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Interview with Siri Hustvedt

Very few writers in the twenty-first century are polymaths of the sort that previous centuries sometimes spawned – those who knew about all the subjects that mattered at the time, while still producing original work. Specialisation and the multiplication of fields and subfields of research, in both the humanities and the sciences, has rendered such breadth nearly impossible. Siri Hustvedt, however, is an exception: she is a polymath for our times, fluent in multiple specialised discourses, but whose mode is artistic.

 

Hustvedt, who lives in Brooklyn, is primarily known for her seven novels. Her first, The Blindfold (1992), about a poor graduate student negotiating the social-psychological maze of New York City in the late 1970s, established her as a novelist. Her most recent, Memories of the Future (2019), returns to New York in the same era, this time with dual narration – an older self in 2017 reflects on the journal of her younger self. What I Loved (2003) turns on the friendship between Leo Hertzberg, an art historian narrator, and an artist called Bill Wechsler. In The Blazing World (2014), a neglected female artist enlists three male artists to show her work for her. The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Work of Fiction.

 

Hustvedt’s novels are imbued with passionate philosophical concerns about the self, memory, identity and aesthetics. While her roots are in literature, less widely known to her fiction readers is her exceptional grasp of the sciences – especially the life sciences, from neuroscience and psychology to genetics and embryology. She has written groundbreaking essays on the embodied self, and the lasting influence of mind/body dualism on Western thinking, culture and social structures.

 

Science is a remote territory for most non-practitioners, and it is unusual for people who aren’t trained to immerse themselves in specialised scientific literature. The scientific world has long been her second home, and scientists have taken her in as one of their own. Hustvedt and I first met through our mutual interest in philosophy and science, soon after her interdisciplinary, exploratory memoir The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves was published in 2010. As a philosopher and historian of ideas concerned with the mind/body relation and the scientific theories that turn on it, I found in her a fellow traveller.

 

Hustvedt is politically committed, and a feminist who understands the roots and ramifications of patriarchal reflexes. She reads everything about topics that interest her, and distills her readings into her novels and essays, in her own creative, narrative, poetic voice. She teaches Narrative Psychiatry to psychiatric residents and junior faculty at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City: in her work mind, art, and the power of narration meet, all in the service of understanding the self in its relation to other selves, of connecting past and present, the invisible realms of being with those that language can shape. And so there is no discontinuity between her passions, as she explains in this conversation, which we held remotely during a hot August in 2021, Atlantic coast to Mediterranean coast.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You have written seven novels and published four books of essays. One of them, Mysteries of the Rectangle (2005), is on visual art. Other essays were first published in science journals such as Neuropsychoanalysis, Seizure – European Journal of Epilepsy, and Clinical Neurophysiology. You also have an appointment as a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. You’ve had an unusual intellectual trajectory. Obviously, writing fiction, writing about art and writing science articles are different, but what are those differences exactly?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— The conventions involved in writing a novel, an art essay and a science paper are clearly different, but I think what appear to be unconnected interests are actually linked. For example, when I was still in college, I got interested in Christian mystics – Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Teresa of Ávila. Reading them led me to explore connections between religious experience and neurological illnesses such as epilepsy and migraine.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You had migraine yourself, didn’t you?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— I’ve had migraine with aura since childhood. The strange feelings and visual disturbances of auras have been part of me for as long as I can remember and, as I grew older, I began to wonder how these perceptual states relate to the becoming of what we call ‘a self’. My great love was always literature, but I majored in history in college and then got a PhD in English literature at Columbia. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on language and identity in Charles Dickens, which turned in part on his play with pronouns. For example, in Our Mutual Friend (1865), one of the characters describes his near drowning by saying, ‘There was no such thing as I.’

 

Another character, a drunkard, never uses the first-person pronoun, and a police inspector refers to a fresh corpse by saying, ‘I still call it him you see.’ In my research, I came across a paper by the linguist Roman Jakobson, ‘Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasiac Disturbances’ (1956). In it, he notes that children learn to use the I-you pronouns last and in some types of aphasia they disappear first. This fact went off like a bomb inside me. The shifters, I and you, are difficult to master, and children often reverse them. After all, why is a person ‘I’ one moment and ‘you’ the next?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Personal pronouns arrive late, and even later in kids on the autistic spectrum.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Yes, and some schizophrenic patients also make the reversal error. My broader point is that literature, linguistics, philosophy, developmental psychology and neurology merged in Dickens’s use of pronouns as signs of cohesive and disintegrating selves in a thesis I defended in 1986 – a seed that had already been planted continued to grow. Jakobson spurred me on to read more neurological case studies. I discovered Oliver Sacks, whose two best books, in my view, are Migraine (1970) and Awakenings (1973) – the ones he wrote for his colleagues, not a general audience. Sacks led me to Russian neurologist Aleksandr Luria’s case studies, The Mind of a Mnemonist (1969) and The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound (1972). Then I bought Luria’s Higher Cortical Functions in Man (1962) – dull title, brilliant book – with the best history and analysis of location in brain science I have ever read. Luria never fell into the trap that neuroscience fell into when it became a latter-day phrenology, imagining as it did a one-to-one correspondence between a function and a part of brain. Dickens opened a door, but then for me literature has always been a form of knowledge.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It could be said that all art is a form of knowledge.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Yes, but in the US, fiction is not regarded as important knowledge. STEM fields are serious, essential and masculine. The arts are expendable, feminine fluff, which doesn’t mean people aren’t transformed by reading fiction. They are. But what does the novel have that an academic article, art essay and scientific paper don’t? It doesn’t rely on theory, experiments, findings and facts. It isn’t teleological as arguments are. It ends, but it doesn’t have to solve. The great theoretician of the novel is Mikhail Bakhtin. My favourite quote from him sums up his idea of the dialogic: ‘Every word is half someone else’s.’ Bakhtin would call much that comes out of the academy ‘monological’ because the discourses are univocal and culturally dominant. He doesn’t say this – I do – but the third-person authoritative voice of the scholarly and scientific paper annoys me. Who is speaking? A great rumbling voice from on high? I use the first-person in all my texts. Bakhtin maintained that language is relational, and monological discourse distorts the underlying linguistic reality. Class, power, historical context, unique personal experience with other people collide in our words. Truth isn’t singular but plural. The best novels have a polyphony of voices, which do not agree with one another. Wuthering Heights (1847), The Brothers Karamazov (1879) and To the Lighthouse (1927) are sublime examples of polyphony, of multiple perspectives that dance and crash inside a single work.

 

That doesn’t mean I don’t spend lots of time reading science papers. I’ve been hugely enriched by learning about brain science, genetics and, more recently, embryology and immunology. I’ve come to understand scientific methods and ways of thinking. I’ve also realised there are benefits to reading not just what attracts you but what repels you. Symbolic logic alienated me, but I forced myself to get a handle on it so I could read analytical philosophy papers about ‘the mind’. They sent me back to the origins of that philosophy in the Vienna Circle and Gottlob Frege, the German mathematician, logician and philosopher of language who was so important to Anglo-American analytical philosophy. I’m no expert on Frege, but I read enough to solidify a perspective on, and develop respect for, his thought and its later incarnations.

 

When I began studying brain science, I felt like a student in Neuroscience 101. Learning the parts of the brain and rudimentary neurochemistry was hard, but over the years, I began to see serious flaws in the paradigm at work in neuroscience: the scientists had no idea how ‘the psychological level’ of experience related to ‘the physiological level’. How are thoughts related to neurons?

