I have always admired the sly politeness in Mr. Bennet’s response to his wife’s cross complaints about his callousness about her nerves: “I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” Other people’s nerves are indeed very tiresome, and it is a real commendation for Siri Hustvedt that she has written a 231-page book about her nerves that is both fascinating and not overly self-absorbed.
The dramatic part of Hustvedt’s story begins when she starts to speak at a memorial tree-planting for her father and is bodily beset by violent shudders and shakes like a seizure — and yet she finds that her voice issues forth quite unaffected. What has happened? Why? The method of the rest of her book is a like a screwdriver twisting ever deeper to get a purchase on an answer.
Is there a Freudian cause? A physiological one dating back to a fever in her infancy? Much of Hustvedt’s background research (she is a very fine novelist) has been in neurology and psychoanalysis — so is this merely a case of susceptibility run amok? Is there a secret flaw in her brain? Does she need analysis, pharmacology, religion? Hustvedt’s reaction to becoming seriously and mysteriously out of control of herself led her to write this book, “an adventure in the history of experience and perception.”
Hustvedt’s self-study has no chapters to channel her into familiar runnels of thought; she is instead pushed forward by torrents of questions like these. Her material roughly divides into autobiographical sections and more detached medical considerations, but thoughts flow in more unanticipated ways than often useful divisions such as nature/nurture or brain/mind allow. So as she thinks about how memories are made and retrieved, we learn about her early childhood living in a dorm on campus and we get a history of hysteria and post-traumatic stress disorder; we hear about the writing exercises she does with psychiatric patients and we read about a boy whose brain was partly damaged by a tumor: “The talking Neil had amnesia. Neil’s writing hand did not.” Spurs for her thinking include the psychiatrist Luria and the novelist Dickens, and the two James brothers of Varieties of Religious Experience and “The Turn of the Screw.” I could imagine people finding the book a mish-mash, or far preferring certain parts to others, but surely part of Hustvedt’s point is that all these facets are part of her and might hold the solution to the mystery.
And that mystery goes beyond the particular physical problems suffered by Hustvedt to a metaphysical fear and trembling apparently built into our systems. “Who are we anyway? What do I actually know about myself?” Fittingly Socratic for Hustvedt’s search, the answer current when she wrote the book is that she knows that she doesn’t know.