TEXT review

Creating hurricanes through thought

review by Doris Pushpam


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Julienne van Loon
The Thinking Woman
NewSouth Publishing, Sydney NSW 2019          
ISBN: 9781742236308
Pb 248pp 34.99 AUD


The Cartesian dictum ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’, I think, therefore I am, states that the proof of our existence lies in our ability to contemplate our existence, to doubt, to think. Julienne van Loon in The Thinking Woman forces us to confront this notion as part of a six-chapter, part memoir, part study of philosophical thought. With the help of six women prolific in their fields of study, van Loon critically interrogates thought, the importance of the act of thinking, and what it means for our existence. She starts with a chapter titled ‘Love’, followed by ‘Play’, ‘Work’, ‘Fear’, ‘Wonder’, and ‘Friendship’. Each is an amalgam of van Loon’s lived experiences and her intellectual engagement with the ideas of women thinkers including Laura Kipnis, professor of media studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, novelist Siri Hustvedt, socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom, French feminist and structuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva, psychoanalyst and feminist critic, Marina Warner, and the cultural historian Rosi Braidotti. This polyvocal discourse leaves the reader with a wholesome and new understanding of the dynamics of life.

According to Chaos Theory, or the Butterfly effect, one small change in a system can change everything. For instance, a hurricane can be triggered by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings from weeks earlier. The Thinking Woman is the flapping of a butterfly’s wings capable of triggering a hurricane within us. Every chapter is an opportunity for self-reflection and change. For instance, in the chapter ‘Love’, van Loon together with Laura Kipnis delves love’s undercurrents, and discusses the idea of being against love, exploring the word ‘against’, not to mean opposed to but ‘bolstered by’ (42). This chapter asks us to consider what we know about love and relationships and how much we have allowed society to dictate what goes on in a relationship, from the notion of marriage to the stigma associated with divorce, the science behind adultery and the idea of working on a relationship. It forces us to confront our own idea of love and for some, gives them the courage to ask the question, ‘Why do I stay?’ The chapter allows the adventurer on the path of love to stop and consider where their notion of love comes from. It provides an alternate understanding of love and relationships, where the individual is at the centre: not necessarily a player in a game where winners must walk down the aisle. This flap of the butterfly’s wings creates more avenues to consider in finding love without sacrificing one’s sense of self.

The second flap of the butterfly’s wings brings change in the form of an opportunity, an opportunity to consider our choices and the agency we have in our lives. As in the first chapter, van Loon shows us that we have choices. She addresses Fear in dialogue with Julia Kristeva, a structuralist philosopher, psychoanalyst and contributor to feminist criticism, discussing power and control in fostering fear, how fear differs in how it affects men and women, the many perspectives on fear, and the need to face fear in order to inspire change. Van Loon states that fear is about control, more specifically the loss of control and power. She explores how women have a vastly diminished internal locus of control when compared to men and this, along with the running commentary of women’s plights in society such as rape, sexual violence, physical violence, and threats on their being, renders them powerless. Here agency comes into play in the act of facing our fears and taking control. Van Loon and Kristeva talk about facing our fears by recognising the root of it then acting accordingly to confront it, saying, ‘We, each of us, need to examine the perpetual play between inside and outside, a constant, and perhaps constantly surprising, process. This is so even – or perhaps especially – in the face of that thing that horrifies us most’ (130). The need to face our fears, which comes from changing the power dynamic in society ensures the decrease in fear as van Loon states, ‘… fear and violence both decrease as women participate more fully in civil society’ (147). The chapter addresses control and power and how it is in deciding to take control of our fear that we have power, and this leads to positive change. Choice and agency are at the heart of most of the chapters, each one bringing you closer to some form of eureka.

