In her new essay collection, “Living, Thinking, Looking,’’ Siri Hustvedt praises the visual artist Kiki Smith: “To look at Kiki Smith’s work is to enter a borderland where the articulated lines between inside and outside, whole and part, waking and sleeping, human and animal, ‘I’ and ‘not I’ are often in abeyance.” Like Smith, Hustvedt compulsively explores what she calls “the problem of the between.” Her essays examine those liminal spaces where mind cannot be separated from body, where art and science touch, where to live, to think, and to look are all part of one endlessly shifting, endlessly fascinating activity.
Hustvedt, author of several acclaimed novels and four works of nonfiction, describes herself as “an unaffiliated intellectual roamer,” and she is happy to raid different disciplines — neuroscience, psychoanalysis, painting, narrative theory — in order to, as she writes, interrogate “what it means to be human.” Hustvedt’s new collection is divided into three broad sections. The essays in “Living” are autobiographical, relating Hustvedt’s upbringing in Minnesota and her later battles with chronic migraines and insomnia; those in “Thinking” focus on neurobiology and its relation to reading and writing; and those in “Looking” offer a phenomenological account of the visual arts (these essays are the best in the collection). This tripartite division, however, is actually quite loose, and that’s part of the collection’s point: to separate living from looking, or looking from thinking, is to do a disservice to the complexity of lived experience.
Neuroscience serves as a guiding thread for the book. Hustvedt argues that research into the mind-brain problem — how consciousness arises from, but cannot be fully explained by, biochemical reactions in the brain — has wide-ranging implications for how we think about everything from classical art to contemporary memoirs. Hustvedt summarizes such research without jargon, using it as a springboard for her own, more expansive claims about the relationship between the body, the intellect, and the arts: “Living is movement. Thoughts are in motion, and when I think, my body thinks too”; “The first-person experience is an embodied one.”
We hear a lot about embodiment in “Living, Thinking, Looking”: “embodied thought,” “embodied dread,” “embodied reality,” “embodied intersubjectivity,” and “embodied act[s]”; believe me, the list could go on. This is indicative of a broader problem. At the level of argument and at the level of sentence, “Living, Thinking, Looking’’ can be quite predictable; almost every essay seems to mention the neurological phenomenon of mirror neurons, or just how “labile” the self is.
There are other problems. Hustvedt’s prose is occasionally overwrought (“Living solely in reflection, however, creates a terrible machinery of insatiable desire”), and the collection as a whole is too long and too smug. In one essay, Hustvedt bemoans our “world of intellectual fragmentation” by way of an anecdote. She once asked an Alzheimer’s specialist what he thought of mirror neurons (there they are again), only to discover that he hadn’t heard of this discovery in an adjacent field. When we read that he also didn’t recognize the author of the book Hustvedt was reading (Kierkegaard), we cannot help but wonder whether the point of the anecdote is to illustrate intellectual fragmentation or Hustvedt’s own intellectual omnivorousness.
If you want to read a collection in which scientific discoveries are used to illuminate the wondrousness of human experience, you would be better served reading Marilynne Robinson’s “The Absence of Mind.’’ If you are after an essayist with a restless mind, then Geoff Dyer’s “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’’ is where you should go.
But if you are looking for a primer on how neuroscience is affecting our understanding of the arts and why interdisciplinary conversation is necessary, then “Living, Thinking, Looking’’ is worth dipping into.
Anthony Domestico, whose essays have appeared in Commonweal, New Haven Review, and the San Francisco Chronicle, can be reached at anthony.domestico