Gender, Art, Perception: Lauren Walsh Interviews Siri Hustvedt

By Lauren WalshMarch 24, 2014

SIRI HUSTVEDT, the Brooklyn-based author of several novels, including What I Loved (2003), as well as a book of poetry and works of nonfiction, has written a new novel. The Blazing World, published by Simon & Schuster, plays with traditional novel form, offering the reader a fictional anthology focused on Harriet Burden, a mysterious figure in the New York art world. Harriet is dead and has left behind a host of questions about her life and her identity as an artist. In an effort to address these gaps, Professor Hess, a scholar of aesthetics, attempts to put Harriet’s life together, collecting written statements, interviews, and even the central character’s personal journals. This inventive format lets Hustvedt paint Burden from multiple perspectives. As we progress through the anthology, we learn that Harriet, also known to her friends as Harry, occupied many roles, among them mother, wife, lover, and artist. She even altered her identity in a grand “scheme of masks,” displaying her work under the name of male artists in order to expose the suspected biases of the art world.

In Picasso-esque fashion, the reader receives a fragmented picture of Burden, one that allows us to fit some of the pieces together to better understand the puzzle of her life, her struggles, her art, and her identity. At the same time, the jigsaw remains incomplete, certain questions unanswered, some voices in contradiction. Hustvedt, a writer who embraces multiplicity and ambiguity, has assembled a cast of characters whose varied contributions to the edited collection breathe life into the enigmatic Harriet and focus attention on the ways we perceive and respond to others. 

Recently, Hustvedt and I met up in her home, a landmarked brownstone in the heart of Park Slope. In an airy, sundrenched room — an open space with fresh flowers, inviting chairs, and artwork adorning the walls and tabletops — Hustvedt curled into her seat, mug of coffee in hand, and we talked about the new book, and about writing, literature, and culture


Lauren Walsh: Describe the process of writing this book. It would seem to involve a lot of planning and assembling. There are many voices, many perspectives, and, like the fictional Professor Hess who edits the collection, you had to put it all together to create an anthology of a woman whose life cannot ever completely be known. Was the novel all planned out up front, or did the pieces of Harriet’s life, and the various angles we see through others’ eyes, evolve as you were working?

Siri Hustvedt: For me, always, a novel is an organism. I think of it as a living entity that grows and develops and finds its shape as I move along. Nevertheless, I had an arc in my mind beforehand. The introduction and footnotes in The Blazing World were written last, just the way an editor would have done it. But the texts — the contributions to the anthology by my various characters — were written sequentially. For instance, I did not write all of the texts by Bruno [Harriet’s boyfriend] at once.

It was extremely important to me to establish a rhythm of the texts. I did a lot of rereading of the work in order to — I know it sounds so hokey! — feel the movement from one text to another. That musical rhythm was very important to the way I worked, but I did not pre-assemble the book.

LW: So you didn’t, in fact, entirely know who Harriet was until she was being born through your writing?

SH: She was, to some degree, born in the writing, absolutely. I knew I wanted this very large figure, physically and emotionally, and that I was writing a book about unbridled ambition in a not-young artist. And then Harry became herself as the text went on. I had a great deal of fun writing Harry. She’s really angry, but her anger has a kind of focus that’s invigorating.

LW: Harry is angry, in part, because she feels that she is overlooked by the art world precisely because she is a woman. Do you want readers to view this as a commentary on the contemporary art world as it exists in NYC?

SH: This is complicated. I do think that Harry is right about there being a “masculine enhancement effect.” If you look at money paid in the art market for works by women and works by men, there’s a gigantic disparity. Even an artist like Louise Bourgeois, who is, I think, the most expensive woman artist in the world (and who is, by the way, an artist that I love), commands prices far lower than the most expensive male artists. This is part of the drama of perception, which is what I am trying to unravel inside The Blazing World. When it comes to art, the mere fact that a man has made it is enhancing, and when a woman makes a work of art it’s lessening and even polluting. The pollution values of femininity are much higher than masculinity. It’s an old business, but I think it’s absolutely true. Think about how little boys are much more frightened of indulging in so-called “girl activities” than girls are in “boy activities,” because for boys the pollution value is very high.

