Mothers, Fathers, and Others : Siri Hustvedt

In her latest book of essays Siri Hustvedt ranges far. She speaks of her family and her early life. She examines the power of art and of reading. She looks back at favourite books like Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, she thinks about what we might be drawn to read during a pandemic, she plays around with the words of a famous story-teller, Scheherazade, and she examines the life of a prolific artist and journal writer, Louise Bourgeois. She also, as so often with her, tries to tease apart the debate about the relative merits of male and female art/writing.

What happens when we read?

…human beings engage with a book, especially a novel, with an intimacy that does not pertain to most other inanimate objects. Reading is a form of ordinary possession of one person by another. While it is being read, the story is infused with the traces of another living being, who is not there physically, but the author’s breath and being are present in the rhythms and meanings of the words on the page, which are literally embodied in the reader…Books register not only as articulate thoughts in the reader but as excitement, shock, sorrow, surprise, pleasure, relief…A beloved book remains in the reader as a ghost, with both conscious and unconscious resonances.

What happens when we look at a work of art?

Art is haunted by a quality of aliveness, a strange animation the spectator feels in her muscles that tense or relax, in her breath that stops suddenly or is extended in a long exhalation, in the memory that leaps suddenly to mind, perhaps one she hasn’t recalled in many years…

Great art is a cloud of unknowing…

The particular experience is always located between the viewer and the work of art. It is always made and lived between them.

In a longer essay on the work of Louise Bourgeois she speaks about attitudes that still prevail

That the body, emotion, and nature have been associated with passive femininity, and the mind, reason, and culture with active masculinity is a given in the Western tradition. Sexual difference has long been part of the ongoing and still fiercely debated psyche-soma distinction, which has also cut the human body into two parts: masculinity has taken up residence in the head and femininity in the body from the neck down.

Her writing is combative and thought provoking although I found the essays about her mother the most moving. The Norwegian daughter of a postmaster, married to an academic, the mother of four daughters, she was a strong-minded woman who took long walks until she died at the age of ninety-six. She often had to bite her tongue, telling her daughter after her husband died that his habit of interrupting her when she spoke had hurt and angered her. She had met him when they were both students in Norway, but his career took precedence. But after he died she lived for another sixteen years and made new friends and traveled widely. She left her daughter with a sentence which she has pondered over the years

Don’t do anything you don’t really want to do.

Which to Siri Hustvedt has come to mean

I have faith in your desire. I have faith that your desire is not purely impulsive, that you are a thoughtful, ethical person who can imagine how you might hurt others by what you do but also how you yourself might be hurt and made unhappy by giving into someone else.

A powerful and thought-provoking collection of essays with many ideas to reflect upon.


11 thoughts on “Mothers, Fathers, and Others : Siri Hustvedt

  1. Thanks, Gert! I just finished reading a slim book of essays by Emily Ogden, the daughter of two of Jim’s college classmates. It was gifted (not necessarily recommended) by the wife of another classmate; she and her daughters and some grandkids are currently staying with us. Ogden teaches English at the Univ. of Virginia; the collection is titled “On Not Knowing,” which resonated with the comment above about “Great art is a cloud of unknowing.” It is a bit fragmented, and with maybe too many self-conscious well-wrought phrases; a box of bon-bons rather than a meal with a variety of tastes and textures (but maybe essay collections are like that?). The haiku and tanka essayists all emphasize that ambiguity and unknowing are at the heart of a good poem, so I found myself reading the essays with the haiku-ist understanding of uncertainty at the center of my responses to the book. It sounds as if Hustvedt’s essays shape themselves into something very different than Ogden arrives at, even if both have a premise that unknowing is a central element of art (and life?).

  2. Teaching ‘English’. Is not, I assume, teaching creative writing. Still U of Virginia not a bad gig.
    When I read essays I usually find that some are clever clever and all about surfaces, whereas others dig deep.
    I deliberately didn’t read the last story which is a long exploration of the horrific family torture and death of Sylvia Marie Likens in 1965. Not quite sure what her aim was with this.

    Do you know the work of Harryette Mullins poet and creative writing teacher at U of California LA? I have just ordered her Urban Tumbleweed:Notes from a Tanka Diary

      1. I had to look up insoiring and realized the “O” and “P” are awfully close. Thought I was going to learn a new word…chuckle.

  3. I didn’t realise that Siri Hustvedt writes non-fiction as well as fiction – how have I never come across her essays before? Anyway, the pieces about art sound particularly interesting. (I’m still kicking myself for missing the recent Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Hayward in London, very poor planning on my part!)

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