Inventing the Self

For Wednesday’s Class

September 9th, 2013 by Jason Tougaw · No Comments

For Wednesday’s class, choose a moment in Siri Hustvedt’s book in which she uses one of Gordon Harvey’s “Elements” in an interesting ways. (If you weren’t in class for our first meeting, see the Documents page on this blog.) You might choose this moment because Hustvedt uses Harvey’s element in a way you’d like to emulate; or because she uses it in an usual way; or simply because her use of it confuses you or raises questions you’re not sure how to answer. You may have another reason altogether, or a combination of reasons. It’s up to you. We’ll spend the first part of class comparing the moments you’ve chosen, so have them at the ready.

I’ll give you an example, with regard to Hustvedt’s use of both sources and stance. In the following passage, Hustvedt has the chutzpah to rewrite Freud:

In The Ego and the Id (1923) Freud writes, “The question ‘How does a thing become conscious?’ would thus more advantageously be stated, ‘How does a thing become pre-conscious [available to consciousness]?’ And the answer would be ‘through becoming connected to the word presentations corresponding to it.’ ” Further, he says, these words are “residues of memory.” He does not deny that visual imagery is part of the remembered mental world, but he argues that it has another character, that being conscious of an optical memory is more concrete and that “the relations between the various elements of the subject matter, which especially characterizes thought, cannot be given visual expression (59; ebook 46/159)

Hustvedt’s revision of Freud is characteristic of her writing–and her stance in particular. It’s clear that she admires Freud, and often displays real affection and respect for his work. But she’s not afraid to say he’s gotten this wrong, or at least not quite right. The difference between “conscious” and “preconscious” is important to Hustvedt because it indicates something fundamental about both mind and self: we don’t control which thoughts or feelings become conscious. Hustvedt follows Freud in seeking a logic for how and why particular thoughts and feelings become “available to consciousness,” but she stresses the fact that their availability doesn’t mean they ever will become conscious. They may influence us without our ever knowing it. Her quest to understand “the shaking woman” is driven at least partly by a desire to gain a better sense of how her own preconscious feelings may be influencing the behavior of her body. So, basically, Hustvedt uses a source her in a way that seems characteristic of her stance toward the history of ideas. Let’s be respectful, she seems to be saying, but not precious. She implies that she, like Freud (or anybody else) is likely to get some things wrong, and that we shouldn’t worry too much about that, because genuine contributions to intellectual debates require the audacity to make claims even when you know you’re likely to be wrong at least as often as you may be right.

In another passage, Hustvedt offers an extremely  articulate explanation of her method:

Who are we, anyway? What do I actually know about myself? My symptom has taken me from the Greeks to the present day, in and out of theories and thoughts that are built on various ways of seeing the world. What is body and what is mind? Is each of us a singular being or a plural one? How do we remember things and how do we forget them? Tracking my pathology turns out to be an adventure in the history of experience and perception. How do we read a symptom or an illness? How do we frame what we observe? What is inside the frame and what falls outside it? Janet’s patients didn’t have brain scans, but Neil did. Neil’s scan does not explain his dissociated orthographic memory. Automatic writing once had a place in medical theory. Now it is an outcast, a curiosity that stuns researchers. Why? (69; ebook 53/159)

Notice that she characterizes her method as “an adventure in the history of experience and perception.” Adventure requires daring–and fun. Hustvedt begins with some questions: “Who are we, anyway? What do I actually know about myself?” To find answers, she has to read voraciously in a variety of fields and synthesize what she reads. Then she has to find ways to articulate what she has learned and synthesized in ways that will appeal to an audience.

Every writer has to do this, but not every writer is quite so articulate about her processes and methods. One goal for this course is for us all to become more aware of the processes and methods we develop in order to find answers to questions we care about as passionately as Hustvedt cares about hers. It doesn’t hurt to have some fun in the process.

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