A particular essay in Siri Hustvedt’s new collection Living, Thinking, Looking encapsulates much of what is equally intriguing and frustrating about her as an essayist. Called “Outside the Mirror,” the essay is a cogent reflection on self-consciousness and superficiality in even the most cultured of individuals. Hustvedt observes, “Were I able to see myself in medias res, my critical faculties might never shut down, and I would barely be able to lift a finger without crippling self-consciousness.”
Gathering up thirty-two of Hustvedt’s essays written between 2006 and 2011, Living, Thinking, Looking is at its best a surgeon’s scalpel cutting into the vagaries of perception and consciousness, and at its worst an invitation to skim a few lines before leaping onto the next essay. Hustvedt is what is definitely lacking in 21st-century literary and non-literary discourse: a deeply personal writer who is not self-indulgent and writing for the sake of hearing her own voice. The author of five novels, several works of nonfiction, and a poetry collection, Hustvedt is refreshingly non-ideological, resisting the gauntlet-throwing urges of critics like Katie Roiphe or Harold Bloom. Whether her subject is visual art, her father, migraines, or Sigmund Freud, Hustvedt’s approach is painterly, oriented on the seemingly minute observations that, with a trained eye, breach terrain that has not been trod before.
The trouble with essay collections that span several years is a natural one: repetition. Ideas recur, and navigating Living, Thinking, Looking can feel like driving through a bustling neighborhood, sure that you’ve seen the same shabby-yet-charming bodega three times. We learn, and relearn, Hustvedt’s fascinating research into human memory; memories aren’t like photographs or documentary films, she tells us, they are forever in flux, actively evolving with our own experiences. Memories can be reconfigured and reframed to squeeze into the ongoing internal narrative of an individual.
The book’s title derives from how Hustvedt segments her essays. The first section, “Living,” concerns her personal life, while “Thinking” lassoes together her explorations of the mind, and “Looking” does the same for art criticism. In “Living” lies Hustvedt’s strongest essay, “My Father/Myself,” in which she mediates on the life and death of her professor father, a Norwegian-American who raised Hustvedt in a small Minnesotan town. The essay also explores how identities coalesce and how American mythos obscures this process.
“We become ourselves through others, and the self is a porous thing, not a sealed container,” she writes in the essay. “Americans cling desperately to their myths of self-creation, to rugged individualism, now more free-market than pioneer, and to self-help, that strange twist on do it yourself which turns a human being into an object that can be repaired with a toolbox and some instructions.” In the Facebook age, digital avatars allow individuals the false belief that they can shape new identities at will, while the profusion of self-help gurus continually propagate the (profitable) lie that with a few tweaks, anyone can become a minor demi-god.
External realities mold internal reality. Hustvedt, like Virginia Woolf, obsesses about the interior life. She notes the act of reading itself is unique because it occurs in human time, following the rhythms of the body, its heartbeats and eye blinks. Reading is intersubjective, ultimately: the writer disappears and the words on the page join an inner dialogue. Hustvedt’s endless fascination with language weaves new insights, or at least realizations that were overlooked before, though she is most adept when working within the realm of academic thought. In “Critical Notes on the Verbal Climate,” written at the nadir of the George W. Bush administration, Hustvedt attacks the “angel/devil discourse” of Bush rhetoric, his much-analyzed technique of painting vastly complex issues with as broad a stroke as possible. The essay itself repeats what many political observers knew in 2005, when it was written, and know now: Bush preyed on the gullibility of his citizens and the media, serving up misleading dichotomies to justify an Iraq War even Republicans now view as misguided. Though Hustvedt unearths little in original observations about the Bush era, she does serve up one line that even a right-winger can grin at: “In psychiatric patients, absolute polarities like those the president habitually makes are regarded as pathological, a form of dichotomous thinking often seen in patients with borderline personality disorder.” Somewhere, Karl Rove is furiously grinding his teeth.
If some essays fizzle, like the aforementioned “Outside the Mirror” which devolves into the lighter fare of what clothes she thinks look good on her body and why, others are gems simply for the more obscure artists they revive. Hustvedt tells the tragic tale of wunderkind novelist Stig Dagerman, born the same year as Norman Mailer. Dagerman’s first novel, “The Snake,” was published at the age of twenty-two. The Swedish Dagerman’s debut is a novel of “hallucinatory urgency” about the war-time dread that embroiled his homeland. Appearing three years before the much louder The Naked and the Dead, The Snake was the first of four novels Dagerman published before killing himself at thirty-one. Depression and writer’s block wrecked his life. Hustvedt aptly concludes her essay on Dagerman, “We are not rational creatures. In the best art something always escapes us and bewilders us. If it didn’t, we would never return to it.”
Existence itself can be a bewildering exercise, and the deaths of geniuses like Dagerman make it even more so. Answers, Hustvedt understands, will never come, but that doesn’t make the search any less fulfilling.