Art, sexism,migraines and lots of Woolf – Non fiction reads of the past months

I realize there has been quite a lot of books I read recently that I didn’t write about – not that I’m trying to thoroughly review everything I read, far from it – but amongst those are 3 non fiction books which I’ve loved and would fit together nicely in a feminism-art-literature bundle, so I decided I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to rave.

Firstly, I read Everyday sexism, by Laura Bates, a few months back. I had read an essay of her in  the the collection “I call myself a feminist”, an interesting essay to me but generally deemed a  sort of shortened version of this book to the other reviewers of the feminist orchestra book club who had already read it. So I went for the original piece.

Originally an online project started by Laura Bates to catalogue experiences of daily sexism – when she realized she wasn’t the only one suffering from and accepting a variety of comments and attitudes (from the supposedly fun  street harassment comment to sexual abuse) – this is a compelling testimony of all the voices (not exclusively women) who replied to Bates project and shared their story. It is organized in chapters sorting through a woman’s development, from primary school to professional career, with specific insights into woman with double – or triple burdens of discrimination, like muslim woman, or LGBTQ+. Each chapter starts and is strongly based on those individual testimonies, making a chorus of voices, which, even if it has no pretence at being a statistically significant sample, is a perfect way to show the universality of those experiences of sexism. And it allows Bates to simply present and link those voices, without preaching. The voices are enough.

After finishing it, overwhelmed with the chilling statistics about rape and the collective voices of systematic abuse, battling with a sense of despair, you do have to remember that there has never been a better time in history to be a woman than now, and to take some poise and comfort from projects like this and #shoutingback: there is a strength to gain in not letting any of it go unnoticed, and a strength in responding.

Without transition, but not straying very far from feminism, I also read “Art objects – essays on ecstasy and effrontery” by Jeanette Winterson.

Which is about what it states, honestly. And is, as books of essays go, slightly atypical in tone, because it is Winterson, and she doesn’t do mellow, academic ramblings. She does passion. In this, she covers the necessity of art, and what she means by art (as truth, as objection, as the title says), but also specific writers such as Virginia Woolf, and the never ending struggles of being recognized as a writer without any association to your sex or sexuality. As I said, it is not nuanced in the traditionnal style of essays, where writers would seek to also present other points of view, at least to argue them. Winterson has no time for counterarguments, she wants to talk of beauty and truth, and she talks of it beautifully. And it doesn’t matter that you may or may not agree with everything. I read this and wanted to go to a museum, re-read Virginia Woolf,  go to a gallery and mostly, sit and think. Because this is so concentrated with ideas you will need a moment to breathe.But breathlessness, in this instance, is exhilarating.

In contrast – of tone mostly – I reread Siri Hustvedt’s Essays (mostly because I had at that point of the travel read everything there was in my e-reader). These are split into three parts, as the title suggests (it’s what also links these books, accidentally, straight-forward titles): the first about living experiences, like living with a migraine or looking into the mirror, the next more intellectual activities like writing and the last about seeing and art – covering a variety of visual artists from Goya to Louise Bourgeois.

Hustvedt is a writer with a fascination with psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and is well versed into their different languages, as she shows in one of those essays, excursion to the Islands of the happy few, which starts with intentionally obscure quotes from each domain just to make a point: specialist in every field approach  common themes with a vocabulary so obtuse they can’t communicate across branches any more. She, in contrast, dwells from  one to the other, from Freud – with the right amount of disassociation, of course and mostly Winnicott to Luria,  linking our particular appreciation of portraits with the fusiform gyrus and mirror neurons. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, read Hustvedt, she is crystal clear and manages to juggle difficult thoughts and concept to present a concise idea, without simplifying.

I would bet it is even more enlightening to someone to whom neuroscience and psychoanalysis is a black box, in fact I distinctively remember that I found it a lot more earth-shattering the first time I read this, before studying medicine and reading Lacan and some of his friends, but her ability to sore across fields of research and bring a new perspective still astonished me.

Well, I had started this post thinking I would do mini-reviews, and I see I’ve raved for a long time indeed. Concision is something I will never attain, I’m afraid. I will live you with a bundle of quotes from those, and hope it will give you a few ideas should you be looking for non-fiction reads!

From Hustvedt:

“Words quickly become thing-like. It has often fascinated me how a psychoanalytic concept such as internal object, for example, can be treated as if it weren’t a metaphor for our own inner plurality that necessarily includes the psychic presence of others, but as if it were something  oncrete that could be manipulated – like a shovel” 

“We become ourselves through others, and the self is a porous thing, not a sealed container-(…) Americans cling desperately to their myths of self-creation, to rugged individualism, now more free-market than pioneer, and to self-help, that strange twist on do it yoursef, which turns a human being into an object that can be repaired with a toolbox and some instructions. We do not author ourselves, which is not to say that we have no agency or responsibility, but rather that becoming doesn’t escape relation.” 

From Winterson:

“When I let myself be affected by a book, I let into myself new customs and new desires. The book does not reproduce me, it re-defines me, pushes at my boundaries, shatters the palings that guard my heart. Strong texts work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists” 

“The twentieth century, in the footsepts of the nineteenth, as difficulty with the notion of art as ecstasy”

“There are plenty of Last Days signposts to persuade us that nothing is worth doing and that each one of us lives in a private nightmare occasionally relieve by temporary pleasure. Art is not a private nightmare, not even a private dream, it is a shared human connection that traces the possibilities of past and future in the whorl of now.”

“People who claim to like pictures and books will often only respond to thosep ictures and books in which they can clearly find themselves, This is ego masquerading as taste. To recognise the worth of a thing is more than recognising its worth to you.”

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2 thoughts on “Art, sexism,migraines and lots of Woolf – Non fiction reads of the past months

  1. I already have the Winterson on my wishlist thanks to one of your earlier posts, but my, these all look good – especially the Hustvedt. I can see myself curling up on the sofa through many dark nights of winter with a copy, enjoying that feeling of my mental muscles getting stretched!

    Liked by 1 person

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