The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog—Muriel Barbery
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Well, I have read his brilliant restaurant reviews.
“I don’t understand a thing what he’s talking about,” says Manuela; for her a good roast is a good roast and that’s all there is to it.
There is nothing to understand. It is a pity to see such a worthy wordsmith blindly wasting his talent. To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato—for Pierre Arthens reviews food as if he were telling a story, and that alone is enough to make him a genius—without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity. I have often wondered, as I watch him go by with his huge arrogant nose: Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things? It seems one can. Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them—all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration.
With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life. I’m still too young to claim to know much about love and friendship. But Art . . . if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life. Well, when I say Art, don’t get me wrong: I’m not just talking about great works of art by great masters. Even Vermeer can’t convince me to hold life dear. He’s sublime, but he’s dead. No, I’m referring to the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us. The Journal of the Movement of the World will be devoted therefore to the movement of people, bodies, or even—if there’s really nothing to say—things, and to finding whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. Grace, beauty, harmony, intensity. If I find something, then I may rethink my options: if I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living after all.
Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them. At this very moment, as I am writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the floor. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life and still she is heading toward something, probably an armchair. And you can tell from the way she’s moving: she is headed toward. Maman just went by in the direction of the front door, she’s going out shopping and in fact she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move.
We are mistaken to believe that our consciousness is awakened at the moment of our first birth—perhaps because we do not know how to imagine any other living state. It may seem to us that we have always seen and felt and, armed with this belief, we identify our entry into the world as the decisive instant where consciousness is born. The fact that for five years a little girl called Renée, a perfectly operational machine of perception blessed with sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, could have lived in a state of utter unawareness both of herself and of the universe, is proof if any were needed that such a hasty theory is wrong. For in order for consciousness to be aroused, it must have a name.
As my hunger could not be assuaged by playing the game of social interaction—an inconceivable aim, given my social condition (and it was at a later point in time that I would grasp the meaning of the compassion I saw in the eyes of my savior—for has one ever seen a girl raised in poverty penetrate the headiness of language deeply enough to share it with others?)—then it would be appeased by books. I touched one for the first time. I’d seen the older children in class look into books for invisible traces, as if they were driven by the same force and, sinking deeper into silence, they were able to draw from the dead paper something that seemed alive.
Unbeknownst to all, I learned to read. When the teacher was still droning away with the letters of the alphabet to my classmates, I had already been long acquainted with the solidarity that weaves written signs together, the infinite combinations and marvelous sounds that had dubbed me a dame in this place, on that first day, when she had said my name. No one knew. I read as if deranged, at first in hiding and then, once it seemed to me that the normal amount of time to learn one’s letters had elapsed, out in the open for all to see, but I was careful to conceal the pleasure and interest that reading afforded me.
The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting, but unfortunately our cats have such drooping bellies that this does not apply to them.
I have read so many books . . .
And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure.
What his sentence means isn’t that incompetent people have found their place in the sun, but that nothing is harder or more unfair than human reality: humans live in a world where it’s words and not deeds that have power, where the ultimate skill is mastery of language. This is a terrible thing because basically we are primates who’ve been programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, conquer and make our territory safe, and the ones who are most gifted at that, the most animal types among us, always get screwed by the others, the fine talkers, despite these latter being incapable of defending their own garden or bringing a rabbit home for dinner or procreating properly. Humans live in a world where the weak are dominant. This is a terrible insult to our animal nature, a sort of perversion or a deep contradiction.
No, what was interesting was the two human beings at the end of each leash. Because in town it is the dogs who have their masters on a leash, though no one seems to have caught on to the fact. If you have voluntarily saddled yourself with a dog that you’ll have to walk twice a day, come rain wind or snow, that is as good as having put a leash around your own neck.
But what would you rather have?” asked Colombe, exasperated, because I didn’t manage to finish my first mullet. I didn’t answer. Because I don’t know. I’m still only a little girl, after all. But in my mangas, people seem to eat differently. It looks simple, refined, moderate, delicious. You eat the way you look at a beautiful picture or sing in a beautiful choir. Neither too much nor too little: moderate, in the good sense of the word. Maybe I’m completely mistaken; but French cuisine seems old and pretentious to me, whereas Japanese cuisine seems . . . well, neither young nor old. Eternal, divine.
Tea and mangas instead of coffee and newspapers: something elegant and enchanting, instead of adult power struggles and their sad aggressiveness.
Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing—or trying not to slide down—the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable—even mere phantasms—as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this touches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.
There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required simply to support our primitive requirements, we wonder, bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.
Eternity eludes us.
At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.
Thus, to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appanages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea, or perhaps you watch a film by Ozu, and place upon this sorry theater the seal of Art and its greatest treasures.