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s the old mind/body problem.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Like Descartes, most neuro- and cognitive scientists divided mind from body, but they were oblivious Cartesians. They modelled the mind as an algorithmic computational system of symbols, a kind of software that could be enabled by hardware made of either living cells or silicone. This model, now called ‘classic computational model of mind’, led me to Alan Turing’s dream of a thinking machine, cybernetics, information theory and arguments about whether the brain was digital or analog at the Macy Conferences held in New York City between 1946 and 1953. John Dewey, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener and Roman Jakobson all participated. Those debates sent me back to the origins of mechanical philosophy in the seventeenth century. I reread Descartes, Hobbes and others who believed nature, including the human body, was a machine. Then I discovered Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who opposed Descartes’s mind/body dualism but also Hobbes’s materialist mechanism. She argued that nature is all material, but matter is not dead and not mechanistic. All I knew about the Duchess before had come from Virginia Woolf, who, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), described Cavendish as a ‘giant cucumber that] had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.’ Woolf was not well informed about seventeenth-century natural philosophy.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— That was the premise of my PhD – a historicised look at the mind/body relation through reactions to Descartes and his dualism in the late seventeenth century. We are both advocates of the paradigm change in cognitive science that you discussed at length in your essay The Delusions of Certainty (2016).

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— This is your territory and, as you know, the debates over Descartes’s substance dualism were intense. Cavendish and another hero of mine, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, offered a path out of dualism. They are philosophers of embodiment who anticipated the current paradigm change in cognitive science, not because they were clairvoyant, but because the same problems that plagued philosophers in the seventeenth century continued to plague philosophers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The foundational assumptions of cognitive science ignored the natural body and emotion, and AI ran into one dead-end after another when it tried to replicate general human intelligence.

 

The big question is: What are we? As the turn to embodiment has made clear, what we call mind can’t be confined to brain or body. We are embedded in an environment that acts on us and which we act on, and we become ourselves through others. Understanding that becoming entails more than studying what the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, called Körper, the anatomical, third-person view of the body seen from the outside: it means exploring what he called Leib, the lived experience of a body-subject in the world. Cognitive science has revived the phenomenological philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but he has become important in the humanities too because social constructivist thought, so popular when I was a graduate student, also neglected the body and feeling.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— From The Blindfold on, your fiction has had a philosophical tone. In line with writers like George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Robert Musil, and Thomas Mann, you stage ideas in your novels, giving voice to characters’ embodied consciousness. There is keen awareness in your novels of the gaps between words, the pre-verbal meanings in images and the silences around expressions of feeling. Near the end of What I Loved, the narrator, Leo Hertzberg, writes, ‘The story flies over the blanks, filling them with the hypotaxis of an “and” or an “and then”. I’ve done it in these pages to stay on a path I know is interrupted by shallow pits and several deep holes. Writing is my way to trace the hunger, and hunger is nothing if not a void.’

