I first discovered Siri Hustvedt through her best known novel, What I Loved (2003), which caught my attention through Janet Burroway’s review in the New York Times: “that rare thing: a page turner at full intellectual stretch”.
Narrated via Leo, an ageing art historian who reflects on family and relationships across several decades, the novel begins as a contemplative look at art, gender and representation, and finishes in the genre of the thriller.
Hustvedt’s body of work spans novels, including What I Loved and the Man Booker longlisted The Blazing World (2014), memoir, essays and poetry. Her work ranges across feminism, psychoanalysis, art criticism, psychology, philosophy and neuroscience.
We first met seven years ago, when she agreed to be interviewed for my essay collection, The Thinking Woman (2019). I spent two mornings in Hustvedt’s home in Brooklyn that northern winter of 2014, as we talked at length about the nature of play.
In early 2022, when Hustvedt and I zoomed into one another’s living spaces to talk about her new essay collection, Mothers, Fathers and Others, positive cases of the Omicron strain of COVID-19 were rising sharply in both New York and Melbourne.
The 20 new essays were written between 2019 and 2020, against the backdrop of the latter part of Trump’s presidential rule and the arrival of the COVID pandemic in New York.
We talked about art, gender, misogyny, racism and cultural authority, and her long fascination with the work of US visual artist Louise Bourgeois.
Our conversation began and ended by recognising that, as thinkers, writers, and mothers, our lives don’t fit into strict categories – nor are they contained by borders.
Disordered cultures, policing borders and post-Trump America
The essay “Open Borders: Tales from the Life of an Intellectual Vagabond” began as a lecture Hustvedt delivered in Guadalajara, Mexico during 2019, while work was underway on Donald Trump’s infamous wall.
She foregrounds a serious discussion of policing borders with a playful childhood memory of visiting the Four Corners Monument at the border of four US states, placing a hand in each of two states and a leg in each of the others: “promiscuous habitation”.
Hustvedt writes: “We take for granted that our own human boundaries end with the organ that is our skin, but every person was once a cluster of dividing cells inside the body of another person.” Yet why are borders of all kinds so passionately policed? And why are porous borders so often represented as a site of horror in our culture?
Hustvedt turns to Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo, first published in 1966, to help answer those questions. I ask why this particular book keeps drawing her back.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: I first read Douglas’s Purity and Danger not long after I arrived in New York City, in graduate school. It’s one of those books that has sustained me over the years. The central idea is that all cultures have a need for order, all cultures fear disorder, and that our cleaning habits are culturally determined.
In some cultures, faeces are just a joke and in other cultures they’re considered really dangerous. So, Douglas is not saying that we all share the same kinds of pollution concerns, but she’s saying that pollution concerns exist in all cultures. And the blur, the mush – especially the bodily mush we all experience, the fluids or substances that cross over the thresholds of the body – are particularly liable to being considered dangerous.
This was really for me a profound opening into how one thinks about borders of all kinds. Douglas makes it very clear that you cannot separate bodily borders from societal borders.
We mentioned, of course, Trump and the border. The border became more of a metaphor than a reality… I mean, there are people at the border, yes. But in the right-wing drama that was being acted out, what was important was the idea of sealing border from dark intruders. And this relates to purity concerns, but also to intense anxieties about sexual encounters, about fear of an encroaching Other, and the threat to borders created by gender rights that erode the male/female binary by bleeding and leaking across that border – and then, as I’m sure we’ll discuss later, a terror of human origin inside another person.
And it’s funny because Mary Douglas does not focus on birth in Purity and Danger. Birth is the most profound and dramatic border crossing imaginable, right?
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Yes.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: We all do it! [Laughter] We don’t remember [being born], but we all do it! And yet Douglas doesn’t treat birth separately as maybe the most fundamental cultural event to be codified. The beginning of life outside. Scholarship and Western philosophy and Western science have suppressed the realities of gestation and birth in ways that just flabbergast me.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Your concern with that suppression comes through as a key theme in Mothers, Fathers and Others. It’s a profound absence from the serious scientific and philosophical literature, isn’t it?
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Yes, it’s what’s forgotten. And what’s forgotten turns out, for me anyway, to play a huge role in how to think about Western culture.
