Book Interview: Zena Hitz on the Pleasures and Values of the Intellectual Life

By Matt Hanson

“We’re at the end, or toward the end, of an extended collapse of the institutions that made it possible for many of us to make a living through intellectual or creative activity. We’ll have to find another way.”

Anybody who has majored in liberal arts or pursued aesthetic interests at any level has heard it. Especially if you’ve been making sacrifices of time, money, or a social life to explore a subject that interests you. “Ok, it’s nice that you’re bookish and everything, but what good is it, really?” The follow-up remark is usually something along the lines of “how much money are you gonna make?” Let’s face it, in America it’s not easy to engage in some form of what David Lynch once called “the art life.” This conundrum has been at the center of plenty of stories from just about everywhere, but it often seems that this make-a-buck-at-any-cost country is ruled by a particularly pragmatic, materialistic, no-nonsense mentality that makes thinking for its own sake a bit more difficult to defend.

Ironically, given the dismal projections about future life under the regime of COVID, it’s time to debate what it means to appreciate the life of the mind. Zena Hitz’s new book Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 208 pages, $22.95,) argues against the American grain, expertly cheerleading for the indispensable pleasures and values of thinking for its own sake. She argues that the “intellectual life is a way to recover one’s real value when it is denied recognition by the power plays and careless judgments of social life. That is why it is a source of dignity.”

I regret admitting this, but I used to judge people when I heard them say they were looking for something “mindless” to watch on TV. Can’t something mentally stimulating be just as fun? Well, in truth, sometimes the answer is no. Everyone’s particular choice of honest escapism is his or her own business — there’s no call to render a verdict, to play the “guilty pleasure” game.

But, that said, the point of escapism is, well, escape. Along with daydreaming, escapism can lead to an abandonment of the imagination. This turn away from depth encourages an alienation from the self, a hollowing out that slowly drains the core of the self of the lifeblood it needs to survive and grow — the excitement of ideas, ironies, complexities, surprises, encounters with other personalities and landscapes. What meaningful satisfaction can be found in trying to get away from everything?

Like anything else of value, thinking requires hard work. And what often goes overlooked is that it calls for the kind of control that finds its reward in saying no: “Intellectual life is a discipline: the product of hard work and practice in a certain sort of self-denial.” In a culture that generates its profits from telling you to indulge yourself, to amuse yourself, and to check out products that aid and abet escape, self-denial stands as a rebuke, a radical remedy to indulgence. The inner life is difficult to cultivate, which is part of what makes it so valuable. We are so driven by the glow of self-presentation and the need to accomplish endless tasks, we lose our appreciation for the rewards of cultivating inner life. It is there for the taking, but distractions easily encourage it to slip from our grasp.

Hitz is a teacher, formerly an academic, and her insistence on learning as a group exercise provides a timely refutation to the growing Corona-infected idea that classrooms aren’t necessary after all. Why have schoolrooms at all when everybody can just hang out online? Of course, most teachers know that there’s a certain mise en scene to the classroom that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. “One of the things that has gone wrong with colleges is that they are so non-communal and anonymous,”  writes Hitz. Amen to that. It’s powerful to have people in a room together, talking and reading out loud — as well as commenting on each other’s comments. Hitz points out that thinking is inherently a group activity: the intellectual drama of public discussion and response inevitably enhances and sharpens what’s being processed internally. No doubt the  COVID-19 quarantine is a necessary thing. But education will be demeaned, even cheapened, if technological trends gradually replace the simple act of coming together in a classroom in a shared physical space.

Hitz draws on Malcolm X’s rigorous study in prison and Einstein’s overcoming of his routine job as a patent clerk to examine what she means by the value of an inner life. Each thinker grew in self-awareness through dogged education. Thinking isn’t just wasting time when it is used to live a more fulfilling and motivated life. Making effective use of solitude — a necessity now, given the pandemic — has become more relevant than ever these days. Thus the merit of Hitz’s book. May it encourage more people to nurture their minds. Let a thousand thoughts bloom.

The Arts Fuse caught up with Hitz to discuss some of the finer points of Lost in Thought.

Arts Fuse: Early on in the book, you say that “The hidden life of learning is its core, what matters about it … intellectual activity nurtures an inner life, a human core that is a refuge from suffering as much as it is a resource for reflection for its own sake.” Could you expand on that a bit?

Hitz: It’s easiest to see through examples. My original example was Renée, the working-class middle-aged protagonist of a 2009 French art film called The Hedgehog. She works as a concierge (building superintendent) of an upper-class apartment building in Paris. She is constantly demeaned and diminished by those she serves. But she has a secret room behind her kitchen stuffed with books. She retreats there to read and to think. Her inner life, the life she builds away from the social world, attracts others to her, namely, the wealthier residents of the building who find the constant pursuit of achievement dull and empty. So new forms of friendship, not based on use, grow from the soil of her solitude, so to speak.

