Friday, November 30, 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a Review

November 30, 2012

"You ought to read The German Ideology" says Madame Michel, one of the two voices in this rich, beguiling novel, thereby almost giving herself away. For she has chosen to remain disguised as what she thinks of herself--or as what she thinks the world takes her for, a 54 year old concierge dressed in a "white nuptial meringue [undergarment] buried beneath a lugubrious black pinafore," who only "gets through her everyday life thanks to her ignorance of any alternatives." We are therefore treated to her spasms of fear, palpitations of being outed as the intellectual that she is (despite the fact that she only went to school from five to twelve); she is overwhelmed by the huge chasm of class/social distinction between the concierge and the occupants/owners of the apartments in this venerable building.

The other voice belongs to Paloma, a hyper-intelligent 12 year old who lives in fear of showing her freakish intelligence--that's how her classmates and family would treat it, or so she fears. She therefore hides it by reading everything her friend (who is second in the class) and carefully imitating the latter's work: French as "words in coherent strings, correctly spelled"; Math as the "mechanical reproduction of operations devoid of meaning"; history as "a list of events joined by logical connections"--all to "dumb down" the appearance of her true intelligence.

Each of the two voices take turns, more or less, to beguile us with considerations beyond the ordinary, of the sort if not common or familiar, one would hope is at least recognizable to those belonging to that which baccalaureate exercises frequently describe as the "community of educated men and women." Paloma's revelations are revealed as journal entries (in a sans serif font) while Madame Michel's (Renee) are only sometimes referred to as journal entries. One such memorable occasion is when she compares her journal writing to the hypnotic, unconscious rhythm of mowing grass: "The lines become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will."

Both voices therefore hide their light under the proverbial bushel; they are wabi, Japanese for an understated form of beauty, of "refinement masked by rusticity." They each recognize in the other the radiance of intelligence. Paloma, while speaking of the concierge in her journal, cries out: "I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone." The novel shows how they each eventually make their own way towards the light.

Along the way, guarded and repressed as they are, they reveal flashes of gnomic insight. Paloma speaks of grammar as "an end not simply a means ... pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language." Madame Michel makes breathtakingly short work of Husserl's Cartesian Meditations: Introduction to Phenomenology--a "ridiculous little book...[born of] hard-core autism." Chancing on Paloma's older sister's thesis on William of Ockham's Potentia Dei Absoluta, she concludes that academia has not always chosen wisely or well between "elevating thought" and "the self-reproduction of a sterile elite." Stunned by a still life by Pieter Claesz, even though it is only a copy, she declares she would without hesitation "trade the entire Italian Quattrocento [Fra Angelico? Donatello? Leonardo?]" for Dutch still life.

Not to make this review overlong, let it be said that there are passages of great tenderness and humor, as well as more gentle disquisitions on philosophical issues of moment. Madame Michel has found the library and it allowed her to expand her horizons; the VCR and the DVD have transported her senses. She is friends with pre-1910 Russian literature, movies from Yasujiro Ozu's cinematic equivalents of Pieter Claesz to the Blade Runner and the Terminator, music from Mozart (whose "Confutatis" appears at a most startling point) to Eminem; she reflects on the difference between doors that swing open and those that slide.

You ought to read this book!

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