The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In Her Own Write
To paraphrase a less hyperbolic comment by David Foster Wallace, the point of this review is that “The Blindfold” is an extraordinary novel.
DFW described it as a “really good book” that is “clearly a feminist reworking of some of the central themes of [Don] DeLillo and his literary compadre, Paul Auster.”
I don’t think this does justice to what Siri Hustvedt achieved in her own right. Nor does the following question from a “reader” on amazon.com:
"Would this book have been published at all, had Siri Hustvedt not been married to Paul Auster, another completely overrated author?"
As Iris Vegan (Hustvedt’s protagonist) might have said, "Stuff it up your ass."
While Hustvedt was writing “The Blindfold” in 1992, Auster was writing “Leviathan”.
She dedicated her work to her husband, while he dedicated his to DeLillo (who later reciprocated by dedicating “Cosmopolis” to Auster in an apparent act of bro-love).
However, Auster included the character Iris Vegan in “Leviathan”. How meta-dedicated is that!
First Things First (But Not Necessarily In That Order)
“The Blindfold” is divided into four untitled sections of quite different lengths. By the time I’d got to the beginning of the third section, I was starting to wonder whether there was any relationship between them and whether the book would have been better called a collection of short stories.
Was the fact that Iris Vegan was in each section enough to constitute a novel?
However, I soon realised that this was indeed a tightly plotted novel where every intricate detail was very precisely described and located, like objects in a museum or art gallery.
To paraphrase Iris, Hustvedt is a one-woman performance team, a juggler who works with objects.
She moves the objects around, on the shelf or in the air or on the canvas.
It doesn’t matter when or where we start looking. The point is to observe them all.
Only once we have followed one entire sequence do we start to get an idea of the whole.
Once you’ve detected the trend, you discover that you are contained or enclosed in a drama that intensifies with every word and that ultimately you don’t want to stop.
The novel maps the course of a number of relationships that Iris forms over the course of three years, while she is a postgraduate English student at Columbia University.
During the course of her studies, she develops headaches and suffers migraine auras.
We never find out whether her affliction is the result of a physiological condition or the emotional stress that she undergoes.
However, migraine auras can result in a disturbance of the patient’s sense of time. In the words of an actual patient, “The feelings of a pre-migraine aura are definitely one of 'otherness', with...temporal, aural and visual disturbances.”
While the events are recounted by Iris in the first person eight years after they occurred, her condition allows Hustvedt to mess with time and the sequence in which events occur.
It also raises the question of whether Iris is an unreliable narrator.
For the first half of the novel, I was quite prepared for some tragic turn of events from a medical point of view.
However, after a while I felt that Iris was quite normal, if a little intense, in the manner of a highly intelligent student preoccupied with her self and her role in the world (although the same could be said of a male).
Before I move on, I want to dispense with one issue that threatens the appreciation of the novel as a whole.
One of the relationships is with a college professor who is in his early 50’s. While Iris is 22 at the time and not a child, I assume that this relationship would offend the university’s sexual misconduct policies.
The relationship is consensual and one which Iris consciously or unconsciously seeks almost from their first handshake.
The professor displays reluctance in initiating the relationship and ultimately cannot handle the personal and professional guilt that threatens the future of the relationship. He commits an act that in most cases would warrant someone terminating the relationship, even though Iris understands the psychological cause of the act and is prepared to forgive him for it.
Because Iris herself does not make any adverse comment on the propriety of the relationship, I don’t propose to comment on it adversely, especially because it seems to me (as a male of a similar age) to contribute to her growth as a person in the novel.
Once you’ve finished the novel, it really is quite time-consuming to try and work out the linear chronology.
If you can be bothered, it serves mainly to enhance your appreciation of Hustvedt’s skills as a story-teller.
The timeline as presented is actually one that makes sense organically in the development of the themes of the novel.
We witness the growth of Iris’ self in a logical, analytical manner, even if the timing is manipulated.
Equally importantly, it builds to a climax which happens to coincide with the most recent and most important of the events in the narrative.
Because the story concerns Iris’ psyche, it makes sense that the events are presented in this sequence, as if they are part of a professional character assessment or diagnosis.
The Development of Female Identity
In a way, the novel can be seen as a casebook on the development of female identity as illustrated by the example of one woman.
As a male surrounded by one wife and two daughters, I’ve lost the ability to judge whether the casebook is representative of women at large.
However, if either of our daughters experienced relationship problems in maturity, I would point them in the direction of the novel if advice by first their mother, then me or a professional proved inadequate.
It really is that insightful, at least in my male eyes.
An Eye on Your Own Identity
What appealed most to me about the novel was the way in which it explored the role of looking and seeing in the relationship, not just between the sexes, but between any two people, or one person or subject (on the one hand) and an object (on the other hand).
The very process of perception is described as if it were a more dynamic verb or action. How someone looks (actively) or how someone looks (passively) is just as important as what they ‘do” in some other sense.
The eyes are indeed the window to the soul, and this is very much a novel about the soul, the essence of Iris Vegan.
It’s no coincidence that Iris is a word that describes part of the structure of the eye, nor that it is the reverse of the first name of the book’s author.