In my research for the book I dug up a lot of similar examples from real life: prisoners who used thinking as a refuge from their surroundings. The author Primo Levi found a refuge from Mussolini’s lies in the truths of chemistry; working-class men and women who discovered worlds of meaning, beauty, and connection through books. These examples follow cultural forms that are actually very old: the figure of Socrates lost in thought at the doorway of a dinner party; the mathematician Archimedes too absorbed in his proofs to notice the Romans invading his city. Likewise, in Christian art, we have St. Jerome reading in the desert and the Virgin Mary cloistered with books in her study. The idea is not just that books are an escape from difficulties: the examples I found suggest that they are a space of refuge where certain realities are revealed, especially about our nature and our dignity as human beings.

AF: I think it’s interesting how you talk about moving from a very cerebral, academic life to one of hard, physical work. As a horribly lazy bookworm myself, I thought it was interesting how you used the word “luminous” to describe the experience. It reminds me of the ascetic, Christian Anarchist line of thinking Tolstoy embraced — in his case sort of awkwardly — toward the end of his life. Is hard physical work a complement to the more abstract life of the mind?

Hitz: Any work with the hands is complementary to intellectual activity. But it doesn’t have to be backbreaking! Most of us can find it in cooking, or gardening, or housecleaning. I don’t think it’s a matter of concrete work versus abstract work. I think it’s that manual work can’t be faked: you can’t pretend to yourself that you’ve weeded the garden or built a sturdy chair or baked a loaf of bread when you haven’t. You’re at the mercy of your materials, for one thing, and in a very evident way. You can’t make bread from any random ingredients: there’s a definite set of constraints that you can meet or fail to meet. By contrast, you can base a scientific or philosophical theory or an interpretation on a string of words that resembles an idea but that in fact is complete garbage. You can do this completely inadvertently, without having the slightest idea that you haven’t in fact said anything, and yet get praised and glorified for years for that work. Anything that relies in a fundamental way on language has this capacity for illusion and deception that is frankly terrifying, if you look at it dead on.

In my experience, intellectual activity resembles manual activity at its best moments, when the rubber hits the road and a piece of reality breaks through. You really, really, want to think something is true, but you suddenly see some evidence that it just can’t be. Not everyone likes this feeling, and no one always likes it! Manual labor with its inevitable failures can help accustom us to it and can help us to recognize its contours.

Of course, there’s also an aspect of self-knowledge to manual labor since we are bodily beings. The capacity of the intellect to deceive can also deceive us about ourselves, so that we think we too operate without limitation. I write about this in the section on dignity in my book. So manual labor reminds us that we are limited by materials and by circumstances, that we are capable of failure, and that we will die. It’s so important to become accustomed to the garden-variety suffering of recognizing our limitations. Otherwise we get trapped in a world of insta-click insta-satisfaction that corrodes our faculties, and we are miserable.

By the way, I meant by “luminosity” not so much the limitations of the work, as its role in common life, its contribution to the flourishing of the particular human beings with whom I lived in the community. We really miss this in contemporary life. Taking out the trash (or leaving a public bathroom tidy) seems unbearably tedious, and it’s easy to forget that whatever we don’t do, someone else will have to do. In a small community we see our dependence on one another. It’s just as real in urban or suburban environments, just hidden from us.

Author Zena Hitz. Photo: Princeton University Press.

AF: Most (but not all) of your quotations and examples come from the classical world, from writers such as Seneca and Augustine. I’d be interested to hear about what draws you to writers of antiquity.

Hitz: Part of it is something simple: My academic training is in classics and classical philosophy, so these books feel comfortable to me. But it is also true that both the Greek and Roman philosophers really grappled with questions about how and why thinking was good for you. Part of it is that, whatever their differences, the ancient philosophers believed that the question about how to live, how to flourish as a human being, was absolutely fundamental. And that means that questions about the relative importance of public service or work versus the pursuit of contemplation are alive, up front and center. Whereas now we live in this kind of hyperactive idea-soup where everyone acts as if they believe exclusively in the useful, while expressing their discomfort with this in various and scattered ways that are difficult to make sense of without spending some time in the classical world.

There may be another question behind your question about why I chose classics to begin with as a field of study. There I think it is just that in the old books, the concern with wisdom — with knowledge as directly relevant to life — is right up front. A Greek chorus is not ashamed to say: “Happy is the man who was never born” or “Nothing is more wondrous and frightening but Man”– but we would be! We’re much too embarrassed to talk this way now. It’s too earnest and grandiose. If you look at the humanist writers of the mid-20th century, you find a sort of renewal of this way of thinking and speaking — “the nature of Man” and this sort of thing  — and it can feel crass and silly. In a way, what I’ve tried to do is to recover the concern with the universal, the seeking-out of what is true for everyone in virtue of their humanity, but to write about it in a style that is more obviously open-ended and less heavy-handed. We all need to seek wisdom, and we all need the universal, but we don’t need to act as if we know exactly what that means in advance, or as if we’ll automatically come to a consensus about it.

AF: I love the way you talk about how literature is “forged in our common nature, our shared experience, and our shared aspirations.” I’m a big believer in that notion myself. But I’ve encountered lots of arguments that insist it is false to easily assume that one can understand other people’s experiences, let alone their inwardness. What would you say about that?