When I think of go . . . Any game where the goal is to build territory has to be beautiful. There may be phases of combat, but they are only the means to an end, to allow your territory to survive. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the game of go is that it has been proven that in order to win, you must live, but you must also allow the other player to live. Players who are too greedy will lose: it is a subtle game of equilibrium, where you have to get ahead without crushing the other player. In the end, life and death are only the consequences of how well or how poorly you have made your construction. This is what one of Taniguchi’s characters says: you live, you die, these are consequences. It’s a proverb for playing go, and for life.
Live, or die: mere consequences of what you have built. What matters is building well. So here we are, I’ve assigned myself a new obligation. I’m going to stop undoing, deconstructing, I’m going to start building.
When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?
The most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina is set at Pokrovskoye. Levin, dark and melancholy, is trying to forget Kitty. It is springtime, he goes off with the peasants to mow the fields. In the beginning the task seems too arduous for him. He is about to give up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest. Then they begin again with their scythes. Once again Levin is about to collapse from exhaustion, once again the old man raises his scythe. Rest. And then the row moves forward again, forty hands scything swaths and moving steadily toward the river as the sun rises. It is getting hotter and hotter, Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid. A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.
This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this—ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.
In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.
We mustn’t forget old people with their rotten bodies, old people who are so close to death, something that young people don’t want to think about (so it is to retirement homes that they entrust the care of accompanying their parents to the threshold, with no fuss or bother). And where’s the joy in these final hours that they ought to be making the most of? They’re spent in boredom and bitterness, endlessly revisiting memories. We mustn’t forget that our bodies decline, friends die, everyone forgets about us, and the end is solitude. Nor must we forget that these old people were young once, that a lifespan is pathetically short, that one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty. Colombe thinks you can “hurry up and forget” because it all seems so very far away to her, the prospect of old age, as if it were never going to happen to her. But just by observing the adults around me I understood very early on that life goes by in no time at all, yet they’re always in such a hurry, so stressed out by deadlines, so eager for now that they needn’t think about tomorrow . . . But if you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know how to build the present, and when you don’t know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anywaybecause tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?
So, we mustn’t forget any of this, absolutely not. We have to live with the certainty that we’ll get old and that it won’t look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it’s now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. Always remember that there’s a retirement home waiting somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb our own personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity.
That’s what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people
So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy. When my mother offers macaroons from Chez Ladurée to Madame de Broglie, she is telling herself her own life story and just nibbling at her own flavor; when Papa drinks his coffee and reads his paper, he is contemplating his own reflection in the mirror, as if practicing the Coué method or something; when Colombe talks about Marian’s lectures, she is ranting about her own reflection; and when people walk by the concierge, all they see is a void, because she is not from their world.
As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.
From the very first film I saw, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, I was fascinated by the way the Japanese use space in their lives, and by these doors that slide and move quietly along invisible rails, refusing to offend space. For when we push open a door, we transform a place in a very insidious way. We offend its full extension, and introduce a disruptive and poorly proportioned obstacle. If you think about it carefully, there is nothing uglier than an open door. An open door introduces a break in the room, a sort of provincial interference, destroying the unity of space. In the adjoining room it creates a depression, an absolutely pointless gaping hole adrift in a section of wall that would have preferred to remain whole. In either case a door disrupts continuity, without offering anything in exchange other than freedom of movement, which could easily be ensured by another means. Sliding doors avoid such pitfalls and enhance space. Without affecting the balance of the room, they allow it to be transformed. When a sliding door is open, two areas communicate without offending each other. When it is closed, each regains its integrity. Sharing and reunion can occur without intrusion. Life becomes a quiet stroll—whereas our life, in the homes we have, seems like nothing so much as a long series of intrusions.
There’s nothing terribly original about the fact that I put music on in the morning, just that it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s very simple but also sort of complicated to explain: I believe that we can choose our moods: because we are aware that there are several mood-strata and we have the means to gain access to them. For example, to write a profound thought, I have to put myself onto a very special stratum, otherwise the ideas and words just don’t come. I have to forget myself and at the same time be superconcentrated. But it’s not a question of “the will,” it’s a mechanism I can set in motion or not, like scratching my nose or doing a backward roll. And to activate the mechanism there’s nothing better than a little music. For example, to relax, I put on something that takes me into a sort of faraway mood, where things can’t really reach me, where I can look at them as if I were watching a film: a “detached” stratum of consciousness. In general, for that particular stratum, I resort to jazz or, more effective overall but longer to take effect: Dire Straits (long live my mp3 player).
With her it’s as if a text was written so that we can identify the characters, the narrator, the setting, the plot, the time of the story, and so on. I don’t think it has ever occurred to her that a text is written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader. Can you imagine, she has never even asked us the question: “Did you like this text/this book?” And yet that is the only question that could give meaning to the narrative points of view or the construction of the story . . .
Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, “Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!” I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the core of any statement. It’s magnificent, don’t you think? Nouns, verbs . . .