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Every book, painting, piece of music comes alive in its reader, viewer or listener, and is animated by her embodied responses – thoughts, but also sensations and emotions. When I write a novel, I feel the characters inside me as if they are part of my memory, but when they speak on the page, I’m often surprised by what they say. Composing a sentence means measuring it against a sense of rightness and wrongness. Sometimes the words come out ‘right’. Other times I’m stuck – the words feel ‘wrong’ – but if I stand up and move around, the sentence appears. There is a powerful motor component to writing that is conveyed to and felt by the reader. The sentence but also the book as a whole, must have a rhythmic construction, must walk, run, leap and tumble. Suspense generates staccato sentences, meditation generates legato continuums, and the reader feels this music along with the semantics. But every narrative leaves out as much as it puts in. Leo knows the same story can be told in many different ways from many points of view, but he also knows his need to tell is an urge to fill up what he’s lost with words. And, every novel is written for someone else, an imaginary reader. Mine gets all my jokes, understands every reference and can parse every irony.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— A double? A doppelgänger?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— I’m afraid it’s true. I felt embarrassed when I realised it. Somewhere Vladimir Nabokov said that he wrote for a crowd of little Nabokovs. Still, much of what I write comes from unconscious places I have little access to. Every once in a while, a scholar points to something in a book of mine I had never thought of before. This rarely happens with reviewers, but when The Blindfold was published, a Jesuit priest reviewed it for a Catholic publication. I took the piece with me on the subway and, as I read it, tears rolled down my cheeks. His understanding went deep. After What I Loved was published, several people approached me to tell me that they, like my narrator, Leo, had lived through the death of their child, and the book had described their experience. They were grateful. Somehow my fiction about a loss I had never experienced spoke to their grief. After a reading from the same book in Iowa, I was approached by a woman who told me she had a message from her father, a Jew, who, as Leo did, left Berlin as a child when his family fled the Nazis and then, as Leo had, lived in Hampstead. He was now an old man in Florida. Her message from him was: ‘I am Leo’. These are the sometime miracles of literature, which turn on what Aristotle called catharsis in the Poetics. Art is part of life experience, but it isn’t the same as living life. We don’t enjoy crying over the death of a beloved friend, but inside what I call ‘the aesthetic frame’, we can experience safely what would be terrible in our own lives, not because we are having ‘quasi-emotions’, as the analytical philosopher Colin Radford has argued. The emotions are real. The context is different.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What do you think of the use of mirror neurons to account for empathy in art? [Mirror neurons are cells that fire both when an animal executes an action and when another animal simply watches the same action being performed. They were first discovered in macaque monkeys by the team of neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti in Parma in 1992 and later confirmed in human beings.] It’s an example of how non-scientists may adopt a scientific concept to understand what’s going on in aesthetics.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— No one is better on this subject than our mutual friend, Vittorio Gallese a neuroscientist who took part in the discovery of mirror neurons], because he is philosophically minded, cares deeply about art, and avoids crude reductionism. His idea of ‘embodied simulation’ posits that a shared neural, mirroring state in two bodies allows us to understand the other person, not as a mere object, but as another self. We have physiological access to the meanings of other people’s actions and emotions, and to art, through those same neural connections.

 

I’ve been surprised by the push-back against mirror neurons – an enormous scientific discovery. The countless papers that have been written to discredit and undermine the original findings are partly due to the overselling of mirror neurons in the media and by people in the humanities who are dim on the science, but it’s ideological as well, a resistance to the idea that we are bound to our fellow creatures in biological ways that belie the fantasy of individual autonomy. There’s no such thing as a single brain, only a brain in relation to other brains. The very idea of a perception-action loop threatens mechanistic, atomistic science.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— That resistance is on the wane, though.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Yes, because we are living through a devastating pandemic and ecological catastrophes and must let go of the human-beings-are-monads approach and accept that we are interdependent creatures that belong to eco-niches that can’t be severed from larger ecological realities. We can either change what we are doing or die from our neglect. But ideas change slowly. Your book Passions and Tempers (2007) on the endurance of the humours makes this eminently clear. The language may change; the ideas don’t. We are still haunted by the mind/body problem in the West. Plato and Aristotle are still making up our minds.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— For Aristotle, matter is inert and female, and form is active and male.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— And for Plato, the body was a prison weighing down the soul: his sullied body influenced both Judaism and Christianity, as did Aristotle’s form and matter hierarchy. The associations live on. The masculine is tied to purity, intellect and culture and the feminine to the polluted body, passion and nature.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In your writing on art, you have emphasised that art is fundamentally intersubjective. Meaning is created between the viewer and the object viewed and, unlike other objects in our lives, art is ‘a quasi-you’ that holds the traces of another consciousness and unconsciousness. Your fictional art historian, Leo, makes this point: ‘A picture becomes itself the moment it is seen.’ In your essay, ‘Embodied Visions: What Does it Mean to Look at a Work of Art?’ (2010) you further argue that perception is biased, that we often see what we expect to see. In the essay ‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’, you argue that the association between masculinity, and high intellect and femininity with low corporeality, has led to the denigration of art by women. This feminist theme appears in your essays and fiction. In the novel The Blazing World, a title borrowed from Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 magnum opus, a woman artist stages her own work behind the living bodies or masks of three men. If all vision is biased, can anyone see well?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Expectation fuels perception. Once I was walking down a corridor in a hotel and saw a stranger coming toward me. Only when the person came closer did I recognise my own image in a mirror at the end of the hall. Past experience, orientation and context are crucial to perception. This is true in gender bias as well. The expectation that women should be nurturing, caring, self-sacrificing, should behave in stereotypical maternal ways even if they aren’t mothers remains pervasive. Women are supposed to cater to the needs of men, not behave in authoritative ways. Why do so few heterosexual men read books by women? They don’t want to put themselves in the humiliating position of submitting themselves to the voice of a female author.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But this has changed. Men are increasingly active as fathers, for instance.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— That’s definitely true in the developed West, but unlike many women, few men identify themselves as fathers first, and when they are the primary caretakers of children they’re viewed as heroic characters or emasculated wimps, rarely as people fulfilling their ‘natural role’. Harriet Burden’s experiment with her three male personae in The Blazing World plays on these cultural expectations. Her male masks elevate her work, but the works are further interpreted through the men’s varying identities – a white boy straight out of art school; a biracial, gay performance artist; and an art-world superstar. That’s the book’s fairytale structure, but Harry’s game isn’t simple. The male masks she adopts change her and her art. The fact that 19 narrators reflect on the same story blocks a single truth. The novel is intended to do what Søren Kierkegaard wanted his pseudonymous texts to do – throw the reader back on herself. You decide your truth.

