A Little Thing That Knows One Big Thing


When I spotted this strange young guy emerging from an alley off of Randolph Street during a 2010 visit to Chicago, his spiny-gelled coiffure was enough to plant this image of a ‘HeadHog’ in my imagination which then became a sketch in my trusty Moleskine journal. In the two years following, it remained unfinished as I developed other projects that included my Codex Gastropoda drawings. Several of these appeared in a series of posts here that were dedicated to the ‘appreciation of small things’. That appreciation led me to rendering ‘HeadHog’ this week but also piqued my curiosity about the animal and its legends.

In tracing this line of questioning, I came upon some pieces of folklore that attribute various qualities to these creatures, including a notion that hedgehogs can outsmart foxes and predict the weather by the way they build their nests. Then there was a Brothers Grimm fairytale about a magical hybrid hedgehog-child called ‘Hans My Hedgehog’, which could easily have influenced my drawing had I been aware of  it.

However, a 1953 essay by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), the British intellectual and historian of ideas eventually piqued my interest. Entitled ‘The Hedgehog & The Fox’, Berlin wrote a playful riff on a quote attributed to the 6th century BC Greek poet-philosopher Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.”  In it, he posits a cultural/intellectual divide between writers and thinkers by employing these two animals as metaphors of two types of human beings. He compares hedgehogs to those that embrace a single, all-encompassing construct of ideas of which they are the undisputed authority. For him, foxes are those individuals who choose a more wide-ranging aestheticism in pursuit of self-knowledge and by extension their understanding of universal existence through a cultural bias. Yet, I suspect that Berlin’s sly cleverness does both animals and those attributes a generous measure of injustice for in my opinion, these attributes are as inextricably intertwined as the concepts and manifestations of good and evil.

Though our natural tendency is to categorize our behavior and intellectual/creative processes to clarify our understanding of them, I think that  writing vs. thinking, art vs. science, science vs. religion or for that matter, illustration and fine arts (see Imaginarius post of 28 February 2012) are not discrete categories. They are only pieces in the greater puzzle that is us.

Today, I might be a fox speaking like a hedgehog. Tomorrow, who knows?

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