The comforts of artisanal toast and single-source coffee are finite. Try the humanities.

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Zena Hitz: seeking silence and contemplation in a noisy and confused world

“The exaltation of the articulate obscures the fact that there are millions of people in this world who feel and and in some way carry on courageously even though they cannot talk or reason brilliantly. This very talk may obscure everything we know of now, and who knows but that silence may lead us to it.”

So writes Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press). It’s one of many thoughtful and brilliantly expressed ideas her quest for contemplation and connection in an increasingly fragmented, superficial, overloaded, and technological world.

What more beautiful defense of the humanities is there than this? “If intellectual life is not left to rest its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit.” According to Stanley Fish, it’s an ancient thought, “but one that must be relearned, especially at times like ours when a passion for social justice is the new idol to which disinterested contemplation is being sacrificed.”

Here’s another passage, chosen almost at random, about how the fruits of contemplation are being suborned when social climbing appropriates intellectual terroir.

“As Pierre Bourdieu argued in Distinction, matters of taste and culture enforce social boundaries; it is part of their nature to indicate social status. But if there is nothing else to intellectual life, it is only sophisticated pleasure held in place by whatever supports a high-status lifestyle, then it cannot change us. It remains a form of entertainment rather than a means of self-examination or personal transformation. Nor can it be a refuge when the conditions for wealth and comfort collapse, or if the institutions that support us in our lifestyles fall apart, or if we fail to meet their conditions, or if we are the victims of dramatic political or economic change. (Would artisanal toast or single-source coffee be such a refuge?)

“The enemies of intellectual life are not simply yokels enmeshed in practical tasks who cannot understand sophisticated forms of inquiry. A real yokel, as we’ve seen, is not a simple rustic but someone who pursues wealth and status no matter the cost. We are ourselves the yokels. Inordinate desires for wealth and status are easier for the intellectually inclined to see when they are sought by those outside intellectual life, like Strepsiades [in Aristophanes‘s Clouds]. They are far more difficult for us to discern when they become deeply bound up with a specifically intellectual mode of being. The love of learning becomes fused with the love of wealth or status when we view intellectual pursuits as a way to join a superior race of beings, whether that is a higher economic class or an elite superior still.”


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2 Responses to “The comforts of artisanal toast and single-source coffee are finite. Try the humanities.”

  1. Balaustion Says:

    Wait — so is this book pro-humanities? How? B/c these sound like Bourdieu at his most demystifying?

  2. George Says:

    I have recently read Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which you could say tries to eat its artisanal toast and have it too, arguing that “beauty continually renews our search for truth and presses us on toward a greater concern for justice.” I’m not sure what to say about the argument.

    Ms. Zintz does seem to be preaching to the choir, judging by the publisher. I don’t think I disagree with her, but then I have a number of books published by Princeton University Press on my shelves, including On Beauty and Being Just.

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