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book review

‘A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women’ upends notion of the superiority of scientific truths over artistic ones

“The great enemy of thought and creativity is the received idea,” Siri Hustvedt writes, and woe to the lazy purveyor of unexamined “truths’’ who comes under her sharp scrutiny in this stimulating essay collection. It doesn’t matter who they are or what their credentials are; well-known sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, both Harvard professors, are among those whose glib certainties she coolly dismantles. Hustvedt, a superb novelist who is also a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University’s Weill medical school, is unintimidated. When a neuroscientist at a 2011 conference proclaimed, “Artistic truths . . . are inevitably ‘squishy.’ Scientific truth, on the other hand, is hard, tough, verifiable, and rigorous,” Hustvedt shot back, “And often muddled by dubious epistemological assumptions.”

Hustvedt deplores the belief that science is superior because its practitioners deal in objective facts while artists peddle subjective emotions. Not that she doesn’t believe in science and fact: Her long central essay about “the intractable mind-body problem” and the lectures for academic audiences collected in the book’s final section show her to be formidably knowledgeable about neuroscience and psychiatry in particular and merciless about conclusions overdrawn from insufficient evidence. She wants scientists to be more modest and more cognizant of their own subjectivity. “All human knowledge is partial,” she writes, “and no one is untouched by the community of thinkers or researchers in which she or he lives.”

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A serious participant in both artistic and scientific communities, Hustvedt brings a refreshingly interdisciplinary perspective to bear on each. The opening section discusses a broad spectrum of visual, literary, and performing artists — including Max Beckmann, Pedro Almodóvar, Pina Bausch, and Susan Sontag — primarily as a means of establishing concepts that will play an important role in the philosophical and scientific sections that follow. For Hustvedt, art is an active interchange between the work in question and the person looking at it or reading it. “We are not the passive recipients of some factual external reality,” she writes in an essay on Louise Bourgeois. “[W]e bring ourselves with our pasts to artworks.” Moreover, for the artist, “[a]rt is a reaching toward, a bid to be seen and understood and recognized by another.” Art is an intensely social activity, she believes, born in a “between space” where we encounter the words, or images, or sounds created by someone who is not physically present but with whom we are nonetheless making a connection.

That between space has a palpable reality, Hustvedt declares, and not just in art. It is “the world of me and you,” the seedbed of our understanding beginning with the complex, pre-verbal back-and-forth with the mother that fosters an infant’s growing consciousness of self and the development of motor and cognitive skills. She is incredulous that the designer of an “infant-like” robot can characterize this back-and-forth merely as “the simplest kind of human-style social interaction and learning” or that a neuroscientist can contend, “babies are ‘not conscious.’ ” These blinkered specialists (despite the book’s title, not all of them male) unquestioningly accept a premise she rejects as false: the division drawn for the centuries in Western philosophy and science between the world of pure reason attained through our minds and the material world experienced by our fallible, mortal bodies.

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For Hustvedt, all knowledge is “embodied” (a favorite word): acquired through our senses and shaped by our memories, imaginations, and feelings as well as our intellect. We are neither reasoning machines nor creatures determined solely by biology and genetic coding; these views of human nature are equally reductive, “weighted toward the built-in and the fixed, as opposed to the learned and the changing,” Hustvedt argues.

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Readers of her 2012 essay collection, “Living, Thinking, Looking,” will recognize many of the themes here, but this time they have an even sharper feminist edge. She’s not as openly angry as the furious heroine of her brilliant 2014 novel, “The Blazing World,” but when Hustvedt quotes Richard Dawkin’s pronouncement, “If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology,” the sexual hierarchy being invoked by “gels and oozes” (a phrase she sardonically repeats several times) is clear. In Hustvedt’s biting assessment, the mind/body division has been used throughout history to identify women with the (obviously inferior) body and deny them any right to a mind. It’s the most obnoxious aspect of a larger failure to recognize the wholeness of human experience in its complexity, diversity, and ambiguity.

Because Hustvedt is comfortable with complexity, diversity, and ambiguity, and because she is first and foremost an artist, some may dismiss her arguments as murky and messy. That is precisely her point: Life is murky and messy, and theories that clean it up too neatly are actually unscientific. “[Q]uestions are normally better than answers,” she states; her provocative and probing essays encourage us to keep asking questions and distrust easy answers.

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A WOMAN LOOKING AT MEN LOOKING AT WOMEN:

Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind

By Siri Hustvedt

Simon and Schuster, 552 pp., $35


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.