This is what I have discovered while reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Eloquent and erudite, Barbery’s book explores intelligence, loneliness, and Art though the journals of two women living in the same high-end Parisian apartment building. There’s Renee, the cloistered, brilliant concierge bent on convincing the rich people for whom she works that she’s only a lowly idiot, and Paloma, the equally brilliant and cynical 12 year old daughter of the weathly 4th floor residents.
Barbery explores our consistent failure to really connect with other human beings: “We have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves,” writes Paloma in her journal of profound thoughts. “We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.” Enter: my crisis of faith. Thoughts include, “Does this mean I’ll never get out of my own head?” “The heart really is a lonely hunter!” and the general, “What’s the point?” Suddenly I was that girl, crying by herself on the subway, making a regular scene while everyone else was just thinking about what they were going to have for dinner.
So there I was on a crowded 4 train, heading uptown, feeling lonely and lost and not at all like Rebecca in her previous post, when I heard the man seated next to me make a sort of indiscernible yelping noise. At first I thought the sound was directed at me, so I buried my head deeper into my book. He made the noise again, and this time he got a response from a young Asian couple standing directly over him. The noise wasn’t a noise at all; it was a greeting in a language I don’t speak. Silly, sheltered American, I thought. I stopped scolding myself long enough to listen to the conversation.
I understood absolutely nothing, but no longer being a tourist myself I can easily (and smugly) pick travelers out in a crowd. Camera, map, nice clothes and hair, quiet voices- their adornments and body language told me (and the man beside me) they were definitely foreigners. The boyfriend dominated the conversation, while the girlfriend hung back. I guess the man must have asked where they had come from, because I heard the boy respond: “Tokyo.”
Not only has Japan been on my mind lately, and yours as well, I presume, but also on Paloma’s and Renee’s. Paloma reads mangas (widely distributed Japanese comic books), Renee loves Japanese films and interior decoration, both drink tea and read haikus, and when Monsieur Ozu moves into the building (could he be the famous Japanese filmmaker himself?) both women’s lives are turned upside down.
Given all this literary and media attention focused on and around Japan, when the conversation next to me turned out to be in Japanese I read as much meaning into the coincidence as I could. Look: right here in front of me were people connecting to one another. True, the connection was fleeting at best (the conversation fizzled out, amicably, after a few exchanges), and the speakers were really only connecting based on a part of themselves (their country of origin) that they had in common. So yes, perhaps they were looking at each other and seeing a part of themselves.
But so what? What’s so wrong with latching onto the common ground between yourself and someone else, and using that as a springboard for real connection?
And I get it- Freud would tell me that we’re all alone, alone, all all alone. But that’s depressing. (In fact, does anyone else think maybe he was just using this type of downer philosophy to tip people off the edge of sanity and thereby increase the supply of neurotic patients??)
As it turns out, despite the characters’ initial alienation and desperation, the beauty and the redemption of the story is in Barbery’s eventual insistence that we’re all whole lot closer than we think. I won’t tell you what happens because you should read this book, but I will say that things look up when people start opening up their hearts to one another.
I think Barbery would like my coincidence. I think she’d want us to recognize ourselves in the other, to seize that point of recognition and to throw all our effort into building a bridges between ourselves and those around us.