LW: Is that shifting at all today? Do you see any moves away from some of this “old business”?

SH: I do. We have a very strange “double culture.” You have these right-wing, overtly sexist calls in the culture, and then you have, at the other end of the spectrum, the mingling of gender. That is, people who get part of an operation, but not a complete operation to transfer to the other sex. You have classrooms that I’ve heard about, though I’ve never been in one, where people are asked to pick the gender they wish to be. Pick a pronoun. So everything seems to exist at once. There’s a tremendous ability to express your masculinity and your femininity no matter what sex you are, and at the same time, these very old, rigid notions of masculinity and femininity still obtain in the culture.

LW: Your fiction reflects on and pushes back against that rigidity. Speaking about The Sorrows of an American in 2008, and the fact that you wrote through a male voice, you said, “As a woman, I take pleasure in adopting the dominant male tone and assuming a central role, but I have also found that wrenching my perspective away from the feminine, I’ve been able to discover feelings, images, and thoughts I wouldn’t have had without the transformation.” In The Blazing World, this is certainly an experience that Harry has when she role-plays privately with the character Rune. In a more public way, albeit unknown to the public at the time it occurs, Harry exhibits her art in NYC galleries through male artist stand-ins. What can we learn about the “donning” of another gender from these cases?

SH: The act of donning the mask alters the person who is wearing it and the art that is made because of it. The mask is not something that is only about hiding, but also about revelation. When Harry role-plays, she finds this dangerous, slightly sadistic masculinity inside her, and a contempt for the sniveling female figure Rune plays. That’s complex, because we know that Harry lacked confidence as a child. She is a person who desperately wanted recognition from her father and he could not give it, and she has the fantasy that had she been a son, she might have been able to have it.

LW: It’s a complicated family dynamic, one that pushes readers to think about gender frameworks, perception, and unconscious bias. More generally, The Blazing World asks us to consider not only what we see, but how we see. In what ways can readers keep this in mind in day-to-day life? Or act on this? I think it’s very hard to change unconscious bias.

SH: It is hard, although there’s one not-so-complicated answer, which is very much like psychoanalysis. Let’s say we have a neurotic patient, a man who finds that he’s always getting into tiffs. Meter maids, policemen, his boss, just one problem after another. The work of psychoanalysis, to make it simple, would be this: to begin to make this man conscious of the neurotic pattern that he seems to have with authority figures. Very similarly, with unconscious bias of any kind, whether it’s racist or sexist, what makes the difference is the act of becoming conscious of what one is doing; by bringing the patterns out and creating a cultural conversation about these deep and often not intentionally malicious aspects of bias, people can change their behaviors.

For the book, I intentionally made Harry huge, with really big breasts. Some of the discomfort that Harry creates is related to her size and to her gigantically female presence, which unconsciously reminds people, both men and women, of the mother. Harry writes about this in her notebooks when she references Gulliver’s Travels and the huge breast of the nurse. Think about the helplessness and dependence that we all have on our mothers when we’re infants. Of course we don’t remember this, but I do believe that aspects of misogyny are rooted in the omnipotent figure of the mother. There’s something very uncomfortable for men, I think, when they’re in the presence of powerful women, not only because they are used to being in positions of authority, but because there may be reminders of this omnipotent maternity that plays an important role in every person’s life.

One thing that I’ve always found fascinating is the idea of the “nanny state,” which is so clearly an evocation of dependence on a woman. “Nanny,” of course, may be standing in for the mother or the female figure. When right-wingers talk about the nanny state, buried into their message is a hatred of women — and more deeply, a hatred of that early dependence. It’s entirely blinkered to the absolute truth, which is that every single one of us came out of the body of a woman and was dependent, profoundly dependent, usually on that woman, sometimes on groups of people, depending on your culture, or you would die. That is the uncomfortable truth.

