Joy in Persistence: Siri Hustvedt on Writing and the Need for Adaptive Grandiosity
With fifteen published works—poetry, essay collections, two works of non-fiction, and seven novels including the international bestsellers, What I Loved and The Summer Without Men—Siri Hustvedt’s writing is multifaceted. She lectures on psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and philosophy; has presented hundreds of public lectures; and has appeared at dozens of national and international conferences.
The book that caught my eye is her most recent collection, Mothers, Fathers, and Others: Essays, published last winter. The first few lines read, “My paternal grandmother was ornery, fat, and formidable. She cackled when she laughed, brooded for reasons known only to her, barked out her sometimes alarming opinions and spoke with a Norwegian dialect impenetrable to me.”
Even before reading that line, I was muddling along with my own project about, well, mothers, fathers, and others. That line reminded me of my grandmother, minus the Norwegian dialect. When I learned Hustvedt was a Northfield, Minnesota, native (I spent 5+ years of my adulthood living in Northfield), I knew I had to talk with her. She took a brief break from her demanding writing, lecturing, and research duties to speak with me via email about motherhood, creativity, the future of literature, and how to persist with a tough project.
The Rumpus: I want to start with the cover art and title of Mothers, Fathers, and Others, how for me, it really tells a compelling story. The cover is a simple line drawing in red of what appears to be a glass globe. Within that globe, reside two eyes at various heights, two faces, one gazing to the left, the other to the right. In the middle, a child’s unclothed body. The globe with these three figures seems to be floating on water. The background is pale blue. Here’s how I see that: This fragile vessel—the triad of mother/father/child—is sort of floating along in the world, but can easily shatter. And when it does, we are all carried away on the waves of the ocean, much like how Norwegians send the dead out. Can you speak to that, please? And tell me if I’m wrong.
Siri Hustvedt: The cover drawing is Self-Portrait by Louise Bourgeois, an artist I love. There is a long essay on her work in the book called “Both-And.” The artist has drawn herself as a child between her parents, who are not two individuals but rather portrayed as a single Janus head with its two faces; one that looks forward, the other backward. I too see them enclosed in a globular or uterine-shaped transparent container that appears to be floating in a sea that is perhaps also an amniotic reference. Bourgeois loved ambiguous forms and referred constantly back to her parents, her prenatal life, her infancy, and her childhood and its traumas. She had a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis, which has often turned on what Freud once called “family romances.” I feel the same fragility in the picture you do, even though this child has her eyes closed and is either sleeping or resting contentedly. It seemed perfect for Mothers, Fathers, and Others because the essays in it tell stories about my own family but also investigate pregnancy, maternity, and paternity and how these function in the culture. My father was a student of the Icelandic sagas and the flaming corpse sent out to sea is an image from one of them. I always found the idea of a burning boat as funeral ritual rather beautiful.
Rumpus: Much of your work focuses on neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology, and that, for me, is exactly where I think so much writing is generated. You speak of your mother’s resilience, a quality she had throughout her life. And also, trauma. That’s something we all have. Generations and generations of it accumulate over time. That speaks to the fragility of life. What sort of things must be in place, in your opinion, for resilience to take a stronghold? Why do some seem to have it, and others . . . well, shatter?
Hustvedt: My mother was remarkably resilient. As I say in the book, it isn’t clear how this trait comes about, but there’s a lot of evidence that people who have strong early attachments, which is to say they were loved well in childhood, are able to face adversity with more gumption than those who have suffered neglect or been subject to cruelty or violence. In the attachment literature, it’s called a “secure attachment.” You’re right that trauma can be inherited because a child feels its traces in her parents. There has been a lot of work on the children of Holocaust survivors. Entire communities also suffer from the historical aftermath of war, slavery, forced migration and ethnocide across many generations. There’s also some evidence that epigenetic changes caused by stress in one generation can be inherited by offspring. The DNA sequence isn’t altered but molecular changes take place that affect gene expression, but the science remains controversial. As I explain in the book, my mother was well-loved and secure as a child, but she also lived through the Nazi occupation in Norway and faced many hardships, including chronic arthritis pain and several near fatal illnesses in her later life, but somehow she sprang back. She died at ninety-six.
Rumpus: As a writer, one must have a tremendous amount of resilience. There’s scrutiny, rejection, pouring out your thoughts for the world to see, to experience intimately. But as a writer, we get to choose what we let the world see. How does one reconcile what we share and what we don’t? Writing is at once very public and very private.
Hustvedt: I have yet to meet a writer who didn’t feel the inevitable kicks, punches, and knockouts that arrive over the years. Hurt is inevitable, but the writers who keep working do so because they need to do it, and they have a quality the psychoanalyst Peter Wolson discussed in a paper called “The Vital Role of Adaptive Grandiosity in Artistic Creativity.” It made a deep impression on me when I first read it years ago. Artists need to believe that what they are doing matters to others. This requires a certain inflation of one’s own self-worth but the feeling is necessary to keep going. If it turns into an unbridled fantasy of greatness, you’re in trouble, of course, but if you have none of it, you quit. After all, if you really believed all the publishers, reviewers, bloggers, and gossips, who would go on writing? Even the most famous and lauded writers I know have been told they were shit at one time or another. At least writers don’t perform in front of a live audience. My daughter, Sophie Auster, is a singer-songwriter, and I have long admired her courage and brilliance with audiences while on stage.