 

Is there a way out of the biases we all have? Time. If you take time with anything or anyone, automatic assumptions and stereotypes disappear. While writing about the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, who painted bottles over and over again, I made a simple phenomenological experiment. I stared at a San Pellegrino water bottle for five minutes. The first thing that dropped away was the word bottle. I noticed how the light changed the colour of the green glass and changed again with a passing cloud. I studied the drops of condensation inside it. I do the same thing with paintings and sculptures, park myself in front of one for a couple of hours and see what happens. The artists’ names, famous or obscure, and their gender or ethnic identities vanish pretty quickly.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

In The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, storytelling and science merge. You tell about your shaking symptom and pursue several possible explanations for it by marshalling evidence from philosophy, psychoanalysis, neurology, neuroscience and the history of medicine. Your first-person phenomenological account blends with third-person scientific investigation. What is the significance of this double approach? What role does narrative play in medicine?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Actually, I think you do something similar in your book, The Ceiling Outside (2022), which I read and loved. You explore the science behind the diagnoses of particular neurological patients whom you witnessed being evaluated, but you also tell their stories and integrate the intimate experience of your late mother’s Alzheimer’s into the book. Because the shaking was my symptom, I could tell my story and then view it from various disciplinary angles, acting as patient, physician and researcher all at once to create epistemological pluralism. There are many avenues to knowledge. Not one doctor or neuroscientist friend of mine had a clue about what caused my shaking, but that was part of the fun, the mystery. I think of the book as a funnel that keeps circling the same problem as it gets closer and closer to what in the end is a non-diagnosis. Nevertheless, the journey through the book is one of increasingly focused knowledge. Every illness is lived in the first person, and every illness is temporal – from the sudden fatal heart attack to the drawn-out debilitation of some cancers. Every story is a symbolic representation of time and change and makes meaning through connections. Diagnosis, X-ray, blood tests, MRI are vital tools in medicine, but they’re static representations of illness. Stories represent its personal, dynamic and meaningful reality. I realised the act of writing had a therapeutic effect. The last sentence is: ‘I am the shaking woman.’ I integrated the alien symptom into myself and my story.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In The Delusions of Certainty, a 200-page essay on the mind/body problem, you offer a scathing critique of first-generation cognitive science and its neo-Cartesian position as we have discussed. It was published as part of the larger collection A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (2016). It won The European Essay Prize 2019 given in Lausanne, Switzerland. It ends with a celebration of doubt. How is doubt important to your work? And why do you think most people don’t want to think about the mind/body problem?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Are you telling me there are people in the world who aren’t as obsessed with the mind/body problem as we are? Laughs.] Doubt is the engine of thought; certainty its enemy. Failures in science – and the model used in first-generation cognitive science is surely one of them – are often due to thoughtless acceptance of inherited assumptions. The mind/body problem isn’t solved, but I think it should matter to everyone. We routinely divide sicknesses into mental and physical, but what does this mean? Mental illness is still stigmatised as ‘all in your head’ – an unreal, non-physical ailment. At the same time, depression is called ‘a chemical imbalance in the brain’. Psychiatric illness involves the brain, of course, but ‘balancing’ chemicals is a meaningless concept. No patient should be treated as a biomedical object for the simple reason that her situation affects the course of her illness. For example, whether or not a person ‘has social support’, a dry term for ‘is loved by others’, has powerful effects on her immune system. Loneliness, poverty, sexism, racism, a miserable job, marital trouble, a violent neighbourhood create ‘stress’, implicated in countless illnesses, depression among them. Stress affects gene expression and has wide-ranging implications for many conditions. With rare exceptions, Huntington’s and PKU [Phenylketonuria], for example, disease is not genetically determined. Like mind and body, nature and nurture are not separable – they don’t ‘interact’ either. They are of the same process. Just as the repulsive slogan, ‘your genes are you’, touted by companies selling you DNA tests for disease risk, is political and the information dicey at best, reducing depression to neurochemicals has political meaning. It suggests your circumstances play no role in your illness, a convenient idea for neoliberal ideology and part of our new eugenics. The philosopher Mark Fisher aptly called this ‘the privatisation of stress.’