Hitz: Look, there are limits to our capacity to understand others, and there’s an understandable reaction to hasty and self-interested sympathy, as if I could read Beloved and through my sympathetic identification with the main character suddenly appropriate to myself all it means to be a slave. We need to conduct ourselves with some reverence for the experiences of others and carry ourselves with humility. But on the other hand, to be perfectly frank, literature makes absolutely no sense without shared experience, and it has no power without a shared nature and shared aspirations.

What accounts for our connection with stories and their narrators? It’s what we have in common with them. That’s just basic — we have no other reason to read. Same with philosophy: it operates on the hope of shared understanding. Without that prospect, it’s pointless. Now, without variation and difference, we wouldn’t learn anything, so that’s also important. But what we learn about is something universal.

A lot of the fuel behind anti-universalism is the sense that belief in a universal crushes the perspectives of the oppressed and the marginalized. For example, in more recent literary criticism, Mark Greif’s book The Age of the Crisis of Man tries to connect the mid-century concern with the human and the universal with the oppression of marginalized groups. There’s a brilliant recent argument against Greif, one I think is decisive, by Hutchinson in his book Facing the Abyss. Hutchinson’s point is that in, say, the American literature of the 1940s, we see an African-American Marxist like Richard Wright on the Book-of-the-Month-Club list. And Wright, like other mid-century minorities, is fighting for just this, to have his humanity recognized. The universal is the engine of liberation.

Common humanity is the atom-bomb of the Civil Rights Movement along with every other serious liberation movement. The recognition of a common humanity is what breaks our hearts. It has the power to blow oppressive structures apart (to the extent that such structures can be blown apart) in a way that power struggles as such don’t, however necessary or justified they may be.

We also see this in the debate about the “great books.”

One of the reasons I love Jonathan Rose’s book on The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes so much is that it shows how really oppressed and marginalized people, working people with nothing, found in books by dead rich white guys the tools to liberate themselves. And Rose doesn’t “theorize” these readers much; he just relates what they say about themselves, how they report their own experiences. It turns out that the race, gender, and social class of a book’s author doesn’t determine the reader’s response to it. Readers are active, not passive: they can and do appropriate what they please.

Again, if you look at the history of the struggle for justice among African-Americans, for example, you find that the leaders liberated themselves through reading the great books. Douglass, Dubois, Baldwin, Malcolm X, Huey Newton all attribute their liberation to reading the classics. Books led them to recognize their humanity, and then to share that recognition with others.

AF: You spend some time criticizing how the society of the spectacle interferes with the deep concentration necessary for the intellectual life. I wondered if you think capitalism, or let’s just say the market economy, creates that obstruction. Can you speak to that issue a  bit — how does the life of the mind mesh with the need to earn a living?

Hitz: I have a bit of an aversion to talk about capitalism, or neo-liberalism, as I feel we use those words these days a lot to cover over things that need a more nuanced diagnosis. It also suggests that if we only switched out our -ism, everything would be fine. I doubt that. Even “market economy” though less loaded, can fall into this trap — what is it exactly at the root here? I don’t know, and I really wish I knew.

It is true that for whatever reason, as you suggest, everything is for sale. Our attention is for sale, our experiences are for sale, and that also means that the spectacle of experience is for sale, and nothing, however precious, escapes the auction block. Human intimacy is for sale and the feeling of insight is for sale, that is to say, love and knowledge, the best things we have — they are both for sale.  But this isn’t only our economic and political culture — it plays on some part of our nature. Augustine, who lived in a very different economy, understood that the love of spectacles taps into something deep in us, our desire to avoid reality and take refuge in the exercise of perception and thinking all by themselves.

The other part of your question, as to how we make a living with our intellectual lives or our creative lives, I get this question a lot. I tried in the book to reach out to and to honor those who struggle to keep alive the core of what they care about in hostile circumstances. So I hear from, say, people who might have been academics, but can’t be, who want to know how I think they should put their energies to use. Here’s the thing: I don’t know. We’re at the end, or toward the end, of an extended collapse of the institutions that made it possible for many of us to make a living through intellectual or creative activity. We’ll have to find another way. That might mean renewing our institutions–which seems just possible, although hardly inevitable, in a crisis of this magnitude.

It also might mean unplugging the activities from institutions entirely, and renewing a grassroots, freelance sort of economy for arts and for the work of the mind. I’ve thought for some time that the latter is both likely and attractive in certain ways, but we shouldn’t be too naive about what it means: extended periods of real poverty, especially in the period of transition. I think that period is upon us, and those of us who can absorb that kind of risk need to connect with one another and figure out what is possible. We keep thinking there’s an algorithm, but our future won’t come out of a box. Renewing arts and letters will require vigilant attention to circumstances, cooperation and listening, real creativity, dogged stubbornness, and, frankly, the grace of God.

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.

1 Comment

  1. Allen Michie on June 3, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    “Renewing arts and letters will require vigilant attention to circumstances, cooperation and listening, real creativity, dogged stubbornness, and, frankly, the grace of God.”

    Amen to that.

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