“I, Harriet Burden, am a machine of vindictiveness and spite.”

Dear Siri,

Your novel The Blazing World (2014) weaves in so many topics – history of art, psychiatry, neurobiology, continental philosophy. It dwells on meditations on the dialogical nature of both artistic creation and the creation of an identity as well as on the ways in which our perception is determined by cultural prejudices.

siri-hustvedt2

The novel is structured in the form of a book written by an Aesthetics professor named I.V. Hess, who studies the story of Harriet Burden, a then-deceased artist. This intricate book within another book within another book (Burden’s book within Hess’s book within your book) comprises a compilation of Burden’s diary fragments, copious footnotes, newspaper clippings, transcripts of interviews, fictional passages written by the artist’s son, articles by art critics, and accounts of Burden’s friends and relatives. Through this bricolage exercise, you open to the reader, chapter by chapter, the multiplicity of contradictory and competing perspectives with which you manipulate and enact the playing between the differences of perception that  are central to the plot.

I.V. Hess’s research on Harriet Burden’s life and career was motivated by a letter sent in 2003 to an art magazine. On this letter, the sender – allegedly a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College – claimed to have unraveled a fraud in the art world: over the course of five years, from 1998 to 2003, Harriet Burden was the author of three installations – “The History of Western Art,” “The Suffocation Rooms” and “Beneath” – whose authorship had been falsely attributed to different artists.

In his/her introduction to Burden’s work, Hess clarifies the context surrounding this discussion. After marrying Felix Lord, a successful art collector, Harriet Burden came to feel, as an artist, gradually dazzled by the figure of her husband. After Lord’s death in 1995, Burden, consumed by a furious desire for revenge and by an eagerness for recognition, embarks on an ambitious project entitled “Maskings”: the artist secretly hires three different men to publicly assume the authorship of three installations created by Burden – and to serve, therefore, as “masks” for the artist. The triad of “conspirators” / “masks” with whom she works is quite varied: Anton Tish, a neophyte in the arts circuit; Phineas Q. Eldridge, a homosexual performer; and Rune, a conceptual artist who presents himself as Burden’s doppelgänger.

The aims of this ruse were simple: to determine whether a work would receive greater recognition if attributed to a man; to reveal the way in which unconscious ideas about gender and race influence the perception and understanding of a particular work of art; and to expose, in this way, the current sexism in the art world in New York. In Phineas Q. Eldridge’s words,“Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’”

The contrast between different perceptions and the effect of this contrast on the appreciation of the artistic object are recurrent themes not only in your fiction, but also in your works of criticism and nonfiction. In The Blazing World, such themes are repeatedly staged in various levels: Burden manipulates viewers both through the interactive character of her installations, as well as through the masks that overlap them; Burden also manipulates the perception she has of herself, and rewrites her identity through the use of psychoanalysis; Hess, editor of Burden’s work, manipulates our impressions of the artist through the passages he/ she chooses to compile, as well as through the way he/ she organizes them; Burden manipulates perceptions about her art by assuming the pseudonym “Richard Brickman,” under which she publishes a critical text about her work from a male point of view.

In this novel about betrayal and fraud, everyone cheats – even you, the author: in a footnote to Hess’s work, there is a not very honourable passage about an “obscure writer and essayist” named … Siri Hustvedt! Each of the  many narrators – the characters in the novel – manipulates, through their personal perspectives and intentions – now of falsification, now of enlightenment – our perception of Burden. As if that were not enough, the artist herself, like Kierkegaard (author she quotes so much in her diaries), is divided into heteronyms.

Sometimes Burden appears to us as a true creative titan, whose career was unjustly marked by a sexist artistic establishment; sometimes, she is a woman dangerously consumed by ill-resolved feelings and persecution syndrome. “I wanted to bite the bloody world, but I have bitten myself, made my own poor tragedy of things,” laments the artist. Her diary notes are now embarrassing, now grandiloquent, now painfully sincere. “Maskings” is part experiment, part ratification: Burden is already convinced that her artwork would have achieved due recognition had it been attributed to a man.

Not coincidentally, the fictional figure with which Burden most identifies herself since adolescence is Frankenstein: as Mary Shelley’s famous character, your protagonist is also made up of many different and ill-adjusted parts, and of stories within stories. “The terrible being Frankenstein makes is so lonely and misunderstood that his very existence is cursed. (…) His awful isolation is transformed into vengeance,” says Burden’s friend Rachel. The Blazing World is also a kind of Frankenstein: a collage of genres, styles, voices and various themes. Like your character Burden, you, in this novel, “pushed her [your] art out of her [you] like bloody newborns”. 

