Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I want to talk to you today about an excellent and charming little book by a French author, Muriel Barbery, entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s possible that my own love of philosophy influences me more than it should in my assessment of this novel, but I think any passionate reader will fall in love with the two lead characters—both brilliant and lucid, and both (for quite different reasons) finding it necessary to hide their intellectual acuity from the world.

Paloma is a twelve year old girl living in a luxurious Paris hotel who has found it expedient, even necessary, to hide her extreme intelligence from her teachers, her friends, even her family. After all, at the ripe old age of twelve she has already discovered the absurdity of existence, and has decided without pathos to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to simultaneously set fire to her building. When I was first introduced to this character, I found myself flinching, withdrawing, thinking this novel would simply serve to reinforce a confusion (especially in the U.S) between nihilism and existentialism. In my view, existentialism is a guardedly optimistic philosophy that insists that the denial of an external telos (a human-independent purpose for existence) does not at all entail that life is without meaning. We make our lives meaningful through our actions rather than through fulfilling some sort of purpose given from on high. Fortunately, we soon discover that Paloma is simply in what might be called the descent phase of existentialism, discovering that meaning-guaranteeing myths are just that, myths that need to be overcome. Next comes the ascent phase in which one discovers that meaning is created rather than discovered. But in order for her to ascend, she must (as the heroes of all existentialist novels discover) leave her nihilist-leaning isolation and find others.

Her ascent begins when she discovers (or is discovered by) the hotel concierge, a self-described autodidact who has, herself, found it necessary to hide her intelligence and her secret reading of the most esoteric philosophers in order to disappear into her role as hotel concierge. The wealthy people for whom she works expect concierges to be dull-witted and to spend their time when not serving their superiors by watching endless hours of soap opera while dining on cabbage soup and other poor man’s fare. In fact Renee, the concierge, leaves her soap-opera blaring t.v. in one room, a decoy for any of the tenants who might pass by, while hiding out in another reading Descartes, Kant, Husserl and munching on delicacies she should not even know of. Commenting on instructions received from one of the hotel tenants, Renee remarks,
You know you have reached the very bottom of the social food chain when you detect in a rich person’s voice that he is merely addressing himself and that, although the words he is uttering may be, technically, destined to you, he does not even begin to imagine that you might be capable of understanding them.
Paloma, who sees herself as an intellectual who makes fun of other intellectuals, is particularly contemptuous of her family who profess socialist ideas and vote with the socialist party, but who live a luxurious and wasteful life and act finally as if poverty were a personal sin rather than a function of market economies. Her mother, in particular, is the target of Paloma’s contempt; she has spent a fortune on her ten years of psychoanalysis, but has little to show for it. “As far I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.”

The lives of both Paloma and Renee are profoundly affected when one of the longtime tenants of the hotel dies and a rich Japanese man first completely refurbishes and then moves into the vacated space. His name is Ozu, and simply because he really attends to those around him, really looks at them, he quickly sees through the facades of both Renee and Paloma, but instead of blowing their covers, he befriends both and acts as a sort of catalyst in helping them to find new lives, even, if this is not too grand a word, to find their salvations.

For the most part, this is a comedic novel; the reader is meant to laugh at the world as seen through the eyes of these delightful characters. But it also seems to me to be a deeply serious look at social class, biological determinism, the purpose of art, and finally even the meaning of life. Like so many existentialist heroes, Paloma’s first steps towards transcendence, her emergence from the despair of nihilism, is via art—first simply hearing a choir performance by her school peers and next via the simplicity and elegance of Japanese haikus. Allowing herself to be discovered by Renee, and at the same time seeing through Renee’s camouflage, takes her to the next step. And Renee, who has always lived in profound isolation after the death of her fellow-concierge husband, discovers through her friendship with Ozu and Paloma that she can finally look at the ugly events of her own childhood—events that have kept her in hiding—and emerge from her isolation to construct a meaningful life in and through others. 

In short, this is a delightful book, perhaps the best that I have read all year.

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