I’m really obsessed with omission as a key to understanding what has gone wrong. I’m working on a novel, but I’m hoping to write a book about the placenta after it’s finished, a non-fiction book.
‘Umbilical phantoms’: why Freud and other thinkers missed obvious birth metaphors
Hustvedt goes on to describe the way the suppression of gestation and birth has prevented key players in psychoanalysis – Freud, Winnicott, Bion – from seeing (and therefore naming) images and metaphors that are placental or gestational in nature.
She begins by talking about Freud’s famous observation of the “fort/da” or “here/gone” game played by his 18-month-old grandson. He observed the child playing with a piece of string attached to a cotton reel, throwing it from his cot and calling “oh” when he could no longer see it, and then “ah” when it re-appeared. In in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), Freud interpreted the game as a fantasy about control.
If you visualise the game for even a moment, Hustvedt points out, the placental connection becomes obvious. The string!
JULIENNE VAN LOON: … the umbilical cord!
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Exactly.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: That’s beautiful.
Interdependence, natural cycles and human connection
Hustvedt’s growing interest in gestation and the placenta got me thinking about the notion of nourishment – and the work of political philosopher Corine Pelluchon, whose book Nourishment I have written about.
For Pelluchon, hunger is central, because the decisions we make about how to maintain our own life and support the lives of others come back to it. Pelluchon sees hunger as “the originary site of ethics”. If we follow this line of thinking, we can see that the ecology we depend on – from basic material needs like water and shelter to people - depends on us in turn to maintain it.
Pelluchon argues that our political order needs to be reorganised to better recognise both vulnerability and interdependence.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Many people who are looking at ecological models now are theorising the fact that we’re all porous and interdependent beings. [That is, we are not self-contained individuals with firm boundaries between ourselves and other forms of life.] Finding food is vital, so is our reproductive drive, our sexual drive, but we also need to breathe, a passive need dependent on the outside.
Another thing I’m deeply interested in is the rhythmic reality of human existence in relation to the rhythmical “out there”. We have circadian rhythms; we have a heartbeat. There’s the menstrual cycle during fertility for women. There’s breathing, but there’s also the rhythm of night and day and the pull of the tides. All of these must be recognised as part of the processes of our temporal existence, which gets covered over, too. We have an essentialist, static way of looking at the world as a bunch of fixed things. I prefer cyclical time to biographic time. We die, but others are born from us and the world moves on.
Speaking of nourishment again, what does the placental cord deliver? It delivers maternal nourishment, and essential hormones to the foetus, removes waste, keeps the maternal and foetal blood systems separate and orchestrates cell exchange during pregnancy. The more scientists find out about this organ, the weirder it gets. The cellular exchange creates chimeras of both mother and foetus during pregnancy.
A chimera is a single organism or tissue made up from cells containing more than one set of DNA.
“In Greek mythology, a chimera is a fire-breathing she-monster … a mix, a blend … a terrifying animal,” Hustvedt writes, “because it involves mixing.”
SIRI HUSTVEDT: This is every pregnancy, and it’s typical of scientists that the old way of thinking about [cell traffic] was that they were leaks and accidents because the ideal is a sealed border.
After a normal birth, the placenta is delivered after the infant, and the placenta dies. The role that the placenta played as mediator inside the body of the mother is over. Its job is done. And what takes its place? Social space.
And that social space is one of feeding, holding, rocking, comforting, but also, crucially, of playing. Infants who can’t play are infants who will not thrive. They can die.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Absolutely. And adults too, right? Because play in that social space – the space between – is a lifelong essential. These ideas really come through in your essay “Both-And”.
Louise Bourgeois: wit, neuroses and ‘the yuck factor’
“Both-And” explores the work of French-American visual artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose etching, titled Self-portrait, is reproduced on the cover of Mothers, Fathers and Others.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: What has annoyed me with the way Bourgeois has been written about by critics is that many of them turn her into someone who is less playful, less satirical, someone who has less fun and is less smart than she is.
