Harriet as Hustvedt’s Alter Ego
I agree with Berni that “I hear in each of the character’s writings, Hustvedt’s voice talking to me.” While reading The Blazing World, it also occurred to me that Harriet might be Hustvedt’s mask or alter ego. In the intro, “Hesse” discusses an article written about Harriet by an author named Richard Brickman. When she contacts St. Olaf College, the school that Brickman supposedly teaches at, she discovers that no one with the last name Brickman ever taught there and that Brickman was probably another one of Harriet’s pseudonyms (3). Hudsvedt completed her B.A at St. Olaf College. Maybe this is a wink to the reader? Or maybe she just wanted to give a shout-out to her alma matter. But later, in his essay he says he was influenced by “an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt, whose position” is “a moving target” (255). The associated footnote says, “this paragraph is so compressed, it suggests parody” (LOL) & “Which works by Siri Hustvedt Brickman/Burden has in mind are unclear” (255). When she refers to herself as “obscure,” does she mean that her in-text presence is obscure? Or does she feel that she doesn’t get the attention she deserves in the literary world? If it is the latter, to what extent might this have to do with the fact that Hustvedt’s work often involves feminist content?
Random thought: some reviews of The Blazing World criticize the book as pretentious. I didn’t feel this way but it is funny to think of Harriet as Hustvedt’s alter ego because Harriet is often irritated by the ignorance of other people, particularly when they fail to get her references, and The Blazing World is filled with explanatory footnotes.
Interdisciplinary Scholarship, Postmodernism & Masking
While reading this novel, I was prompted to think about my own life and my own modes of masking. I can’t get this Oscar Wilde quote out of my head, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” I think interdisciplinary and/or postmodern scholarship requires a kind of masking. The scholar has to try to see from a multiplicity of viewpoints but different viewpoints largely come from different lived experiences. Since we cannot live the experiences of other people, we can only imagine them and try to understand them. This is difficult because our understanding is always filtered through our own experiences. In the world of postmodernism, “truth” is a massive, fluid, contextual, mutliperspectival thing. I believe this is an accurate way to conceptualize truth but at the same time, it is difficult to navigate in this environment. I think this is why Oswald Case says “if there’s one thing that doesn’t fly in the art world, it’s an excess of sincerity.” Sincerity might not be popular in the art world because it requires convinction. I loved the The Shaking Woman but while reading it, I felt frustrated because I couldn’t pinpoint Hustvedt’s point of view on some issues. For instance, when she discussed the female body, she was so contradictory, her analysis lost meaning (to me). One minute she would say that biology and culture cannot be separated and the next she would say, rather simply, that woman probably aren’t as competitive as men. In this example, I wonder, is presenting multiple viewpoints a mask? Does Hudsvedt position herself as beyond reproach by being contradictory? Or is this simply a responsible way to present information? I really don’t know. One thing I do know is that in The Blazing World, she wholeheartedly (sincerely?) embraces the mask.
I totally support interdisciplinary scholarship & I love postmodern literature. I’m exploring these issues because of my own academic struggles. I feel passionate about things but I’m also aware that there is so much information I will never have access to and so many viewpoints I will never understand. Interdisciplinary research can be destabilizing and I sometimes cope with this by wearing a mask of ambiguity & multiplicity. I often don’t feel comfortable having concrete opinions about things unless my arguments are couched in ambiguous terms. I’m very afraid of being wrong, of offending people, of coming off as narrow-minded. Since The Blazing World is largely about ethics, identity, creativity, knowledge & expression, reading it led me to ask: How can I do interdisciplinary scholarship and engage with postmodern material and still speak sincerely from my own point of view? Would this require speaking from a stable self? How can I represent the viewpoints of other people without hiding? Is it possible to create ways of expressing knowledge that are simultaneously sincere, ambiguous and multiple? I hope this makes sense! Btw I don’t mean to conflate postmodernism & interdisciplinary scholarship. I know they are different, but I see some parallels that I want to draw attention to.
Thanks, Liz–great context and related ideas/thoughts you’ve brought in, here, from the author’s “real” life!
Ha– what you have here now makes perfect sense. I don’t remember what it read like before, but somehow I missed the reference.
More importantly, you ask some great questions: “How can I do interdisciplinary scholarship and engage with postmodern material and still speak sincerely from my own point of view? Would this require speaking from a stable self? How can I represent the viewpoints of other people without hiding? Is it possible to create ways of expressing knowledge that are simultaneously sincere, ambiguous and multiple?”
I think we should talk about this in class. I have a feeling Cvetkovich and Hartman will talk about this at their GC event tonight.
Further support for your “Harriet as Hustvedt’s alter ego” theory is the fact that like Harriet Burden, Hustvedt married someone very visible and successful in her own field of endeavor — Paul Auster, who is himself a major novelist. I’d always thought rather complacently of the two of them as professional equals, but a closer look at their careers reveals that he was published first (as a poet in the ’70s and as a prose author in the ’80s) and already had a literary reputation by the time Hustvedt published her debut novel in 1992. This sort of situation would probably inspire suspicions of nepotism even if the female half of a couple succeeded first, but the added factor of sexism means that a woman in a literary marriage who publishes after her husband will be navigating especially choppy waters. Googling Hustvedt and Auster’s names together instantly turns up evidence that she has indeed dealt with people in the literary world who thought of her first as “Paul Auster’s wife” and with at least one interviewer who expressed the opinion that Auster had actually written her first novel:
That reference to herself in The Blazing World as “obscure” fascinated me. Hustvedt is not, by any normal definition of the word, obscure: she is established, well-reviewed and lauded with multiple awards, and by characterizing her as obscure, Brickman immediately establishes that whatever his other credentials, he’s ignorant or worse on the subject of contemporary literature. Given the use Burden was making of Brickman, it’s not surprising he would display wrongheadedness about Hustvedt’s standing, but I noticed that the footnote by Hess doesn’t correct (and may even reinforce) the idea that Hustvedt is obscure. Is this modesty on Hustvedt’s part? Or some additional, fictionalized grist for her general argument that even successful women artists tend to be discounted?
Yes I noticed it & I mentioned it in my blog post but looking back on that page, I got confused so that part of my post didn’t really make sense. I fixed it… I think! Haha.
Hustvedt, like Harriet is quite the “trickster.”
Did you notice this moment in the Richard Brickman essay on page 254: “an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt, whose position Burden calls ‘a moving target'”?