The way of the hedgehog
“Jean Renoir once suggested that most true creators have only one idea and spend their lives reworking it,” the director Peter Greenaway said in an interview a quarter of a century ago. “But then very rapidly he added that most people don’t have any ideas at all, so one idea is pretty amazing.” I haven’t been able to find the original version of this quote, but it remains true enough even if we attribute it to Greenaway himself, who might otherwise not seem to have much in common with Renoir. Over time, I’ve come to sympathize with the notion that the important thing for an artist is to have an idea, as long as it’s a good one. This wasn’t always how I felt. In college, I was deeply impressed by Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he drew a famous contrast between writers who are hedgehogs, with one overarching obsession that they pursue for all their lives, and the foxes who move restlessly from one idea to another. (Berlin took his inspiration from a fragment of Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—which may mean nothing more than the fact that the fox, for all its cleverness, is ultimately defeated by the hedgehog’s one good defense of rolling itself into a ball.) My natural loyalty at the time was to such foxes as Shakespeare, Joyce, and Pushkin, as much as I came to love such hedgehogs as Dante and Proust. That’s probably how it should be at twenty, when most of us, as Berlin writes, “lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal.”
Even at the time, however, I sensed that there was a difference between a truly omnivorous intelligence and the simple inability to make up one’s mind. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to feel more respect for the hedgehogs. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that this classification really only makes sense when applied to exceptional creative geniuses. For the rest of us, identifying as a fox is more likely to become an excuse for a lack of fixed ideas, while a hedgehog’s perspective can become indistinguishable from tunnel vision. I’m neither a hedgehog nor a fox, and neither are you—we’re just trying to muddle along and make sense of the world as best as we can.) It takes courage to devote your entire career to a single idea, more so, in many ways, than building it around the act of creation itself. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, but both have their associated pitfalls. When you stick to one idea, you run the obvious risk of being unable to change your mind even if you’re wrong, and of distorting the evidence around you to fit your preconceived notions. But the danger of throwing in your lot with process is no less real. It can result in the sort of empty technical facility that levels all values until they become indistinguishable, and it can lead you astray just as surely as a fixation on a single argument can. These wrong turns may last just a year or two, rather than a lifetime, but a life made up of twenty dead ends in succession isn’t that much different than one spent tunneling for decades in the wrong direction. You wind up repeating the same behaviors in an endless cycle of tiny variations, and if it were a movie, you could call it Hedgehog Day.
I don’t mean to denigrate the acquisition of technical experience, which is a difficult and honorable calling in itself. But it’s necessary to remember that once we become competent in any art, the skills that we’ve acquired are largely fungible, and we become part of a stratum of practitioners who are mostly interchangeable with others at the same level. You can see this most clearly in the movies, which is the medium in which financial and market pressures tend to equalize talent the most ruthlessly. It’s rare to see a film these days that isn’t shot, lit, mixed, and scored with a high degree of proficiency, simply because the competition within those fields is so intense, and based solely on ability, that any movie with a reasonable budget can get excellent craftspeople to fill those roles. It’s in the underlying idea and its execution that films tend to fall short. (There are countless examples, but the one that has been on my mind the most is Batman v. Superman. There’s a perfectly legitimate story that could be told by a film of that title—in which Superman stands for unyielding law and order and Batman represents a more ambiguous form of vigilante justice—but the movie, for whatever reason, declines to use it. Instead, it tries to graft its showdown onto the alien messiah narrative of Man of Steel, which isn’t a bad concept in itself: it just happens to be fundamentally incompatible with the ethical conflict between these two superheroes. Zack Snyder has a great eye, the cast is excellent, and the technical elements are all exquisite. But it’s a movie so misconceived that it could only have been saved by throwing out the entire script and starting again.)
Good ideas, as I’ve often said before, are cheap, but the ones worthy of fueling a great novel or movie or even a lifetime are indescribably precious, and the whole point of developing technical proficiency is to defend those ideas from those who would destroy them, even inadvertently. There’s a reason why screenwriting is the one aspect of filmmaking that doesn’t seem to have advanced at all over the last century. It’s because most studio executives wouldn’t dream of trying to interfere with sound mixing, lighting, or cinematography, but they also believe that their story ideas are as good as anyone else’s. This attitude is particularly stark in the movies, but it’s present in almost any field where ideas are evaluated less on their own merits than on their convenience to the structures that are already in place. We claim to value ideas, but we’re all too willing to drop or ignore uncomfortable truths, or, even more damagingly, to quietly replace them with their counterfeit equivalents. Even a hedgehog needs to be something of a fox to keep an idea alive in the face of all the forces that would oppose it or kill it with indifference. Not every belief is worth fighting or dying for, and history is full of otherwise capable men and women—John W. Campbell among them—who sacrificed their reputations on the altar of an unexamined idea. We need to be willing to change course in light of new evidence and to be as crafty as Odysseus to find our way home. But all that cleverness and tenacity and tactical brilliance become worthless if they aren’t given shape by a clear vision, even if it’s a modest one. Not all of us can be hedgehogs or foxes. But we can’t afford to be ostriches, either.