Inventing the Self

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Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman” and Life Writing

September 9th, 2013 by John Giunta · 5 Comments

The back-cover of my copy of Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves displays a review that contains the phrase “odyssey of discovery”, and because I am one of those people who will read the back and inside covers of books and then develop predispositions, this cliche misled me into believing Hustvedt’s auto-biographical essay would be some kind of literal journey across the world, filled with interviews and testimonials and remembrances. Predispositions are problematic because they are rarely accurate and yet they can be automatic – they must be helpful sometimes (especially when they are re-shrouded as “intuitions”) and yet are more likely dangerous (when they are unmasked as “prejudices”). When a scholarly talk is given by someone described as a European brain specialist, I automatically imagine someone who looks and talks like Antonio Damasio, and thus my version of reality is confirmed as nearer to realistic. Similarly, when I read the words “odyssey of discovery” I expect the following book to read somewhere in-between Homer’s Odyssey and “Eat, Pray, Love”.

Instead, The Shaking Woman reads like the perfect combination of exactly what it is billed as, an autobiographical essay. It is scholarly enough in that it is packed with references to writers and works and ideas and concepts, and yet its tone is familiar and comprehensible, with Siri’s real life episodes used sparingly, and then mainly as examples that illuminate theories or doubts she is reporting or expressing. The open-ended-ness of her argument – for indeed, I believe there is an argument for the relationship between the self, the body, disability or deviation, and life writing present in this book – only proves to enforce the inter-disciplinary  slant her investigation. By smartly incorporating multiple discourses in her work, Siri deftly demonstrates her authority and this rhetorical turn weakens resistance to what she’s writing. Overall, I felt like I learned a slew of different things by the end of this book, even if Siri and I never discovered the source of her shakes.

Thomas Couser does a lot of work in establishing the necessity of life writing in relation to under-represented portions of the disabled community. Obviously, “disability” is a blanket term too complicated to even truly warrant such a sweeping categorization, and it is exactly this enormity of difference and dissimilarity that invalidates any attempt at establishing a “community”, yet we sometimes must deal in generalizations to hasten our informal blogposts. The fact that Siri does not discover an answer is significant because it reveals both our extreme unawareness (disknowledge?) of the human body and its capabilities AND the importance of the search for more answers. As I said, our understanding of “disability” can run the gamut from physical to mental and emotional to political or social – all categories can be referred to as possessing bodies and thus all physical, mental, emotional, political, or social Others can become images of disabled bodies, but this vast majority of stimagtized figures rarely gets the opportunity to represent themselves, and this absence creates the problematic binary of abled/disabled to begin with. Siri’s investigation is motivated by her own mental/physical malady, but her work undoes any easy diagnosis as she becomes a kind of maverick body which disproves many theories, or rather, exposes the oft-taken-for-granted “theory” for what it really is, an educated, contestable guess backed by some evidence. I think this is significant, for Disability Studies as a field exists to show an always-fluctuating range of humanness that denies such static states as “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Although I cannot find the section now, I especially liked the portion of Siri’s essay that dealt with the doctor who bemoaned the absence of storytelling in the hospital as a form of medication. As The Shaking Woman makes clear, the biological is inexplicably linked with the imaginative – diagnosis and theories are, in the end, creative arguments that utilize, above all, language – and that autobiography is paramount to understanding the self. As a question I would pose before I sign-off (because I worry my train of thought has become confusing or disjointed), I wonder what this essay or the Eakin excerpt would make of individuals who do not have the capacity to generate an autobiography or utilize language, for either general mental/physical reasons, or from illiteracy, and how they perceive self-ness.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Jason Tougaw // Sep 9th 2013 at 2:41 pm

    A couple of quick comments:

    1. The doctor you mention is Rita Charon, and she runs the Narrative Medicine at Columbia. She’s having a real-world influence on medical education and practice.

    2. I bet you anything Hustvedt cringes at the phrase “odyssey of discovery.” She is not prone to clichés. And I’d blame her publisher’s marketing department for misleading you into thinking you were in for Eat, Pray, Love.

  • Shona Mari Sapphire // Sep 9th 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Response to John’s Post –

    “By smartly incorporating multiple discourses in her work, Siri deftly demonstrates her authority and this rhetorical turn weakens resistance to what she’s writing.”
    I was also impressed with Hustvedt’s ability to present an intellectual and personal journey of investigation navigated through several classical scientific formats with a level of scholarly detachment that gave credibility to her fluid and emerging analysis. Without any particular credentials or formal training in Psychoanalytic Theory, Psychology, Philosophy or Neuroscience her writing was an informative amalgamation of a certain breadth of knowledge not hindered by allegiance to any one scientific discourse.
    And what of the knowledge of self and consciousness that exists in those without exposure or access to formal language formats which make documenting autobiographical information possible? What about other cultural constructs which have documented and disseminated autobiographical narrative in non formalized manners such as such as art or oral tradition?

  • John Giunta // Sep 9th 2013 at 6:21 pm

    I hadn’t even thought of art as auto-biographical, but that’s a rilly good example! I’m sure we will encounter some thinker or author who locates self-hood in relation to artistic expression along this course eventually.
    My particular interest is in Disability Studies, and I think Tobin Sieber’s short book “Disability Aesthetics” is this wonderful (if not graphic) introduction to looking at disabled, fractured, or otherwise stigmatized bodies in painting, sculpture, architecture, and performance art. It’s cross-disciplinary sample opens up the same kind of spaces Hustvedt does here, but I would argue that one of Sieber’s points is that art (particularly outsider art) can better depict the viewpoints of those you have identified as being “without exposure or access to formal language formats”.

  • Jason Scaglione // Sep 10th 2013 at 1:22 pm

    One of the parts I enjoyed so much in this book was Hustvedt’s continued questioning. One thing she does so well, and I believe you pick up here, is revealing confusion in a juxtaposition of “normal” / “abnormal.” Like any binary, the contrast begins obvious enough—but breaks down classically as Hustvedt’s trained curiosity deconstructs its parts. A similar mechanism is at function, I think, in your introduction from a Disability Studies perspective:
    “Disability Studies as a field exists to show an always-fluctuating range of humanness that denies such static states as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. ” Able / Disable etc. We might understand these categories in the abstract, but interrogating specific examples (e.g. as Hustvedt covers various cases) rather complicates any application of a general concept. It is a journey of questions, and we end up with no answers.

  • Gabriel R. Seijo // Sep 10th 2013 at 9:39 pm

    John, I agree with and have enjoyed very much your reaction to our assigned reading. I share with Jason the positioning that her constant reflection and breaking down of the more general juxtapositions in the field make her rhetoric stand strong and convincing. The book answers a lot of questions, and also generates many others, which I believe is usually an indication of the construction of a good argument. The open-ended-ness, and inter-disciplinary slant with which you describe her stance or style, I believe serves as a great constructive critic on contemporary academic thought; not by making open-ended-ness an every day goal, but by assuming that reaching dead on, incorruptible answers, is sometimes not possible, and that clarification or solution to vague thematic can be made more accessible through interdisciplinary effort.

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