Siri Hustvedt: Gazing back at men

Book review

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Siri Hustvedt

Photo: Spencer Ostrander / Simon & Schuster
Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women.

In Western thought, there’s a longstanding gap between the world of the humanities and that of the sciences. British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow saw that gap as an impediment to solving the world’s problems. In A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Norwegian-American writer Siri Hustvedt explores the gulf beneath the gap, stating in the introduction to the book that “in the last decade or so, I have repeatedly found myself at the bottom of Snow’s gulf, shouting up to the persons gathered in either side of it.”

The book comprises three parts. The first part, from which the title of the book was taken, is an abridged anthology of the contributions of the great thinkers from the Age of Reason to the modern day. It’s a questioner’s inquiry into the ways we judge literature, art, and the world in general. The view is broad, beyond the conventional scope of literature. One striking section is a dissection of German film director Wim Wenders’s Pina, an overview of the life and work of German choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009) who created Tanztheater Wippertal (Wippertal Dance Theatre). As Wenders reports, in 1985 he was moved to create Pina by seeing one of the theater’s performances of Café Müller, a dance that strongly underscores the role of modern dance as a communication medium.

Siri Hustvedt

The second part, The Delusions of Certainty, is a critique of the concept of dualism, the “body vs. mind” teaching that has been central in Western thought for centuries. Here, too, the query is broader than that of literature alone. The question of whether artificial intelligence of robots and science fiction will ever exactly replicate the human variety is formulated in anecdotes concerning HAL, the sentient computer that interacts with the crew of Discovery One of the Space Odyssey series. The conclusion is that the distance between real machines and fictional ones, such as HAL, remains.

The third part, What are We? focuses on philosophy and psychology in a collage of eight texts and lectures Hustvedt has given in various countries, ending with the intriguing

“Kierkegaard’s Pseudonyms and the Truths of Fiction.” It has a defining postscript: “Philosophy may arrive in the form of a novel. Story, vivid metaphor, emotion, sensuality, the particular case—none of these is an enemy of philosophy. S.K.* danced from the single case to abstraction, from the personal to the universal and back again. The meanings proliferate. If we are to read him and his masks well, we must dance with him.”

* Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1859), Danish philosopher, considered the first existentialist.

The book: A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Further reading:

The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow (1905-1980), first part of the 1959 Rede Lecture, an annual public lecture at the University of Cambridge: s-f-walker.org.uk/pubsebooks/2cultures/Rede-lecture-2-cultures.pdf.

• “A probing author speaks: An interview with Siri Hustvedt,” The Norwegian American, April 3, 2015: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/interview-with-siri-hustvedt-author-of-the-sorrows-of-an-american.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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