By Neil Dhingra
In her Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, the St. John’s College tutor Zena Hitz presents an engagingly diverse (and often imprisoned) set of thinkers: Dorothy Day, Einstein, Gramsci, Malcolm X, and herself. Hitz’s own life is paradigmatic for her book. As a child, young Zena lived with books, at once feeling deeply connected with the natural world around her but grasping that, somehow, “a human being stands outside of the natural,” and she explored questions beyond the farthest points of mere utility. She went to college at St. John’s, a Great Books college, and continued to question, sometimes past the limits of physical health (“a lively conversation might lead us past midnight and into the early morning — leaving the speaker an exhausted wreck”). She felt solidarity with her fellow students and teachers and a connection with a natural world to which she both belonged and could understand, walking about “in the pale green of spring trees in rapt distraction.”
This sense of belonging remained important to Hitz: when she first walked into a Catholic church, she thought, “there was simply no reason for such a random collection of people to be in the same room,” discerned that the parishioners were “united in something invisible and beyond my reach,” and, in her narrative, quickly converted.
However, her former academic life seems to have been a partial exercise in anti-communion and incomprehension. Her life as a college professor was an entrance into a “culture of anonymity,” distanced from her students. Worse, academia was the court for games of prestige and a ritualistic culture of humiliation. As a graduate student, she dreamed of a professor telling her, “I want to be loved… adored … worshipped.” She recognized that we anxiously seek prestige because we are disturbed by scarcity, by the haunting “emptiness and the shortness of life.” “We think that through these things we have become something different, something not made of flesh and blood…” Thus, researchers pursue narrower and narrower topics for prestige’s sake, “much of it completely disconnected from any recognizable human question.”
Zena Hitz rediscovered her intellectual life by leaving it behind in a three-year sojourn in a remote Canadian religious community with neither money nor social ladder, but simplicity, snow, and the occasional photocopied article. She only then returned home to St. John’s with its spring trees and endless discussions, the contrast between authentic intellectual activity and idolatrous status-seeking now set in stone in her mind.
The authentic intellectual life is learning for its own sake, not for any instrumental purpose, which quickly descends into “social domination” and compensation for “status lost in athletic or erotic contests.” Learning for its own sake must instead be contemplative — “the activity of seeing and understanding the world as it is.” We may contemplate while singing the Psalms, teaching our fellow human beings, or even admiring “the curve of the wood being shaped into furniture.” Contemplation requires neither advanced degrees nor large reserves of Bitcoin, only the resources of “free time, exposure to the outdoors, and a certain mental emptiness.” It is always receptive, never manipulative: John Baker, the great contemplator of the peregrine falcon, “takes them into his being, becomes one with them as far as that is possible.”
It does require conscious withdrawal from the instrumentality of that competitive and market-driven world. For instance, in a few pages about the Annunciation, Hitz writes of the Holy Mother as a bookish student of the law whose virginity is the sign of a withdrawal from social utility. To Hitz, “The social world is a realm of suspicion: the locus of ambition and competitive striving, the engine of using and instrumentalizing, the dissipation of energy into anxiety and petty spites.” Thus, she writes about Einstein in a patent office that he called a “worldly cloister” apart from the “coercion” of academic life. Prison, an even more ascetic withdrawal, has been “fertile ground” for thinkers such as Gramsci, who could then think about working according to Goethe’s für ewig (“for eternity”) in an Italian jail, and Malcolm X, who found “the Solitude that produced many nights of Meditation” at Charlestown State Prison. John Baker, author of The Peregrine, wasn’t imprisoned, but, tellingly, worked as an office worker, “without a publisher’s advance or an academic department,” free from those seductions that come with them. Thinking requires “negative space.”
This isn’t a lonely life — Hitz speaks warmly about the fellowship of teachers and students at St. John’s and evokes the early modern Republic of Letters. Nor is it a life only for a few privileged aristocrats — Hitz appeals to Jonathan Rose’s study of British working-class intellectual life. This is not elitism. Hitz distinguishes a love of learning — to desire to really know something or someone, welcoming unexpected communion, even with birds — from the more restrictive love for spectacle, that “thrill for experience” where fellowship comes from collective fascination with violent exclusions, whether in the gladiatorial combat in Augustine’s Rome or our social media shamings. But the authentic intellectual life seems to be an alienated life, its communion based on withdrawal from the bewitched environment of status-seeking. Hitz champions distinctive colleges like St. John’s and figures like the “humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, and contemplative taxi driver,” whose depths are, seemingly necessarily, “known only to a few.”
In a review of Zena Hitz’s book, Jessica Hooten Wilson claims that Josef Pieper’s work “lies dormant in most of her argument,” especially in Pieper’s evocation of “leisure,” “the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion in the real.” It is instructive, however, to register a difference between Pieper’s work and Hitz’s. They’d seem to philosophically agree, but Pieper says that “the origin of leisure” is in festivals. Pieper writes, “The holding of a festival means: an affirmation of the basic meaning of the world, and an agreement with it, and in fact it means to live out and fulfill one’s inclusion in the world, in an extraordinary manner, different from the everyday.” Festivals are athletic, economic, aesthetic, and even political, as they abolish social differentiation in festive brother- and sisterhood, but all this is primarily rooted in worship. When Pieper traveled to Bengal and asked about the festive atmosphere, “The answer of one orthodox Hindu ran: It is the joy of being a creature whom God has created out of joy.” Hitz does not discuss festivals.
