Beset by Confusion!

Hedgehog, painting by Hans Hoffmann, c. 1584.

One night, not long after my wife and I moved to Israel, I walked Kulfi, our dog, in a public garden near our apartment. We strayed off the sidewalk. Kulfi was eagerly investigating several clumps of grass. Then, I noticed something odd and a bit scary. It appeared that the grass would move from time to time, slowly, but it moved, nevertheless. I pulled on Kulfi’s leash and told him I thought we should return to the sidewalk. Well, actually, I said, “Let’s get out of here.” He dutifully followed me back to the pavement. Having not yet performed his call of nature, however, he sauntered once again over into the grass. This new area was better lit than the previous one. As he sniffed and pawed at the grass, I could see what appeared to be a couple of eyes. I walked over, bent down carefully, and looked to see what Kulfi found so appealing. I saw something, but I didn’t know what it was.

Two young Israeli men were passing by at just this time. I stopped them with a hand signal, then waved for them to follow me. Using two of the five Hebrew words I knew, I pointed to a clump of grass and said, “Mah zeh?” (What is this?). They replied with something that sounded like “kee-pode.” By this time, Kulfi had finished his business, so we headed back to the apartment. Once there, I asked my wife to come with me to the park. I showed her what Kulfi and I had found and asked her if she knew what it’s called in English. “It’s a hedgehog,” she said. That I didn’t recognize a hedgehog reflects poorly on my childhood reading. As a child, I had missed the pleasure of reading Joram’s Feast. My wife’s experience was different. Her parents had read the book to her when she was a child. It’s in a room well-stocked with children’s books, all awaiting the arrival of our grandchildren. It begins:

At the end of October the last bee
flies home to her hive with her last load
of nectar to fill her combs with honey,
and the first frost nips the grapes on the vine.

Finally the last apples on the tree
fall to the ground and the last grain is sowed.
It is the time of year when Joram the
hedgehog invites his friends to come and dine.

Nathan C. Shiverick, Joram’s Feast (excerpt), Little, Brown and Company, 1964.

Since that night, Kulfi and I have had the pleasure of meeting several hedgehogs. We live in Beersheba, on the edge of the Negev. At times, the difference between the day and night temperatures can vary as much as twenty-five or thirty degrees. The hedgehogs come out at night and enjoy the cooler air. Hedgehogs are fascinating creatures.

In his philosophical work, Sun and Steel, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) describes an intriguing aspect of hedgehog personality. He does so in the context of writing about our bodies and minds’ shared ability to create their own universes, their capability to produce what he calls their own “false order.” He says that this function of our bodies and minds is an illusion but that much human happiness derives from it. Then, he says, “It is a kind of protective function of life in face of the chaos around it, and resembles the way a hedgehog rolls itself up into a tight round ball.”

Many of the hedgehogs, as Kulfi and I approach them, do precisely this. They roll themselves up into tight round balls. Yet, if I wanted to, I could harm them. They seem not to know this; they feel safe in the false order they’ve created. The difference between the hedgehog and us is that we understand that the protective function is an illusion, that is, unless we are in a state of self-deception. The hedgehog is simply trying to deceive his enemy. Sometimes, we are trying to deceive ourselves.

In his excellent book Self-Deception, the late American philosopher Herbert Fingarette writes:

Whether in morally assessing ourselves or others, whether in the court of law or in everyday life, we are beset by confusion when once we grant that the person in question is in self-deception. For as deceiver one is insincere, guilty; whereas as genuinely deceived, one is the innocent victim. What, then, shall we make of the self-deceiver, deceiver, the one who is both the doer and the sufferer? Our fundamental categories are placed squarely at odds with one another.

Herbert Fingarette. Self-Deception: With a New Chapter (Kindle Locations 16-19). Kindle Edition.

The deceiver and the deceived are the same person. Is this possible? 

I once was very close to a man who had been in the army during WWII. All of his army time was spent in the US. He was never overseas, not one day, not one minute, not ever. But I learned this from the man’s wife, only after the man’s death. She told me that her husband was a gifted musician. And, like many musicians, he prized his hands. He once told a reporter that, during the war, he had spent two years in a Japanese POW camp. What he said was untrue, a total fabrication. Did he believe what he told the reporter? If the man knew that the story he was telling the reporter was false, we want to call him a liar. On the other hand, if he believes his lie, we might suggest psychotherapy.

In his essay, “On liars,” Montaigne claims:

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes. I find that people normally waste time quite inappropriately punishing children for innocent misdemeanours, tormenting them for thoughtless actions which lead nowhere and leave no trace. It seems to me that the only faults which we should vigorously attack as soon as they arise and start to develop are lying and, a little below that, stubbornness.

Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 35). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

I agree with Montaigne; lying is a vice. Of course, it is. Before automatically condemning and punishing a liar, however, I think we need to answer a couple of questions. Does the liar know he’s lying? If he doesn’t, we need to find out why he doesn’t. For, as Fingarette suggests: as a deceiver, the liar is guilty. If the liar, like us, however, is among the deceived, he is innocent. In the former case, he needs punishment; in the latter case, he needs help.

So it seems to me.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

2 thoughts

    1. The Talmud agrees with you about “white lies.” In Ketubot 17A, it is argued that one can say that a bride is beautiful and graceful, even if that’s not literally true. For in the eyes of her bridegroom, she is, indeed, beautiful and graceful. Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.