A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind By Siri Hustvedt, Simon and Schuster, 550 pages, $35.
If we parse the dustflap of this book a bit more carefully than usual, it tells us that “Siri Hustvedt demonstrates a striking range and depth of knowledge in both the humanities and the sciences. Armed with passionate curiosity, a sense of humor and insight from many disciplines, she repeatedly upends ideas and cultural truisms.”
Hustvedt has sometimes previously been known for “demonstrating” herself as a writer more than actually writing books. She has, for instance, previously written about what it’s like for a writer to also be the beautiful wife of another writer (Paul Auster). She is therefore a writer to be extremely impressed by but also an easy one to dismiss as an analogue to the brainy and beautiful heroine of an old sci-fi movie -- "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," perhaps.
One trouble here is that the title of the book is more than a little tantalizing. Another is that she is doing something that was once more familiar than it has long since become i.e. write essays that are from both of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures,” where science and the arts illustrate one another rather than vye with each other in conflict. Along with that in Hustvedt, they’re buttressed by philosophy, psychiatry, art, who knows what all. Red flags of jargon are raised, of course, whenever a writer actually uses the word “interrogate” in a context unrelated to the police and utterly related to literary theory.
But you quickly catch on to the fact that any Mensa academic tone you might perceive is not a punishment but just evidence of a mind that seems to be blissfully free of pop syntax while dealing with fascinating subjects, whether painting, or why girls have long hair, or “Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later,” the memoirs of Karl Over Knausgard, Kierkegaard, Freud (“doing analysis is something like making art”), Darwin, etc. Some essays are classified as “Lectures on the Human Condition.” Others are called “The Delusion of Certainty” and “What Are We?” while her personal anecdotes are liable to come from anywhere, including nursing a baby. She is a fascinating and rewarding writer worth any struggles with her “demonstrating” self.