The relevance of this for intellectual life may at first seem limited, but Pieper’s insight, I think, lets us extend Hitz’s insights in two ways, one for a more inclusive view of contemplation, the other more cautionary.
First, the subtitle of Hitz’s book, “The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life” reminds me of another “hidden life,” that of Franz Jägerstätter, as portrayed in Terrence Malick’s recent film. Jägerstätter refused to take an oath to Hitler and serve in the German army and was martyred, while Pieper, though clearly unsympathetic to the Nazis, served as a military psychologist and lived. Further, while Pieper grasps that festivals can be empty, Malick goes further, showing the seeming collapse of the Church’s rituals and leaders themselves before Nazism’s cult of ethnos. Nevertheless, if Jägerstätter’s family is excluded from a Corpus Christi procession in their village, Sankt Radegund, the imprisoned Franz still writes to his children of an idealized celebration: “Corpus Christi Sunday. The bells are ringing over the fields. I would’ve loved to have seen you with your crowns of flowers.” If Franz’s wife, Franziska, is treated extraordinarily badly by her fellow villagers, she still writes, “A time will come when we will know what all this is for. … We’ll come together,” and Malick shows a public wedding. The Jägerstätter’s love, which began with Franziska wearing “my best dress,” and the two of them dancing outside as villagers play instruments, manages to last. Its permanence is echoed by the good in creation itself.
Franz writes, “Nature does not notice the sorrow that has come upon people,” so that he expects a “lovely green,” despite being in a lifeless prison. This is in decided contrast to the sinister Nazi Captain Herder, who pronounces, “He who created this world, he created evil.” Now, Franz Jägerstätter is not an intellectual. He is a peasant. Like Hitz, he rejects instrumental reasoning, in the form of all those who tell him that nothing that he does will matter, “The world will go on as before.” But he is never pictured with a book, nor do we see him decipher a “moral riddle.” His stand, as Natan Mladin writes, is rooted in “the rhythms and orderliness of an enchanted creation… the goodness, truth, and beauty woven into the world,” disclosed in the primordial harmony of the mountains and in the Corpus Christi procession that Franz imagines, if not the one that actually takes place in the corrupted village. The question is whether there is any place for Malick’s Franz Jägerstätter and the “crowns of flowers” in Hitz’s book.
Pieper recognizes “that we would be hard put to find anywhere today the kind of great festival that, springing from the praise of God in ritual worship, includes everybody, permeates all spheres, and puts its stamp on all of public life.” Thus, as Hitz suggests, contemplation seems to depend on an engagingly diverse (and often imprisoned) set of thinkers who have ascetically withdrawn from the status-seeking of the world. But perhaps we might also grasp what Pieper calls the “illimitable horizon of reality as a whole” in what we still have of festivals. Hitz’s set of thinkers may have counterparts who grasp the depths and freshness of life, even in extremis, as Franz Jägerstätter does in nature, love, the memories of village festivals, and even in the face of death. But, if less cinematically, these colleagues may also be those who see reality when sports teams subordinate competition to a common, perhaps Olympian pursuit of the good; in the “field of broken artifacts, slivers of meaning and value” that remain in popular music; and, once again, in love and the nearness of death. These visions of reality may exist as fragments, but they can still place those who see them in clandestine solidarity with Zena Hitz’s thinkers.
The intellectual life may not be so alienated, after all. One of the less developed parts of Hitz’s book is her time in the remote Canadian religious community. It was peaceful. Status-seeking could not occur. But she says that “one human good” was treated “haphazardly”: “the need to study and learn, in depth, for its own sake.” Perhaps her sojourn at Madonna House could only have been a necessary period of detoxification for the bookish Hitz. But could a hidden contemplation still occur there through an immersion in the ordinary rhythms of communal life that’s analogous to a professor’s more cloistered attentiveness to her subjects or a novelist’s alertness to human experience?
Second, Pieper’s emphasis on festivals lets him consider a darker possibility than even Hitz’s vision of status-seeking academics, namely that the modern equivalent of festivals is war. Even if Pieper does not accept the hypothesis, he recognizes that if festivals are about affirming the goodness in God’s creation, the destruction of the world can be “anticipated as something to be desired, even ‘celebrated’ as ordinarily only affirmations can be.” In other words, there may be an “antifestive ‘affirmation of negation.’” In a draft of the script for A Hidden Life, Malick has the Mayor of Radegund, whom Franz has respected, pronounce the death of democracy and liberalism—a “fraud,” a “sham,” and “mask for the commercial spirit” that had left the people with neither “ideals” nor “destiny”—before the rise of Hitler for a “new era” as a “new truth.” The Mayor speaks to SA men before an antifestive bonfire, “Flame, teach us!”
The intellectual life may be even more dangerous than Hitz lets on.
This is all to argue that Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought is the very best of books: one that needs sequels.
Neil Dhingra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.