Siri Hustvedt on the Value in Embracing Ambiguity
When Siri Hustvedt was 12 years old, she began reading 19th-century novels by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain that were given to her by her Norwegian mother, and soon developed a passion for literature. She found great satisfaction in how these stories expanded her mind with new ideas, experiences, and realms beyond. At 13, precociously enough, she decided she wanted to become a writer. Her interest in developing what she calls a “flexibility of mind” led her to eventually reading and studying works in a wide range of disciplines, including art history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience. Through her essays, poems, fiction, and nonfiction over the past five decades, her aim has become clear: to bring together perspectives that might help her—and those who read her work—see the world differently.
Hustvedt’s efforts to break down barriers and build a diversity of knowledge have steered her toward a staggering array of topics. Upon moving from her hometown of Northfield, Minnesota, to New York City in 1978 to attend Columbia University, from which she earned her Ph.D. in English literature, she worked as a waitress, a researcher for a medical historian, a model, and an artist’s assistant. After graduating, she wrote her first novel, The Blindfold (1992), a vivid and cerebral work that explores the mysteries of identity. It was followed by six more novels, including the international bestseller What I Loved (2004) and The Blazing World (2014), the latter of which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2014. Since 1995, Hustvedt has written extensively about art and what comes from looking deeply at it, unpacking works ranging from Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” (1662–1664) to the photorealistic paintings of Gerhard Richter.
Often, Hustvedt’s subject matter comes to her because it hits particularly close to home. Hustvedt, who has suffered from migraines and their attendant auras for most of her life, began attending lectures at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute in the late ’90s, and volunteered as a writing instructor for psychiatric in-patients at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Hospital. In her 2010 book The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves, she investigated the violent tremors that she first experienced in 2006 while delivering her father’s eulogy. Over the past two decades, she has lectured widely on neuroscience, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literature, and contributed to scholarly journals.
Hustvedt (who with her husband, the novelist Paul Auster, has a daughter, the singer-songwriter Sophie Auster) has also long been interested in the peculiarities of motherhood, and more recently, the placenta, a subject she plans to explore at length in a future book. Her favorite artists—including Djuna Barnes and Louise Bourgeois—are those whose work she finds difficult to comprehend, and who provide fertile grounds to delve into the unknown. “I have no interest, at all, for what I already easily understand,” Hustvedt says. “I’m interested in work that I want to return to again and again because I do not understand it.”
On this episode, Hustvedt talks with Spencer about the mysteries and misunderstandings around motherhood, gestation, and maternity; books as friends; and the problems with putting up walls between disciplines.
Hustvedt speaks about the ambiguities around “maternal space,” and the amorphous relationships between her grandmother, her mother, and herself.
Hustvedt continues to reflect on maternity, and discusses the significance of the mother-child relationship in a baby’s initial months of development, as well as the placenta as a transitory object.
Hustvedt recalls growing up in Northfield, Minnesota. She also talks about how a love of reading 19th-century novels prompted her to read works in other disciplines.
Hustvedt describes the moment she decided to become a writer. She also details her move to New York City, in 1978, and discovering the work of writer Djuna Barnes.
Hustvedt speaks about her work in realms outside literature, and how her lifelong experience with migraines contributed to her interest in neuroscience and psychoanalysis.
Hustvedt talks about her writing on visual art, and why she’s fascinated by the work of the artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010).
Spencer Bailey: Joining me in the studio today is author Siri Hustvedt. Welcome, Siri.
Siri Hustvedt: Thank you for having me.
SB: I wanted to begin on motherhood—in your writing, but also within the context of time, and specifically the subject of mormor, or “mother-mother” [in Norwegian]. Could you speak to this both broadly and in your own life and work?
SH: I have become increasingly fascinated with maternity, motherhood, embryology, gestation, [and] birth, both as subjects or objects of study, and how they function in the culture at large. You use this word, and I’m going to pronounce it in Norwegian—
SB: Yeah, I might have butchered it.
SH: No, it’s fine. It’s mormor, which means “mother’s mother.” And in Norwegian, you make that distinction. So, you can say farmor, “father’s mother”; mother’s mother, or mother’s father. What you call the grandparents is more specified in the Norwegian language.
I had a very wonderful mother’s mother. I also had a wonderful mother. I was close to both of them. The sense that there are aspects of life that are inherited, and by that I do not mean genetic inheritances—that, of course, happens—that are modified by epigenetics, a big subject now, changes that take place at a molecular level after DNA sequencing. What I’m talking about is something else. Mostly unconscious, I think: the way mother gestures, actions, modes of being can be inherited over generations. I think it was, in my family, from my grandmother to my mother, to me, and, I think, then to my own daughter.
SB: You’ve written quite a bit about this notion of what we might call “maternal space,” and the ambiguities around it. As you’ve written [in the 2020 essay “A Walk with My Mother,” from Hustvedt’s new book of essays, Mothers, Fathers, and Others], “The simple fact that every person begins inside another person haunts motherhood.” Could you speak to this idea of how every mammal begins, this idea of maternal space?
SH: We are placental mammals. This has been, in Western culture, one of the aspects, simply a truth, that has been repeatedly annihilated not only in philosophy, where the anxiety about this fact—that every human being begins inside another person—is suppressed and repressed. It’s interesting, certainly not in all cases, but even some feminists don’t want to address biology, embryology, gestation—something that I think is really important to talk about. Especially because, since the Greeks, we have been throwing this out of philosophical discussion. But weirdly enough, also in the sciences. And so, yes, I think it has to be recuperated, because this is not sex-defined. Every human being begins inside another person. Surely this should be significant to how we think about human beings and their trajectory in the world.
