“Although works of art are things they are also strangely alive, animated by a mysterious power,” writes Siri Hustvedt in her recent collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking. Her essays, some of which are on the topic of art, but all of which are art themselves, likewise seem strangely alive, animated by a mysterious power. If I had to pinpoint that mysterious power of Hustvedt’s, I would guess it lies in her ability to simultaneously complicate the simple and simplify the complicated. Her voice is refreshing, striving in equal measure toward answers and ambiguity, until we realize that these could and should be the same, or similar, ends.
I met Hustvedt at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival while she was signing books between her panels. We later corresponded via email about poetry, migraines, Dickens, and “adaptive grandiosity.”
Tyler Malone: It seems right, I suppose, to start at or near the beginning. I read somewhere that it was David Copperfield — the book, not the magician — that first made you realize you wanted to be a writer. What was it about that book that moved you so much?
Siri Hustvedt: I read David Copperfield in Iceland the summer after I had turned thirteen. My family was in Reykjavik because my father had a Fulbright to study the sagas. That summer I devoured dozens of books, and several of them have remained important to me: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, but David’s story, especially the early part of the book when he is still a child, turned me inside out. I lived through Dearest’s death, the cruelties of the Murdstones, the comfort and wonder of Peggotty with her popping buttons, Steerforth’s friendship, the rigors of the Murdstone and Grinby warehouse — as if I were David. I suspect the child’s fierce pride and inner resistance to his mistreatment were qualities with which I strongly identified. I was something of an outsider as a child, a person who felt different from others, and I think the novel made me more comprehensible to myself. Many years later, I wrote my PhD dissertation at Columbia, “Figures of Dust,” on language and identity in Dickens. I still refer to the writer privately as “Dear Charles.”
In addition to Dickens, who are some other writers whose work you believe had a major influence on your own writing?
I have read so many books now that it is difficult to sort through the question of influence. Henry James has been deeply important to me. The psychological subtlety of his novels, his ability to articulate ambiguities between and among his characters, his profound sensitivity to inter-subjective atmospheres remain with me. Emily Bronte’s diabolical and brilliant Wuthering Heights, all of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and George Eliot, especially Middlemarch, Shakespeare, of course. Milton whispers to me more and more these days. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood had a piercing effect on me. Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan and the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge use language in ways that continue to astonish and influence me. Søren Kierkegaard, the philosopher-novelist is a writer I have read over and over again. William James (prose style and thought), Freud (his ideas, rhetorical brilliance, and dialectical forms of argument), Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, D.W. Winnicott, Mary Douglas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, M.M. Bahktin, A.R. Luria have altered the way I think and therefore the way I write. By the time you’re as old as I am, your influences have become you.
You had achieved some success with poetry early on in your career, but it was the publication of The Blindfold, your first novel, that really seemed to put you “on the map,” as they say. When I had you sign a copy of that novel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, you said that even though it had been written so long ago, you “haven’t turned against it yet.” What about the book endures for you? And what was that transition like from poetry to prose?
In The Blindfold I wanted to capture a feeling — a feeling of the uncanny, or as the Germans call it, the Unheimlich. Iris’s adventures simply appeared to me. I still like the weirdness of that text: Iris’s taped descriptions of a dead girl’s objects, the upsetting photograph of her, the migraine episode in the hospital with the stroke victim Mrs. O, Iris wandering around NYC in a man’s suit. I started a novel in college, but didn’t know how to get beyond the beginning of it. The discipline of poetry was good for me, and I wrote poems for years. When I was in high school and college, I often did poetic exercises using strict forms — sonnets, heroic couplets, villanelles, etc. After I had published a few poems in magazines when I was still in my early twenties, I realized I was stuck. Every word I wrote seemed hackneyed and bad. A professor poet friend of mine, David Shapiro, told me that when he was blocked, he did automatic writing. I tried it and wrote thirty pages in a single night. Then I spent a couple of months editing those pages, and I had my first prose poem. I never returned to writing poetry in lines, although I have composed some poems for characters in my novels, but that is different. The transition from poetry in lines to prose was born of automatic writing.
The blurring between fact and fiction is a tool you use in your fiction. One of the more obvious examples appears in The Blindfold where the protagonist’s name is Iris Vegan (your first name backwards and your mother’s maiden name). You were on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival about the personal in fiction. I’m curious if you would explain how personal experience and autobiography colors your writing?
