

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