Surface Tension

A review of Zena Hitz’s "Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life"
Surface Tension
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This year has put liberal arts institutions under unprecedented pressure to be relevant – to prove their worth as a financial investment, a seedbed for social justice, and preferably both at once. Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought could have predicted the academy’s eager if ineffectual response to such pressures, for, as she argues, human beings have a reflexive desire for status and relevance. That desire, Hitz maintains, is also the chief roadblock to true thoughtfulness, in her view the distinctive and fragile good that liberal education has to offer.

One of Hitz’s most striking claims is that getting “lost in thought” requires an intentional effort. So many tensions pull us to the surface of our existence that it is hard to get a good look at the deeper questions of a human life. The book seems at first to promise a stroll through pleasure gardens, but it is best understood as a kind of intellectual pilgrim’s progress: taking us on a tour of the temptations and misunderstandings that prevent us from achieving our nature as thinking beings.

Hitz’s own intellectual biography forms the long introduction and basic core of the book. She tells an absorbing story about her quest to disentangle a native love of learning from reflexive status-seeking, an effort that takes her from an Ivy League university to intense “adventures of volunteering” in desolate parts of Baltimore, then to a lay Catholic community in remote Canada, and finally back to the East Coast to teach at St. John’s College.

As this itinerary suggests, Hitz is not afraid of extremes. This is not just a personal quirk; it is an integral part of her understanding of the basic human problem. In her view, intellectual pursuits lead to human dignity only if they are pure, only if they resist the lure of social satisfaction and the hope of achieving political effect. As she says, “compromise formations” – attempts to be deeply thoughtful and wildly successful or profoundly influential – “bring out the worst of both worlds.”

The book’s best parts make us take a hard look at such compromises – causing us to ask ourselves: Am I reading this book to enrich my inner life or to have something smart to say? While this confusion of intentions can entangle anyone, Hitz is especially hard on institutionalized intellectual life, which she thinks systematically habituates us to such mixed motives. At the very entryway to adulthood, colleges encourage young people to follow the quest for truth wherever it may lead . . . though one soon discovers that the expected final stop is a lucrative job that brings honor (and eventually, donations) to the alma mater.

Institutions are prone to such compromise formations, in Hitz’s view, both for obvious practical reasons and for more profound ones. She probes the dynamic of all human groups, from stadium crowds to grad school cliques. In her analysis, all these groups fear individuals who retreat into themselves, for they know instinctively that solitude makes room for the kind of reflection that can lead to inner revolutions, the results of which are impossible to predict and control.

To forestall such hidden thoughts, educational institutions reflexively divert the proper flight of the intellect. They foster self-promotion rather than self-denial, discouraging the ascetic habits that can help one focus on the most enduring things. They reward vain curiosity and snazzy-sounding research, Hitz argues, rather than cultivating the truly daring habits of mind that push us “past the surfaces of things to what is more real.” They make us feel smart while dissipating our mental energies; we spend time scratching intellectual itches, as Hitz puts it, rather than healing existential wounds.

Those schooled in elite institutions are especially susceptible, Hitz implies, to this superficial intellectual life. Having trained our mind to glide on a socially comfortable surface, we want to stay there – and so, when presented with free time, we don’t use it like free people. We surf the web, we ride the crest of popular opinion, and we “doomscroll” – consuming huge quantities of negative news – in an effort to keep ourselves au courant. The moment may come when we prefer, as Yves Simon observed in 1930s France, “an unpleasant falsehood to an agreeable truth.” What keeps us at the cutting edge of fashionable consciousness comes to matter more than anything else.

Lost in Thought prompts us to wonder how we might restore truly liberal education in our present-obsessed, hyper-agitated moment. The key, Hitz suggests, is to attack the desire for status in all its forms: to learn to admire those with rich inner lives whom no one knows about – “the humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, the contemplative taxi driver”; to simply enjoy reading a book that deepens our understanding. If nothing else, Lost in Thought helps us to dislodge our dreary preoccupation with transient goods by giving us a glimpse of these more lasting satisfactions.

As a number of critics have remarked, Hitz, who is not afraid to strike a fusty pose, has timed her book uncannily well to speak to the dramas of our moment. And that fact itself contains a valuable lesson: those who train their eye on the enduring things will always be relevant.

Jenna Silber Storey is Assistant Professor in Politics and International Affairs at Furman University and co-author, with Benjamin Storey, of the forthcoming book "Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment" (Princeton University Press, 2021).

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