SB: Philosophically, how do you view your own experience as a daughter, a granddaughter, a mother? And really—I’m thinking specifically here, and then I’d love to talk to you about your own experiences as a mother, but—how do you think about your mother’s experience as a daughter across time? How do you think about your relationships to your mother and your grandmother?
SH: I think this is fascinating, because we are all creatures that are created in complex ways. And they’re usually divided like this: biology, psychology, sociology. Sometimes they say, “bio-psycho-social,” with little hyphens. This is a term that comes up again and again. My point is that those three realms that we like to think of as somehow distinct, are actually merged in human beings all the time. We are body subjects. We are made of what we’re made of, flesh and bone and cells. But those very biological entities that we think of as hard and fast and stuck are, of course, absolutely enmeshed with the environments in which we’re embedded.
You can think about this in the simplest possible way. We breathe air. We need food after we’re born. And in order to grow up, we need other people to feed us, to move us. Unlike a little horse, we do not stand up right after we’re born. We have to be carried around for almost a year, or we die. In science, it’s called “neotenous,” where neoteny means that we are very slow-developing, childlike beings for a very long time. So, all of that goes together.
And psychology—you cannot divide our psychological states either from what’s outside us, our culture, or, of course, from the brain, which is an organ connected to other organs and systems of the body. The brain is not an isolate; neuroscience has made this error over and over again. Brains do not think. They are not subjects. They are part of a whole-body subject. And we know now, recent research shows that there are gut-brain relations that go in that direction, not only from the brain to the gut and other parts of the body.
The force, if you will, of my thinking is that, if we’re going to address some of the large questions and problems that are now besetting the entire globe, we have to shuffle the categories. That’s why I bring up this bio-psycho-social business. Because it is so often cut into these little pieces and addressed as if they’re independent, and they’re not.
SH: In terms of motherhood.… This is also a fraught topic because, if you read closely, we know that we are living in a culture where the very idea of gender, if you will, is being questioned, which I happen to think is a good thing. Back in the olden days, when I was a young person, we talked about androgyny. That’s mostly disappeared [in favor of] an idea of gender fluidity. Even trans men, which is an issue now, who give birth, give birth with a functioning reproductive system, that is part of their story as well. There can be a tendency to suppress biological processes. And I think one of the reasons is that people think about biology as a fixed reality. It ain’t. It is something that is in continual motion. Until we die, we are biological creatures that are moving in multiple ways all the time.
SB: Tell me about this amorphous, let’s say, connection point between your grandmother, your mother, yourself. How do you think about those relationships?
SH: Well, again, I think change is something very important. As I write in the essay that you’re referring to, my mother had a childhood; she had a youth. Actually, she lived under the Nazi occupation in Norway. She moved to the United States, married my father, had four children, was very much a housewife, [and was] invested in raising her children, keeping a perfectly clean, pristine house that she enjoyed. There were also hardships. And then, her children grew up, as children do. And her life took another turn. She started working in a library—she loved that job—and lived with my father, as older people. Now, I am at that place in my own life, living with my husband alone in a house. And after my father died, she had another chapter of life.
I thought about this a lot because, after my father died, my mother and I had a renewed lease on our relation[ship]. I love this phrase from [Charles] Dickens, in David Copperfield. He says, “Whether I shall [turn out to] be the hero of my own life […], these pages [must show]”—I probably missed that quote a little. But I felt that after my mother died, she had a chance to become the hero of her own life, again.
We do live in a patriarchal culture. I was born in 1955, right at the middle of the twentieth century, when, I think there was a real backlash after the Second World War, that pushed women into positions of domesticity, enforced domesticity, middle-class women. We have to remember, working-class women and poor women were working their guts out all the way through what we think of as the modern era.
But my mother was a middle-class woman. My parents had very little money, but they qualified as middle class, and so she adopted that role. And then later, she traveled, she read, she belonged to three or four book clubs. She was able then to go to Norway every summer to visit her family. I visited her often, and she visited us in New York often. So a whole intensity between us was increased during those late years of my mother’s life. She suddenly became rather feeble around 90. She died at 96. But it’s important, I think, to recognize, again, that life is not a kind of stagnant pool. It’s an ongoing reality, and it changes. And if you can’t change with it…. People talk a lot about reaching happiness or “seven steps to a happier you.” Well, that is a false notion. We are emotional beings, and emotions, too, are continually changing. How would you ever recognize happiness if you hadn’t been sad? The notion of stasis…. In philosophy, too, and in science, there’s a clinging to static categories, to making the world stand still so it can be understood. When, in fact, I think that compromises what’s actually taking place.
SB: It’s sort of, from the sounds of it, a plea for embracing ambiguity.
SH: Yes. In fact, I’ve decided in my late life that what maturity is, is tolerance of ambiguity.
SH: I really think so. And this also—this is your subject, right? Time. Time is really a mysterious business. Many people go back to Augustine[’s Confessions], and refer to the famous chapter eleven. We think, in a way, that what Augustine ends up saying, is that time may just be in us; it may just be part of consciousness. That it’s phenomenological. Whereas the time of physics, supposedly—I’m not at all sure—and I do not have the physics background to really weigh those questions. Is the space-time block real? Is everything simultaneous? Did [Hermann] Minkowski figure out that this is actually how it works? And since it only seems to function for the theory of relativity and quantum [mechanics] doesn’t fit into it, what does it mean?
