Siri Hustvedt in London
By ROZ DINEEN
There was a full house on Friday night in Tavistock Square for Siri Hustvedt in conversation with Dr Johanna Hartmann. Many in the crowd had spent the day attending events that focused on Hustvedt’s work, including panel discussions about trauma narratives, authorship and gender – all elements of a conference hosted by Birkbeck University as part of the Bloomsbury Festival.
Hustvedt began the evening by reading from a forthcoming collection of essays – in particular from a “200-page essay” called “The Delusions of Certainty”, which probes definitions of the mind. Hustvedt characteristically returns here to “first questions”: “is [the mind] different from the brain?”; “am I my mind?"; does the body think? (First questions are important, she later said; "most scholarly life asks the 347th question, which is propped up by the 346 before".) The essay followed the arguments of Descartes, Hobbes and Margaret Cavendish, among others, but the effect was entirely modern.
In the discussion with Hartmann that followed, Hustvedt touched on topics such as "the third brain" (the placenta) and phantom pregnancies. She referred to Steven Pinker (whose books include How the Mind Works, 1997), more than once, as “an irritant”. “Specialized knowledge can be abused", she said, "especially when it is brought to you on a platter.” The over-confident statements of Pinker et al can leave the impression that "all has been solved". There is never any suggestion in Hustvedt’s work of solutions; she opens up questions instead.
The questions from the audience were varied and interesting, reflecting the academic interest in Hustvedt's work as well as the enthusiasm her fiction attracts. A few wanted to know more about her creative process. This was harder to pin down even than the mind.
The TLS on Siri Hustvedt: