A third of the way into this volume of essays, Siri Hustvedt begins a piece entitled "Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few" with three abstruse quotations about neuroscience, art theory and psychoanalysis. They stick out, obstructively. Until then, the Norwegian-American novelist has offered up seductive but gentle observational essays about the nature of desire, or advice from one's mother, or flowers, with a dash of Freud added here and Montaigne there. So why does she then wield these "big" quotes: to impress the reader with her erudition or to cause discomfort?
It only takes a paragraph for Hustvedt to relieve the anxiety. The quotes are meant to be impenetrable. "Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few" turns out to be an essay about the academic language of three subjects in which she is widely read, and her point is that abstruse academic language excludes those who are not experts from participating in the conversation, and makes it difficult for ideas to cross the disciplines' boundaries.
Hustvedt has brought together vignettes from her life, reflections on fiction and art, and her private reading of neuroscience to frame an inquiry about how the self relates and responds to the external world. She writes in the first person, as both Freud and Montaigne did, and in doing so creates an easy thought-conversation between herself and the reader. This atmosphere makes her essays a little like a therapy session, in which she may hit upon a nerve at any moment, then explore and rationalise it.
The volume covers three broad areas. "Living" is drawn from experience; "thinking" involves more intellectual puzzles to do with, for example, writing fiction, while "looking" comprises essays on art from Louise Bourgeois to Goya. In one striking short piece in "Living", Hustvedt considers what a blessing it is not to spend one's day looking into a mirror.
"Were I 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."
But reflection, and how we react to it, is the core of Hustvedt's work – indeed at times paralyses the reader with its insights – and Hustvedt has great range. In "Critical Notes on a Verbal Climate", written after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hustvedt considers how George Bush used the word "freedom" in his post-9/11 declarations – an idea drawn from Enlightenment thought whose meaning has altered to include the gun-toting frontier spirit. Here, the self is looked at in relation to the other, the enemy beyond the hills in Afghanistan or Iraq. Hustvedt observes that while busy with this demonised other, America failed to notice its own interior until the bodies washed up in New Orleans.
This is not a volume that provides concrete answers. Rather, it leaves the reader feeling subjected to a soft interrogation of one's own perception of oneself.
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