There are some physicists, [including] a man named [Lee] Smolin, who think that maybe it’s all wrong. And Charles Sanders Peirce had a wonderful thought. He said, “What if the laws of physics change? How do we know they don’t change?” Again, I have no answers to this, but it’s enough to not be absolutely satisfied with the models and the answers that have already been given.
But back to living time, phenomenological time, what we experience, human beings, the way we feel that time flows or passes and what are the markers of that? Well, I can look at a photograph of myself when I was 25, and look at that cute little face and go, Wow. Who’s that young person? And [then] look at my face now and see time.
But there’s another thing, I wrote an academic paper called “Pace, Space, and the Other in the Making of Fiction.” And what I say there, which interests me a lot, is that time is an abstraction that is invisible to us. We don’t see it, even though we can look at the clock and mark it on the clock. But timing is not. Timing is internal and can be external. We have a heartbeat. We breathe. These are repetitions, versions of timing. Women menstruate every month. That’s a repetition, that’s bodily, that we recognize. There are seasons. There’s night and day, there are the tides. We live with this. These are forms of timing that are part of the rhythmic reality of our bodily selves.
And then, it’s not so far to expand from that to drums, to music. And speaking, again, to go back to motherhood or parenthood, all the work, empirical work that’s been done on timing between infants and parents [is] focused mostly on mothers, but actually recent work has extended this to fathers as well. They do what they call “microanalysis,” which are films taken of encounters between parents and children, and then they analyze them very closely. But if you think about the language they use to talk about these encounters, it’s rhythmically based. Synchronicities. Protoconversation is another nice one because infants don’t speak until later, but they make noises—they answer the speaking parent.
One wonderful researcher, Daniel Stern, used the philosophy of Susanne Langer, who I think is the great philosopher, period, of rhythm. She was an American philosopher who talked about these musical rhythms that are part of our biology. She wrote a famous book [called Philosophy in a New Key] about music, but later she also wrote about the mind. And the mind, for Langer, was certainly not divorced from biological processes.
So there you have a between space—between parent and infant—and what is that between made of? Well, it’s social space. The two are creating something new between them. And that takes us back, I think, to my mother, that our relation[ship] developed new forms of a between until she died.
SB: Tell me about your own experience as a mother. Of these thirty-four years, what stands out to you in your mind from experiences, and from your own writing and reading on the subject?
SH: I have a grown-up daughter now [Sophie Auster]. Once—this is years ago now—I was on my way to sleep. I’m a person who’s always been aware of the fact that I have hypnagogic images before I sleep. I’ve had them since I was a child. I think many people do, and perhaps aren’t aware of them. It’s not unusual at all. But that particular night, I was dropping off to sleep, and I saw a series of images of my daughter at different ages. It was quite extraordinary. Usually I see random people, and houses, and landscapes, and colors—a whole hodgepodge of pictures that don’t present themselves with any obvious meaning. But this time it was. It was images that I recognized of my daughter growing up over time. It was very moving and interesting and, of course, it woke me up. [Laughs] I had to start over again. So there is process as well. I remember someone, years ago, when my daughter was younger, asked me how much all my reading in attachment theory [and] child development, had influenced me as a parent. Honestly, I said, “I don’t think very much at all.” [Laughs] Which is kind of funny.
SH: Listen, I do think certain kinds of education can perhaps create some levels of tolerance that you might not have. No parent should treat a four-year-old as if she or he is a ten-year-old. That’s a big error. But most people just feel that. And I think much of my parenting came from my body, my feeling, a sense of protecting the other and respecting the other. That’s a little piece of advice my mother gave me. Before I had a child of my own, she said, “Of course you love your children, but it’s really important that you respect them.” It was a forceful, forceful comment.
After a child is born, it is profoundly dependent on its parents and others to be raised. But a respect for at least the potential autonomy of that being is really important. Boundaries are important. And I think part of patriarchy, part of the horrors of patriarchy, has been that anointed men have believed that their women and children are not autonomous beings. That they somehow belong to the larger body of the man. We can still see that. And that’s an enormous danger. My mother was trying to say, “Remember that, as helpless and irrational as a child might be, that person deserves your respect as a person.”
SB: Before we move on from the subject, which I’m sure we could basically do a whole episode on—it’s so fascinating, and you have so much to say—can you speak to the profundity of the mother-child relationship from birth and in those early years? Because I think there’s so much, in that specific period of time, that occurs in the development stage [of early childhood].
SH: I’ve been working now for several years on a book that I intend to write after I finish the book I’m writing now, on the placenta. And the placenta, as we know, is a mammalian organ. It’s transient. It has, with some exceptions—Aristotle being one of them; he was quite interested in the placenta—been totally neglected as a philosophical object, but even as a scientific object.
As late as 1974, there was an obstetrics conference in the U.K., and the conference was called “The Placenta: The Neglected Experimental Animal.” Now, I have read all the papers in the conference, and in some important way they are…. [Laughs] As weird as their title was, they were arguing that, even in obstetrics, the placenta had been completely forgotten as a significant organ of gestation and development. Okay, we know not all that much about the placenta.
In 2014, the Human Placenta Project was launched. I think much will come of this. I think it’s extremely well-funded, and work is being done as we speak. More and more research is coming out of not just that program, but people have turned their attention to this organ. I will not go into the rather fascinating science, because it is esoteric, but if you think about why the placenta has been neglected, I think it’s because it is the between organ, par excellence. It is the organ where divisions get extremely murky. This can be found from the molecular level up. What is a pregnant person? Is it one, two? Is it three with the placenta? How do we count? And, then, isn’t it a trajectory of development, which means that, at the very early stage, even before the placenta develops, you have an embryo that is nourished by what they call, very poetically, uterine milk? Which is uterine blood, which is nourishing this embryo. It’s not until the second trimester that the placenta really gets going. Then it becomes the third, the one between, the one that’s keeping the blood systems separate but also delivering nutrients, getting rid of waste. It’s a miraculous organ.
