“Perceptions and Their Mutability” in Siri Hustvedt’s Works

Diana Wagner


Siri Hustvedt’s both fictional and non-fictional works recurrently thematize “the complex workings of human perception” (The Blazing World 1). How do we see? How do we “perceive the out there” (Mysteries xvii)? What role do expectations, memory, and language play in the formation of visual perception? How do we judge art and “how [do] unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding” of it (The Blazing World 1)? These questions are at the heart of Hustvedt’s oeuvre and closely connected to her theories of visuality and perception. 

The central premise of my paper is, as the title already suggests, that perceptions, according to Hustvedt, are never fixed but shifting and “mutable.” I discuss perception in its connection to perspective, embodied self, and context. I argue that, as stated in Siri Hustvedt’s works, perception, first, changes with perspective and therefore is a subjective or rather intersubjective and dialogical concept, which allows the plurality of angles and ways to look at one and the same object, providing a more complete description and a better understanding of it; second, perception is always embodied, i.e., we experience the world through our bodies and embodied minds, shaped by our ideas, feelings, memories, past perceptions, etc., as well as the language and culture we are born into; ergo, perception is inevitably connected to the notion of embodied self; and third, perception very much depends on the context and therefore changes with it as well. This paper seeks to delineate Hustvedt’s argument based on her interdisciplinary essays and supported by the examples from her fiction. At the same time, the tracing of the mechanisms involved in perception will provide an insight into the novels’ narrative unraveling and a key to understanding Hustvedt’s characters.



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