Among the texts compiled in Hess’s work are the story of Burden’s daughter, Maisie, a documentary filmmaker; autofictional writings of Burden’s son Ethan (fiction within non-fiction within fiction); testimonials of the men who served as “masks” in the experiment; reports of Burden’s friend and psychoanalyst, Rachel; and numerous excerpts from Burden’s journals, replete with quotations and references that include: James Tiptree Jr. (pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon); Søren Kierkegaard; Squirrel; Ursula K. Le Guin; Emily Dickinson; Freud; Picasso; Husserl; Merleau-Ponty; Jaak Panksepp, among many others. The title of the book itself is a reference to Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666). It is also the name of Burden’s latest work: a sculpture by Margaret Cavendish.

Not only does the perception of the artist’s work change, according to the “mask” that overlaps it; the way Burden elaborates her works also changes, as the different versions of herself that the artist explores or seek in the works she produces change. The many frontiers addressed – between identity and mask / life and art / self and other / Hess’s book and Hustvedt’s book – merge and dissolve under the flames. The texts compiled by Hess unfold, chapter by chapter, in a polyphonic spiral that, like the fire, feeds itself exactly of that which it ends up destroying. Burden’s vengeful fury is the spark – small, but inevitable – that lights up the plot and consumes the protagonist. To this play of mirrors, of the different voices and perspectives, there is added a very thin layer of doubt: How to separate manipulation, perception and fact? Where is the border between the mask and the face? Who used whom in this experiment? “The path to the truth,” says Burden, “is doubled, masked, ironic.”

Even Burden’s premises – the male privilege in art and the fact that our perception of the art object varies according to who we are and what we know about its author  – are kept under fire, in the shooting line. Like Burden, you also manipulate perceptions that alternate themselves, in a movement of constant revision that never is solved, nor exhausts itself.

Through unreliable narrators and alternating perspectives, you create a narrative that ultimately distrusts narratives. Ambiguity and mutability permeate all the topics covered by the book: authorship, gender, identity, memory. Rapid changes of perspective – not only between characters, but also between Burden’s tactile work and your written work – give the book the shape of a panopticon built on a turntable surrounded by the distorted mirrors of a variety circus, in whose center we find Burden, reflected by multiple fragments of images. Who speaks to us? Is it Burden? Or Burden only as perceived by another character? Is Burden writing as someone else? Or is it you, writing like Burden? Or vice versa? In every fictional voice, in every report, you also wear some masks.

Burden’s artwork illustrates and stages the very format of your novel: it begins with tiny dollhouses, filled with hidden meanings; and it ends in the immense sculpture in the form of the body of a habitable woman, full of miniatures, entitled The Blazing World. Both your book and Burden’s installation first mirror and then consume each other: they light up for a moment, shine, and finally dissolve themselves under the flames.

Your truly,

J.


Antonio Tapies. "Untilted (Flame and Mirror). 1967.
Antonio Tapies. “Untilted (Flame and Mirror). 1967.

“I, Harriet Burden, am a machine of vindictiveness and spite.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

“There will be three masks, just as in the fairy tales. Three masks of different hues and countenances, so that the story will have its perfect form. Three masks, three wishes, always three. And the story will have bloody teeth.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

“Le Guin, Mother said, had understood something deep. ‘When you take on a male persona, something happens.’
When I asked her what that was, she sat back in her chair, waved her arm, and smiled. ‘You get to be the father.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

“Emotionally charged objects stay alive in memory.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

“Editing is the most obvious way of manipulating vision. And yet, the camera sometimes sees what you don’t – a person in the background, for example, or an object moving in the wind. I like these accidents. (…) My mother believed and I believe in really looking hard at things because, after a while, what you see isn’t at all what you thought you were seeing just a short time before. looking at any person or object carefully means that it will become increasingly strange, and you will see more and more. I wanted my film about this lonely woman to break down visual and cultural cliches, to be an intimate portrait, not a piece of leering voyeurism about woman’s horrible accumulations.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World


About the book

  • Simon & Schuster, 2014, 357 p. Goodreads
  • The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014
  • My rating: 4,5 stars

 

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