SH: Okay. It does its job. Let’s say everything goes well. The infant is born and the placenta dies. It’s also born. It’s the afterbirth. It comes second. It dies, and what happens then? What replaces the placenta?
Well, the people around the infant have to take charge. Clean up the diapers and put the breast or the bottle to the infant, feed it, rock it, because motor coordination at birth is really iffy. A newborn infant cannot move around yet, can’t roll over—all of that must be done by the caretakers. So, the placenta is replaced by social space, which is exactly what you’re saying now. But I think you have to go all the way back to the zygote, to the very beginnings. And then you see that this act of space between is how human beings develop over time, [and] determine more and more their boundaries. This is still an argument [that’s] ongoing, like, What is the self? Are we born with the self? How much does a newborn infant know about where she is in relation to the other? What exactly are the boundaries? The science suggests that newborns have a lot more going on than was once thought, and I think this is true. At the same time, they really are radically dependent beings. Without the world of others, without culture, language, we just shrivel up and die.
SB: And touch. That’s a big one.
SH: And touch. I was part of a seminar [called the First International Women in the Neuroscience Parma Workshop], and the papers that were given were all on the sense of touch. I think smell is not far behind. The neglected senses are coming to the fore after cognitive neuroscience has begun to recognize that we really are embodied creatures and all of the senses have to be attended to, not just sight and hearing.
SB: I wanted to bring up Minnesota and Norway here. Your father was Norwegian American, and your mother, as you mentioned, was Norwegian. You grew up in Northfield, Minnesota. How do you think about the concept of a “motherland”?
SH: In my case, I think it was always related to the connective tissue of that, which is mother’s tongue. I actually spoke Norwegian before I spoke English. My father, who was a third-generation Norwegian American, spoke English with a Norwegian accent until he died. Out there in the countryside, that immigrant world he grew up in, they called it a “brogue.” They stole from the Irish! Clearly, they stole that term, and they called it a “Norwegian brogue.”
So both of my parents spoke Norwegian—I spoke Norwegian first. And the language of my childhood, a language that belongs to all children—which is the language of the body, the toilet, food, hugs, comfort, fear—that took place for me, often, in Norwegian. There are still times when a subject comes up, usually in relation to childhood or to some deep, sensual reality, where the Norwegian word will come first. Even though, I have to say, I am much more articulate in English, and my whole…. I did my Ph.D. at Columbia, and much of what I’ve read and learned has not come via Norwegian, but via English.
SB: Although I was interested to learn, while researching for this, that your grandmother would read Dickens in Norwegian. And you later went on to write your dissertation on Dickens.
SH: Yeah. Isn’t that funny? She loved Dickens, but she had no.… She never read it in English. Her English was not very good until the day she died. And yes, indeed, I read David Copperfield when I was thirteen years old. It was like an electric shock of joy, wonder, fear. And I think it stayed with me. I didn’t know I was going to write [my thesis] on Dickens, but I became interested in questions of language and identity. Charles Dickens, I think, he’s really what might be called an “intuitive philosopher” about what human beings are. All kinds of deep aspects of human life are treated by Dickens, even though he was not actively studying philosophy of the period.
SB: I wanted to hear a bit about Northfield. You’re the oldest of four sisters, your parents had met at the University of Oslo, where your father had a Fulbright fellowship and your mother was a student. Your father taught Norwegian language and literature at St. Olaf College, where you grew up, effectively. Could you paint a picture of this time and place for me, and [of] your childhood?
SH: From my perspective now, it was another place. Northfield has become a prettier town, if you want the truth, and also a town where many people live who commute to Minneapolis or St. Paul for work. I don’t know if that’s a “bedroom town” [laughs]…. I don’t know what that’s called. It’s always had two colleges, Carleton College and St. Olaf College, where my father was a professor. So we grew up in that town [and] gown division.
The other notable historical event in Northfield is that it was the site of the Jesse James gang defeat. In other words, the citizens of Northfield rose up, and stopped the James gang. Two members of the gang were shot. When I was growing up, in the bank where this event happened, they had circled the bullet holes in black paint. Every year, they had Jesse James Days, which later, after I had left Northfield, was changed to the Defeat of Jesse James Days, because they didn’t want to honor evil. [Laughs] Anyway, bank robbing. So it was a small town, in all senses of the word.
My parents built a house outside of town that was my magic kingdom. We had a creek behind the house. My sisters and I played in what I guess is essentially a backyard, but it was woods with a creek. And on the other side of the creek lived the translators of Søren Kierkegaard, the Hongs—Howard and Edna Hong. They had many children, and Kierkegaard has continued to haunt my life from my childhood on.
SB: I mean, literally in your backyard. So strange. [Laughs]
SH: [Laughs] Kierkegaard was being translated for the definitive Princeton edition right across the creek.
SH: It was [in] 2013 [that] I gave the opening lecture for the International Kierkegaard Conference. So, there you are. Childhood influences continue. I remember vividly my father once said to me, “Well, I understand Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical stages, but I do not understand the religious stage.” I don’t know how old I was. I must have been old enough to think. Twelve, maybe thirteen or fourteen. And I thought to myself, I’m going to understand that.
SH: Think of that. Do I know? Well, I don’t know. But it’s funny, those shaping thoughts. I never forgot it.
