Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vibration analysis: The Shaking Woman

“At one time or another all of us go to pieces,” writes Siri Hustvedt, “and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” I first heard of Hustvedt though her husband, the writer Paul Auster, and first encountered her writing through
Mysteries of the Rectangle, her collection of astute, insightful, and engagingly personal essays on various works of visual art, before digging into her novels, starting with her debut, The Blindfold, which among other things fictionalizes her experiences with chronic debilitating migraines. Her new book, The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves (Henry Holt, $28), is a relatively slim memoir and a seeming departure from her body of work. Yet The Shaking Woman is in many regards a synthesis of nearly every major theme she’s ever dealt with. It’s a nonfiction, existential detective story with faint promise of any neat resolution, concerning the search for a missing diagnosis. It explores lingering mysteries of behaviour and perception, of the body and the mind—if you’ll excuse the dualism—while attempting to uncover established facts with a discipline and fervor rare in writers of fiction. It’s at times scary, always fascinating, and a pleasure to read.

The Shaking Woman was prompted by an experience Hustvedt had in 2006, two years after the death of her father. She was giving a speech in his memory at the university where he taught when her body began to violently convulse. She was already in her 50s by this point and had no history of seizures. As her limbs began to shake and flail, she noticed that her ability to speak wasn’t impaired in the slightest. She gripped the edges of the podium and went ahead and gave the speech while from the neck down her body went nuts. The shaking woman returned three more times, once while giving another public presentation, once while appearing on a low-key Norwegian television programme, and once while hiking in the Pyrenees. The attacks are obviously triggered by something more than stage fright, a particular memory, or repressed mourning. Four years have passed and Hustvedt still doesn’t know where this shaking woman came from.

“I can’t really see where the illness ends and I begin,” writes Hustvedt, addressing how neurological or psychiatric illness is identified with self in a way that corporeal illness isn’t. A large part of this book is devoted to trying to come to terms with what feels like an experience with a separate Other, despite the fact that this Other comes from within. Hustvedt provides readers with a brief history of hysteria, a condition and/or a term that’s been used and abused, discarded or renamed, yet whose real significance remains ambiguous. She consults a number of doctors, both real and imagined, including psychiatrists, a group who, despite her obvious interest in psychology, she’d previously avoided. “I have the vague sense that there are hidden recesses of my personality that I am reluctant to penetrate,” she writes. “Maybe that’s the part of me that shook.”

Hustvedt at one point describes the shaking woman as “a speechless alien who appears only during my speeches… an untamed other self, a Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll, a kind of double.” She interrogates the shaking woman, and tries to befriend her. She emphasizes the essentiality of language to reflexive self-awareness, of putting together words so as to find meaning through making a story of one’s life. Of course, she questions that, too. “Am I looking for a narrative,” she asks, “a confabulation, to interpret a debility that is no more and no less than synaptic wiring and firing?” Yet she accumulates ample evidence of the scientific and therapeutic value of storytelling, quoting physician Rita Charon, who describes how “narrative knowledge, by looking closely at individual human beings grappling with the conditions of life, attempts to illuminate the universals of the human condition by revealing the particular.”

While hurling herself into what seems a very personal search it’s interesting, and endearing, to observe how Hustvedt is continually fascinated by other people, among them Neil, the boy who can remember things exclusively through the act of writing, only to forget the information written as soon as he sets down his pen; Bertha Pappenheim, Breuer’s famous hysterical patient who lived with a “double consciousness,” one basically normal, one who was always observing the other from the outside; S., the man from whom everything was involuntarily associated with images, even numbers and individual words, so that reading a single sentence overwhelmed him with myriad detailed and competing pictures; or the psychiatric patients to whom she teaches writing. Hustvedt also looks to fictional people for help in her investigation, such as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, unable to accept death, Dostoyevsky’s epileptic Prince Myshkin, or Borges’ Funes the Memorious, who can’t forget a thing.