In The Blindfold, I played with myself and with my own identity. I often thought of Iris as a skewed, distorted reflection of myself, but Iris is also a name that points to the character as a creature of the text. The name contains the pronoun “I,” and the word refers explicitly to a part of the eye, the observing eye, so the name was intended to conjure multiple meanings.
All novel writing is personal. A question I have been asking myself recently is: Why one story and not another? It was the title of a talk I gave in London in July at the Southbank Centre. A fiction writer can write anything, after all, but she does not. How does a novelist know when a story is right or wrong? What is the measure of that rightness and wrongness? Stories are born unconsciously, but I think the writer determines whether the turn a book has taken is true or false through feeling, which is conscious. I shape my stories in this or that way because the story answers something that is emotionally rather than literally true for me. So even when a novel bears little resemblance to the writer’s actual biography, the story comes from the author’s deep emotional reality and psychic geography. One of the essays in Living, Thinking, Looking, “Three Emotional Stories,” which was first published in a journal called Neuropsychoanalysis, takes on this problem by examining the shifting character of memory and theories about the neurobiological origins of the self. To say that this is a complicated question is an understatement!
You’ve written about being a “migraineur,” and about your coming to accept your migraines as just a part of you, rather than continually fighting the condition. You’ve also expressed a definite interest in the concept of madness. Do you think that there is a natural connection between neurological and psychological issues — be they migraines, depression, madness, what have you — and the creative and artistic impulse? It’s been documented in various studies that an uncanny amount of artists and writers deal with these types of issues at a much higher percentage than the general population. How do you see the connection?
I am giving a talk next week at an international neuro-ethics conference in Cleveland, in which I take up the split between the psychological and the neurological. I argue that although many neurologists and some psychiatrists cling to this split, the distinction founders because it is dependent on mind/body dualism — that human beings are made of two different stuffs — matter and spirit — as Descartes famously argued. It is hard for me to see how this dualism could be true without embracing the supernatural. I am not suggesting that psychological be retired as a term or that a stroke isn’t different from schizophrenia, but rather that it’s important to remember that the psychological is also, always, also the physiological, and the separation between the two is an artificial one. Brain processes are involved in both psychiatric and neurological illness and in every normal emotion and perception we experience. As I argued in The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, the boundaries of diagnostic categories are continually blurred by the realities of actual illness. I also argue that some neurological and psychiatric problems are clearly implicated in making art. Temporal lobe epilepsy and bipolar disorder are highly represented among artists. Dostoyevsky was epileptic and may have had hypergraphia, an overwhelming need to write that is sometimes a symptom of the disease. However, it’s important to remember that although hypergraphia might account for the need, it doesn’t explain the content. Lots of patients write page upon page of drivel. Dostoyevsky obviously did not.
In another panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival entitled “Humanity in the Age of the Cyborg and Higgs Boson,” you said, in correcting an assumption by fellow panelist Jim Holt regarding where consciousness is located in the brain, “it is probably wrong to try to locate consciousness in the brain.” Could you expound upon that? Where should we be looking? And do you think there will ever be a plausible model for brain/mind function that can incorporate an understanding of consciousness and selfhood?
Well, this is no doubt the philosophical and neuroscientific question of the age. Jim Holt seemed to have read a theory of consciousness, which, if I remember correctly, posited that a connection between the thalamus and the bilateral prefrontal cortex explained consciousness. I wanted to stress that the neural coordinates of consciousness (NCC) have not been found, that there are many theories and many conundrums and there is no consensus whatsoever about even what the right approach to solving the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness might be. Nobody agrees, and there are many rousing debates. Consciousness hasn’t even been adequately defined to my satisfaction. In fact, there are hosts of definitions. I like to make a distinction between pre-reflective self-consciousness and reflective self-consciousness that I have borrowed from phenomenology, but I have run into many neuroscientists who have never bothered with this distinction and look at me as if I landed from Mars. A reflectively self-conscious being can recognize itself in the mirror and imagine itself as an other, a pre-reflective self-consciousness has bodily self awareness and drives, but does not have reflective capacities.
Let me say this: consciousness must involve the brain. And yet the brain is an organ of the body inside a human subject; and even though a person could not be a subject without a brain, the brain itself is not a subject. I have no sympathy for “brain in vat” thought experiments. If consciousness means being awake and aware, then animals have it, and we must start thinking of continuums of consciousness, rather than human beings as conscious and all other creatures as non-conscious. The fact that quite a few animals, including some birds, have mirror-self-recognition indicates that they, like us, have a form of reflective self-consciousness, that is, they are able to have a body image, not just a body schema. I’m convinced the question of consciousness is linked to motor functions, neural mirror systems, and issues of agency and ownership. The brain plays a major role, but always in connection to the rest of the body and the environment, which includes language and culture.