While there is a normal amount of dialogue, so much of the novel’s message is revealed by the way people look and see.
However, equally importantly, Hustvedt is concerned with the psychoanalytical nature of “the gaze”, not just how a male gazes at a female, but how a female gazes at a male.
Without reading like a textbook, the novel explores the type of gaze described by Lacan.
The gaze is not just the process of looking, seeing and perceiving.
It describes the relationship between subject and object.
The subject can desire the object, he can aspire to possess and control the object, to make her or it a possession or a chattel.
Conversely, the object can possess a power over the subject, especially when the object is aware that she is being gazed at.
The object can capture or enchant the subject.
Either way, there can be a power relationship between subject and object, particularly in the sexual context.
It’s interesting that Hustvedt uses the concept relatively even-handedly, even though her principal interest is Iris.
On the novel’s third page, Iris remarks, “Without any apparent reserve, he looked at me, taking in my whole body with his gaze.”
Note that the act of looking involves a taking of something, the body, in fact.
Yet, only a few sentences before, Iris “looked at the skin of his neck”.
Midway through the novel, when she first meets Professor Rose, “I stared at him and he continued to gaze at me. This went on for maybe half a minute.”
The relationship at the heart of the novel starts with a stare and a gaze.
Within a few pages, the sexuality at the root of the gaze is made even more explicit:
"He gazed at me and pressed his index finger into the hollow beneath his cheekbone. Then he nodded. It was the nod that unraveled me, with its suggestion of penetration, almost telepathy. I looked back at him and felt my jaw relax, my lips part. Who are you? I thought. He took in my whole face with a leisure that astounded me. We looked at each other for too long, and the impropriety made me tremble."
The sentence is rattled off, almost innocuously, as if the word “penetration” relates to Iris’ mind, yet the reader can’t help but infer physical sexual penetration as well.
As with the first example, the subject “takes” something (or some thing), this time the object’s face.
The object is not just the thing looked at, but the thing possessed, as if it is a material object.
The gaze can possess both the body and the psyche of the object.
I’m Touched by Your Presence, Dear
Hustvedt uses the gaze as a foundation for a more palpable or tangible relationship.
Just as characters gaze at each other, they touch one another.
Valuable items remain boxed up, “to keep them untouched by the here and now.”
While sitting at a bar, Iris’ knee “grazes” a gun in a policeman’s holster. (Note the rhyme.)
Iris "felt Tim beside me, the sleeve of his coat touching mine," the inanimate object almost an extension or projection of the animate self.
At one point, the art critic (known only as) Paris promises he’ll "be in touch"; at another, the photographer George acknowledges a comment by Iris with the rejoinder, "Touche."
More importantly, sexual encounters are described in terms of their sensual appeal:
"Their intense wishes made me claustrophobic. They were always breathing on me, pulling, tugging, even begging for some mysterious gift they thought I could give them. But I didn’t really have it – the thing they wanted. I know they dreamed of sexual triumph, of some erotic cataclysm that would erase their need, and I know that by eluding them I became more and more a creature of their hopes, a vaporous being with blond hair and blue eyes. They weren’t to blame. Distortion is part of desire. We always change the things we want."
Note how desire sometimes involves distortion, elusion feeds illusion.
Tell Me, Tell Me, Tell Me, Do
Within relationships, Hustvedt also explores the significance of silence and telling and revelation.
Her longest relationship is with Stephen, who is carrying a copy of "The Portable Nietzsche", when she first sees him.
Stephen maintained a reserve in their relationship. Secrecy undermines their intimacy:
"Stephen was secretive. He enjoyed withholding information…I should have known that he was lost to me from the very beginning, but his body was magic then, and it drove me on. One look at his neck, his hands, his mouth, brought on a shudder of sexual memory, a pleasure that became a torment, because Stephen rationed his body..."
His explanation of himself is quite Nietzchean:
"I’m telling you what I can’t bear is the ordinary. I don’t want to bore myself, to sink into the pedestrian ways of other people – heart to heart talks, petty confessions, relationships of habit, not passion. I see those people all around me, and I detest them, so I have to be divorced from myself in order to keep from sliding into a life I find nauseating. It’s a matter of appearances, but surfaces are underestimated. The veneer becomes the thing. I rarely distinguish the man in the movie from the spectator anymore."
Stephen’s attempts to elude intimacy end up ludicrous. They are not just self-delusion, they delude others such as Iris as well.
In contrast, the ability to confide in George creates a confidence in their relationship, at least in the short-term:
"George inspired telling. He was so easy in his manner, so kind and understanding, it was hard not to confide in him. But there was something else, too, something more important. George had a way of talking to me as if he knew me better than I knew myself, and in George this presumption was a kind of wizardry that turned loose thoughts and memories I had never spoken of to anyone before."
This is a relationship that is not consummated physically, although George “takes” a photo of Iris that is regarded as a study in eroticism, as if he had captured her naked.
George regards the photo as “extraordinary”, while Iris regards it as “an object of regret”.