Perhaps, to gain access to all the beauty of the language that grammar unveils, you have to place yourself in a special state of awareness. I have the impression that I do that anyway without any special effort. I think that it was at the age of two, when I first heard grown-ups speak, that I understood once and for all how language is made. Grammar lessons have always seemed to me a sort of synthesis after the fact and, perhaps, a source of supplemental details concerning terminology. Can you teach children to speak and write correctly through grammar if they haven’t had the illumination that I had? Who knows. In the meanwhile, all the Madame Fines on the planet ought rather to ask themselves what would be the right piece of music to play to make their pupils go into a grammatical trance.
And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.
If you think about it at all seriously, esthetics are really nothing more than an initiation to the Way of Consonance, a sort of Way of the Samurai applied to the intuition of authentic forms. We all have a knowledge of harmony, anchored deep within. It is this knowledge that enables us, at every instant, to apprehend quality in our lives and, on the rare occasions when everything is in perfect harmony, to appreciate it with the apposite intensity. And I am not referring to the sort of beauty that is the exclusive preserve of Art. Those who feel inspired, as I do, by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from within a certain ordering of ordinary things and from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way.
Well, that’s just grown-up chitchat but what is great about Kakuro is that he is so polite in everything he does. It’s really pleasant to listen to him talking, even if you don’t care about what he’s saying, because he is truly talking to you, he is addressing himself to you. This is the first time I have met someone who cares about me when he is talking: he’s not looking for approval or disagreement, he looks at me as if he too say, “Who are you? Do you want to talk to me? How nice it is to be here with you!” That is what I meant by saying he is polite—this attitude that gives the other person the impression of really being there.
But on the other hand, and I can’t really understand why, I do care about the birch trees. Kakuro was talking about the Russian campaign, and all the swaying, rustling birch trees, and I felt light, so light . . .
After I’d had a chance to think about it for a while I began to understand why I felt this sudden joy when Kakuro was talking about the birch trees. I get the same feeling when anyone talks about trees, any trees: the linden tree in the farmyard, the oak behind the old barn, the stately elms that have all disappeared now, the pine trees along wind-swept coasts, etc. There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature . . . yes, that’s it: just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are—vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth—and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honor this beauty that owes us nothing. Kakuro was talking about birch trees and, forgetting all those psychoanalysts and intelligent people who don’t know what to do with their intelligence, I suddenly felt my spirit expand, for I was capable of grasping the utter beauty of the trees.
I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God—all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease. Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path.
Yet how exhausting it is to be constantly desiring . . . We soon aspire to pleasure without the quest, to a blissful state without beginning or end, where beauty would no longer be an aim or a project but the very proof of our nature. And that state is Art. This table—did I have to set it? Must I have cover this repast in order to see it? Somewhere, elsewhere, someone wanted that meal, someone aspired to that mineral transparency and sought the pleasure offered by the salt, silky caress of a lemony oyster on his tongue. This was but one project of a hundred yet unhatched, leading to a thousand more, the intention to prepare and savor a banquet of shellfish—someone else’s project, in fact, that existed in order for the painting to come to life.
But when we gaze at a still life, when—even though we did not pursue it—we delight in its beauty, a beauty borne away by the magnified and immobile figuration of things, we find pleasure in the fact that there was no need for longing, we may contemplate something we need not want, may cherish something we need not desire. So this still life, because it embodies a beauty that speaks to our desire but was given birth by someone else’s desire, because it cossets our pleasure without in any way being part of our own projects, because it is offered to us without requiring the effort of desiring on our part: this still life incarnates the quintessence of Art, the certainty of timelessness. In the scene before our eyes—silent, without life or motion—a time exempt of projects is incarnated, perfection purloined from duration and its weary greed—pleasure without desire, existence without duration, beauty without will.
For art is emotion without desire.
Never in my life have I felt so at ease. How can I explain? For the first time, I feel utterly trusting, even though I am not alone. Even with Manuela, to whom I would gladly entrust my life, I do not have this feeling of absolute security that comes when one is sure that understanding is mutual. Entrusting one’s life is not the same as opening up one’s soul, and although I love Manuela like a sister, I cannot share with her the things that constitute the tiny portion of meaning and emotion that my incongruous existence has stolen from the universe.
“You know, I’ve been living alone for so long and I never go out. I’m afraid I might be something of a noble savage.”
Personally I think there is only one thing to do: find the task we have been placed on this earth to do, and accomplish it as best we can, with all our strength, without making things complicated or thinking there’s anything divine about our animal nature. This is the only way we will ever feel that we have been doing something constructive when death comes to get us. Freedom, choice, will, and so on? Chimeras. We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees, but we are in truth nothing but poor bees, destined to accomplish our task and then die.
I have finally concluded, 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 come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.
Don’t worry Renée, I won’t commit suicide and I won’t burn a thing.
Because from now on, for you, I’ll be searching for those moments of always within never.
Beauty, in this world.