Saturday, June 23, 2012

Summer Reading: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I've been posting a lot on my research blog about the novels I've been reading this summer, but I realized that I actually should be doing those posts over here since they aren't really full of research thoughts. I just want to keep track of the books I've been reading. And I should be reserving that blog for my ruminations on abjection and subjectivity. (It's not published, well, publicly, but let me know if you want to read it and I can open it up to you).

I just finished a lovely novel called The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery who is a French philosophy professor. I loved how she took abstract philosophical ideas into real world lives and experiences in this novel. It's a much better way to talk about these issues, and I wish I could do something like that. I'm thinking I might try something similar in my paper on autobiography, but I doubt my skill could carry the concepts into a narrative like Barbery does.

I loved how the characters grapple with death, class struggles, and the meaning of art. And the take away point of the novel is to recognize that death is imminent, but to not be crippled by this knowledge or act in bad faith, but to be as authentic as possible. "The important thing, Paloma said one day, is not the fact of dying, it is what you are doing in the moment of your death." And being sincerely engaged in building, rather than destroying, something is the measure of a good life.

My favorite moment in the book is when Madame Michel, the autodidact consierge of a high-class apartment building, is thinking about the validity of education, especially higher graduate research.
Should you study Plato, Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel or even Husserl? Esthetics, politics, morality, epistemology, metaphysics? Should you devote your time to teaching, to producing a body of work, to research, to Culture? It makes no difference. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite--for this turns the university into a sect. 
I've been struggling the last couple months to write a paper, mostly because, I realized, I want it to be new and different and brilliant to say something extremely complicated in an elegant way. And that's too much for me. It puts a tremendous roadblock up. But I'm realizing that I'm losing sight of what I've been doing and wanting to do all these years. I'm not that eloquent and my thoughts don't run as deeply and as abstractly as I'd like them to, but I desperately don't want to get caught up in the fan-boy masturbatory academic world whose only function is the "self-reproduction of a sterile elite." I want to engage in works that I love, that fascinate me, and try my hardest to elevate thought and contribute something.

The book is also about enjoying the small pleasures in life, which I have not done lately at all. "I have finally concluded," the 12 year old Paloma says, "maybe that's what life is about: there's a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had some to us, an always within never"

I used to have those moments more often, I would go out into the world and look for them. It was easy to find them in Russell Square or the British Museum in London, or in Central Park in New York, or in the immense silence of the Uintas while fishing with my mom. I even remember the delight I felt when I was in Provo and I could hear someone practice their bagpipes down the street. These moments of wonder don't happen in Louisville, but maybe I'm not looking for them. Maybe it's because there's a train yard outside my window and I live above a frat house. Or the dreadful and humid heat, the low-flying planes, the trains screaming and blocking my path out of the train yard where I live. I haven't had many little pleasures since I moved here last year, but maybe when I move into my own little apartment on a shady street I can relax a bit and be wondered by art and nature again. We'll see. For now at least I have the novels I've been devouring this summer.

And French films about awkward anxious people who fall in love. And the cute songs at the end of such movies.

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