I think there is enormous resistance to the reality of maternal power in our culture, from both men and women, but more from men than from women. Every child needs to grow up and leave his or her mother, but boys and girls do it in different ways, often through identifications with the same sex parent. Both boys and girls can identify with their fathers without prejudice, but for a boy to identify with his mother is emasculating. There's the rub. Again, the only way to address these fears of maternal, nanny, female power is to admit they exist. The fact that fathers have become more active parents than they were in my childhood is vital. Men don't give birth or nurse infants, but they can and should be devoted caretakers to their children. This change alone loosens the strict border between feminine and masculine, and allows for a more fluid understanding of the two.

LW:  I’m also curious about another border: the margin between the real and the fictional. You’ve spoken before about the role of autobiography in fiction, saying at one point, “All novel writing is personal. […] I shape my stories in this or that way because the story answers something that is emotionally rather than literally true for me.” In what ways has that personal emotional truth shaped The Blazing World, the story and its characters? And are there literal truths, that is, direct points of overlap with your own life and experience?

SH: I have argued in essays that memory and imagination are the same faculty, and there’s quite a bit of neurobiological evidence now that we do not remember accurately (something we know quite well) and that the prospective brain, or the brain that remembers, is also the brain that imagines. So people who have hippocampal damage — the hippocampus is the part of the brain that is associated with navigation, with autobiographical memory — not only don’t remember very well but also have trouble imagining. These are linked faculties.

That said, I think that writing fiction is an embodied act, and the story is answering an emotional truth, not an autobiographical truth. How do you, as author, know what is right and wrong for your text? This is the great question: why one story and not another? In fiction, theoretically, the writer is completely free to do whatever she or he wishes. But it doesn’t work like that. So that dumb question that writers are always rolling their eyes over — “Where do you get your ideas?” — is in fact a deep and profound question, one that has never been particularly well answered, by the way.

In this book, obviously, Harry is somewhere in me. But I don’t really resemble Harry; she’s a very different kind of person from me. Fictional characters, where do they come from? They leap out of you! They’re clearly born out of memory and experience, and not only what we think of as actual experience, but the experience of reading. All of that is human experience. You have this big mishmash inside you, and these people appear.

LW: Elaborate on that “experience of reading.”

SH: While writing The Blazing World, I was thinking of great monster characters. Frankenstein’s monster, whom Harriet loves. Milton’s Satan. Paradise Lost keeps coming back in the book. Bruno talks about Faust, and there is a Faustian bargain that Harry makes, especially with the character Rune. This was conscious, but there are also times when, after I’ve written a book, I think, “Oh my God, this element came from there!” One strong example is The Sorrows of an American. I had a wonderful time with my cross-dressing, minor character Burton, and I only realized later on that Burton’s high-flown language, even his cross-dressing, were inspired, in part, by Dr. O’Connor in Nightwood. But I didn’t know that until I reread Djuna Barnes’ novel some time after finishing Sorrows.

For me, The Blazing World is a mythical text, and it does feel that to have this female genius Miltonic being at the center is subversive. But we are meant to see her refracted through many other perspectives, so that the act of reading the book is, in a sense, an echo of the thematic content of the book.

LW: And in fact, there are many themes that resonate with your earlier writing, both fiction and nonfiction, for instance, the focus on art and the art world, the interest in gender roles, the attention to psychological conditions, and the probing exploration of identity. The Blazing World even makes a footnoted reference to your novel The Blindfold. How do you see this book as building upon your other work?

SH: I’ve been publishing books for 20 years, and I’m still learning how to write them. At the same time, I have a feeling of greater freedom, and, I think, a greater agility with the material that I’m using. This book, for me, is a kind of dance and play, even though it’s very serious, too. There is a game aspect, a puzzle aspect, and that was part of the pleasure of writing the book. But I have my obsessions and I doubt they will ever go away. For instance, the gender play has been there from the beginning of my writing career. I have people cross-dressing or taking on the other sex in their art all the time. In The Blindfold, in What I Loved, in The Sorrows of an American. It’s ongoing, and it’s very hard for me to escape that obsession.

LW: Harry seems to combine a strong interest in the visual and the verbal. Even if she is not recognized by the public, she is a visual artist. And she is also an author, for instance, in the lush stories she dreamed up for her children, stories that especially impact her son Ethan. A salient feature of your writing is its imagistic quality. So do you, as an author, find it difficult to bring these two modalities — text and image — into a harmonious relationship? Is one dominant over the other?

