Siri Hustvedt and Atul Gawande: When Science Meets Art in Literature

We’re all amazed by people who have skills we don’t. It’s part of the magic of watching the Olympics: seeing people with the same number of arms and legs as the rest of us, the same amount of hours in the day, perform incredible feats of strength and speed. I get the same feeling of awe, excitement, and slight inadequacy when I’m reading the work of certain writers. We both have word processors, and share the same passion and profession, but these writers seem to have reached a completely different level, through some collision of natural brilliance and hard work. It’s a feeling somewhere between “How did they do that?” and “Could I do that?”

I get this feeling most often when I read writers who are also, somehow, scientists. This is because one thing that I have the most trouble wrapping my head around is the idea that someone who can write beautifully could also is capable of understanding complex mathematical or biological concepts; or that a creative mind could also be analytical. Maybe that’s because I am completely hopeless at anything more challenging than calculating tips at restaurants. Two of my favorite books that I read in the past year were beautiful collections of essays written by authors who are also medical professionals: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, from 2014, and Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking At Men Looking at Women, released in November of 2016. Gawande is also a surgeon in Boston; Hustvedt is a novelist and lecturer on psychiatry at Cornell.

It’s hardly surprising, though, that the most lucid and thoughtful reflections on the most incomprehensible subjects come from those who grapple with those subjects every day. Being Mortal is a difficult book about end-of-life care and facing the reality of death; in it, Gawande writes about the choices his patients have made when confronted with terminal illness, including several pieces on how his views of aging were complicated as he witnessed the slow death of his father. It’s an honest book without being too blunt or brutal, and it strikes the perfect balance between a medical understanding of mortality and a more basic, human one.

Hustvedt’s new collection A Woman Looking at Men Looking At Women similarly combines meticulous research and gorgeous language. Hustvedt explores subjects spanning art, feminism, and, for the second half of the book, the mind, and our conceptions of brain function throughout history. In one of my favorite pieces, “The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient,” Hustvedt details her time teaching a creative writing course at a psychiatric inpatient facility. The recollection of her students’ self-expression gives way to a meditation on the treatment of mental illness. In Hustvedt’s book, art and science are swirled together to comprise the intricate inner world of human beings, a world that we can only pretend to fully understand. Her long essay, “Delusions of Certainty,” re-emphasizes this fact.

Both Hustvedt and Gawande use their professional training and personal interests and experience to tremendous effect. Furthermore, their works of nonfiction reinforce what can sometimes seem difficult to understand: that artistic and scientific endeavors are driven by similar goals, namely, the goal of better understanding our world and our lives.

-Hannah Engler

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