Since that panel was also about technology, I wanted to ask you a somewhat banal question: What’s it like going from having what I imagine must have been a pretty obscure first name to sharing it with the most ubiquitous personal assistance software?
I like to say that I’m the embodied Siri, as opposed to the virtual, disembodied one. Because embodiment is important to me, I like to think that this gives me a crucial edge. I hear she makes lots of mistakes, too. I eagerly await her demise.
In Living, Thinking, Looking, there’s a great short piece that I love called “Search for a Definition,” about ambiguity. I think what I love most about your writing — both your essays and your fiction — is that sense of ambiguity (or, what Keats called, “negative capability”). Would you say this is the thing you most try to cultivate in your work?
I am obsessed with the idea of ambiguity as a central idea in both my fiction and non-fiction. I don’t mean total mush, of course, but rather I insist on the recognition that the way we parse reality isn’t reality itself and that language does not fully contain experience. There is much that is felt and lived that is difficult to represent and falls outside our categories.
In another essay, “Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few,” you write: “Losing perspective is an intellectual virtue because it requires mourning, confusion, re-orientation, and new thoughts.” My question is, as a public intellectual, how do you maintain this openness, this doubt, while still writing and speaking publicly? Obviously words, by the nature of their specificity (even if it is an imperfect and shifting specificity), pin you down — they can never be completely ambiguous, nor entirely negatively capable. How does one who strives for ambiguity do anything other than remaining silent?
Yes, this is a related question. I did an interview in London with a psychologist after I published The Shaking Woman who gave me what I consider a high compliment. He said that I was only one of two people he had ever met (and read) who was truly open intellectually. I am always on my way somewhere. I have never reached my destination. My ideas are continually evolving through my reading, and I am able to see the “truth” of any number of theories, depending on their perspectives. My thought is that if no single theoretical model can hold human experience, then it is smartest to apply multiple models to a single problem and see what happens. One does not arrive at the same answer, but if one puts those answers together, it is possible to find a zone of what I call “focused ambiguity.” Out of that focused ambiguity one may discover a new question, which in turn may lead to another model and so on. This tallies nicely with William James’s thoughts about pragmatism. Silence is not necessary. Intellectual humility is. When people think they have found the truth, they inevitably become blind, deaf, dumb, and unfeeling.
You’ve talked about your husband Paul Auster by saying that you have a “wonderful literary friendship.” You are each others’ first readers and editors. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with Paul in terms of your literary connection and how you help one another with your work?
That literary friendship is over thirty years old. We’ve been talking about books and ideas for a long time, and I have never been bored. Paul also claims never to have found himself bored during our conversations. Boredom ends conversations well before conflict. Disagreement can be a way forward; boredom is an ending. Paul and I rely on each other absolutely as first readers of each other’s work. We read each other’s books in progress and then when a book is finished, we each become an editor. Admittedly, these editorial suggestions are often tiny — on the level of the sentence, removing an adjective, noting an infelicitous repetition, etc. — but every once in a while one of us has made a substantive comment to the other, and we have always heeded the other’s advice. Every writer needs a reader. Paul and I have been lucky to have that reader “in house,” so to speak.
I know you mentioned in an earlier interview that years ago you felt as though you were always in his literary shadow. Do you feel that has dissipated some with your continued success? Or do you still fear history might “Leonard Woolf” you?
This is a subject I have often avoided, but it is true that I have been married to a man who for a long time has been an internationally famous and beloved writer (well deserved, by the way) and that for years every article written about me has mentioned my husband, but only a few about him have mentioned me. I consider that state of things perfectly normal. It simply reflects Paul’s greater fame. This has changed, however, quite dramatically in recent years. I have now been publishing books for two decades. My work has been translated into over thirty languages, and there are a number of countries around the world where my reputation is firmly and independently established. I am amused and grateful that you use Leonard Woolf as your literary example. One might also cite George Henry Lewes, the literary man who was George Eliot’s companion. You are right that Leonard Woolf has faded in relation to his brilliant wife, just as Lewes has lost his glow in relation to the formidable Evans.
