I decided to read Zena Hitz’ Lost in Thought because of its subtitle: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. I was entranced by the book, but as I read, I felt increasing alienated from it. This shift began on page 109: the number of notes filling the margins, increasing in frequency and length, document my growing difficulty. I struggled to finish the book.
Before continuing, there is a relevant aphorism of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg:
When a book and head collide with a hollow sound, is it always from the book? (Wenn ein Buch und ein Kopf zusammenstoßen und es klingt hohl, ist das allemal im Buch?)
There is a high likelihood that the hollow sound comes from my head. This is not just performative modesty (my estimate, 13.42% performative modesty; the rest, honesty), but a notice that I have no training or aptitude for philosophy. I am out of my depth. Therefore, this post is not a book review, nor do I provide a balanced estimate of its supposed strengths and weaknesses, as if I had such olympian self-confidence in my judgement. Indeed, a real pleasure of intellectual life for me stems from the recognition that all judgements are in the end provisional.
So, what is this post then? I want to try to trace my reading, from my initial enchantment to my subsequent alienation. I also want to document some of what I got from the book and some of what frustrated me.
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.
Hitz’ experience was traumatic, it seems to me, even if wildly successful. She speaks eloquently of an environment defined by brutal fighting over scraps of prestige, vicious point-scoring, one-upmanship, fear of humiliation and pleasure in humiliating. She seems nonetheless to have mastered this academic life, even as she hated it and sought successfully to escape it.
My experience of graduate school was very different. I’ve been around long enough, at various institutions, to know that Hitz’ experience is closer to the norm than mine. Yet, my teachers and fellow students were generous and thoughtful, generally disinterested in prestige and point scoring, dedicated to their work. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. This experience has undoubtably blinded me, left me often unprepared for the pettiness and hostility that are as widespread in academia as in the world at large. But if my experience blinded me, leading me to see generosity and disinterestedness where there was none, it seems to me possible that Hitz’ experience has given her precisely the opposite blindnesses.
This suspicion may be baseless, unjustifiable psychologizing. My point is that one thing I took from the book was the idea that our experiences in academia, both in undergraduate and in graduate school, can produce systematic insights and blindness.
The autobiography also reveals the deep religious, specifically Catholic, beliefs that animate Hitz. Although I’m an agnostic, non-observant Jew, I have always respected people deeply committed to a faith. I admire Hitz for it and for speaking of it. She doesn’t put much stress on it, but I liked her more for revealing this important pilar of her intellectual life.
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…
…an alternative form of social life, one based not on economic class but on the bonds formed by common reflection on common humanity. Such bonds break the barriers between social classes, between the genders, between ethnic groups, between youth and old age. (107)
I am moved by the idea of an intellectual life, with its multiplicity, as belonging to anyone and as a good in itself. Yes, intellectual life was imaged as a form of withdrawal, which seems both true and limiting. Yet, I was still sympathetic: the intellectual life appeared here so various, so open, so full of possibility. As the book continues, however, the variety diminishes and the focus shifts to behaviors or people seen as failures in the intellectual life. I’m reminded of this sentence from Omedi Ochieng:
We are prone, no doubt from our Romantic inheritances, to thinking of the imagination as a form of flight, such that we think of its limits in terms of what it bumps up against, what cages it in. (source)
The second half of the book, particularly the last two chapters, work to limit and cage the intellectual in.
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.
Augustine never named his first wife, nor clarified the precise legal form of their relationship. Hitz refers to her as his “concubine,” which is, in my view, correct from a Roman legal perspective. Though, English ‘concubine’ may mislead some readers. To be clear, I’m not criticizing Hitz: the use of concubine to translate concubina and other similar words is widespread. I hate it, which means vanishingly little. Anyway, Augustine’s relationship was probably a legally recognized marriage equivalent, a sort of civil union, if you will, because her social status bared the other sort of marriage. Augustine frames the whole thing as being about his inability to withdraw from sex. Hitz follows this view, seeing his Manichaeism as “a permanent excuse to continue exploiting his concubine” (130). Now I think Augustine is not being fully truthful: this long-term, monogamous relationship with the mother of his son was, I think, a strong bond for both. Even if Augustine’s misogyny likely colored this relationship as it did much else. Still, I get the impression, reading the Confessions, that they loved each other.
Augustine does want us to view his relationship with his first wife as a deep failure to control his sexual desire. I suppose that is the standard reading. From Hitz, at least, I get the impression that I’m supposed to see Augustine as a model of a person who did intellectual life wrong (sex with his wife), was weakened and debilitated by supposedly non-intellectual motivations.
Augustine’s love of learning pulls everything else behind it in the end, changing the way he relates to women, changing the way he relates to the status competitions he was enthralled with (Page 146)
Augustine’s relationship with women is not noticeably improved by the change; if anything, it gets worse. What does Augustine illustrate about the failure of an intellectual life? He managed to bring his opinions about how best to live in line with how he actually lived. No small feat! I’ve not done it. Yet, Augustine was always leading an intellectual life, even with his first wife, even when they had a son together. I am not inclined to equate success in aligning beliefs, values, and intellect as the sine qua non of an intellectual life. It also shows me that following an intellectual life can make you a worse human.
