27 November 2012

L'élégance du hérisson... or, in English? The Elegance of the Hedgehog

American culture has shifted - one of the key outcomes of recent events in the United States has so clearly proven this fact.

Thus, when I started reading this book and initially found it slow and even, at times, offensive (i.e. post-modern thought, some vulgarity, characters with whom I found it hard to relate, occasional philosophical wanderings that required careful reading to understand the point), but I kept reading beyond the first 80 pages because the title intrigued me.

We have a bit of experience with hedgehogs - and I kept reading because the title intrigued me. I wanted to find out why and how someone could describe a hedgehog as elegant. Cute? I totally got that. Interesting? No problem seeing that one either. Sweet personalities? They are... but also in our experience, they scurry along, a bit awkwardly, they don't climb well - easily tumbling off steps and ledges. Regardless, they are gentle and shy creatures who slowly warm up to people, but retreat to a prickly ball as soon as they are startled and are then difficult to get to open up again...

After the first 80 pages, though, I had finally grasped the ebb and flow of Barbary's writing. I enjoyed the distinctly European flavor (the book was originally published in France) and I certainly found the characters intriguing. And then, I began uncovering treasures in the text
"...tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment? The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a licence granted to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, 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 aperture 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, the autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And with each swallow, time is sublimed." (p. 87)
"True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time. ...The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life." (p. 96-97)
Profound Though No. 8
If you forget the future
You lose
The present
(p. 121)
"...just by observing the adults around me I understood very early on that life goes by in no time at all, yet they're always in such a hurry, so stressed out by deadlines, so eager for now so they needn't think about tomorrow... But if you dread tomorrow, it's because you don't know how to build the present and when you don't know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and its a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don't you see? So we mustn't forget any of this, absolutely not. We have to live with the certainty that we'll get old and that it won't look nice or be good or feel happy. And tell ourselves that it's now that matters: to build something, now, at any price, using all our strength. Always remember that there's an old people's home waiting somewhere and so we have to surpass ourselves every day, make every day undying. Climb to our personal Everest and do it in such a way that every step is a little bit of eternity. That's what the future is for: to build the present, with real plans, made by living people." (p. 124-125)
"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." (p. 139)
"So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. 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 recognise each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realised 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. ...As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone." (p. 141)
"Eternity: for all its invisibility, we gaze at it." (p. 246) 
   "...maybe the greatest anger and frustration come not from unemployment or poverty or the lack of a future but from the feeling that you have no culture because you've been torn between cultures, between incompatible symbols. How can you exist if you don't know where you are? What do you do if your culture will always be that of a Thai fishing village and of Parisian grand bourgeois at the same time? Or if you're the son of immigrants but also the citizen of an old, conservative nation? So you burn cars, because when you have no culture, you're no longer a civilised animal, you're a wild beast. And a wild beast burns and kills and pillages.   I know this is not a very profound thought but after that I did have a profound thought, all the same: I asked myself, what about me? What is my cultural problem? In what way am I torn between two incompatible beliefs And in what way am I a wild beast?" (p. 253)
"...beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It's the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death.    ...I thought, does this mean that is how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between movement and its disappearance?    Maybe that's what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying." (p. 268-269)
"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..." (p. 273)
"If you want to heal
Heal others
And smile or weep
At this happy reversal of fate.
(p. 286)
   "They didn't recognise me," I say.I come to a halt in the middle of the pavement, completely flabbergasted.   "They didn't reconise me," I repeate.He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm."It is because they have never seen you," he says. "I would recognise you anywhere."   ...And I wonder how well I myself can see."(p. 299-300)
   "I have finally concluded, 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.   ...from now on, for you, I'l be searching for those moments of always within never.   Beauty in this world." (p. 320)
Not only is the writing/translating captivating... encapsulated within, I stumbled over such exquisite truth. And, as you can see also see, I eventually did discover the meaning behind the book's title. More significantly, however, I glimpsed how God has created bridges through the longings within those refraining post-modern thought - doors flung wide open to share the reason for the hope within. God has called His people to be His ambassadors. How can we relate to others if we don't understand where they are... from where they are coming? 

I firmly believe that every culture (even post-modern ones) will contain elements of God's truth and His beauty, because man is created in the image of God.

Themes like
  • longing for eternity and for significance, 
  • seeing beyond the surface to the person within, 
  • the dichotomous struggle between beauty and death, 
  • the basis of true friendship and how we need other people, 
  • how the future is built on the little choices made today, 
  • the benefit and beauty of serving and helping others
  • our selfish, self-centered eyes are generally blind to others and therefore we only find ourselves reflected instead of knowing and truly being known,
  • seeing infinity in a moment.
reflect our amazing God and therefore we should use them to build...

Any of these ideas could become a bridge to connect otherwise seemingly unconnectables. 

I'm facilitating a discovery learning unit about bridges for a group of gifted 2nd graders  (they will eventually design and build their own bridge) and last week we discussed how balanced pushing and pulling forces are what makes a bridge stand. Somehow, I don't think that concept only applies to purely physical bridges... When we seek to link two seemingly incongruent thoughts or perspectives, there will be some uncomfortable tension - or pulling; there will also be some squeezing and pushing - or compression. And that is good, for that is what prevents catastrophe and collapse.

It is those forces, in balance, that not only cause the bridge to stand alone, but to also support the weight of those crossing back and forth.

In this book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I hope I've found some tools to begin building such bridges. I hope I'm brave enough to start using them.


What are you presently reading that challenges you and forces you to consider perspectives outside of your typical box?

Do you see God reflected in aspects of the culture in which you live?

What do you think about this idea of building bridges... and the uncomfortable tension and compression you might feel as a result?

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