Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or Equipping your Anti-absurdity Toolbox

I really enjoyed Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006, translated by Alison Anderson), which my sisters recommended, and which I listened to through Audible.  A francophile, language-lover, or anyone who likes to ponder the technology of art and literature will find much in this enchanting story, the joint narrative of a Parisian consierge and a 12-year old genius.

Both the older and the younger narrator cast a cold eye on humanity, and uncover some wisdom regarding how humans keep themselves from unpleasant truths of existence. The concierge Renée explains her un-encumbered vision of life and implies definitions of the technology of religion, television, and family:

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.

Free of the deceptions of religion, entertainment, and family, the alienated concierge sees clearly, through the pretensions of her employers and other benighted souls.  Ironically, she decries their snobbish brutalism as would the worst snob; it is comical the way she judges the riche as unworthy of their wealth. What can Renée do though, with all her noble knowledge, an un-schooled  servant (through class destiny) to rich masters, each of whom is her intellectual inferior? She must secretly judge them. And she builds (and conveys to the reader) her anti-absurdity toolbox, which features the escape-tool–literature:

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?

Avid readers will attest to the therapeutic value of books, private tools of solace and enrichment. Another tool for edification in everyday that Renée describes is the technology of tea-drinking. More than just a beverage, for those aware of it, tea becomes a democratic sacrament for the relief and blessing of all imbibers:

Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed…. Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time…When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.

Through her “magical interludes,” Renée sees profoundly into society’s functioning. She describes the corrosive effects of poverty on children in a way of which Diane Ravitch would approve:

Poverty is a reaper: it harvests everything inside us that might have made us capable of social intercourse with others, and leaves us empty, purged of feeling, so that we may endure all the darkness of the present day.

She sees the ugly effects of noise pollution on the human intellect:

..what I dread more than anything else in this life is noise…silence helps you to go inward..anyone who is interested in something more than just life outside actually needs silence.

She sees the technology of schools as Civilization’s primate-training function:

Civilization is the mastery of violence, the triumph, constantly challenged, over the aggressive nature of the primate. For primates we have been and primates we shall remain, however often we learn to find joy in a camellia on moss. This is the very purpose of education.

And how about the 12-year old Paloma’s response to the old proverb that “Those who can’t, teach.” She hears it at her a dinner party, and deconstructs its meaning to explain the social darwinism of everyday life–the technology of rhetoric prevails over the fundamental tools:

But that’s not even the problem. What his sentence (Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach teach the teachers and those who can’t teach the teachers go into politics.) 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 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 rabbit home for dinner or procreating properly. Humans live in a world where the weak are dominant. [emphasis added]

Pretty remarkable when ideas that stimulating come from a child. One final quotation I’d share is the preturnaturally wise pre-teen’s take on the big human function, the technology of a life:

How to measure a life’s worth? The important thing,… is not the fact of dying, it is what you are doing in the moment of your death. [emphasis added]

A rather appealing, existentialist definition of life’s meaning there:  we are what we do, and our death–will reveal whatever we have been doing up until it–will define our existence functionally.

And what is the highest value to be serving at the moment of death? What should one’s functionality advance?  Beauty.  The technology of beauty,  according to this book, is to alleviate  the otherwise insufferable human suffering and redeem defeat. Beauty in art or nature is set boldly against the nihilistic world-view of materialists like most in the residence, and becomes the final epiphany for Paloma:

I have finally concluded, [Paloma writes] 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.”

Call it religion or secular creed, we humans need something permanent and unchanging, “an always,” to believe in. We seem hard-wired for it, and this book is thus a deeply humane work, un-covering these universals as it does.

Many reviewers hated this book for its long interludes of philosophizing and lack of plausible plot line. But I am only somewhat educated in philosophy and did not feel slighted or patronized. And despite its incredible coincidences, I found myself thoroughly edu-tained by Muriel Barbery’s book.

I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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