Muriel Barbary’s 2008 novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (l’élégance du hérisson 2006) works a certain deceit on its readers. Perhaps the effect of this deceit is less intense or more obvious on its initial French readership (I have not ventured to discover that; do they get the joke?), but U.S. reviews seem to have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. Reviews and blogs outline and accept the basic plotline of the story. The main character, Renée, is a 54-year old concierge at a wealthy apartment building in Paris. At the start of the story her only life companions are a Portuguese maid, Manuela, who works for many of the apartment owners, a cat, and Culture. Renée doesn’t mind her solitude; in fact, she portrays herself as assiduously protecting and inculcating it. Her words craft a sense of herself as a fine mind, a purveyor and consumer of the best of human intellect and creativity. She names her cat Leo after Leo Tolstoy, wallows in the beauty of classical and avant-garde music, waxes poetic on the difficulties of Husserlian phenomenology, slides easily into conversation about novels and oil paintings, and is acutely offended by grammatical mistakes committed by the wealthy tenants of the building’s apartments. And yet Renée hides this proclivity for “the best that has been thought and said” from her employers, the rich Parisians who are, one would think, the legitimate heirs of this Culture. Why?
The novel never really says. It wobbles about a presumption shared between character and reader that somehow it is imprudent, unseemly, to ‘let on’ to the wealthy tenants that compared to them their concierge is more. More…what? More civilized? More of a citizen? More intelligent? More cultured? I, for one, was not convinced. Not only were these wealthy and well-connected Parisians too indifferent really to care that their employee—their servant—was imbibing the culture meant to bolster their own class status, but they also are portrayed as cultural plebians unable to love, appreciate, patronize, or sustain the truth, goodness, and beauty that Renée finds so utterly, transparently compelling. So why should she hide it?
The fact is Renée is a snob. At the very least she is an unreliable narrator. We know this because the man who ‘sees’ her has the same surname as a famous filmmaker (Ozu): his truth is fiction. We know this because the other companion she comes to love in the novel is a child, the 12-year old Paloma who is as cynical and worldly-wise as Renée (seriously, how realistic is that?) We know this, finally, by blunt textual evidence (if, that is, these oblique judgments drawn from the novel’s character relationships are not convincing), namely, the novel’s brief, two-page opening, titled “I. Marx (Preamble),” in which Renée claims to cite The German Ideology and Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”. But what she says about these texts is absolutely wrong, though I have found no one who has seen through this clear arrow marking Renée’s fundamental unreliability. In response to a tenant’s son who declares that “Marx has completely changed the way I view the world,” Renée suggests he read The German Ideology, and she then proceeds apparently to sum up the critical work of this text: “mankind, doomed to its own ruin through desire, would do better to confine itself to its own needs. In a world where the hubris of desire has been vanquished, a new social organization can emerge, cleansed of struggle, oppression and deleterious hierarchies” (EH, 2). But a quick word search seems to verify that The German Ideology does not discuss desire at all, and it frames ‘needs’ as both necessary and (dialectically) the inevitable engine of alienation—certainly not the crystallized answer to ruinous libido or conatus. Quite the contrary, this beautiful text, which was co-written with Engels and never published in their lifetimes, is famous for presenting a word-image of a communist utopia, the closest we get from Marx of his hopes for a communist society, since he more typically refused to image or prescribe the future, preferring to keep communism as the telos of a historical drive, a horizon that is always, necessarily, on the horizon, a “to-come”, as Derrida would say.
The text states: “For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”
Renée’s summary, in short, fits no extant analysis of The German Ideology. She goes on to “nearly murmur”, “Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression,” and in light of the tenant’s son’s confused stare, she seems to link this sigh to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach” (EH, 3). But this is sheer nonsense. The 11th thesis—as any good critical theorist knows—is the famous line, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Much interesting reflection can devolve from Renée’s unreliability. Is her desire for Culture less a resistance to the “fixation of social activity” and more a means by which she herself sows oppression? Is her misquoting of the 11th thesis a way of acknowledging that she would rather wallow in desire than consider how to change the world? What is the value of a working class snob, anyhow? Is she really a better (person)(citizen) than the wealthy Parisians she disdains? Does she actually get all that Tolstoy that she loves? Does she betray her class in reifying Beauty over against an analysis of reified relations of production? Such questions, I would suggest, would be a better way to begin a conversation about the book. But the deceit worked a bit too well. No one checked the citations of Marx, not even the reviewer for The Washington Post.