SB: Tell me a little bit about your reading life and the importance of reading in your family. I know your mother introduced you to a lot of books. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, when you were eleven. You also started reading Emily Dickinson. Your grandmother, as I mentioned, loved Dickens.
SB: Tell me about this journey as a reader.
SH: There is a moment in childhood when there does seem to be a form of intellectual expansion. I remember that moment when suddenly I could really read small print, and of course that has nothing to do with the size of the print. It’s simply that you are able to ingest language that was too difficult before.
SH: I remember that moment as an opening. When I was twelve and thirteen, I started reading mostly nineteenth-century novels that my mother handed over to me—[Jane] Austen, the Brontës, [Alexandre] Dumas, the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, Mark Twain—just one book after another. The pleasure, I suppose, of living the lives of others in an important way, and the expansion that that makes possible of your own consciousness, had an addictive quality for me. It started with literature, but then, as time went on, even in high school, and then, of course, in college, it expanded to reading history and philosophy, sticking mostly to the humanities. But even in college, I remember I got interested in Christian mystics, and stumbled across a book about the neurology of mysticism relating epilepsy, for example, to mystical states. Then I found William James—you see, it’s always, one book leads to another. And if you’re lucky enough to have time to read, those roads can become really elaborate, and they will inevitably hop disciplines.
SB: And enter your own mind and your own work.
SH: Yes, exactly. There is, again, another static fantasy in the culture about genius. That people are born like that, and it’s in the DNA. There may very well be certain genetic factors that are important to a person’s brilliance and how they turn out. I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is that there may well also be countless people who might have become what we think of as geniuses, who never had the chance because they were not developed. There is no such thing as a born-that-way brilliant person or genius. It must be developed. It must come through others, whether it’s music, or visual art, or science. You don’t do that in isolation, right? There is no such thing as that. The culture and others are implicated in everything that happens to us.
And I do think of books as “others,” as part of an elaborate network of friendships. Paul Ricœur, the French philosopher, who I admire very, very much, talked about books that way, as forms of friendship. There’s another wonderful man, Aby Warburg, an art historian who didn’t write that much, but was a luminous thinker, who had a very eccentric library that he organized according to good neighbors, books that fit. No one can really make head or tail of what this was about. I think he has archivists that have been working on Aby Warburg books [in his] library. There’s a Warburg Center in London; I know some people who work there. But that’s a beautiful idea, right?
SH: You spring from…. You know, some make complete sense. So [Edmund] Husserl, for example, the German philosopher, read William James very carefully. And about time, right?
SH: So what James called the “specious present,” which means there’s no dot in time, right? It’s always moving. You could make good neighbors of Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, and William James, and Edmund Husserl, because there is a real connective tissue in their thinking, and they also read one another. Those [familial] relations can be developed in a library, but nobody except you could maybe understand. So I stick to the alphabet. [Laughs]
SB: Well, I do love the notion of books as good friends, or good neighbors, because on a very simple level, it’s just who you want to be surrounded by.
SH: That’s right.
SB: I’d love to hear how, at age thirteen, you knew you wanted to become a writer. Was there a particular thing that led to this realization, or…?
SH: This is now slightly self-mythology, but I do remember it, and it may have hardened in my memory, but I still have very strong images of it. I was in Reykjavík, Iceland, with my family. My father was studying The Sagas [of Icelanders], and it never was dark. It was the summer. I had a lot of trouble sleeping, I think simply because of the light. My circadian rhythms were thrown to heck for the first time. We would close the shutters, but it didn’t completely keep out the lights.
So I stayed up and read, and I was reading, yes, David Copperfield. There was a particularly moving scene.… I can’t remember, it was probably somewhere in the middle of the book. And I was so struck by it that I put the book down, and I walked to the window, and I raised the shade and looked out at the eerie image of the neighborhood in Reykjavík in this thin sunlight of midnight, the midnight sun. And I thought to myself, If this is what books can do, then I want to write them. It was a really—
SB: Profound for a thirteen-year-old. [Laughs]
SH: Then I started telling people, it’s like, I’m sure they thought I was a real twit, this little twit. But yeah, the ambition was founded, and I began writing, horribly, I think as many thirteen-year-olds do. But I didn’t stop after that. I have to say, I was not, even as a child, so arrogant as to think that I would necessarily make a living doing that, right? I think I went to graduate school to secure the possibility of having a real job.
SB: So you arrive in New York City. It’s September 1978. You’re in your early twenties. I loved learning that you spent your first three days here rereading Crime and Punishment in what you described [in your book A Plea For Eros] as a state that “closely resembled fever.” [Laughs]
SH: Why I did that…. It’s only when you look back that it’s both ridiculous and rather touching. Now, as an old person, to look back on the young self, I think I must have been paralyzed without really knowing it. I had never lived in a big city before. I found myself in an international house, in a room that, when I think of it now, was like a large coffin [laughs], with a sink in the corner and a toilet down the hall, which was fine. I was not at all fantasizing about better accommodations. But it probably reminded me of Dostoevsky’s great book, and [Raskolnikov]’s feverish deliriums and moral nightmare.
SB: Shortly after you arrived, you came across the writing of Djuna Barnes.
SB: I have to admit, prior to this interview, I actually wasn’t familiar with her work. And you’ve written quite eloquently about it. She, in addition to being a fascinating writer, lived such an incredible life. I’m wondering how you think about her life, her work, in contrast to what you do. I know you wrote her a letter once.
SH: I did, yes.
SB: I’m also curious, looking back on that time, and looking back on this book that you’d read of hers, Nightwood, what your thoughts are around that.