There is a delicacy to writing intimately about one’s own life. I wouldn’t have written what I did about either of my parents in this book if they had been alive, even though my stories about them are hardly scandalous. Omission is part of all storytelling. The experienced world is far too complex to incorporate in a text, so we pick and choose. But the larger question is: Am I telling just to tell, to vomit up intimate details for their own sake? I have little interest in that. Everyone, even the most tell-all writer, withholds something in the interests of protecting herself or others, but my interest in my own stories has always been to use them to illustrate larger stories about the culture and examine ideas we often take for granted, as I do in my essay on misogyny. I tell stories of my own encounters with woman hatred to illuminate how it works. Writing about my grandmother, I recognized that my memories of her had changed because I had changed over time. Memory is always situated from the perspective of the present, and it is always shifting because the context of remembering changes.
Rumpus: You seem to toggle effortlessly between genres, from literary fiction to essays and poetry, even more technical, medical writing. I’m curious to know how you determine which direction a project will go? How do you know it’s a collection and not a memoir? A poem, not a novel?
Hustvedt: I do switch from one discipline and/or genre to another, but my interests nevertheless overlap. I have never felt that a single discipline or genre can address any urgent question I pose to myself. I am going on sixty-seven (good grief!), and my curiosity has driven me to read in many fields and, so far at least, I remember a good deal of what I’ve read. I have also been lucky to find that my work has pricked the interest of people in some of these fields, and they ask me to give talks at conferences. A number of the essays in this book were either written or hugely revised during the first year of this endless pandemic. Some of them began as talks, but they were for general audiences, not specialized ones. I have a dozen or so scholarly essays in my files that are not in this book, many of which began as lectures at humanities, medical, and science conferences. I plan to make another book out of them. For example, I gave a lecture in Berlin on the problems of category in psychiatry and another on reading, emotion and memory at the University of Oslo. I gave a lecture on the 17th-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish and her work’s relationship to questions in the philosophy of biology today at a conference on her work in 2019. That revised paper will be published by Cambridge University Press in a collection of essays on her later this year. I am slowly, slowly making headway on a novel now.
I do have an example of one thing become another, however. The book’s last essay on the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens in Indianapolis in 1965, “Scapegoat” began as part of a failed novel, one I put in a drawer to languish forever, but I retrieved the pertinent pages, revisited them, and turned them into a long essay about the meanings of that terrible violence and their resonance with the political hatred we are witnessing now.
Rumpus: You speak about some of this in Mothers, Fathers, and Others when you dig into “states of mind,” before you fall asleep. It’s that hypnagogic state that often generates loose connections, ideas to explore. Can you talk more about that, please?
Hustvedt: Yes, I’m fascinated by threshold states, hypnagogia among them! My motto (finally inscribed in this book): “Art is like sex. If you don’t relax you won’t enjoy it,” is relevant because a form of erotic openness is key to both creative work and the appreciation of art. (Audre Lorde, in her essay “Uses of the Erotic” is brilliant on this.) Sexual pleasure is dependent on letting go, losing oneself in the other person, and accepting vulnerability. When we fall asleep, we are also vulnerable. Our waking consciousness loosens into something else—a reverie accompanied by images, sometimes vague, sometimes vivid, but they arrive unbidden. Writing, especially fiction, but all writing, requires a similar relaxation accompanied by concentration, a profound openness to the images and words that arrive without being summoned. That’s where the magic is. Tension is the enemy of erotic life, making art, and enjoying it.
Rumpus: Art, too. It’s another passion and informs your view of the world, but also human perception. Again, it circles back to the cover art, the idea of art and life and family being inexplicably linked. What more can you add to that?
Hustvedt: I am really interested in the visual image as distinct from words. I drew all the time as a child and young person. Two of my novels include drawings, The Summer Without Men and Memories of the Future, although rather strangely, no one ever mentions them. It was as if they weren’t there at all. I consider them meaningful punctuation of those books rather than illustration. Oh, well. You’re right. I’m preoccupied with perception. What are we seeing? How do our biases influence what we take away from an image? How often do we merely see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s there? If we’re told an artist is “great,” don’t we linger longer? The only way to combat all this prejudgment is to take time with a picture. Even then, we can’t rid ourselves of ourselves. We are all blinkered and ignorant to one degree or another, but I have found that superficial qualities such as the fame, gender, nationality, and the personal story of the artist fall away when you spend time with a work of art and give yourself up to it. Every good work of art transcends the social identity tags of the artist.
Rumpus: I want to end on persistence. I feel like it’s all interrelated with your work: resilience, human nature, even literature, there’s a certain level of perseverance here. No one is going to make you write or force you to create art or music; it’s a drive, a calling. How does one press forth on their creative, inquisitive journey when times are tough—not just in the world around, but within?
Hustvedt: This is a beautiful question, Leslie, and a difficult one. You’re right. The world is not begging for another novel or symphony or installation. Artists are driven by a need, and I believe that creative need to make is part of the development of our species over millennia. Human beings have an urge to tell and represent and give those stories and objects to others. We are social animals and art is social. Of course, there is no guarantee that anyone else will want those gifts we’re offering, but for many of us that doesn’t interfere with the drive to make.
I never think of reception when I’m working. That comes later after the thing is done. Anxiety sets in and actual darts begin to fly or even worse, [you end up] being ignored. I’m much better with both being ignored and dealing with darts in my old age. I have come to have humor about them and if anything, usually feel irritation rather than pain. Age has its advantages.
The passion to make and tell remains, however. And in our cultural world that often praises cold, easily digested cynicism or art that partakes of a vapid sociology built on unexamined platitudes, passionate, daring art is important.
We have been thrown into an ever-shrinking world of pandemic and mass death. Diminishing biodiversity is part of our earth’s sickness. That this fact made a pandemic more likely was predicted years ago. The grotesque realities of inequality cannot be ignored anymore. Democracy is threatened, and not just in the US, but all over the world. I am alarmed, and that alarm feeds my work. It would be silly not to know that in the scope of things, whatever I do is minuscule, but whatever you want to call it, resilience or adaptive grandiosity or my mother’s love, I persist. And there is joy in that persistence.