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Who are the audiences for your essays? What would you like the impact of your writing to be? Are you happy that some scientists have welcomed you as a colleague? We are in an interdisciplinary group I set up during the first lockdown, and which we collectively named the WoWs, made up of neuroscientists, philosophers and a political theorist. You have lectured at psychoanalytic, neurological, psychiatric and neuroscientific conferences. How do you perceive yourself in those contexts? Do you lose your novelist self or is she always present?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— She’s always present. And yet, in a world of specialists, it’s hard for people to figure out someone like me who crosses borders. I’m deeply grateful to my scientist friends who have taken me in. I love our group, and it has helped ease my intellectual loneliness – reading and reading with no one to talk to about it. Audiences for the essays? I try to write lucidly, but I know there are people who don’t understand me. This is clear from some reviews. I would like to prompt my readers to question the crushing platitudes and clichés that make up so much of what we hear and read. I would like to open new avenues for thinking about a problem. That said, an essay, a peer commentary and an academic article are all easier to write than a novel, which is the freest form of all and where I can play out truly risky ideas. In Memories of the Future I did this – danced all over the place. But even in my scientific papers, I break the rules and get published because people know who I am. Bias plays its part. Winning prizes, the Asturias Prize Hustvedt won the 2019 Princess of Asturias Award for Literature], for example, creates a bias for you, at least in the countries where they know about it.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Perception makes up reputation and frees up territory to pay attention.

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— Exactly.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Despite the variety of themes, sources and forms, I detect a coherence in your work that revolves around the idea of the between – an intersubjective, intercorporeal basis of life. Leo says, ‘The longer I live, the more convinced I am that when I say “I” I am really saying “we.”’ You published a paper, ‘Pace, Space, and the Other in the Making of Fiction’ (2018) in an issue of the journal Costellazioni devoted to ‘Narrative and the Biocultural Turn’. You write about the embodied rhythms that unfold between mother and infant as the pre-linguistic roots of narrative. In ‘Umbilical Phantoms’, which you gave as the opening lecture of The International Psychoanalytical Association’s Congress on 21 July 2021, you started outlining a highly innovative theory of the placenta as the mediating-between organ of prenatal existence, and how the literal connection between the fetal and maternal should reshape our ideas about origin as interconnection. Why do you think the placenta deserves attention, not only as a scientific but a philosophical object?

