the Human Condition Through Art and Science

Vivian Gornick in The New York Times:

Gornick“A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women” is a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, is meant to increase the common reader’s understanding of and interest in the rich brew of human endeavor to be found in science and the humanities when we try to see the accomplishments of the one through the lens of the other. In its introduction, Siri Hustvedt reminds us of the famous culture war brought on in 1959 by the English scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, who warned that the gulf between those who understood either science or literature but not both would prove deadly to the future of liberal democracy. Today, Hustvedt observes, that threat seems more potent than ever, what with those who love the new technology indiscriminately, those who hate it indiscriminately, and very few in either camp who have a large grasp of its potential effect on us half a century from now. Hustvedt speaks here both as a writer of fiction (she’s got six novels under her belt) and as a serious autodidact who has spent the last decade reading and writing about neurobiology in hopes that she herself might become that marvelously integrated citizen Snow was calling for: a person who has developed a mind-set that moves with ease between understanding derived from the emotional imagination as well as the analytic intellect. The book we have in hand, however, made me wonder whether anyone can develop a sensibility so flexible it can address both sorts of experience with equal intimacy.

“A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women” is divided into three parts. The first part includes essays on sexism, the arts, pornography in our time, and Hustvedt’s own psychoanalysis; the third, essays on suicide, psychological blindness, philosophy and the brain, and Kierkegaard. These essays are often richly explored — especially the ones based in philosophical thought — and, when art is the subject, touchingly personal. Reflecting on the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Hustvedt asserts that the spiritual exchange between herself and the artist has been so intense that Bourgeois “is now part of my bodily self in memory, both conscious and unconscious” and “in turn has mutated into the forms of my own work, part of the strange transference that takes place between artists.”

More here.