The interesting question in all this for me has been how to untangle the glow of fame and celebrity from rank sexism. I have had long experience with what I think of as a confounding mixture of the two: the German journalist who suggested that The Blindfold had been written by my husband; the Dutch journalist who claimed that my first two novels could have been written by Paul; the Italian journalist who walked into the room to interview me for a newspaper and told me that he had no interest in my work but would love to talk about Paul’s and Don DeLillo’s novels; the Argentinian journalist (a woman, by the way, the others were all men) who confidently informed me that everything I knew about psychoanalysis had come from my husband, that he had “taught” me the subject. I have repeatedly been informed by all and sundry about Paul’s expertise on the work of Jacques Lacan. Paul has read exactly one work by Lacan, “The Purloined Letter,” which he came across sometime in the late sixties. That was it. I, on the other hand, have had an abiding interest in psychoanalysis since I was in high school and worked hard at understanding Lacan, who is often difficult and maddening, and for whom I have respect but also profound disagreements, and yet, I know well that whatever Paul knows about Lacan has come via his wife. I cited Lacan a number of times in my dissertation. The fact that I gave the 39th annual Sigmund Freud lecture in Vienna in 2011, and that the text is included in my essay book may perhaps help to put the how-I-learned-psychoanalysis question to rest.
For journalists and everyone else for that matter to be swayed by fame and celebrity is hardly a surprise. I am aware that the shine of a spouse’s fame can easily distort the work of the other spouse, but the more oblique, and, no doubt, unconscious aspects of the problem have to do with sex. Were the situation reversed, would anyone attribute Paul’s knowledge to me?
In an earlier interview from 2008, with the Guardian, you had talked about voting for Obama. I am curious what you think of his presidency? What do you think he’s done right? And what do you think he hasn’t done right? And will you be voting for him again this November?
It is interesting that, despite the realities of our government with its separation of powers, its wholly intentional, grinding inefficiency meant to prevent consolidation of power in a single branch, the president of the United States is still treated as a kind of king, a person who is blamed for or credited with absolute responsibility for the state of the nation. This is of course paternalistic nonsense. I am an avid Obama supporter, which does not mean I am uncritical. A single example shared by many people will suffice: Guantanamo. Still, to echo the Obama campaign: the choice between Romney and Obama is stark. It boils down to two different ideas about what human beings are. The Republican fantasy of independence from what it calls the “nanny state” is founded on the false notion that people are born from no one and create themselves independently of outside influence. The guiding, if irrational, fear behind it is masculine, a desire to deny the fact that we were all once inside the body of a woman, that we were born from her, and were wholly dependent on her and other people for a good, long time. No one creates him or herself. The “nanny state” is an evocative phrase. Romney’s (I hope fatal) comment about the 47 percent reeks with the same arrogant absurdity. If you don’t pay income taxes, you are a victim, a sad, lost emasculated person who can’t take care of yourself. Democrats, on the other hand, whatever their flaws, are at least willing to acknowledge that we live in a society and we need one another.
A great line of yours that I love, from an essay “Yonder,” that you come back to in another essay from your recent collection is: “Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened.” This connection between writing and memory is fascinating. Could you talk a bit about the connective tissue between them?
Yes, this is a subject I continue to think about and play with — there is much still to be discovered. The shifting character of conscious memory, the fact that we do not have any original memories — they change over time and are continually reedited and reshaped — and that neurobiologically the same areas of the brain are involved in both autobiographical remembering and imagining brings the art of memory and the art of fiction into a close relation. There are also unconscious memories and involuntary memories, which appear to be different in kind and probably more reliable. When I write fiction I feel as if I am dredging up the story in a way very similar to my efforts to remember something from the past, even when the events have nothing to do with my own life. In my essay “The Real Story” I attempted to address this curious process and show how memoir and fiction are densely interconnected.
Are you currently “remembering anything that never happened” (i.e. are you working on any new fiction)?
I am finishing a novel called Monsters at Home. It has a number of narrators and an editor who writes a preface for the book within the book, hardly a new technique, but one that is new to me and has given me great pleasure.
Lastly, what would be your advice for young writers starting out?
Read, read more, and read even more. Read what you love and never stop reading. No one can write without reading, but no one can write if that reading becomes so weighted by ideas of greatness that they prevent you from writing a single word. The irony of writing well is that it requires an immense inner world, which is at least in part made up of the books one has read, the hundreds of voices from the past that speak from within. At the same time, no one can write without “adaptive grandiosity.” I stole this phrase from a psychoanalyst who used it to describe artists. Adaptive grandiosity is an inner belief that what you have to say, your inner feelings, thoughts, imaginings are somehow of value to the rest of the world. Who knows where this comes from? Nevertheless, it is essential. Lastly, experience has taught me that good work can only appear when the writer is relaxed and open, when she or he is able to attune her or himself to a deep inner music and then sing on the page.