SH: I believe I was twenty-three when I first read it, and I gave a paper on it in a seminar. I was gobsmacked, as the expression goes, by the novel. It is, I think, one of the great books about sexual ambiguity, about what is left out of history because of patriarchal forums that do not open themselves to other possibilities. It’s really a brilliant book. I’ve read it four times now. I recently wrote a preface for the Spanish—there’s a new Spanish translation, I believe, or a new edition, coming out. They asked me to write the preface, which I did. So I reread it for the fourth time. Now I’m old enough to conclude that this is an extraordinary book.
It does get a lot of scholarly attention. I think it’s one of those novels that rises and falls, even in popular culture. So it is not a forgotten book. She is not a forgotten writer. I think that [Nightwood] is her masterpiece. Although, scholars have also now been turning to the rest of her work as a whole and rethinking it. She was greatly helped by the fact that T. S. Eliot wrote the original preface. Even though [his preface is] a little grudging, he really admired [the book]. And they became friends, these two. So I don’t want to distort the truth, but at the same time, I think there were aspects of that book he simply couldn’t enter, or that alarmed him about his own sexuality, and may have created anxiety that he couldn’t even fully recognize.
She’s a fascinating character in the history of twentieth-century literature, as is the case with many women writers of that period. I think she’s finding her way either back into the canon or into the fixed canon, whatever that is. It changes. But I think she’s a wonderful writer and more people should read her. She’s a writer for now.
SH: She agreed to be force-fed, because she was showing sympathy for the suffragettes in England, who had been force-fed. Which, I think we know from Guantanamo, for example, is a gruesome experience. She was a bold and daring journalist, and that also shows up in her style.
She was an amazing stylist. I think some people find [her writing] difficult, for good reason. It’s not easy to read Nightwood, but as I like to say.… Somewhere [in the 2017 essay “The Future of Literature,” in the book Mothers, Father’s, and Others], I finally have written this little thing that I say, “Art is like sex. If you don’t relax, you won’t enjoy it.” And Nightwood is one of those books. If you open yourself up to it, and stop worrying about whether you are interpreting every sentence correctly, the meanings come through.
I often read philosophy like this now. I read it slowly, but I read it in a state of openness, because often, later, I realize that more has come through than I imagined. This is true with looking at paintings [and] listening to music as well. Tension creates walls between you and the work of art, or the paper, and also, I think, allows prejudices to act on the experience.
SB: How do you think Barnes—or Barnes’s work—has informed your own writing, your own thinking about writing? And maybe, here you might say a little something about the letter you wrote and the response that came.
SH: I worked very hard on this letter to Djuna Barnes—the only letter I have ever written to a writer I don’t know. I took the material from the paper I had given in this seminar. I realized that I wasn’t going to send her the paper; that would be ridiculous. But I summarized some of the points. I wanted it to be a short letter, but pointed and emotionally powerful. I wanted to convey how much the book had meant to me. It had been a convulsion in my reading reality. I wrote it several times. Then, when I was happy with it … it was not more than a page long. I sent it off. But there’s a preamble to the story. Before I wrote the letter, and the reason I could write the letter [was that] I was on the subway, pressing Nightwood to my chest [laughs] in a paroxysm of happiness. An older woman was sitting next to me, probably a woman the age that I am now, in her sixties, looked over at me, and said, “I see you’re reading Nightwood.” And I said, “Oh, I just love this book so much.” And she said, “Well, my husband teaches at Princeton, and he knows Djuna Barnes. Would you like to write to her?” And I said, “I hadn’t thought of it.” Right? But I said, “Oh, I think I would.” She said, “Well, just give me your address. I will send you a postcard with Djuna Barnes’s address on it.” Indeed, two days later, I found a postcard with “22 Patchin Place, Djuna Barnes”—I do not remember the Zip—and then sat down and labored over my missive to Djuna Barnes.
Well, I didn’t expect an answer. But I had moved to Brooklyn and, a year and a half later, indeed, an answer came in the mail, [written] on an Underwood typewriter. My husband [Paul Auster] and I pored over it. I think we were married then, or maybe not yet married, but we were close to being married. And he said, “That’s an Underwood.” I said, “Wow.” All I remember—this is terrible because I lost the letter, which is gruesome—but she said, “Dear Miss Hustvedt, your letter has given me great difficulty.” [Laughs] But I was so impressed to get it back. Then there was a second line that I’ve forgotten, and it was: “Sincerely, Djuna Barnes.” I did not feel it was an insult. I remember feeling rather happy that I had given her great difficulty. She died only a month later. I read it in The New York Times. That may have been the last letter that she sent. No one has been able to find it, actually, my letter to her. I checked with the archives. So, who knows where that letter is.
SB: You go on to have this incredible journey and career novel writing, writing nonfiction essays, studying neuroscience, psychoanalysis, studying art, looking at art. Tell me a little bit about this journey beyond the novel. This journey into these other worlds—worlds that, I don’t think so often, novelists are rummaging around in.
SH: I think novelists will often enter into these fields because of a novel, right? It’s a form of research, and there are a number of people I know who have definitely done that. But they don’t necessarily continue down that avenue. I think, for me, I am on an ongoing quest to try to understand more and more about what the human animal is.
I’ve also come to believe, fervently, that no discipline is complex enough to embrace the complexity of human beings. Also, I think I have always been hungry to create a flexibility of mind that I know I didn’t have when I was younger, and that I envied. Reading certain writers that, you just thought, Oh. Look at that guy. Ernst Cassirer, I remember, made a huge impression on me for the vastness of his knowledge. And I think, again, that one perspective is not enough. This is something I’ve written about. That, if you look at a problem, and you approach it from multiple disciplinary points of view, you will not get the same answer to that problem. The paradigms are different, they really are. But, you will get what I call a “focused zone of ambiguity.” And that zone will allow you to ask the next best question, or a good question, that follows from that investigation.