Hustvedt is a truly voracious reader, as fascinated by psychology, philosophy and science as she is by art, poetry, and fiction. At times her points of reference are so esoteric, so indicative of deeply obsessive research, as to be nearly comical. I had to laugh out loud when she pulled a quote from
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Yet this all-inclusive devouring of literature provides Hustvedt with a healthy skepticism, a view of various phenomena so broad and alert to contradiction as to keep her from latching too readily onto any one theory, however fashionable. It allows her to be as judicious as she is promiscuous, so that every time she seems in danger of losing the thread, of digressing far off from her personal detective story, she always manages to loop back to the essence of her search and feed it with more insight and precision. “The search for the shaking woman takes me round and round because in the end it is also a search for perspectives that may illuminate who and what she is.” And, inevitably, what Hustvedt comes to accept is that the shaking woman is her, or one part of her, an individual like any other, unfixed, unimaginably intricate, and alive.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Okay, I haven't read this book. So I can only hope that it's nowhere near as ridiculous and pretentious as it sounds. It just seems like the height of a certain kind of pampered New York literary decadence to devote an entire book to musings on three random nerve attacks... and then to get it published, all dressed up with fancypants allusions to characters from Tolstoy and Borges. (Why not Steve Martin and his "happy feet" attacks? I guess that comparison wouldn't be intellectually flattering enough to her.) Help me out here, JB... why does the mere existence of this book infuriate me so?

JB said...

Hey, Paul.

Well, I guess I should be the one to take full responsibility for making this book sound ridiculous. Other than being a bit distracted and fatigued when I wrote the post (I've been traveling a lot, barely at home lately, maybe going just a little bit nuts) I have no excuse. Anyway, it seemed pretty interesting to me, obviously. People write memoirs about being boozers or beaten by their parents or fly fishing, and even those relatively familiar or banal experiences can be interesting reads in the hands of good writers, so why not a memoir about something genuinely really weird and mysterious? Maybe I didn't make it sound weird and mysterious enough? The book is closest in tone to an Oliver Sacks book, compiling case studies of strange ailments that in the end don't feel necessarily pitiful but somehow fascinating and in some cases liberating, offering insight into the hidden patterns printed in our brains. And the references to established literary classics made sense since these titles have been read, re-read and analyzed so much and for so long that, even if they haven't actually read the books in question, most readers will surely have a pretty good idea as to what they're all about. Like classical myths, they offer a universal point of reference. They are also largely from the 19th century, which is precisely when modern psychology was just taking root and the writers of these books might have been on the cusp of diagnosis. (Dostoyevsky, it's guessed, was epileptic.) Having said that, I would have loved some reference to Steve Martin. But that's my sensibility, or your sensibility, not Hustvedt's, for better of for worse. Plus, I'm not totally sure how much scientific depth we could plumb from Martin's happy feet.

What else can I say? I just find this sort of thing totally gripping, and appreciated the fact that Hustvedt, like Sacks, wrote about some pretty complicated psychological theories in a way that I could actually understand, without making them sound over-simplified. Maybe Hustvedt has led a sort of pampered life, but I didn't find whatever level of privilege she's enjoyed to be a burden. She's pretty smart, very curious, and the book's less than 200 pages. Lastly, I'd just add that I actually like her nonfiction better than her fiction, though I haven't read all of it.

Paul said...

Of course you're right. A talented author can spin even a trivial incident into something fascinating and revealing about the human condition. I know full well I'm being ridiculous (and a little bit philistine) to reject Hustvedt's book on the flimsy grounds that it *sounds* like the kind of thing I probably wouldn't like.

I suppose I just have to accept the reality that when a "regular" person experiences some weird physical ailment, they talk about it with their friends over coffee and maybe Googles WebMD. And when the same thing happens to a New York literary celebrity, they write a 200-page book or sell a 5,000-word article about it to THE NEW YORKER. I'm just waiting for Vendela Vida to come out next year with a book called THE WEIRD, SCRATCHY FEELING AT THE BACK OF MY THROAT.

JB said...

Hm. I kinda like the title THE WEIRD, SCRATCHY FEELING AT THE BACK OF MY THROAT. I mean, at least for a children's book, no?