Looking a wooman

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In its introduction, Siri Hustvedt reminds us of the famous culture war brought on in by the English scientist and novelist C. 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.

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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. These essays are often richly explored — especially the ones based in philosophical thought — and, when art is the subject, touchingly personal. The middle section is a presentation of the various kinds of neurobiological work now being done on the age-old mind-body problem.

It is this part of the book — the one that concentrates on the astonishing efforts being made to understand the mind as distinct from the brain — that most seriously commanded my attention. What clearly intrigues Hustvedt, the inspired student of science, is the exciting uncertainty that underpins this work. I have only one caveat: In awe, no doubt, of the formidable task she has set herself, Looking a wooman is compelled to let us know how extensively she has studied by invoking the names of almost everyone she has ever read, thereby making the essay often seem, unnecessarily, as though it has been written by someone who swallowed a library whole in order to lay claim to authority.

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Such sentiments appear again and again throughout this book. Hustvedt repeatedly gives herself over to the language of science — which, when applied to the right subject, is illuminating, but when applied to the wrong one can be jarring.

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Take the essay on suicide. There is no consensus about what a self is. Its contours change or even vanish, depending on your particular perspective — philosophical, psychological or neurobiological.

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Surely, I thought, no one who has ever stood over the actual body of an actual suicide has ever wondered what it means to kill the self. I, for one, have known my fair share of women and men whom I have loved and could not save from self-destruction because they felt compelled to not live.

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To stand, even for a moment, at the edge of that emotional abyss into which the candidate for suicide stares daily — and to be aware that it is only a matter of time before he or she dives in — is to be in the presence of one of the great mysteries of human existence; one that language, especially the impoverished language of science, cannot demystify. Hustvedt acknowledges as much, though hers is an intellectualizing sensibility.

I think she is happiest — and makes the reader happiest — in the presence of the great abstractions derived from the analytic intelligence. What is missing from the s of her book is only an equal abundance of felt life.

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Siri Hustvedt Views the Human Condition Through Art and Science