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A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind

Review

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind

In her introduction to A WOMAN LOOKING AT MEN LOOKING AT WOMEN, essayist and novelist Siri Hustvedt asks readers to think of this book as her “journey back and forth” across what she sees as the unfortunate chasm between the physical sciences and the humanities. Her own interest in both sides of this seeming divide, especially in the visual arts, literature, philosophy and neuroscience, is deep, and in this collection she tries to bridge it with a number of writings on provocative and challenging themes. With a diversity of examples and ideas, she explores gender, the meaning of art and the mind itself through lenses such as feminism and psychology.

The book is divided into three large sections, though there is much overlap in subject matter and references. The first, “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” not only provides the title of the entire collection, but sets the tone and introduces readers to the kinds of questions Hustvedt is interested in, as well as several of the answers she offers. She begins with short essays on the visual arts, opening with an examination of perspective (visual and emotional) in the works of Picasso, Beckmann and de Kooning. “Balloon Magic” looks at personal aesthetics and the value of visual art, starting with the sale of a Jeff Koons sculpture for over 58 million dollars.

"Throughout the book, Hustvedt poses poignant and worthwhile questions... This is a collection for committed and persistent readers, and engaged and curious minds."

The third essay, “My Louise Bourgeois,” is one of the stand-outs in the book, perhaps because the art of Bourgeois is so important to Hustvedt as a viewer, scholar and writer. She writes, “I have long argued that the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object.” It is this encounter and the response it elicits that Hustvedt returns to again and again here, and the images created by Bourgeois --- feminist, visionary, psychological and complicated --- are ones that provide a solid foundation for her arguments and questions. Bourgeois’ own reliance on psychoanalysis further cements Hustvedt’s intellectual interest in her.

In literature, too, Hustvedt finds much to explore in regards to meaning, perception and authorship. She writes about Dickinson, Sontag and her own fictional work. Most interesting is “The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient,” about her experiences working as a volunteer writing instructor for psychiatric inpatients for four years. This insightful piece gives a compelling and fascinating look at the power of writing, and the nuances and mysteries of psychiatric treatment. The first section of the book has the lightest touch as far as writing style and readability are concerned. Hustvedt’s style throughout this work tends toward meandering, and because these essays are shorter and less technically and academically deep, they are easier and, in some ways, more enjoyable.

The second part, “The Delusions of Certainty,” tackles neuroscience and many issues of the “mind-body problem.” While just as profound as the essays on art and literature, this long-form essay is richer in insider vocabulary and content. The book wraps up with “What Are We: Lectures on the Human Condition,” which brings together many of the themes Hustvedt previously introduced. In “Becoming Others,” she shares her reality with mirror-touch synesthesia, a condition that makes sense of her interesting views and ideas about the visual arts and the interior world.

Throughout the book, Hustvedt poses poignant and worthwhile questions, though her narrative can be a bit rambling or even disorganized. Sometimes it reads like a very long lecture couched in conversational language, and she always assumes the reader has at least a basic understanding of the vast set of concepts and examples she references. This is a collection for committed and persistent readers, and engaged and curious minds.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 9, 2016

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind
by Siri Hustvedt

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2016
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction, Social Sciences
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501141090
  • ISBN-13: 9781501141096