My mom’s favorite story about me goes like this: One day she was making dinner when she heard a persistent thumping coming from the basement. She hurried downstairs to find my younger brother shooting hockey tape balls at the wall, seeing how closely he could graze the top of my head without actually hitting me. My mom stood in the doorway watching this odd behavior for a couple of minutes, my brother developing the soft touch and wrist strength needed by good hockey players, while I sat reading in my beanbag chair, unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” my brother said, smiling, “we do this all the time.” I’ve had occasion since to reflect on the dangers of being the one reading in the beanbag chair as life’s hockey tape balls whiz by. Ever since Thales fell down that well, it seems the world has punished those who are prone to getting lost in thought.
Even outside the traditional educational system, learning retains a certain prestige. But as within much of that system, its relevance is tied to its capacity to build one’s “human capital”: It allows one to fill up a reserve of usefulness or capacity for some future, unspecified need. Apps like Masterclass offer a carnival of pay-to-learn offerings the sophists in ancient Athens would envy. “Learn from the best,” Masterclass promises, about a “wide variety” of “topics” like “business and leadership, photography, cooking, writing, acting, music, sports, and more”—a list of things one learns by doing. These classes are enlivened, we are assured, by the frisson of learning “creativity and leadership” from fashion and media guru Anna Wintour or “campaign strategy and messaging” from David Axelrod and Karl Rove together. (What joy!)
It is in this context that Zena Hitz’s lovely, untimely meditation, Lost in Thought, has appeared. Hunting after the “hidden life of learning,” Hitz defends learning for its own sake and takes aim polemically at the canard that such learning is “elitist” or draws necessary attention away from the properly activist bent of intellectual inquiry. In accessible, jargon-free prose, she identifies the human impulse to savor the natural objects of contemplation—“people, numbers, God, nature”—completely for their own sake, as a potential purpose for human life. We humans are sunk in everydayness, inhabiting a world that obscures from us our true objects of love, even as we pursue them. The intellectual life is threatened and corrupted by the world, but, properly pursued, it responds to the worst things we do to one another by exposing us to the best that humanity has to offer.
One of the pleasures of Lost in Thought is perusing the best-of-humanity dramatis personae Hitz assembles from heavy hitters like St. Augustine and Simone Weil to lesser-known examples like amateur astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; James Baker, the naturalist author of The Peregrine; and some of the people profiled in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Hitz herself is something like the protagonist of Lost in Thought, as it opens with a moving prologue in which she describes how, stuck in an unrewarding career as a university professor, she rekindles her love of learning by joining the religious community at Madonna House, a Catholic retreat in rural Ontario.
Early on, in an analysis of Mona Achache’s 2009 film The Hedgehog, Hitz provides a clear outline of the four characteristics of learning for its own sake, which structures the argument of the rest of the book. Learning for its own sake offers a “place” of retreat and reflection, the opportunity to withdraw from the world, a source of dignity, and authentic human communion. This is leisure in the fullest sense insofar as it follows no direction beyond that which emanates from its own activity. It is an activity of and for itself, and is in this way noble and free. To demonstrate what she means, Hitz provocatively draws on the inner lives of such determinedly political figures as Antonio Gramsci and Malcolm X, both of whom used time in prison to nurture contemplative interiority that seems totally separate from, if not at odds with, their substantive political commitments. Such withdrawal requires asceticism—though hopefully not a prison cell. We need to set aside worldly concerns in order to truly think. The life of the mind is, however, ascetic all the way down, not only at its point of access: Reality itself, beyond the flattery of pleasure and appearance, often “crushes our desires and hopes.”
When we manage contemplative beholding along these lines, we gain a certain nobility in the form of detachment from our baser desires. The shining through of this nobility is a reminder of the goodness of humanity and that human dignity is not exhausted by the possibilities on offer in the world. True leisure, decisively found in contemplation, allows for the expression of our best human capacities: We are most fully ourselves—perhaps even happy—when being at work in this way, rather than seeking to dissolve ourselves into entertainments or other distractions.