A call for an “abiding uncertainty” — On A Plea for Eros by Siri Hustvedt

Where does the need to write come from? What is it? It is a need, not a choice — it’s giving way and a giving up.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I have reunited with Siri Hustvedt, c/o her collection of essays, A Plea for Eros. Another favorite writer — I’ve read all of her novels [her What I Loved still blows me away whenever I think about it] except one, and this is my first foray into her nonfiction [I’m particularly hungering for her essays on art, Mysteries of the Rectangle, which I can’t find locally].

I am, quite obviously, a fan. Know, too, that I might just name a [theoretical] daughter Siri. It’s that bad.

In A Plea for Eros, Hustvedt gives [me] twelve essays on life, love, literature, womanhood, family, childhood, reading, writing, and everything else in between. About all things Hustvedt, apparently, delivered through that uncanny Hustvedt world-view: penetrating, eerily intelligent, just the right bit of sensuality. Here, an essay about wearing a corset, there she writes about inhabiting a man’s soul while writing. She writes about 9/11 and the year after. She writes about “a divided self,” how she became a writer — she writes about her favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Charles Dickens.

These essays are very rarely formal, but not quite conversational. I’m aware that it might not work for everyone — there’s a familiar aspect to it all. It’s best to go to this book when you’re already head over heels in love with Hustvedt. They’re not mediocre essays, no. I guess I’m just worried that the first-time reader of Hustvedt would mumble, “What’s all the fuss about?”

The pieces are reflections on a wide variety of subjects, and the personal-ness is the driving force. Yeah, that’s the word — reflections. In Hustvedt’s characteristically quiet and charged, still yet voluptuous voice that I’ve known and long loved. It’s like sitting down for a cup of coffee and listen to one of your idols ramble and rave and rant and brood and celebrate. And argue! And reason against the more mundane complexities of the universe.

I’m not making sense, haha. Anyhoo. For posterity’s sake, I shall write about only two of my favorites. >> The first one is the title essay, “A Plea for Eros” — which begins with a little flashback of a discussion on the Antioch Ruling, a law enacted at Antioch College, which essentially made every stage of a sexual encounter on campus legal only by verbal consent. My friend paused, smiled, and replied [to a question raised by a member of the audience], ‘It’s wonderful. I love it. Just think of the erotic possibilities: “May I touch your right breast? May I touch your left breast?”’

Hustvedt uses this as a jump-off to her central thesis, her plea for eros. Sharing narratives to exemplify manifestations of eros in love and romance, flirtation and commitment, she leads us to what she thinks is an erosion of eros, with little nuggets like, “Erotic pleasure, denied from the most intimate physical contact, thrives on the paradox that only by keeping alive the strangeness of that other person can eroticism last.”

This is my call for eros, a plea that we not forget ambiguity and mystery, that in matters of the heart we acknowledge an abiding uncertainty.

It’s rich, and it’s got the sensuality of prose that I have come to expect from Hustvedt. And it’s all very personal too — among discussions about the repression of eros, and her reasonings against this, Hustvedt gives little details about her past loves, and of her life with Paul Auster too.

>> Here, from “Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self” — a fragmented-y autobiography. It’s about everything. Small doses of nearly everything in Siri Hustvedt’s life, and there are constant echoes and cross-references. And yet, as fragmented as I’m making it seem [hee], I never felt as though I were missing something. I never felt cheated of details, or bogged down by them. I respected the author’s decision of how to manipulate the format to make way for the content.

I am afraid of writing, too, because when I write I am always moving toward the unarticulated, the dangerous, the place where the walls don’t hold. I don’t know what’s there, but I’m pulled toward it. Is the wounded self the writing self? Perhaps that is more accurate. The wound is static, a given. The writing self is multiple and elastic, and it circles the wound. Over time, I have become more aware of the fact that I must try not to cover that speechless, hurt love, that I must fight my dread of the mess and violence that are also there. I have to write the fear. The writing self is restless and searching, and it listens for voices. Where do they come from, these chatterers who talk to me before I fall asleep? My characters. I am making them and not making them, like people in my dreams. They discuss, fight, laugh, yell, and weep. I was very young when I first heard the story of the exorcism Jesus performs on a possessed man. When Jesus talks to the demon inside the man and asks for his name, the words he cries out both scared and thrilled me. The demon says: “My name is Legion.” That is my name, too.

It’s a book of a very particular world view — that of the author’s. Hustvedt longs to live in “a story of exciting thresholds and irrational feeling,” “a secret place we make between us, a place where the real and unreal commingle,” “a realm of the imagination and of memory, where lovers are alone speaking to each other, saying yes or no or ‘perhaps tomorrow,’ where they play at who they are, inventing and reinventing themselves as subjects and objects.”

And I, for one, am glad that she let me in that secret place. Nothing like creeping about a favorite author’s head, for seriously.

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3 comments

  1. […] A Plea for Eros, by Siri Hustvedt. […]

  2. […] Harold Bloom — I always feel that they, very simply, want to share. Stephen King, James Wood, Siri Hustvedt, and many others. They may take on the occasional role of writing teacher, but it’s because […]

  3. […] first time I read her nonfiction, via her collection A Plea for Eros, I tapped into that uncanny Hustvedt worldview-then-expression I’d enumerated above. Whilst her […]

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