Getting Lost In Thought

An Intellectual Autobiography

The book begins with a moving and fascinating intellectual autobiography. The author and I both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area around the same time (I think we are roughly the same generation). I perhaps devoted more time to skateboarding and less to the intellect than Hitz. My father, at least, did not consider me college material. Even so, like Hitz’ family, he never treated my intention to study obscure and useless subjects once there as a problem. Hitz had a formative undergraduate experience at St. Johns; I went to a Californian public university, but likewise found a humane intellectual community dedicated both to rigorous scholarship and political engagement. In graduate school, however, our experience diverges.

The Varieties of Intellectual Experience

The introduction and the first chapter document the varieties of intellectual life, often through striking examples, such as Antonio Gramsci and Malcom X in prison. I liked the idea of intellectual life as not an object but a direction (94) and as…

Augustine’s First Wife

Augustine appears as an example in the chapter exploring when “intellectual life goes wrong” (114), when it is impeded by non-intellectual aspects of the social world like status. For Augustine, sexual desire is an impediment for his conversion. It is less clear to me how this is an impediment to his intellectual life. Nonetheless, Augustine frames his relationship to his first wife as a question of his uncontrolled sexual desire. Let’s take a moment here: it is very Augustine to characterize a long-term, monogamous relationship as a personal failing. This is the dude who can make stealing a pear symbolic of the deepest depravity.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

I was excited to see them Raffaella (Lila) Cerullo and Elena (Lenù) Greco making an appearance, two fictional characters who have taken up permanent residence in my mind. But I read the novels differently than Hitz in a way that illuminates my failures in the second half of Lost in Thought. Hitz tends to describe the intellectual life with metaphors of moving beyond, transcending. Here it is an escape:

A Problem With Politics

Hopefully, I’ve made some headway explaining the causes of my alienation from Lost in Thought. I am most out of my depth and most alienated whenever politics enters the story. For me, politics are beliefs and actions that form and stem from my understanding of my place in society, of my relations and duties to others and theirs to me. They are ideas born of experience, both personal and reading, that is, politics mediate inner and external life, themselves hardly separate in my mind. In short, politics seems to me so deeply entwined with my small share of the intellectual life that I cannot see how they can be separated. I honestly could not figure out what politics are for Hitz, except that they are different from my view, and they are antithetical to the intellectual life, another negative to be transcended by those committed to the intellectual life.

Conclusion

In school, we were admonished that our first job was not to criticize but to find value in a work. Lost in Thought makes it easy: it has so many obvious virtues and I found myself deeply sympathetic with much of it, especially the egalitarian view of the intellectual life, which anybody can participate in. If my response appears overly critical, then I hope it will be taken as a sign of how much this book can provoke thought, not just in disagreement, but in the moving examples of Hitz’s own intellectual life and of the many modes of living an intellectual life in the first hundred pages. I struggled with the limits Hitz imposes on the intellectual life; many will find her limits too liberal. I see the intellectual life not only as entangled in the lives of intellectuals themselves, but I also celebrate that entanglement. I believe Hitz also celebrates much of the life that she excluded from intellectual life; for her, intellectual life is a place of retreat, a withdrawal and best when free and untouched by the striving and conflict. I have more trouble with boundaries between intellectual and the supposedly non-intellectual. I am more at home with an intellectual life marked by permeability and messiness, in a word, marked by life.

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Maximus Planudes

Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.