A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— The degree to which this organ has been neglected in Western science and philosophy is spectacular. Only recently has the placenta become an object of serious study in embryology. The well-funded Human Placenta Project started in 2014. From the Greeks onward, there has been queasiness about the simple fact that everyone begins inside the body of someone else and is wholly dependent on that body during pregnancy. There are no images of natural birth in Greek art, only unnatural birth. As the classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant put it, ‘The dream of a purely paternal birth never ceased to haunt the Greek imagination.’ Other cultures have birth art. Death is the great subject of Western philosophy, but gestation and birth, with important exceptions, have been largely neglected. Although in many cultures and in Western folk traditions, the placenta is treated with reverence as twin, double or spirit of the fetus, the transient organ of pregnancy lost significance with the widespread medicalisation of birth. Why? I think it’s about boundaries and misogyny. In 1857, the American doctor Jesse Boring insisted that the fertilised ovum was already an independent being and, despite it being an established medical fact, maintained there was no attachment of the placenta to the uterus. A body part connected to mother and fetus blurs the borders among them, an uncomfortable fact in any culture that champions male autonomy. We also remain in the grip of static taxonomies in biology. Linnaeus’s classification system in his famous tenth edition of the Systema Naturae (1758) boxed the living world into rational categories, but much of temporal reality went missing. As the philosopher of biology, John Dupré, has repeatedly written, ‘Organisms are not things but processes.’ I think he’s right. In our eagerness to fix and name things, we lose the truth of flux.

 

Much remains unknown about the placenta. Unlike the brain, heart, liver and lungs which look alike in mammals and function similarly, the placenta is species-unique. A mouse placenta isn’t particularly helpful in understanding a human one. Leonardo da Vinci’s famous renderings of a fetus in utero [Studies of the Fetus in the Womb, c.1511] have a cow’s placenta. Speculation is that he dissected only one pregnant woman and relied on animal dissections to fill in the blanks. We know the placenta is made from both maternal and fetal tissues, is an organ that joins and separates maternal and fetal systems and grows in tandem with the fetus. It orchestrates hormone, oxygen and nutrient delivery to the fetus, gets rid of waste, is involved in cellular exchange between mother and fetus, which creates DNA microchimeras of both, and keeps their two blood systems apart. My questions are: Isn’t reproduction itself about mixing two beings? How are we to understand both prenatal and postnatal between-realities? After birth, the between space once filled by the placenta becomes social space, between the infant and others, who take over the jobs of feeding, rocking and supervising the baby’s growth. This has never been framed or elaborated in this way. I think it’s important.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What are you going to do next? In our group we’ve discussed ideas for facing current political and ecological crises. How important is thought for creating change?
A

SIRI HUSTVEDT

— I have a book of essays coming out, Mothers, Fathers, and Others [published in 2021]. I am writing a novel, The Haunted Envelope, in which I hope to address some of these urgent issues. Then I’m going to write my placenta book. Ideas shape human perception. Change happens only when collective assumptions are successfully challenged, and the world begins to look like a different place.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

 is a historian of ideas and a philosopher. Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (Ecco, 2007), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Washington Post Best Non-Fiction Book for 2007. The Ceiling Outside: The Science and Experience of the Disrupted Mind was published by Basic Books in Spring 2022. She is an Associate Fellow of the Warburg Institute and an Honorary Fellow of the Centre for the Politics of Feelings (London), and a Research Associate at the Institut Jean Nicod (Paris).

SIRI HUSTVEDT is the author of a book of poetry, seven novels, four collections of essays and two works of non-fiction. She has a PhD in English literature from Columbia University and is a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her work, including the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature. Her fifth collection of essays, Mothers, Fathers, and Others, was published in 2021.

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Issue No. 11

Literature in a Distracted Era

Adam Thirlwell

feature

Issue No. 11

There are two categories in the literary system I’d like to celebrate at high speed: the lonely writer, and...

fiction

November 2011

Sheepskin

Olivia Heal

fiction

November 2011

The first I noticed was your thumbnails, large, round and flat, like two plates. They were marked with yellowed...

poetry

September 2011

First Blimp

Joshua Trotter

poetry

September 2011

Removing colour from my thoughts, I formed a winter ball. I threw it. The dead were uncounted. There was...

 

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