The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
001. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite—a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups—beaming at his discovery…without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to. How could the labouring classes understand Marx? …
And that is when I very nearly—foolishly–gave myself away….
“Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression,” I nearly murmered, as if inly my cat were listening to me.
But Antoine Pallieres…is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions too crumble…That [a concierge] might simply be reading Marx to elevate her mind is so incongruous a conceit that no member of the bourgeoisie could ever entertain it.
002. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble.
003. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet, and insignificant. I live alone with my cat…who has no distinguishing features other than the fact that his paws smell bad when he is annoyed. Neither he nor I make any effort to take part in the social doings of our respective species. Because I am rarely friendly–though always polite–I am not liked, but am tolerated nonetheless: I correspond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively construed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered. [The character goes on to describe how she goes about fulfilling her societal role by being exactly what others expect of her. The most bothersome part of the charade being that concierges are supposed to watch television all day—a thing she despises. Her husband had watched it constantly, which freed her from having to do so but now that he's dead...] Alive, he freed me from this iniquitous obligation; dead, he has deprived me of his lack of culture, the indispensable bulwark against other people’s suspicions.
004. Thus, the television in the front room, guardian of my clandestine activities, could bleat away and I was no longer forced to listen to inane nonsense fit for the brain of a clam…
005. Apparently, now and again adults take the time to sit down and contemplate what a disaster their life is. They complain without understanding and, like flies constantly banging against the same old windowpane, they buzz around, suffer, waste away, get depressed then wonder how they got caught up in this spiral that is taking them where they don’t want to go. The most intelligent among them turn their malaise into a religion: oh, the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence! … I despise this false lucidity that comes with age. The truth is that they are just like everyone else: nothing more than kids without a clue about what had happened to them…
And yet there’s nothing to understand. The problem is that children believe what adults say and, once they’re adults themselves, they exact their revenge by deceiving their own children. “Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realise it’s not true, it’s too late. The mystery remains intact, but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things. All that’s left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can’t find any meaning in your life, and then, the better to convince yourself, you deceive your own children.
006. All our family acquaintances have followed the same path: their youth spent trying to make the most of their intelligence, squeezing their studies like a lemon to make sure they’d secure a spot among the elite, then the rest of their lives wondering with a flabbergasted look on their faces why all that hopefulness has led to such a vain existence. … I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd. That might deprive you of a few good moments in your childhood but it would save you a considerable amount of time as an adult…
007. …no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure.
008. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.
009. What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.
010. 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.
011. Let us just say that the idea of struggling to make my way in a world of privileged, affluent people exhausted me before I even tried…There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger [for knowledge/books] .
012. I read as if deranged…
013. The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects…
014. My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud.
015. Say what you want, do what you will with all thise fine speeches on evolution, civilisation and a ton of other “-tion” words, mankind has not progressed very far from its origins: people still believe they’re not here by chance, and that there are gods, kindly for the most part, who are watching over their fate.
016. 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 barrier and prohibit adventure.
017. I am in the midst of one of those moments where the folly of my solitary undertaking takes hold of me and, on the verge of giving up, I fear I have finally found my master.
His name is Husserl.
018. I have withdrawn, to be sure, and refuse to fight. But within the safety of my own mind, there is no challenge I cannot accept. I may be indigent in name, position, and appearance, but in my own mind I am an unrivalled goddess.
019. Thus Edmund Husserl–and I have concluded that this is a name fit for vacuum cleaner bags…
020. Cynics cannot relinquish the rubbish they were taught as children: they hold tight to the belief that the word has meaning and, when things go wrong for them, they consequently adopt the inverse attitude. “Life’s a whore, I don’t believe in anything anymore and I’ll wallow in that idea until it makes me sick” is the very credo of the innocent who hasn’t been able to get his way.
021. What his sentence means …that nothing is harder or more unfair then 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 an 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…
022. In the same way that cathedrals have always aroused in me the sensation of man-made tributes to the glory of something that does not exist, phenomenology has tested to the extreme my ability to believe that so much intelligence could have gone to serve so futile an undertaking.
023. According to Husserl … All knowledge is merely reflective consciousness exploring its own self, the world, therefore, can merrily go to the devil.
024. But my frenzied devouring of cultural objects seems to me to suffer from a major error of taste: brutally mixing respectable works with others that are far less so.
It is most certainly in the domain of reading that me eclecticism is least pronounced, though even there the variety of my interests is most extreme. I have read history, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, pedagogy, psychoanalysis and, of course–above all–literature.
025. When illness enters a home, not only does it take hold of a body; it also weaves a dark web between hearts, a web where hope is trapped. Like a spider’s thread drawn ever tighter around our projects, making it impossible to breathe, with each passing day the illness was overwhelming our life.
026. [Colombe] has figured out that what I dread more than anything else in life is notice. I think she discovered this by chance. It would never have crossed her mind spontaneously that somebody might actually need silence. That silence helps you go inward , that anyone who is interested in something more than just life outside actually needs silence: this, I think, is not something Colombe is capable of understanding, because her inner space is as chaotic and noisy as the street outside.
027. I don’t give a damn about where I happen to be, provided nothing stops me from going into my mind.
028. …because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperature of serene harmony. 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.
029. I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.
030. Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an evern greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberites of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance.
031. To the rich, therefore, falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die.
032. I do not know how old the Councillor is, but as a young man he already seemed old, which means that now that he is truly old, he still seems young.
033. We live each day as if it were merely a rehearsal for the next…
034. 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 then in literature?
035. 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 movement as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this [journal] 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 not thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainly, but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.
036. …but I am an anomaly in the system, living proof of how grotesque it is, and every day I mock it gently, deep within my impenetrable self.
037. In a world full of fossils, the slightest movement of a pebble on the slope of the cliff is nearly enough to bring on a whole series of heart attacks…
038. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terribly elegant.
039. 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.
040. As far as I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn-out suffering.
041. Fascination with intelligence is in itself fascinating, but I don’t think it’s a value in itself. There are tons of intelligent people out there and there are a lot of retards, too.
042. Many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself. They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangely: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed.
043. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God–all paths taken by mortal 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 beguilng 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.
044. “Wow…holy cow!” says Manuela.
An onomatopeia and a slang expression coming from the mouth of Manuela, whom I have never known to say a single trivial word, is rather like the Pope forgetting himself and shouting to the cardinals, Where the hell is that bloody miter?
045. Today with Maman we went to the sales on the rus Saint-Honore. Hell on earth. … that people can throw themselves so tenaciously into getting a scarf or a pair of gloves on sale that even with the markdown will still cost as much as a van Gogh just floors me. But these ladies go at it with an enraged passion.
046. 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.
047. I have always been fascinated by the abnegation with which we human beings are capable of devoting a great deal of energy to the quest for nothing and to the rehashing of useless and absurd ideas.
048. the efficiency of intelligence offers us the possibility of complexity without foundation, thought without usefulness, and beauty without purpose. It’s like a computer bug, a consequence without consequence of the subtlety of our cortex, a superfluous perversion making an utterly wasteful use of the means as its disposal.
049. The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite–for this turns the university into a sect.
050. When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is possible only with another person? The peace of mind one experiences on one’s own, one’s certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship.
051. As I could not cease to be who I was, either, it became clear to me that my path would be one of secrecy; I had to keep silent about who I was, and never mix with that other world.
From being silent, I then became clandestine.
052. I belong to the 8% of the world population who calm their apprehension by drowning it in numbers.
053. Today a strange feeling has taken hold, that I am betraying you: by dying.
…Must we also put to death those who were still alive only through us?
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery