Read The Blazing World Online

Authors: Siri Hustvedt

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General, #Mystery & Detective

The Blazing World

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Editor’s Introduction

“All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls.” In 2003, I ran across this provocative sentence in a letter to the editor that was published in an issue of
The Open Eye
, an interdisciplinary journal I had been reading faithfully for several years. The letter’s author, Richard Brickman, did not write the sentence. He was quoting an artist whose name I had never seen in print before: Harriet Burden. Brickman claimed that Burden had written him a long letter about a project she wanted him to make public. Although Burden had exhibited her work in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, she had been disappointed by its reception and had withdrawn from the art world altogether. Sometime in the late nineties, she began an experiment that took her five years to complete. According to Brickman, Burden engaged three men to act as fronts for her own creative work. Three solo shows in three New York galleries, attributed to Anton Tish (1998), Phineas Q. Eldridge (2002), and the artist known only as Rune (2003), had actually been made by Burden. She titled the project as a whole
, and declared that it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.

But Brickman went further. He argued that Burden insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the
of art she produced: “Each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a ‘hermaphroditic self,’ which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to ‘a mingled reality created between them.’” As a professor of aesthetics, I was immediately fascinated by the project for its ambition, but also for its philosophical complexity and sophistication.

At the same time, Brickman’s letter puzzled me. Why hadn’t Burden published her own statement? Why would she allow Brickman to speak for her? Brickman claimed that the sixty-page letter Burden called “Missive from the Realm of Fictional Being” had arrived unannounced in his mailbox and that he had no knowledge of the artist beforehand. The tone of Brickman’s letter is also curious: It alternates between condescension and admiration. He criticizes Burden’s letter as hyperbolic and unsuited for publication in an academic journal but then quotes other passages he attributes to her with seeming approval. I was left with a muddled impression of the letter, as well as a feeling of irritation with Brickman, whose commentary effectively smothers Burden’s original text. I immediately looked up the three exhibitions,
The History of Western Art
by Tish,
The Suffocation Rooms
by Eldridge, and
by Rune, each of which was visually distinct from the other two. Nevertheless, I gleaned what I would call a “family resemblance” among the three. The Tish, Eldridge, and Rune shows Burden had allegedly invented were all compelling as art, but I was especially intrigued by Burden’s experiment because it resonated with my own intellectual concerns.

My teaching schedule was heavy that year. I had duties as temporary chair of my department, and I wasn’t able to satisfy my curiosity about
until three years later, when I took a sabbatical leave to work on my book
Plural Voices and Multiple Visions
, in which I discuss the work of Søren Kierkegaard, M. M. Bakhtin, and the art historian Aby Warburg. Brickman’s description of Burden’s project and her
poetized personalities
(the latter expression is Kierkegaard’s) meshed perfectly with my own thoughts, so I decided to track Brickman down through
The Open Eye
and hear what he had to say for himself.

Peter Wentworth, the editor of the journal, retrieved e-mail correspondence from Brickman to him—several short, dry, business-related notes. When I tried to contact Brickman, however, I discovered the address was defunct. Wentworth produced an essay Brickman had published in the journal two years before his letter in
The Open Eye
, which I belatedly remembered having read: an abstruse paper critiquing the ongoing debates about concepts in analytical philosophy, a subject remote from my own interests. According to Wentworth, Brickman had earned a PhD in philosophy from Emory University and was an assistant professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. When I contacted St. Olaf, however, it turned out that no person named Richard Brickman was teaching or had ever taught in that department. Needless to say, Emory University had no records of a PhD candidate by that name either. I decided to go straight to Harriet Burden, but by the time I tracked her down in New York through her daughter, Maisie Lord, Burden had been dead for two years.

The idea for this book was born during my first telephone conversation with Maisie Lord. Although she knew about Brickman’s letter, she was surprised to hear that its author was not the person he had purported to be, if indeed he was anyone at all. She assumed her mother had been in touch with him but knew nothing about the particulars of their connection. Harriet Burden’s artworks had all been catalogued and stored by the time I spoke to Maisie, and she had been at work on a documentary film about her mother for several years. The film includes voice-over excerpts from the twenty-four private journals her mother began keeping after her husband, Felix Lord, died in 1995, each one labeled with a letter of the alphabet. As far as Maisie knew, none of the diaries mentioned Brickman. (I found two references to R.B., presumably Richard Brickman, but nothing more revealing than that.) Maisie, however, felt sure her mother had left a number of “clues” inside the journals, not only to her pseudonymous project but also to what she called “the secrets of my mother’s personality.”

