Some thoughts on The Shaking Woman

Since finishing The Shaking Woman, my mind has been spinning in the best possible kind of way. Hustvedt sheds light on some very murky and interesting issues. While her work is non-conclusive, it certainly galvanizes deep thought and curiosity. There are innumerable gems in this book so I will focus on a few of my favorite passages/ themes.

Hustvedt demonstrates that what it means to be a human being is a live question. She does this by investigating the self through a theoretical kaleidoscope and similarly by blurring binaries, boundaries and borders related to the self. As a social/neurological research-memoir, The Shaking Woman is experimental, imaginative and creative. It straddles various genres and explores the ambiguous, the absurd and the mysterious elements of existence.

This passage particularly resonated with me:

“It is impossible to separate nature and nurture. You cannot isolate a person from the world in which he lives, but more than that, notions of outside and inside, subject and object become entwined…we are made through others” (92)

I am interested in the notion of the self as porous, as always in a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. Echoing Hustvedt, Donna Haraway asks: “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” Judith Butler avers, “the category of the human is in the process of becoming.”

Throughout the Shaking Woman, Hustvedt demonstrates the interactive nature of binary structures, for instance between biology/culture, internal/external, mind/body, self/other. Her biological conundrum is approached through both her personal experiences and the personal experiences of others. According to Hustvedt, the self is not static or sovereign. It is mutable, process-oriented, both powerful and vulnerable. This is connected to her beliefs about epistemological pluralism and interdisciplinary scholarship:

The issue here is one of perception and its frames, disciplinary windows that narrow the view…when researchers are trapped in preordained frames that allow little air in or out, imaginative science is smothered. (p. 79)

Hustvedt brings together inter alia discussions of history, neurology, philosophy, psychology, fictional narrative, personal narrative, etc. Her biological condition requires investigation into all of these fields –often resulting in insoluble contradictions and impasses. Hustvedt is explorative. While she doesn’t reach “truth,” she moves toward it in various ways. She approaches truth as a fluid entity that cannot truly be penetrated. I think the fact that there is no solution or conclusion to the story speaks to the slipperiness of truth. This is also conveyed by the style. It has a stream-of-consciousness feel because of its non-linear structure and randomness. It seems to me that this is a project in taking control by relinquishing control. It exposes the beauty of letting go. Hustvedt lets go of the notion that she can fully understand and control her body. In doing so, she also resists the closure that comes from certainty/parochialism.

I also appreciate that in The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt draws attention both to the specific lived experiences of variously situated people and the universal aspects of humanity (for instance the “it” that haunts us all) that binds us together.

I also appreciated the breadth and complexity of her study because it was presented in a very accessible way.

Writing this novel and undergoing this journey is an incredibly brave endeavor. It bridges a gap between consciousness and unconsciousness. She willfully goes on a journey inward to confront the subterranean parts of herself. I find this concept very interesting. How do we deal with the determined and inaccessible elements of ourselves? How can we feel powerful in the face of something that has power over us? How do we grasp the ungraspable?

This passage is very powerful:

“It appeared that some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body…every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control.”

In A Very Easy Death, after watching the slow and painful death of her mother, Simone de Beauvoir said, “You do not die from being born, nor from having lived, nor from old age… death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.” When Hustvedt merges with the shaking woman, it is a triumph on many levels. In accepting that undesirable part of herself, she also confronts her own mortality. Even if it is an intruder, even if it violates her, she recognizes that it is an inevitable part of herself. Like the various dichotomies she blurs (mind/body, inside/outside, self/other), the boundary between life and death is also a blur. Life is only life because we die and death is only death because we have lived. I believe that even to confront or to acknowledge morality on a deep level is a triumph. As terror management theorists such as Becker have argued, there are ubiquitous social and cultural structures and unconscious drives that prevent us from ruminating on this terror.

Anyways, this was a wonderful book and I really look forward to talking to you all about it on Tuesday!


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5 Responses to Some thoughts on The Shaking Woman

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    “Theoretical kaleidoscope” is a great description of Hustvedt’s method. I think she’d appreciate that–particularly since a kaleidoscope’s images are always shifting.

  2. The theme of a self that is transcendence runs throughout Hustvedt’s book. But in writing this book she’s stuck in dwelling between two places, the self as the contained object and identity and the self that is transcendence. As you said, she demonstrated that what it means to be a human is a live question; but this is perhaps so because she cannot move forward to explore what it means to be a transcendence self without breaching the boundaries of the book that is about her. For instance in this passage on page 147-148:
    “Maybe people who can integrate fragments and form a unified picture are people who understand reality as not just a sea of frozen material objects, already given to us, but a puzzle of perceptions that depends on the viewer.”
    It is like standing at an open door and see inside a new horizon. Yet she does not invite us to enter and explore it. We can only look. By the time we finished reading that passage and we wonder what more is to say about the puzzle of perception, she shuts the door and moves on. Hence her efforts to know her own self, let alone helping us to understand our own selves, is constrained by her decision to stick to the self as a contained object or identity, defined by her body, her mind and by her shaking. She knows her other self is out there but like the rest of us, she does not reach for it.

  3. Mari Gorman says:

    Hi Amber,

    Thanks for the telling me about these books. I will definitely check them out. What I would be great is a better understanding of the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I’m not knocking knowledge, but it seems that wisdom is infinitely more important. People can have knowledge but be unable to contribute anything of value, whereas a person with wisdom can do so, even with little or no education at all. It seems that with a greater appreciation of wisdom, and of one’s own wisdom, people will be less likely to fall for ideas that diminish them.

  4. Amber Chiac says:

    Hi Mari,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Remember a few years ago when Harvard awarded dr. Richwine a doctorate for his dissertation that argued Latino immigrants are less intelligent than white Americans? I believe his primary claim was that Latinos are genetically intellectually inferior to whites. Even if Richwine’s findings appeared “objective” or “scientific” what would that even mean in this case? Obviously he focused on biology and genetics but by not recognizing that biology/genetics is shaped by semiotics, racism, poverty, etc. his results were totally warped. So yes, I definitely agree that basing knowledge off simplistic categorizations and binary structures cause illness and pathology…both for “experts” and people victimized by hegemonic knowledge production. I mean, even the concept of “American” or “White” or “Latino” is a constructed “reality” that reflects power perversions not ontological truth.

    I think this topic is discussed in depth in Judith Butler’s book Bodies that Matter. She describes how homophobic and sexist hegemony structures our semiotic and material selves/bodies. I think Foucault also wrote about this in The History of Sexuality when he discussed “bio-power” and Bahktin in Rabelais and His World when he described “the new bodily canon.” He described this as a “finished body in a finished world.” One that is hetero-normative: white, able, clean, non-sexual, individualized, confined, controlled, healthy. According to Bhaktin and Foucault, “expert” categorizations are about creating productive and obedient bodies/citizens that maintain systems of power. So even the concept of “healthy” and “normal” is highly problematic.

  5. Mari Gorman says:

    I too was struck by the passage, “It is impossible to separate nature and nurture. You cannot separate a person from the world in which he lives, but more than that, notions of outside and inside, subject and object become entwined…we are made through others.” I wonder if, because in the world of science there is the long-standing, pervasive idea or view that nature and nurture, mind and body, subject and object, or person and environment are separate things rather than two sides of a coin–and really all inseparable parts of an individual existence, that this pervasive view of the “experts” is itself a contributing factor of physical and psychological illness.

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