The Elegance of the Hedgehog

When I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was caught up, not only in the exquisite writing, but in the existential yearnings of the characters in the story to make sense of their lives, to find an understanding confidante, to live authentically.

There is a fascinating lecture about it on by Robert Adams on TVO Big Ideas. And here is the trailer for the film.

Having underlined dozens of passages for review and journaling, I discovered several similar lists online. Who are the people who chose them and uploaded them? I want to meet them.   I want to talk about this! And I will definitely start a study journal!

My best friend hated the book, could not finish it! No one else I know has read it.  I shall search for a Muriel Barbery/ Hedgehog blog!  Or gather up a small group willing to study and discuss it. Have you read it yet?

Meanwhile some interesting ideas and questions have been floating around in the background as I look after other things.   Yesterday I wrote about ataraxia as a “big” idea. And I wrote about my parent’s use of challenging questions when they were angry with me… rhetorical questions, always, because they never really wanted to hear an answer.

What is the big idea?  Just who do you think you are? Why in the world are you doing that?  How dare you say that? Where are you going? Why can’t you just…? Don’t you ever listen?  Will you never learn? How many times do I have to tell you? Are you deaf? How can you be so stupid?

My parents were good people.  They loved me and wanted me to be good.  I don’t think anyone in the 1940’s had heard about children’s self esteem, or would have taken it seriously anyway.   But these questions haunt me.  And I tried never, NEVER, to use them with my own children or with my students.

School was no better!  When we weren’t being idle or chatty or stupid or disobedient, we were SINNERS.  That was the global concept, the really “BIG” idea that covered everything else. Every night we made our examination of conscience and said an act of contrition.  We were unworthy. I had difficulty accepting that; I still do!  I knew that I was trying my hardest to be good and that constantly reviewing my conscience did not make me a more virtuous person, only more worried and perfectionist.

The challenging questions used in discipline when I was a child have stayed with me.  They pop up against my will. I use them when assessing  my behaviour and relationships.  They have become an ineradicable part of my thinking and behaviour.  Are they the foundation for the existential uneasiness I feel?

Compare them to the list below of what this website calls “the 6 ultimate questions about human existence”.

1.Who am I? What defines me? Who am I when everything is stripped away from me and I am reduced to a naked lonely soul? Is there anything unique and special about me?
2.How can I be happy? Why am I bored? Why am I so dissatisfied with life? What is the good life? Is this all there is to life?
3.What should I do with my life? How shall I then live? What is my calling? To what should I devote the rest of my life?
4.How do I make the right choices? How do I know that I am making the right decision regarding career and relationships? How can I tell right from wrong?
5.Where do I belong? Why do I feel so alone in this world? How can I develop a deep and meaningful relationship? Where can I find acceptance? Where is my home?
6. What is the point of striving when life is so short? Why should I struggle to survive when life is transient and fragile? What is the point of building something only to see it swallowed up by death?

So there you have it.  My childhood questions… the questioning of existentialism… and the questions and answers, spoken and implicit in that charming little book.  A desperate adolescent, a lonely old woman, and a successful foreign gentleman… all asking similar questions and helping each other find the answer.

This is one of the most meaningful and charming books I have ever read!  Give yourself a treat!

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4 Responses to The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. Paul Robberecht says:

    In the UK, the Guardian’s critique saw in this novel “a crash course in philosophy interwoven with a platonic love story”, but it also characterized L’Elégance du hérisson as “an admirable novel which deserves as wide a readership here as it had in France”. The novel came out in the original French in 2006, winning the following year the prestigious “Prix des Libraires”. Now, for some unexplainable reason the book, purchased by my wife in 2007, has been sitting unread by me on our bookshelves. I will soon put down Carrère’s hefty Limonov and take up Barbery’s novel. OK then, I’ll enter the discussion as quickly as possible, not without casting a first question regarding how a book about Parisian life from the perspective of a ”concierge”, a rare breed nowadays, translates into another language. But this I will not be in a position to judge because I won’t read it in English, though I am certain the title’s words “hérisson” and “hedgehog” animate different sentiments. An interesting question at any rate! Similarly, I should also wonder about the making of literary works into films, for the good reason that I saw the film when it came out on our TV’s Cinema channels, and I just cannot remember the first thing about it. How is this? I also realize that my own perspective (I live in the novel’s type of environment) will be somehow different from that expressed by English-speaking readers. Maybe not, we’ll see! At any rate thank you for your post, it is pushing me to take up a number of questions regarding literature. Will philosophy also answer the call? I hope my English is still acceptable. I haven’t written anything in this language for the past eleven years. Can’t believe it!

  2. motleydragon says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    The book moved me deeply. I taught gifted children whose talents and achievements in their special areas of interest were far ahead of their peer group, but who struggled to mask it or underplay it, more concerned about being clumsy in phys ed, or not being invited to a sleepover. I find Renee, Paloma, and Kakuro all very credible characters, and in some way I can identify, become vicariously involved, with each. Their existential quest and attempts to find meaningful connections between episodes and allusions in their lives, is also quite fascinating.

    The members of my family all try to live with authenticity, being true to themselves and their own talents and interests. This has not been easy, even between ourselves. In work and social situations we dissemble. Like Kermit, I remind myself, “It’s not easy being green…. When green is all there is to be/ It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why/ Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful /And I think it’s what I want to be. (Kermit is sitting on top of the high bookcase beside the work table in my studio. Eeyore is with him.)

    One of the most gratifying comments I ever received from a student was that I had given them the gift of language. When I asked her to explain, she said that, unlike the other teachers, I did not talk down to them and explain things over and over when they already understood. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so.

    Enjoy it! I wish I could read it again for the first time!

  3. Curmudgeon Bludgeon says:

    Sorry Motley Dragon, but your (albeit, borrowed) list of “6 ultimate questions about human existence” is hopelessly naive. You’re showing your over-earnest, over-educated, over-IQed colors. “People” don’t ask themselves those questions–they don’t even cross the radar screen. The only one that comes close is #6, and even it needs an edit for clarity.

    1. Who the f%&k are you?
    2. How can I get myself laid tonight?
    3. What am I gonna do with all this shit?
    4. How do I get outta here?
    5. Where can I get one of those?
    6. What’s the point?

    Needless to say, this can’t be called perfect contentment either. But it’s probably closer than any of those ancient Greek dipstoicks ever got, waving their precious ataraxias around. Call it arresteddevelopmentia, if you like, whatever, as long as it works.

    Smoke a joint, sheesh.

    • motleydragon says:

      Oops! Caught again.
      “You’re showing your over-earnest, over-educated, over-IQed colors. ”
      Thanks for setting the record straight. Even if I decline to light up, I really do need to lighten up.

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