I gave a Grand Rounds talk in the neurology department at Mass General a number of years ago. Afterwards—this is one of the perks of giving Grand Rounds talks—they took me around to people doing research, and I visited some young scientists doing research on Alzheimer’s and dementia. They told me about their projects. It was fascinating. I asked them questions, and then they asked me some questions. A young man, who essentially spent his days looking at brain scans and trying to understand what they mean, in terms of Alzheimer’s, said, “You emphasized that someone like me, who sits around looking at brain scans from morning until night, should also be reading philosophy, history, and literature. Tell me why you think that.” I said, “I think that not because you’re going to be more charming at cocktail parties—which is the case, you will be more charming—but because it will help you in your own work.”
I really mean this. I have seen it. I have been now at enough conferences with people doing work, and sometimes trying to do interdisciplinary work, to see that what appear to be intractable issues can, if not be solved, [be] re-seen and remodeled by knowing something about the history of your own field. Many scientists know nothing about the history of their own fields. It doesn’t count. All that counts is last year’s papers. I’m exaggerating a little, but often this is the case. They’re stuck. So the flexibility of mind that comes from understanding philosophical problems, or the history of one’s own field, or having read a novel that shifted your perspective, and allowed you to see the world differently…. This can help, even if you’re looking at brain scans from morning to night.
SB: You almost became a psychoanalyst.
SH: I thought about it, but actually, at the time, the New York Psychoanalytic [Society and] Institute, which was the premier institute in New York that I thought of applying to, took only one person, I believe, who didn’t have an M.D. I think of them going to get an M.D. after your Ph.D., and then doing psychoanalytic training…. I was way too poor to do that. So I had to give that up, and I think it was the right decision, but it didn’t stop me from reading about psychoanalysis, which is a long story, an ongoing one, which now includes psychoanalysts doing empirical work and all kinds of scientific work as well.
SB: Your interest in neuroscience and psychoanalysis—is that somewhat rooted in the fact that, throughout your life, you’ve really struggled with migraines? Is that also connected to this experience you have, that you write about so beautifully and eloquently in your book The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves?
SH: Migraine is definitely part of it. Since I’ve had migraines since childhood, and the migraines I have are, now they distinguish [them as] “with aura.” So, the auras before the headache are fascinating, and they alter your perception of the world, whether it’s seeing little lights or colors, or I also had what I called “lifting feelings,” which were kind of Alice in Wonderland syndrome and euphoria, and only once, what are called Lilliputian hallucinations. I saw a little pink man and his ox on the floor of my bedroom at the time, and that was followed by a whopper of a migraine. So those perceptual changes clearly influenced my fascination with neurology, neuroscience, and also psychoanalysis. I started reading Freud quite early. I think, Why do people become who we are? What is involved? And Freud was fascinated by those questions.
So the migraine was definitely part of it. And then I realized, after I was out of school, which took a long time [laughs], that what was missing and what I’d already become interested in and put in my dissertation, was the biological piece of human beings. So disorders, such as aphasia disorders, started to interest me, and I would pick up lay books. I read Oliver Sacks’s books, had a couple of his books. I read him with great passion, especially the two earliest books that were written for his peers, not as he wrote later for a more general audience: the Migraine book and Awakenings. And he led me to [Alexander] Luria, a wonderful, brilliant neurologist, who I returned to, not just the case studies. I read those first. But then the neurological work. And I think, a very important understanding: He had a more romantic view, what Goethe called a “romantic science,” than much of contemporary neuroscience research.
The more I found out about the brain, the more I worked on this, and even gave talks and even published a few papers. The more I became a critic, especially of what they now call “first-generation cognitive neuroscience”—the model that envisioned the mind as the software of the brain, and the mind as a symbolic system that could be separated from the meat. [Laughs] If you want to make it really clear. That’s what [René] Descartes thought, right? That the mind was somewhere else, and you had this meat, the machine, that was moving around.
Well, the criticism of that model grew. It started rather early, in the eighties, and there were even earlier critics. But by the twenty-first century, the s-h-blank had hit the fan, and the model was dissolving. And you began to see this in popular culture, as well: neurosexism, the exposure of M.R.I. methodologies, and there was a depression, if you will, in what had been the great high in media about neuroscience as the solution to all our problems. Most scientists were not as naïve as media, journalists and reporters, who loved this idea that there’s a God spot: in the brain, and you can reduce…. There is your emotional spot. There’s your—that’s where you do mathematics. [Laughs] People called it the “new phrenology.” It was ridiculous. But there were also, to be fair to journalists, papers that were so philosophically naïve that they published, more or less, findings that could be interpreted that way.
SB: You talk about borders…. It’s putting up walls between things where they don’t need to be.
SH: No. The brain remains a mysterious organ in many, many ways. And to pretend that the working model you’re using is definitive is a terrible error. Any intelligent and careful scientist will admit that. In fact, when you read good papers, they always end with caveats, and a list of the shortcomings that are there in that particular paper.
SB: I also wanted to bring up trauma. I know you were in a car accident with your husband, your daughter, and your dog.
SB: And you had the series of four flashbacks after that. Was that trauma, and that crash—and perhaps you can describe a little bit about what happened—did that also lead to you going more deep into certain subjects in psychology?
