The Inelegance of Hierarchies

Head of a Peasant Girl, by Kazimir Malevich. 1913

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, class and age play a big part. Hierarchies play a big part. Elitism and the stigma of the lower classes are dissected and become almost characters in the novel. Madame Michel, who suffers from a very poor background, feels obliged for many reasons to present to the wealthy tenants of Number 7, Rue de Grenelle, that which they already assume: her ignorance and her virtual insignificance. This is a tragedy that underlies other tragedies in the novel, and it works two ways at least. At the very least.

Madame Michel both loves and hates the fact that she must hide. There is perhaps a secret sense of joy that she has a secret life. This lifts her up to the degree that it remains hidden. But at the same time she realizes she is trapped by a stereotype, by the projection of that stereotype upon her day to day existence. She is buoyed by the trap, but still trapped.

The financial and cultural elite that inhabit the apartment building see her as they see most people of the lower classes. She feeds them this. They eat it and give it back to her. No one’s the wiser. No one really benefits from the illusion and the confirmation of those stereotypes. Paloma and Mr. Ozu, alone, perhaps, in the entire building, seek to break her out of that trap. They do this, of course, for themselves as much as for Madame Michel.

Is it easier for the very young to see through stereotypes? Is it easier for an immigrant to see through class and gender stereotypes in another culture? Paloma is 12. Mr. Ozu is Japanese. Will Paloma be as sharp in 10 years? Will she be as acute and incisive in her analysis and her ability to cut through the BS of the everyday? Did Mr. Ozu find diamonds in the rough in Japan with as much clarity and success?

Hierarchies. I often find them bizarre. I often find the contemplation of our ideas about deference especially bizarre. This novel made me think of so many things, some odd, some profound, which is in keeping with Paloma’s diary entries, which she entitled profound thoughts. Ironically, and not so ironically.

For instance: On the way home from work tonight, I imagined a nice restaurant in a big city. I imagined the people who work there — I have experience from that side of the table and bar. I thought about big shots getting special seating, jumping ahead of people who have waited far longer. And I wondered: Does the CEO (and his or her date) pay more per meal? Do they actually pay a higher price for the scampi that I might select, with my date? No. No. Not at all. We pay the same listed price from the menu. Then why would the management of that restaurant kiss the ring of the CEO and push others back in the queue?

Deference. If someone is not paying your salary, if someone doesn’t have any say over your livelihood, why go out of your way to let them go to the head of the queue, just because they’re rich?

(One could even question deference when it comes to the workplace, but at least that has the virtue of direct impact on your day to day life . . . )

My own bias, my own sense of hierachies, has never included the rich. I simply don’t care. I’m just not impressed. I really don’t think more of. A billionaire. A zillionaire. A master of the universe.

Now, if someone makes me laugh, has written a great novel, composed a brilliant piece of music, painted a beautiful composition . . . I can see myself granting a moment of deference, but just a moment. Because they have made my life sweeter, lighter, sublime. But what does the zillionaire do for me?

Nothing. Except, perhaps, corrupt the already shaky monetary system. Corrupt the already shaky system of government regulation. Corrupt the already shaky environmental picture. I owe them nothing.

Madame Michel doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t seem to be anything she contemplates. She does eventually reveal one of the major reasons why she puts on masks. She does reveal why Mr Ozu’s advances cause complex reactions. But she never really seems to sense the surreality of class, the whole machinery of deference and waiting, the insanity of giving up our place in the queue for people who have nothing to offer us, won’t offer us anything, but seem to expect special treatment all the same. Because of their wealth and To the Manor Born.

My guess is that Paloma will see this from the inside some day and rebel. She will see this from the point of view of the privileged and rebel. We need more Paloma’s, and we need more Madame Michel’s who realize they are not, are never, can never be considered inferior to others of arbitrary class distinctions.

That, of course, would be another novel. Muriel Barbery hints at this, plays with it, points to it, but doesn’t say it in so many words. I have, and I won’t go to the back of the queue because pompous zillionaires think I should. I won’t step aside to let the non-Japanese tea parties ascend.


The Inelegance of Hierarchies
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