Having taken it, the photo satiates George. In his eyes, “It’s all there…everything I want.” He rebuffs Iris’ one advance:
"I looked at George. He grinned. He was sitting on the floor with his camera in his lap. I knelt down and crawled toward him, looking at his lean arms and beautiful mouth. I lifted my right arm and extended my hand toward his face, but something in his expression stopped me. I have what I want, it seemed to say. Don’t come any closer. I dropped my arm and sat back, still breathing hard."
Iris imagines George "stealing photographs in the darkness, his flash igniting the startled faces of those caught in an act they wanted to keep secret – a kiss or a fight or an illicit transaction – and then I saw George run from the spot like a burglar."
Not just does George take photos, he steals them from the psyche of the object.
Notes from Underground
While George seems to thrive in the darkness, Iris has already had an experience of life in the demimonde or netherworld.
After the rape of a resident of her apartment building, she starts dressing as a man in a suit in order to go to and from her night jobs.
"It wasn’t so much that I looked like a man but that the clothes created an image of sexual doubt. With no makeup and my hair hidden beneath a fedora, I seemed to be either a masculine woman or an effeminate man..."
At a crucial moment in the development of her sexual identity, she is able to experiment with a male persona.
People cease to look or gaze at her as a sexual object. She evades men, by impersonating a man. She removes men from the picture, by removing herself as woman from the picture.
Iris neuters herself, firstly as an act of self-defence, secondly as a stepping stone to personal and sexual confidence.
While inhabiting this world, a world that reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” or Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf” (including the Magic Theatre), Iris is poverty-stricken, starving, hallucinating, bordering on the hysterical (in Freudian terms).
Fortunately, her experience starts with a transgression of sorts and ends up as a transition,a journey, an Odyssey that prepares her for her next relationship with Michael (Professor Rose).
Giorgione’s “The Tempest”
Loving You the Way You Want
Hustvedt is also fascinated by the nature of desire.
In some people, as we have already seen, it represents the lack of something, a want, a need, an absence, an emptiness, a [black] hole that the subject attempts to fill with the object.
Ironically, when Iris doesn’t share the desire, she finds that the subject’s desire is even greater:
"Men I cared nothing about called me…on them my indifference worked like an aphrodisiac. Because I didn’t want anything..."
On the other hand, when she suggests that Stephen has never loved her, he responds:
"I’ve always loved you…I just don’t love you the way you want."
Yet again, Hustvedt has a poet’s eye for both the multiple meanings of words and their resemblance to other words.
You have to want, to love and be loved; you have to want to be loved; and you have to be loved the way you want!
When Iris experiences love with Michael, there is a different want, a new emptiness, a fear that they will lose each other, a desire that things stay the same, even though the truth is that they can’t.
The risk is that this emptiness will become an evil, a source of cruelty and destructiveness, something that will bring about the end of their relationship.
Walking the Last Stretch Blindfolded
Just as the novel explores looking and seeing, it addresses blindness.
With Iris’ migraine auras, she experiences black spots, blindness that starts with a hole and ultimately blacks out the whole, not just of the object, but the subject.
"Only later was I able to tell myself that I had suffered a migraine aura. The following months were a time when the everyday became precarious. At any moment an ordinary thing, a table or chair, a face or hand, might disappear, and with the blindness came a feeling of that I was no longer whole. I had put myself back together and now my body was failing me."
The negative connotation of blindness is the inability to look or see, or even to gaze.
Paradoxically, the blindfold incident in the novel offers a positive connotation to blindness.
Michael gives Iris a scarf. As they walk along the familiar streetscape back to her apartment, her confidence in her route leads her to tie the scarf around her eyes. In a scene that reminded me of the film “Trust”, she voluntarily embraces blindness. She must trust herself and/or Michael in order to get home safely.
This key metaphor is pregnant with connotations:
"He kissed me, and it was good not to see him. He could have been any man. The anonymity was his and mine. Like a child, I felt that blindness made me disappear, or at least made the boundaries of my body unstable. One of us gasped. I didn’t know who it was, and this confusion made my heart pound."
Despite the danger of her predicament, she did not want anything. She did not want a particular person, a particular man, for what they could give her. She could not look, she could not desire, she could not gaze, she could not judge beauty, she could not detect an object, but equally she could not be a subject.
She had lost her sense of self, at least her extreme self-consciousness. Her self had disappeared. It had become one with her surroundings, including Michael. That one, the “one of us”, gasped. She had everything, because she saw and needed nothing. Because she could not see, the two of them had become invisible and anonymous in her own mind (even if Michael could still see and gaze at her).
I wonder whether there is a hint of Zen “non-attachment” in this scene.
Like a Bat Out of Hell
The novel does not end with the blindfold scene, which would have been a convenient romantic denouement.
Instead, it sees Iris running away from the touch of the tiny, almost effeminate art critic Paris, to the IRT.
He sees Iris as some kind of Odysseus to his Penelope, whether or not he knows that she was treated for her migraines at Mount Olympus Hospital.
What should we infer from the ending?
Did Iris simply elude the Judgment of Paris?
A pessimist might conclude that Iris has returned to the darkness of the Underground.
An optimist might hope that she has finally put the past behind her and is ready for the next stage of her journey as a woman who has constructed a female identity she can be proud of, and who has something to offer other women.
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