So here’s a lovely passage from The Elegance of the Hedgehog:
“There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required simply to support our primitive requirements, we wonder, bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view the now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.
“Eternity eludes us.
“At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and our society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. . . . all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this: hold your rank, or die.
“At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.
“Thus, to withdraw as far as you can from the jousting and combat that are the appanages of our warrior species, you drink a cup of tea, or perhaps you watch a film by Ozu, and place upon this sorry theater the seal of Art and its greatest treasures.”
There’s a lot going on in this book, so there’s lots to talk and think about, but right now I’m thinking about the validity of this premise presented by the book: Art gives life value and meaning, and a life lived without Art is essentially soulless.
Renee claims that she has value as a person, in spite of her ugliness, loneliness, and relative poverty, because she has the soul of an aesthete. Paloma, too, encounters this premise, that Art makes life worth living, and responds to it in her way.
The value of Art is a conversation I’m always interested in having (provided the outcome of the conversation to be: Art is very valuable indeed), but all the discussion in this book about the intersection of Art and life actually makes me want to talk about something else: What gives a person’s life value? That is, what gives an individual worth? Renee says that she has worth because she can value beautiful things, and that her definition of beauty is superior to other definitions of beauty. I’m inclined to say that she has worth for other reasons, but I don’t want to say too much about that at this point. I have some ideas about human worth that are heavily influenced by my religious beliefs, but I’m interested in hearing what you think. What makes a person valuable? Are some people more valuable than others? How do you determine that value of a human life?
Heavy stuff. This is a challenging book, but I think well worth the payoff.