A woman artist is never considered as ironic or as intelligent as a male artist. Bourgeois’s work [is so often understood as] autobiographical – and it is, of course, but if it were only that, it would be very different. She directly takes on what I call the yuck factor – bodily mess and blur. (This goes back to Mary Douglas.) But Bourgeois is so witty that she uses this theme as a form of armour. And she’s funny. She’s dead serious too, but everyone [in the critical commentary] emphasises the depths of her neuroses, depression and agony. That’s not all there is.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: It’s fascinating to see the way her ideas circulate and are received. And this is what I found interesting when I was writing The Thinking Woman, in terms of the women whose work I was looking at.
I was reading their work [including yours] and at the same time reading its critical reception over time. And you get this really clear sense of the gendered nature of the way [women’s] work is received. I think so often we vaguely notice aspects of gendered critique in passing. We sort of see little bits and pieces, but we don’t often have the opportunity to put the whole narrative together.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: A lot of the gendered response is unconscious, implicit forms of prejudice that appear in the criticism. There are overtly hostile responses too, but I’m not sure even those critics know why they’re so angry.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: This reminds me of another line from “Both-And”. You write: “Perception is conservative.” What do you mean?
Perception, prejudice and the story of feminism
SIRI HUSTVEDT: It’s an idea currently popular in the neuroscience community.
The brain is a predictive organ. The idea is that through past experience, experiences codified in us through repetition become “priors” that shape our present perception. Most of this is below our awareness. Only when we discover errors in those expectations because they are not borne out are we forced to change our predictions.
We live in a townhouse. We’ve lived here for 25 or 26 years. One of the light switches is on the wrong side in our living room. It’s an old house. It used to be lit by gas. I cannot tell you how many thousands of times I have reached with the wrong hand to turn on that damn light switch. Because the architectural convention is coded in my body. I reach for what isn’t there. In order to do it right, we have to become conscious of it. This simple example suggests scientists are on the right track to think about prediction as important to perceptual habits.
This relates to prejudice too. If all perception is biased by what’s happened in the past then it helps to explain why it’s so damned hard for people to undo their prejudices. Whether it’s about gender, so-called race, religion or disability. Take your pick.
You have to become conscious of the light switch – or your own tendencies to typecast, say, in racist or sexist ways to combat automatic gestures or feelings. And that’s why bias is not dependent on the social identity of a person. People who identify as women harbour biases against a woman who runs for political office, for example. The social code that ambition is repugnant in women has become an embodied reality.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Contemplating this notion that perception is inherently conservative, how do we make change possible on a grand scale? The story of feminism in the West over the last 50 years is in some ways hard to feel positive about. I sometimes think I’m so disappointed that we’ve made so little progress or we’ve gone backwards at times. I think we have to be so patient and so constant in this project of consciousness raising, with a relentless putting back on the table of the topic of prejudice – including race, including sexuality.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Yes, the biases are omnipresent. We also need to combat the idea that we’re always making progress. It’s complete nonsense.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Absolutely.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: The notion is a legacy of 19th-century positivism. The world has never worked like that.
Political turmoil, writing as activism and the sinister science of eugenics
I asked Siri if she was conscious of a more overtly political turn in her recent writing.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: My writing has become more urgently political. I was politically active as a teenager, during another period of political crisis. I was born in 1955, and I was 15 when Kent State happened.
In 1970 a group of Kent State University students peacefully protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia were fired upon by the Ohio National Guard. Four students were killed.
Yes, looking authoritarianism in the face, listening to racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant rhetoric was like hearing Goebbels again, and it has lit a fire under my butt. When Trump was still president and running for re-election, my husband and I and several others started an organisation, Writers Against Trump, now called Writers for Democratic Action. And in whatever way we can, we’re trying to mobilise writers to write political pieces and get out the vote.
JULIENNE VAN LOON: Has living through this period changed your thinking about what fiction can do?
SIRI HUSTVEDT: I’m trying to write a novel now. It’s a political novel. It’s a weird political novel. But yes, I think I’ve been galvanised.
For several years, I’ve been researching the history of race science, eugenics, and behavioural genetics that constitute what I regard as a single history. I think that history is ongoing. It is linked to statistics, big data, and the popular notion of the gene as the determinant factor in our lives. This is bad biology but potent ideology.
The new version of scientific racism and sexism looks a little different, but it is something we should be really worried about.
This is the first in an occasional series of conversations between writers and thinkers.
Julienne van Loon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.