Hitz, I think, wanted me to take a different lesson, namely that the intellectual life fails when it is tainted by impure motivations. These impurities may be my social beliefs about class or about physical desire, but these opinions lead to motivated reasoning instead of pure reasoning. But I don’t know what a pure motivation is. Obviously, I read the Confessions against the grain, but when we turn to the next example of intellectual failure and success, I believe it is Hitz who reads against the grain. For me, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels illustrate that the intellectual life is always impure, implicated, simultaneously destructive and constructive, beautiful.
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:
I describe two possibilities: escaping through philosophically informed self-examination, as described in Augustine’s Confessions, and escaping through the creation of art, as described in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (Page 127)
In a very real sense, intellectual life allows escape from poverty and violence, most obviously for Lenù, whose mastery of standard Italian and ability to ingratiate herself with her teachers allows her to escape the Rione. Interestingly, the role standard Italian plays is clearer in the TV adaptation where Elena’s voice-over is in standard Italian, but much of the dialogue is in Neapolitan dialect. Lila’s mastery of computer science in the later books seems to perform a similar role, though not thematically as central as Lenù escapes. But these escapes are not key for Hitz, who is after the transcendence of competition and striving for status.
Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find any intellectual or artistic motivation in these novels that is free from political, social, interpersonal striving and competition. Lenù’s first novel, for example, describes how she loses her virginity to the father of the boy she loves. She dislikes this man, while finding him somehow charming (he’s a published writer, which is also a fascination for Lenù). But this novel is deeply implicated in Lenù’s social, physical, emotional desires and disgusts, that it is hard to see it as a fully successful escape into the creation of art. It doesn’t need to be. Art does not require motivational purity in Ferrante. Hitz acknowledges that she may be reading against the grain of the books.
“Thoughtful readers of the Neapolitan novels may disagree as to whether Elena transcends her status-driven ambition in the end, creating a real work of art that exists for its own sake; or whether she truly loves Lila or means only to ingest her, to use her. I think that she succeeds on both counts in overcoming her worst elements. If so, we can see ambition as a part — but only a part — of a creative drive, as fuel for real contemplative work that is shared with others, as an engine of real art. ” (160)
Again, we see the metaphor of “transcendence.” What I think this misses is that Ferrante’s novels celebrate the lack of transcendence. Lenù creates a real work of art and does not escape her ambition. She loves Lila and wants to ingest her and use her. Ferrante’s novels seem to show that the intellectual life never escapes its social, political word. It doesn’t need to. The frame of the novel makes this point eloquently. Hitz characterizes Lenù as trying “in the four novels she is narrating, also to describe Lila’s heart and to capture in some way their love for one another” (159). This is true, but partial. The first novel begins at the end, as Lenù finds out that Lila has disappeared. Not just disappeared, but completely cancelled any evidence that she ever existed (the chapter is titled “cancelling the traces”). It becomes clear that this disappearance was a deeply held desire of Lila’s in her old age. What does Lenù do? She starts to write the books we will read, saying vediamo chi la spunta questa volta (let’s see who comes out on top this time). The very books we read constitute a rejection Lila’s expressed wishes, and continue the competition that so marked the women’s relationship. We start the books knowing that they are a deliberate affront to Lila. Lenù does not escape competition, and she creates a work of art. Maybe, even because she does not 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.
It is the general humanistic commitment of intellectual life that puts it beyond politics. (109)
Considering the intellectuals in the book, it is not easy to make politics something the intellectual needs to, wants to or can transcend. Here is a comment on Dorothy Day’s political engagements, such as her opposition to the atomic bomb.
Despite its blinding moral truth, the case against atomic and nuclear weapons has never had any political bite, so the efforts were without political impact; they were a form of Christian witness for its own sake. (Page 176)
I am confused: Why do political ideas that do not take hold cease to be political. I also don’t see how they are not an inseparable part of her intellectual life. I struggle to understand how Christian witness can be opposed to politics. Is it possible, let alone desirable, to divide Day’s political, christian, intellectual life? Later, speaking of the intellectual development within labor movements, she comments.
And yet, it is impossible to read the testimonies themselves without seeing that intellectual life mattered to these people regardless of its political efficacy (Page 187)
I face the same issue here. I don’t understand what efficacy has to do with the fact that politics and intellectual life are intwined here. As if the labor movement intellectual efforts could be separated from its social justice work. Earlier she is more explicit about the harm of social justice.
The impact of the dedication of intellectual life to social justice is perverse. [paragraph] When we attempt to produce just outcomes from the top down, we shortcut the communion of the reader with the author and so suppress the egalitarian community of learning that, for instance, W.E.B. Du Bois found through reading and study. (163)
I’m left wondering what would Du Bois think about the relationship of his intellectual life and social justice? Would he have been comfortable as an example of someone needing to be saved from social justice? What would Gramsci, Day, Malcom X think about politics as antithetical to intellectual life?
So, I struggled to follow Hitz’ argument because my understanding of politics seems irreconcilable with her notion of the necessarily apolitical intellectual life. I cannot make sense of the idea that my political ideas are somehow different in kind from my ideas about skateboarding, about Augustine, about my cat, about Don Quixote. I cannot see how political views blind and destroy the very possibility of an intellectual life.
I found myself increasingly alienated from the book because I failed to see how my understanding of politics can fit into the intellectual life Hitz constructs.
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.