SH: I think by then, I had really, actually, immersed myself in a lot of trauma literature from, again, multiple angles including neuroscience, but also—
SB: [Susan] Sontag.
SH: Yeah, psychology, and many other aspects of this, including political and sociological aspects of trauma. It’s weird to say—of course, I survived—but I did not have any lasting effects from that accident. I’m actually grateful to have experienced those flashbacks, because I couldn’t have understood what a flashback is. I don’t think I read about them. I had a sense of what it might possibly be like, but it is so shocking, and it is wordless. There is no real representation. At least in my case, there wasn’t. It was motor-sensory shock. Reenactment, four nights in a row, of what the collision must have felt like. It’s a body memory.
I have no conscious memory of the collision. I have absolutely what feel as if they’re perfect memories of everything that surrounded it. The moment before the collision, the woman in the van, who had left her car, looking through the broken rear-view mirror, and seeing what was behind us. Very vivid, perfect memories. But the collision is completely gone. Then at night, for four nights, another interesting, fascinating thing that can’t be explained, is [that] years later, I had another one.
Now, that time, I wasn’t remembering the car accident. I thought there was an earthquake in Brooklyn. I thought we had been bombed. I had no idea. I woke up in bed shaking, expecting the rafters to be collapsing on top of me. It took me a couple of minutes to calm myself, but it also took me about three minutes to understand what had happened, and to relate it to the car accident, all those years ago.
Now I know from the clinical material that this stuff happens. Usually there’s some, as they say, “trigger,” which would be, a person moves. Say a veteran, late in life, hasn’t had a flashback for decades, makes a move, or loses a spouse. Then a series or a single flashback can come back. I had no ready explanation—nor, of course, do I know if I’ll ever have another one, but it is in a way an extraordinary experience unlike any other form of memory.
SB: I want to finish on your understanding of neuroscience and of the mind as it relates to the writing you’ve done about painting and art, and looking at art. I’m thinking also of a particular artist, Louise Bourgeois, who you’ve written so much about—
SH: I’m crazy about her! [Laughs]
SB: In all these different essays, in different ways. In looking at your work, I was so interested in how the life and mind of Bourgeois has infiltrated your being, if I could put it that way. I was wondering if you could talk about that—about the work you’ve done in the realm of neuroscience and psychology and the mind, as it relates to looking at and writing about art, and particularly the work of Bourgeois.
SH: Visual art is about visual perception. So the questions involved are—I wrote an essay about this—what does it mean to look at a work of art? I think that to simply talk about visual art as if it were not part of a relation that is happening between viewer and thing viewed, as if it is an objective object out there in the world that can be summed up in one way or another, I think that’s wrong. I think, therefore, scientific ideas about perception….. There is no general agreement. I think we must say that. But the most recent models in neuroscience—that I also have some criticisms of, [which I] have actually published in a commentary in a journal—nevertheless take up something that I believe is true. Which is, the way we perceive the world—we’re now talking about vision, but it goes for all our senses—is only through what we’ve perceived in the past.
In the model, they call this “priors.” That makes sense, right? Our perception is [cued] by what we’ve seen before. We apply full consciousness to perception only when what we’re seeing surprises us, right? Otherwise we go along in a fairly rote and unconscious way. If a book spontaneously flies off the bookshelf and hits you on the head, you better pay attention, and you have to reorient your expectations. Expectation is dictating most of what we see in visual art, but also in reading a book.
We are also driven by those same expectations that can be fueled by other books we’ve read, other paintings we’ve seen. This means that our perception is always inherently biased by the past. So you can begin to see how prejudices—say, against people who are regarded as low on the hierarchy in a culture, whether it’s the woman writer or the Black writer or the immigrant writer, what have you. The knowledge of the hierarchy will actually alter the perception of the thing. It’s not that you add the bias on. The bias is part of the perception.
So, therefore, the openness issue…. Bourgeois, I first saw her work…. I saw the big MoMA show [in 1983]. She was already seventy or seventy-one years old. It made another impression on me, like Djuna Barnes. I was awed, and that work, then, continued to stir inside me. I think, way before I was worrying about embodied paradigms in cognitive science, [I knew] how important this is. Before I had read [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty, I had seen [Louise] Bourgeois’s work and would always return to it. She is, I think, a great artist of not just rendering bodily reality, or representing bodily reality, but diffusing, complicating, ironizing that natural groundedness that we all have. Not to speak of her beautiful evocations of gestation, pregnancy, and the umbilical cord, all of which fascinate me a great deal.
So she came as a…. I would call her an ongoing artistic shock. The artists I most love, literary and visual, are artists that never cease to surprise me. Artists that continue to generate questions on my part: Hey, what’s going on? What is this? Artists that I cannot master. This usually creates discomfort in people. I’ve seen it in my own case. People are writing about my work, and rather than saying, “Gee, what’s going on?” they want to beat the work over the head, and try to make it conform to some other notion, some prepackaged notion of what a novel is supposed to be, for example, or an essay. I have no interest, at all, for what I already easily understand. I can just toss that out the window. I’m interested in work that I want to return to again and again because I do not understand it. I haven’t made my way all around it. Therefore, I keep writing about Louise Bourgeois. She’s not a finished business for me.
SB: Well, back to where we began: ambiguity.
SH: Yes. The tolerance for ambiguity, and especially tolerance for ambiguity in art. Because, I think, in art of many kinds, that is where these ambiguities can be represented, and thrive, in ways that they cannot in other forms.
SB: Siri, thank you so much for coming in today. This has been a pleasure.
SH: Thank you for having me. It was fun.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on November 4, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.