All the flaps of the butterfly’s wings add up to create beautiful chaos, achieved in this case through thought. At the heart of this chaos is the individual. Van Loon addresses identity in various ways through the different chapters. For example in the chapter titled ‘Work’, van Loon and socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom discuss self-ownership and what it means for women in the workplace, the loss of identity as one partakes in a capitalist economy and the need to come up with an alternative that allows for some form of fulfilment. On the loss of self, Holmstrom states, ‘Of course we are not, in fact, just our labour power, but the capitalist apparatus makes it increasingly difficult for many of us to be substantially and wilfully active much else beyond… It gets into everything … every aspect of nature, including our bodies, the air, the water, everything.’ (93). This chapter is an opportunity to recognize that we as a society have accepted that there is a certain dynamic involved in working that goes far beyond just our labour; we give our mind and body. It allows us to ask the question ‘Who am I if not my labour?’ (109). Another important aspect of identity that van Loon brings up along with feminist philosopher, Rosi Braidotti is the necessity of camaraderie in shaping identity in the chapter titled ‘Friendship’. Van Loon shares the story of her friendship with Jo who she met in university and how through the years their friendship was a constant until Jo’s untimely death. It is a powerful chapter that captures how friendship truly shapes who we are. You find yourself reminiscing on the friends you have and realize their impact on your life. The mingling of van Loon’s story with Braidotti’s idea that the formation of identity is a collaborative effort as well as her explanation of interconnectedness creates a newfound appreciation for those people in your life that have given you parts of them and in the process created a version of yourself that you would never have experienced otherwise. It is a powerful chapter on the bond we share with others and how our identity is shaped through these relationships. We learn through these chapters that we are the choices we make, the control we take, we are an amalgamation of the people we call friends and the parts of ourselves that we choose to accept. The Thinking Woman makes us realize that the question ‘Who am I?’ is not one we ask ourselves often enough. We abide by social structures and in the process lose our ability to make choices, to have control and ultimately, we lose ourselves. Van Loon makes us aware of this.

It is important to note that van Loon introduces the reader to a pool of scholars who have contributed to the ideas discussed. ‘I wanted to celebrate the contribution made by women in the intellectual sphere…’, van Loon states and she does so by intertwining seamlessly both her story and the works of female thinkers (5) Often in her conversations with the ‘thinkers’, they bring up different ideas like the Kantian notion of radical evil and Hannah Arendt’s application of it, the Marxist concept of alienation and Ann Cahill’s essay, ‘The Phenomenology of Fear’ among others. The ideas presented are bolstered by these discussions and allow the reader to broaden their scope of knowledge. The format is an effective means of educating one without making them overwhelmed.

In The Thinking Woman, we are confronted on our ability to question, to go against the grain, to dare to look at our own ideologies; their origin and their shortcomings and we come to the realization that perhaps we have been settling all our lives. It makes us aware that we have wilfully traded in our ability to think for a life of indolent comfort. We eventually realize that our ability to form a thought that is solely based on self-interest and self-gratification has atrophied. We have been conditioned to be less and sometimes to not be at all. Van Loon emphasizes that it is in recognising our freedom to choose and breaking free of the structures that keep us imprisoned by their norms and traditions that we are able to form and shape our identities. This process of becoming is facilitated by the knowledge that our way of being is neither right nor wrong; it just is. The Thinking Woman is a call for us to think about our existence, to ponder it along with others and to recognize the agency that we hold in our lives. It tells us that we have choices, that our choices aren’t less valid just because society doesn’t agree, that we are allowed to be and in doing so, we become. Each chapter is a flap of a butterfly’s wings that allows the reader the opportunity to think about their lives; where they are and where they are going so that they can be hurricanes. It also allows the reader to change any aspect of their life, whether it is working on friendships they have neglected, seeing love through new eyes, giving play a try again or finding our sense of wonder. By sharing aspects of her life, van Loon encourages the reader to reflect on their own lives in relation to the areas discussed and this leads to healing and enlightenment. We confront our trauma and realize, page by page, that we are changing. By the end of the book, we see that we are not the same person we were when we first began, we are on our way to becoming hurricanes.



Doris Pushpam is a current Creative Writing research degree candidate at the University of South Australia.


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford