Friday, 15 January 2016

Muriel Barbery: cats, philosophy, and still life

Full title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 325 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa Editions (2008)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and you’ll find yourself in the proximity of a writer who’s got a score to settle first with the knowledge industry, and then with life in general.
In the tone of intelligent social satire and with the lexical swipe of a philosophical treatise gone mainstream, the novel has been an enormous success ever since its first French print, in 2006 (Gallimard). Even parts where the prose goes hardcore-existentialist, pondering the likes of Edmund Husserl, appear to have found good acceptance among the cohorts of readers whose diversity can only be vaguely surmised.
The novel has an ease about it in regards to the inclusion of serious, philosophically pertinent, critically astute, commentaries on cultural demeanors of the modern world. Barbery, former teacher of philosophy and so utterly at home with at least the general aspects of twentieth-century critical thinking, leaves numerous clues in the novel as to her inclinations. One might find traces of Jean Baudrillard, for instance, in her treatment of the issue of house pets. Baudrillard, who drew clear lines between tamed animals of the household type and inanimate objects, classified both in his “System of Collecting,” and went as far as to say that “pets are a category midway between persons and objects.”
In Barbery’s novel, where cats feature prominently, the issue of sentimental attachment leaves no doubts as to its role in the creation of the modern pet. Renée Michel, concierge in a Parisian apartment building, has always named her cats after Tolstoy characters. Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, the rich Japanese tenant whose move into the building changes the course of the other characters’ lives, also calls his cats Kitty and Levin – no-brainer references to Anna Karenina. These onomastic sports indicate precisely the sentimental connotations of the modern humans’ relationship to their pets. Renée’s philosophy is, for this reason, very precisely Baudrillard-inspired. Proof:
“The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting,”
says the concierge; and a little further in the text she continues:
“I concede that the difference between the vacuum cleaner and the cats is that a cat can experience pain and pleasure. But does that mean it has a great ability to communicate with humans? Not at all. That should simply incite us to take special precautions with them as we would with very fragile objects.”
The precaution mentioned here is, of course, not unlike that feeling of existential embarrassment discussed by another French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who found a way of talking about continental philosophy by means of an incident in which his cat watched him emerging naked from the bathroom.
But to get back to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, what is immediately noticeable, I’m sure, is the way the afore-mentioned character (one of the two protagonists sharing the dual-narrative pattern of the novel) speaks. She is intelligent beyond affectation and interested in things of the world only insofar as they serve good, hearty reflection. In other words, Renée does not sound at all like a concierge. And that’s precisely the point. Barbery, with her thinly vailed agenda of satirizing artificially engendered brainpower, has two autodidacts as the main speakers in the novel. A concierge all her life, Renée has found her way of learning freely by hiding behind the social conventions that make her invisible to the bourgeois sycophants. There, she’s always been free to muse about the shortcomings of the world, while at the same time enjoying the pleasures of serious reflection. The other protagonist, the young Paloma Josse, comes from a different class order but shares with Renée the same feeling that the world is not her match. Unlike Renée, she is thinking of suicide. A precocious child, at less than twelve Paloma challenges her French teacher on principial grounds and has well-groomed feelings about everything that surrounds her. Unlike Renée, who appears to militate (if only internally) for an aristocracy of the mind, Paloma is of a seemingly socialist streak. She hates her parents’ well-to-do condition, as well as the pretense of her sister’s and her sister’s boyfriend. She knows how to see the holes in the impeccable armor of those who inhabit her immediate environment and is quick to see the merit of the silent concierge.

Muriel Barbery. Source: Semana
These two characters, though, have a lot in common. First of all this tendency towards transgressing their own milieus. To her family, Paloma appears as a strange child who hides all the time and refuses to participate in “proper” social intercourse. To the same, Renée is an invisible entity: a concierge who cannot be regarded as anything but what her profession indicates. But what truly unites the two protagonists is their love for Japanese simplicity. Renée launches repeated exegeses on Oriental aesthetics and emphasizes the importance of understanding that beauty is an event. She contrasts this to the Western taste for monumentality, for things made to survive, for history as a series of recorded actions. Contrary to this, the Japanese tea ceremony or the simplicity of Japanese art are the definition of what art should be: carpe diem at its purest. This is why she is so surprisingly fascinated by a very European genre: Dutch still life of the seventeenth century. It is there, in the ephemerality of a scene that’s set up for the pleasure of another, that Renée identifies the source of beauty.
Just like Renée’s passion for the ephemeral, Paloma is struck by the thought of procrastination, in fact another way of bringing up the tension of the present moment, a constant problem for European culture:
“If you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?”
Kakuro Ozu, who also happens to bear the surname of Renée’s favorite director (Yasujiro Ozu), knows Tolstoy inside-out, understands Paloma’s rebellious tendencies, and shows sympathy towards the destiny of both his French friends. He manages to persuade both of them out of their self-destructive tendencies, so that Paloma ends up convinced that suicide is not the way to go, while Renée agrees to come out of her protective cocoon. Their friendship is cut short by the novel’s unhappy ending but it shines so bright while it lasts: a perfect triangle of French love that’s not sexual but intellectual in nature.
The trio performs against a background which Barbery is very careful to describe as culturally destitute and incompetent but socially patronizing and self-aggrandizing. This is the society made up of the inhabitants of 7, rue de Grenelle, the novel’s only spatial setting, situated at the very center of Paris. The humans that make up this society are invariably dumbed down by the protagonists’ remarkable intelligence. They’re utter biological loss, if we trust the verve of Paloma’s diatribes. Out of reach of good ideas, burdened by social conventions and common tastes more than any wish to gain access to knowledge, the tenants form a small-scale replica of the thing known as humanity. From Paloma’s parents to the deceased food critic Pierre Arthens, the protagonist of Barbery’s first novel, translated into English either as The Gourmet or Gourmet Rapsody, and from them to the entire fauna of simple-minded bourgeois who boast credentials gained for all the wrong reasons, the world described in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an enclosed ecosystem which allows readers to feel at home.
This is, perhaps, why the book has been such a success. Because – let us admit – don’t we love to partake in criticisms of a world system from which we invariably abstract ourselves? Freed of sin by way of being on the critic’s side, we’re going to love the game that shows us the defects we refuse to acknowledge. And that, in itself, is a perfect recipe for success. Muriel Barbery is a winner. Agreed.