SH: No, I don’t think so, because I don’t think I could write these novels if I didn’t see them. I need to have this rich internal life of visual images. The works of art created by my characters in the novel just seem to appear and then I describe them textually, and that’s a lot of fun — making up these works of art that of course don’t exist, but they exist on the page.

LW: Yes, I have pictures in my mind of the art installations from the novel.

SH: Exactly, and your pictures are probably not the same as mine. Each reader will create an image out of a text that has some detail, but of course not overwhelming detail, because then you won’t actually see anything; the text will cramp the visual images. How much language is too much language for those mental images to work? Every once in a while a novelist will go overboard with the description of, say, a room, and I feel put upon. I want space as a reader to see.

LW: Was there a particular image that inspired this novel?

SH: There was an image that came early in the writing of the book. It was Harry’s work of art that is called The Blazing World, the huge woman with multitudes inside her, and these Lilliputians raining out of her vagina. I could see the woman crouching. This vision was overwhelming. Of course that work really is an image of maternity, creativity, and intellectual fertility, all of that together.

LW: Speaking of creativity and intellectual fertility, tell me about your writing practices. What is a typical day like while you’re in the midst of working on a book?

SH: I like to get up early, so that means I go to bed pretty early, usually before 11 p.m., and then I can get up at 6 or 6:30 or 7 a.m. Then I have coffee and some breakfast, usually oatmeal, and then I go to my desk very quickly. If I’m up early enough, I get a long morning, and I get to use what I call “morning brain,” which is extremely fresh and it’s much smarter than “afternoon brain”! And then I can stop at about 1 or 2 p.m., and I like to read for three or four hours in the afternoon, with my afternoon brain.

LW: Are you working on any new writing right now?

SH: I’m working on a paper for a symposium this June at Lake Como. It’ll be a rather small group, I’m the only artist, and there will also be neuroscientists, philosophers, and art historians, all of us talking about the relationship between memory and imagination. My paper is called “Subjunctive Flights: Thinking through the Embodied Reality of Imaginary Worlds.” After I finished The Blazing World, I also started a book that I subsequently dumped. I think that it was a reaction; I was crafting the anti-Harry, but it didn’t work. However, I’m excited because I have something new simmering, but again, I need to know the arc before I begin talking about it and writing it.

LW: Who are you reading now?

SH: I just finished Reflections on Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller, an old classic book, and a new book on Darwin by Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone. Grosz is a feminist and highly theoretical. I think in the end she goes overboard. Distinctions get lost. I'm also reading a manuscript by a friend of mine, George Makari. It's a history of thinking about the mind from the 17th century into the 19th, set to be published next year.

LW: Each of those is nonfiction, but of course you’re passionate about fiction as well. Why should we read novels? Can they teach us about ourselves in ways that nonfiction cannot?

SH: I’ve been a little bit alarmed by the treatment of the novel in our culture, not just novels by women, but the novel in general, as a “fluffy wuffy,” slight, imaginary form, not nearly as important as nonfiction, because that’s about The Real. Yet I think the novel may be the most profound way of presenting ideas that exists. The reason is very Bakhtinian: in a novel you are able to balance multiple, conflicting discourses at the same time. You are able to present opposing arguments in very different voices, and to establish what is my intellectual fantasy—multiple zones of ambiguity. No single theoretical model about human beings (I, personally, am most interested in human beings) can possibly encapsulate that complexity. That's why I’m interested in science and philosophy, because if you begin to look at the same problem from different perspectives, you will get different answers. And together those answers can create a focused zone of ambiguity. It’s not mush. It’s intellectually rigorous, and, importantly, it’s not pretending that this single fictional model will tell you everything.


Lauren Walsh teaches literature and writing at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts.

LARB Contributor

Lauren Walsh teaches literature and writing at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. She is co-editor, with Ofra Amihay, of The Future of Text and Image: Collected Essays on Literary and Visual Conjunctures (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).


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