What Humans Want

Brigitte Frase in The Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Book_2 Judith Thurman’s book of essays possesses the three cardinal virtues of nonfiction: Its prose is stylish and often witty; it delves into various topics with hungry curiosity, and it is very, very intelligent. Thurman takes her subjects seriously, giving the same respect and in-depth analysis to “Hump the Grinder’s Hair Wars” as she does to the novels of Gustave Flaubert.

All but one of the pieces were first published in the New Yorker magazine over the past 20 years. They begin as reviews — of books, art, fashion — and then ripen and deepen into psychologically astute essays. As the biographer of two complex, often maddening women — Isak Dinesen and Colette — Thurman became a wily and resourceful spy in the domain of desire: our hungers for sex and love, of course, but also for attention, power, danger, catharsis, degradation, self-erasure, for new sensations, for beauty or perfection, and also for the despoilment of beauty and perfection, without which there can be no eroticism.

Her chosen subjects, a majority of them women, do not traipse lightly through the world. They are furies, fearless explorers of human frontiers, inventors of theatrical selves. Take Diane Arbus, the subject of “Exposure Time.” She was greedy for experiences of the uncanny. Her photographs of misfits, whether handicapped, loony, hideous or merely sad, have the power to profoundly trouble and implicate the viewer; we can’t help staring. Why did they consent to pose? “Everyone with a true and false self secretly knows the answer. The yearning for love is, in part, a desire to become visible as one really is to the Other, though every time one dares to let oneself be seen, one risks being seen through.”

More here.