Two weeks after our phone call, I flew to New York, where I met with Maisie, her brother, Ethan Lord, and Burden’s companion, Bruno Kleinfeld, all of whom spoke to me at great length. I viewed hundreds of artworks Burden had never shown anywhere, and her children informed me that her work had just been taken by the prestigious Grace Gallery in New York City. The Burden retrospective mounted in 2008 would garner the respect and recognition the artist had so desperately longed for, essentially launching her career posthumously. Maisie showed me rushes from her unfinished film and, most crucially, gave me access to the notebooks.

While reading the hundreds of pages Burden had written, I found myself by turns fascinated, provoked, and frustrated. She kept many journals simultaneously. She dated some entries, but not others. She had a system of cross-referencing the notebooks that was sometimes straightforward but at other times appeared byzantine in its complexity or nonsensical. In the end, I gave up trying to decode it. Her handwriting shrinks into illegibility on some pages and on others grows so large that a few sentences take up an entire page. Some of her texts are obscured by drawings that intrude into the written passages. A few of the notebooks were full to bursting and others contained only a few paragraphs. Notebook A and Notebook U were mostly autobiographical, but not entirely. She kept elaborate notes on artists she loved, some of whom take up many pages of a notebook. Vermeer and Velázquez share V, for example. Louise Bourgeois has her own notebook under L, not B, but L contains digressions on childhood and psychoanalysis. William Wechsler, Notebook W, contains notes on Wechsler’s work but also lengthy asides on Lawrence Sterne’s
Tristram Shandy
and Eliza Heywood’s
, as well as a commentary on Horace.

Many of the journals are essentially notes on her reading, which was voluminous and darted in and out of many fields: literature, philosophy, linguistics, history, psychology, and neuroscience. For unknown reasons, John Milton and Emily Dickinson shared a notebook labeled G. Kierkegaard is in K, but Burden also writes about Kafka in it, with several passages on cemeteries as well. Notebook H, on Edmund Husserl, has pages on Husserl’s idea about “the intersubjective constitution of objectivity” and the consequences of such an idea on the natural sciences, but also tangents on Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Mary Douglas, and a “Fantasy Scenario” on artificial intelligence. Q is devoted to quantum theory and its possible use for a theoretical model of the brain. On the first page of Notebook F (for
, apparently), Burden writes, “Hymns to the Fair Sex.” Page after page of quotations follow. A small sample will suffice to give the flavor. Hesiod: “Who trusts a woman, that man trusts a swindler.” Tertullian: “You [woman] are the devil’s gateway.” Victor Hugo: “God became man, granted. The devil became a woman.” Pound (Canto XXIX): “The female / Is an element, the female / Is chaos, an octopus / A biological process.” Along with these examples of blatant misogyny, Burden had stapled dozens of newspaper and magazine articles onto a single page with the word
written on it. There was no common theme to these miscellaneous pieces, and I wondered why they had been lumped together. And then it dawned on me that what they shared were lists. Every article included a list of contemporary visual artists, novelists, philosophers, and scientists, in which no woman’s name appeared.

In V, Burden also quotes scholarly books, with and without citation. I found this quotation: “The ‘woman-as-monster’ image—with women depicted as snakes, spiders, extraterrestrials, and scorpions—is very common in boys’ literature, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Japan (see T, p. 97).” The parenthetical reference is to Burden’s own Notebook T, for
, the study of monsters, which, as Burden explains on its first page, is “the category that is not a category, the category to hold what can’t be held.” Burden was preoccupied by monsters and collected references to them in both science and literature. On page 97 of Notebook T, Burden quotes Rabelais, whose comic monsters changed the face of literature, noting that Gargantua is not born through the usual orifice: “Thanks to this unfortunate accident there took place a weakening of the uterus; the child leapt up through the Fallopian tubes to a hollow vein and, scrambling across the diaphragm to the upper arm where this vein divides in two, he left the fork and crawled out through the left ear” (Book I, Chapter 6). Immediately after this, she writes, “But the monster is not always a Rabelaisian wonder of hearty appetites and boundless hilarity. She is often lonely and misunderstood (see M and N).”

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