The Crisis of the Intellectual Life
by Zena Hitz
What is the point of studying the humanities? The question reflects the current climate among humanist educators: anxiety shading into despair. As enrollments decline, programs are cut, and tenure diminishes, mainstream educational institutions are becoming uncomfortable places for teachers who want to pass on a zeal for humanist learning. But the crisis in the humanities is not just a crisis caused by some Bad Guys who want to destroy All That Is Good. It is primarily something far more worrying: a crisis of confidence among ourselves, a crisis caused by a failure of self-understanding. We are haunted by a sense that what we do is somehow inadequate or pointless. This is a failure of imagination as much as it is a failure of understanding.
Mona Achache’s 2009 film “The Hedgehog” (“Le hérisson”) presents an uncommon image of intellectual life. The film tells the story of the friendship of three people in a bourgeois Paris apartment building. At the center of the story is Renée, an ugly middle-aged woman of the working classes, the concierge of the building. Renée’s middle age is filmed with unsettling realism—her heavyset figure, her unadorned face, her slouchy cardigans, and her solitary chocolate eating. Yet Renée exerts a mysterious attraction over Paloma, a twelve-year-old daughter of privilege, haunted by the meaningless lives led by her family members and who is somewhat whimsically plotting her own suicide. Renée also attracts Kakuro, the new Japanese resident in the building, who takes a romantic interest in her. It is a shock to the viewer that such an un-cinematic figure should be a romantic lead.
Renée’s filmic predecessor in raw middle age is Emmi, the romantic lead of R.W. Fassbinder’s 1974 masterpiece “Ali: Angst Essen Seele Auf” (“Ali: Fear Eats The Soul”). Unlike contemporary Hollywood images of middle age—for instance, the playwright played by Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), wealthy, accomplished, charming, and still sexy—Fassbinder’s Emmi is fat, wrinkled, silly, and a cleaning lady, the bottom of the social barrel. Emmi falls in love with a younger Moroccan guest-worker, to the disgust of her xenophobic children, as well as her neighbors and co-workers. Renée falls in love with Kakuro, breaking the sharp boundary between her and the building’s wealthy residents. The love affair in both cases amounts to a real human connection that stands out in sharp contrast from their fearful, status-driven social environments.
The twist that “The Hedgehog” puts on this theme—and here it follows the novel it is inspired by, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery—is that this unsettling but authentic human connection has its source and basis in intellectual life. Renée the concierge, cranky and ignorant in public, has a secret: She reads voraciously, great novels and philosophy, history and classics. At a key point, she is pictured in private, door closed, reading philosophy at her dinner table. Later, she is seen withdrawn into a hidden chamber behind her kitchen, stuffed with books and a reading chair. It is her secret life that attracts her Japanese suitor as well as the protagonist of the film, Paloma. So Kakuro, the suitor, recognizes who she is because her cat is named for Leo Tolstoy, as are his cats. So Paloma, the protagonist, realizes that Renée is a kindred spirit when she discovers a philosophical treatise accidentally left on the kitchen table. In a central scene, Paloma is in Renée’s kitchen and notices the closed door to her reading chamber. Intrigued, she asks her, “What is behind that door?” It is Renée’s hidden life that attracts the other characters and that forges friendships that give them refuge from the privileged, empty bubble that surrounds them.
The intellectual life as portrayed in this film has four central features:
1) It is a form of the inner life of a person, a place of retreat and reflection.
2) As such it is withdrawn from the world, where “the world” is understood in its (originally Platonic, later Christian) sense as the locus of competition and struggle for wealth, power, prestige, and status.
3) It is a source of dignity—made obvious in this case by Renee’s low status as an unattractive working-class woman without children and past child-bearing age.
4) It opens space for communion: It allows for a profound connection between human beings.
Of these four features of intellectual life, it is the notion of withdrawal that is centrally important. It is the removal of intellectual life from the world that accounts for its true inwardness—an inwardness distinct from the narcissistic inner tracking of one’s social standing. It is the withdrawn person’s independence from contests over wealth or status that provides or reveals a dignity that can’t be ranked or traded. This dignity, along with the universality of the objects of the intellect—that is, that they are available to everyone—is what opens up space for real communion.
The image of the intellect as a refuge from the world is rare nowadays, but its history is distinguished. As the Socrates of Plato’s Republic acknowledges the likelihood of the world continuing in its evils, he describes the philosopher as someone who retreats from public life “like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind” (Republic 496d). The unworldly thinker is a figure of ancient legend: Socrates himself, of course, losing himself in thought at the threshold of a dinner party, as described in Plato’s Symposium; or Thales, who reportedly fell into a well from looking at the stars; or Diogenes the Cynic, whose only request to Alexander the Great upon meeting him was that he get out of his sunlight. Perhaps most extraordinary is Plutarch’s account of the great mathematician Archimedes, so taken up in a mathematical proof that he did not notice his city being taken by the Romans, and killed by a soldier when he insisted on finishing his proof before being taken to the Roman authorities.
Ancient Christian accounts of intellectual life draw on this Platonic ideal. So Augustine describes the love of wisdom as an effort to “gather our whole soul somehow to that which we attain by the mind, to station ourselves and become wholly entrenched there, so that we may no longer rejoice in our own private goods, which are bound up with ephemeral things, but instead cast aside all attachment to times and places and apprehend that which is always one and the same.” (On Free Will 2.16)