EVEN A CASUAL READER of Siri Hustvedt, who published her first novel in 1992, is likely to have picked up on certain preoccupations. She is familiar with and refers liberally to the work of Freud, Kierkegaard and Merleau-Ponty. She seems preoccupied with the art world, and with art in general. Finally, she likes to focus on inscrutable and seemingly trivial events that result in some kind of mental, if not bodily, splintering, generally involving highly intelligent women living in New York.
The Blazing World is Hustvedt’s sixth and newest novel, and it returns her to all three of these preoccupations. She describesthe well-trod territory of the New York art world, “that incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets.” The story is set in the years before and after 9/11, and follows an aging, brilliant, occasionally unruly artist named Harriet Burden, who, after the death of her wealthy art dealer husband, moves out of Manhattan to a ramshackle warehouse in Brooklyn’s Red Hook from which she orchestrates an elaborate hoax she entitles Maskings. The novel is presented as an academic investigation conducted by Dr. I. V. Hess several years after Burden’s death, a period in which her work, we are told, has finally begun to attract the recognition it always deserved.
Hustvedt was inspired to write about the hoax at the centre of The Blazing World after a similar hoax took hold of the New York art world for a couple of weeks in 1998. It started when the British novelist William Boyd published a biography of an artist named Nat Tate, a lost genius of the abstract expressionist movement who had destroyed all his work in a drunken rage, and then committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The gatekeepers of taste speedily resurrected the forgotten genius whose work they had overlooked, and extravagant parties were thrown as a way to honor his legacy. This was until a British journalist revealed that Nat Tate was a fabrication of Boyd, David Bowie, Gore Vidal, John Richardson and Karen Wright (then editor of Modern Painters magazine and the book’s publisher).
In The Blazing World, Burden designs her hoax with the intention of exposing the art world’s gender bias. Over a period of five years she holds three exhibitions of work using the “masks” of three different practicing male artists, of varying recognition and backgrounds, who take the credit for her work in the spirit of artistic anarchy. Several years after the final exhibition, an obscure academic in an even more obscure art journal reveals the hoax. (The obscure academic is — surprise — Burden writing under the name of another alter ego). Turmoil ensues. Although there’s now consensus that Harriet made the work exhibited under the names of an up-and-coming conceptual artist and a queer black performance artist, her role in the third exhibition, an installation presented as the work of an acclaimed artist known only as Rune, is much more ambiguous. There are many who consider the installation too affecting, too sophisticated, too far removed from her previous work to seriously consider it Burden’s.
Aside from the work of the distinguished Dr. I. V. Hess, the main storyteller, The Blazing World is pieced together from other sources; there are critical essays by art scholars, interviews with art dealers, reviews of exhibitions and written testimonials. There are also excerpts from the artist’s journals, although these often read more like notes toward a manifesto. They are filled with digressions on psychoanalysis and childhood, neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and quotations and analyses of figures as various as Emily Dickinson, Guy Debord, John Milton and Mikhail Bakhtin. The overlooked British writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673) is a particularly persistent reference, and Cavendish’s life as well as her utopian novel, about a young woman who enters another world to become empress of a society of strange animal-like creatures, inspired the title and at least some of the spirit of The Blazing World. Burden’s journals cross-reference each other, and her writing is in a constant state of flux between first-, second-, and third-person, as though Burden were arguing with herself.
The novel is thus a jumble of voices, perceptions and discordance. Reading it gives the distinct feeling of being inside the mind of somebody afflicted with multiple personality disorder.
Burden draws the link between her own alter egos and masks and the epidemic of Multiple Personality Disorder diagnoses that exploded suddenly and improbably in the 1980s — a disorder which has become passé, and is today viewed with pronounced cynicism by the medical establishment and a kind of fidgety sheepishness by the general public. “The thoughts, words, joys and fears of other people enter us and become ours. They live in us from the start,” says Burden. She wonders out loud whether the alter egos housed inside the patient afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder — now Dissociative Identity Disorder — were really so outlandish. “Aren’t creatures and alters manufactured from the same subliminal material? Aren’t these others inside us like dream figures?”
Early in the novel Burden explains that she wanted to “take artistic excursions by other names,” in the way that Kierkegaard would assign the “authorship” of various parts of his texts to different pseudonyms, who often clashed and fought amongst themselves. The sensibilities of Burden’s works vary greatly with every mask she puts on, and not just because she exhibits under the names of three very different male artists. As the hoax continues, her alter egos grow more complex and powerful as they proliferate. Among the questions raised by The Blazing World is to what extent was Burden responsible for the artworks she exhibited. Were the projects collaborative? Was she ill? Did she lose her mind when she created those “masks” and began living at least some of her life as one of many alter egos? The personas seem to emerge from inside her like dream figures. The borders dissolve. Things get mixed up. It all feels very destabilizing, for her, and for us.
In a 2006 essay entitled “Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self,” Hustvedt confessed her personal fear “that thresholds and boundaries won’t hold, that things will go to pieces.” The traditional Cartesian view of the world is that the self is safely detached from the body and the world surrounding it. But Hustvedt’s project in her fiction — for it does, after several readings, feel like a project — is to demonstrate that the threshold between the self and the world is frequently, and quite irrevocably, permeable and unstable. The Blazing World, as is the case with all of Siri Hustvedt’s fiction — from her first novel The Blindfold, through to What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American — explores what happens when the boundaries won’t hold, when the world intrudes on the fortifications we all erect around ourselves, and things go to pieces.
Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold, follows Iris Vegan, a young Midwestern woman recently arrived in New York to study English at Columbia University. She meets a series of unbalanced urban characters and experiences several seemingly small, unsettling events that begin to dissolve the edges of Iris’ sense of self. In the end, she takes to walking the streets of New York dressed in a suit and tie with a buzzcut and no makeup, using the name Klaus. Like Harriet Burden, Iris takes on a male persona in order to articulate something buried inside of her, and she falls apart to such a degree that her “dream figures” — her alter egos — are able to seep out and start speaking for her: “the gap between what I was forced to acknowledge to the world — namely, that I was a woman — and what I dreamed inwardly didn’t bother me […] I was that boy. Where he came from, I didn’t know. Klaus had been constructed long ago in an underground place I couldn’t reach.”
Hustvedt herself writes in her 2006 collection of essays, A Plea for Eros, that it’s only “when [Iris] reinvents herself as a male character [that] she is finally able to imagine her own rescue,” and there is the sense in The Blazing World as well that the construction of male alter egos allows Harriet to leave herself enough to enable her to create the best work of her life. It allows the possibility that falling to pieces might in some ways be liberating.
But stepping into the shoes of another person is a dangerous endeavor. In The Sorrows of an American, Hustvedt’s fourth novel, the book’s protagonist Erik, a psychoanalyst, reflects on a conversation with a patient who tells him, “Some days it’s like I don’t have any skin. I’m all raw and bleeding.” Erik finds that “this comment had helped me. I had talked to her about following a metaphor. No skin, no barrier, no protection. The borders are important.” Being open and receptive can just as easily leave you vulnerable, in a dangerous place.
In her collection of essays about painting, Mysteries of the Rectangle, Hustvedt quotes from anthropologist Mary Douglas and her seminal 1966 book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo: “[A]ll margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins.” In Siri Hustvedt’s fiction we are all susceptible to the outside world. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of contamination, as in Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject — which draws a long shadow over the inner machinations of Hustvedt’s fictional worlds — it’s that when the margins we think we’ve drawn around ourselves become shaky and porous we begin to see that we don’t understand ourselves. We can find ourselves doing and saying things that look decidedly weird and unhinged.
In another essay included in Mysteries of the Rectangle, “The Pleasures of Bewilderment,” Hustvedt recalls her experience of seeing Giorgione’s painting The Tempest. The painting shows a woman, naked but for a white shawl, feeding a baby by a riverbed. While Hustvedt could recall the details of the painting in detail she discovered, when she saw it again many years later, that she’d forgotten one important thing. On the other side of the riverbank, there is a man standing, looking at the woman. Hustvedt had completely erased the second figure in the foreground from her mind. She writes that she believes she forgot the man because he functioned “as the vehicle of my entry into an image I don’t fully understand […] I forgot him because I had become him.” In The Blindfold she gives this real-life experience to Iris.
This is the power of the image in Hustvedt’s work, why so much of her fiction draws on the power of art and photography. An image is a nebulous space where the world can shape shift and slip its regular meanings and you can quite easily jump into the shoes of a man to spy a woman breastfeeding by a river. Dream figures move more freely there.
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, Hustvedt’s second novel, documents the affair between Lily, a 19-year-old waitress and aspiring actress in a small Minnesotan town, and Edward Shapiro, an older artist from New York who’s landed in town for no obvious reason. Shapiro’s routine is to paint large still lives of his subjects, with the top quarter of the canvas divided into three boxes which depict intimate details and secrets that the subject has disclosed to him. The paintings have unsettling effects on their viewers: one character faints when presented with the finished work. Shapiro’s work is troubling because within the nebulous space of the artwork the subject is confronted with the repressed parts of themselves which feel unknowable, frightening, and the painting works like a betrayal. Together, these acts of revelation have the power to destabilize.
Art is always a space of ambiguity, beyond or outside of the use of language. Things can be articulated there that words sometimes can’t manage. In an essay on the painter Philip Guston, Hustvedt writes, “the world penetrates us. We eat, we smoke, and have sex. But language and images enter us too. They become us.” In Hustvedt’s fiction nearly every painting or photograph has a Dorian Gray quality to it. Images are nearly always deep reservoirs of disquiet. In The Blindfold, it’s Iris seeing a photograph of herself that prompts all the ensuing strangeness, because when she looks at the picture she doesn’t understand herself: “It was a face without reason, and I hated it. I am not that, I thought, and let the photograph fall from my hands to the table.” In The Blazing World as well, Burden’s artistic practice has an ominously unstable quality to it. One night an artist living in Burden’s warehouse finds her destroying one of her own works — pointedly, it is a life size human doll with Harriet’s characteristics and proportions. She hacks it apart using a kitchen cleaver, with the rage of a murderer.
What I Loved is a fictional autobiography written from the perspective of Leo, an art historian, documenting his friendship with Bill Wechsler, an artist whose name is winkingly dropped as an influence in one of Harriet Burden’s notebooks, along with “an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt.”
Bill’s second wife, Violet, is writing her dissertation on hysteria, and her thoughts on the subject inform the content of Bill’s work, constructing boxes inspired by the photographs of hysterical women documented by French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in the 19th century. In one box Bill depicts a naked woman, “lying on the floor as the young man straddled her back. Gripping a large pen in his left hand he appeared to be writing vigorously on one of her buttocks.” A direct parallel is drawn between the body of the hysterical woman in the box and the work of art itself: “They turned living women into things […] Doctors signed women’s bodies just as if they were works of art.” This image in What I Loved is maybe the clearest demonstration of what Hustvedt’s getting at — the permeability of the border between the person and the outside world. The world — and in the case of hysterical women “the world” was largely interchangeable with “doctors” — has the power to write on the body, to poke big leaking holes in peoples’ fortifications.
What I Loved might be the most explicit discussion of hysteria in Hustvedt’s fiction, but it emerges in every novel that she’s written. Hysteria no longer exists, in the sense that one cannot be medically diagnosed with hysteria today by a practicing psychiatrist. But the appearance of a group of symptoms that were, together, termed “hysteria,” was once widespread and largely affected young women. And while hysteria seemed to originate in the “mind” rather than the brain or body, and have no physiological basis, it produced real physiological effects. It seemed to be in part a way for the body to articulate something the conscious mind could not, in a society that had highly oppressive expectations about women’s behavior and their inherent nature.
Diseases similar to hysteria — with no clear physiological basis or explanation — still present themselves, including conversion disorder, multiple personality disorder, and some forms of migraines, the kind of crippling headache which Hustvedt herself experiences and documented in The Shaking Woman. They are the ultimate expression of falling to pieces, because they represent what happens when the self and the world become so mixed that it’s difficult to disentangle the two. These diseases emerge in Hustvedt’s fiction like a bouncing ball along a cliff face.
In The Blazing World Burden suffers a period of conversion disorder, hysteria’s contemporary analogue, and then experiences her alter egos as multiple personalities, or as dream figures living inside her. She describes an imaginary little boy who lived under the bed in her family’s apartment when she was a child. The little boy “breathed fire. I wanted to fly, you see, and breathe fire. Those were my dearest wishes, but it was forbidden, or I felt it was forbidden. It has taken me a very long time, a very long time to give myself permission to fly and breathe fire.”
After Burden’s death her daughter, Maisie, has a dream in which her mother appears extending her arms and opening her mouth. She breathes fire. But Maisie isn’t afraid of the blaze: “I just stood by quietly and watched the room burn.” Harriet, after the thresholds and borders have crumbled and the dream figures given room to speak, after things have fallen entirely to pieces, is finally free to breathe fire. Even if, like Margaret Cavendish, the fire burns more intensely after her death.
In What I Loved, Hustvedt writes that the self is a combination of the physical world and “idea-winds that gust through people’s minds and then become scars on the landscape. But how the contagions move from outside to inside isn’t clear. They move in language, pictures, feelings, and in something else I can’t name. Something between and among us.” Those idea-winds are capable of infiltrating the borders and thresholds we build around ourselves. Hustvedt isn’t suggesting that going to pieces is good for a person, or a culture, only that we must accept the inevitability of those winds.