Shinji Ikari's Hedgehog's Dilemma

This post is not, I'm sorry to say, about an actual hedgehog.

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John Maher

Jun 05 2021

15 mins read

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What Do We Do With the Damn Hedgehogs?


Among the few redeeming qualities of being human, perhaps the greatest is this: we get to care about, and for, one another. We don't always get to choose the people we love, but we do get to choose whether we go on loving them and growing together with them in whatever form that growth might take.

But relationships of any kind require a sharing of yourself with another, which means they come with risk, with factors beyond your control. This is an inevitable part of living, as the memes say, in a society. When John Donne wrote that "no man is an Iland, intire of itselfe," that each of us "is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine," that "any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde," he elided how often countries abutting each other have, over the course of history, waged bloody war against each other.

Interrelations being so central to the human condition, it's no surprise that the conflict inherent to those relations has been, arguably, the central theme of art pretty much ever since art has existed. It's as important to Homer as it is to Haim. The variation in perspectives on the matter is vast, but the grand takeaway of this collective accumulation of reflection on human experience might be summed up in six words: intimacy is necessary, beautiful, and terrible.

In his 1851 collection of philosophical reflections Parerga and Paralipomena, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer mused on just this by comparing the problem of human intimacy to the cuddling of porcupines. The metaphorical proposition, which eventually became known as the hedgehog's dilemma, is a popular one, addressed and examined by such great thinkers as Sigmund Freud—and, most importantly to me, by one of the greatest anime of all time: Hideaki Anno's 1995-1996 series Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Anno is far from subtle about his fascination with this metaphor. It takes Evangelion less than an hour of its runtime to mention it explicitly in a lengthy exchange about its protagonist, Shinji Ikari, early on in its third episode, "The Silent Phone," called "The Transfer" in the English dub. Here's how the women agents of the top-secret special military organization NERV sum it up, as translated for Netflix's 2019 update of the show.

Misato Katsuragi: I'm afraid that he doesn't have any friends.


Ritsuko Akagi: Well, it's possible that Shinji is the kind of person who doesn't really make friends very easily. Have you ever heard of the hedgehog's dilemma?


Misato Katsuragi: Hedgehogs? Those spiky critters?


Ritsuko Akagi: Hedgehogs have a hard time sharing their warmth with other hedgehogs, because the closer they get, the more they just end up hurting each other. It can be the same with people. Right now, some part of Shinji is afraid of that pain, and it makes him timid.


Ritsuko Akagi: Well, I'm sure he'll figure it out in time. As you get older, you try again and again, and eventually you figure out the right amount of distance to keep to avoid hurting each other.


As if that exchange wasn't enough to hammer the point home, the show's next episode, "Rain, After Running Away," uses a different title in the English dub as well: "Hedgehog's Dilemma."

The thematic explorations of this metaphor persist throughout Evangelion, which is as remarkable an examination of the problem of human interaction as it is of two psychological disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, the latter of which Anno has struggled with for much of his life. It fundamentally understands the sheer difficulty of intimacy—a word with wide-ranging meanings, synonyms, and connotations, among them: familiarity, informality, privacy, thoroughness, warmth, thoroughness, carnality, romance. All of which is to say that Evangelion fundamentally understands the sheer difficulty of being a person.

Shinji, the extremely traumatized hero of Evangelion, is admittedly not your average person. He is, instead, the reluctant pilot of Unit-01, a giant mech designed by his late mother and animated in part by her soul. (Cheery stuff!) But at least he's not alone, for all the comfort that provides him. His fellow pilots, Asuka Langley Soryu and Rei Ayanami, all fourteen-year-olds, are similarly traumatized and at least partially parentless. So are most of his adult military supervisors, including his roommate and mentor, NERV operations director Misato Katsuragi, and the organization's head scientist, Ritsuko Akagi.

The trauma in this world, as is so often the case in military families in our own, is cyclical and intergenerational. Over the course of the series and its many subsequent codas and reimaginings, Shinji guts through one traumatic experience after another: the loss of his mother; consistent emotional abuse at the hands of his apathetic and megalomaniacal father, NERV commander Gendo Ikari; fraught relationships with his fellow hurting and hormonal teenage pilots; and, last but not least, the intense psychological distress caused by his work as a special forces agent in humanity’s war against enormous, terrifying aliens called Angels. And the circumstances in which all those around him consistently find themselves aren't much better. They are, after all, at war: with the Angels, but also with each other and themselves.

It probably comes as no surprise that all these broken people do a fairly terrible job of caring for each other. But Shinji struggles to let in anyone. He's as hesitant of sharing his life with his ordinary schoolmates as he is with his fellow NERV agents. While he cannot bear being alone, neither can he bear the pain of human intimacy, the terrible necessity of being perceived for who he is at his heart. He fears the cost of opening that heart to others: the day-to-day living with it, filled with the relentless stabbing of those hedgehogs' spikes, and the grief and loneliness and self-loathing that so quickly fills the hole of any loss—be it by abandonment or death or simply the distance that so often grows between people as they and their needs change. At the same time, he resents not having the closeness that he so fears. He craves that closeness too.

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This is textbook anxious-avoidant attachment, and it undergirds Shinji's default mode, which is a classic reaction to early childhood loss: self-isolation in response to absence and feelings of alienation. When you see losing as inevitable, ensuring that you have nothing to lose seems to be a sensible course of action. But there is always something left to lose, and it almost always involves other people. Not even mech pilots are islands. Shinji, deny it though he may and as he does throughout much of the series, knows it, and the anger and despair that so often dominate his facial expressions and behavioral patterns show it. And each of Evangelion's two radically different alternate endings presents—among many other realizations, the bulk of which are deeply philosophical, spiritual, or just plain weird—the consequences of how intimate we human beings choose to be with the others with whom we share this planet and our lifetimes.

I see something of myself in Shinji, even though my childhood, and my response to the loss of my own mother, was radically different from his. For one thing, unlike Shinji’s upbringing, my own, while constantly tinged with grief, was otherwise a happy and safe one. My father loved me, and when he remarried and I was adopted by a new mother, she loved me too. (Also, I was never conscripted as a child soldier, which probably helped.) For another, Shinji's and my respective responses to the hedgehog's dilemma, on the whole, diverge drastically.

Shinji's introversion and avoidance, which border on the pathological, are the result of a fear of getting close enough to any other person to be harmed by that relationship, even as he suffers from his self-imposed isolation and that suffering begets more suffering in the lives of those who do, whether he sees it or not, care for him. Typically, I have struggled with the opposite problem.

I often felt lonely growing up, but not because I avoided attachments. On the contrary: as a teenager, I sought human intimacy relentlessly; I wanted to love everyone I possibly could, as much as I possibly could, while there was still time. While I, like Shinji, feared the inevitability of losing those I loved, or being hurt by the closeness I afforded them, what I feared most was having no one left to love or left to love me. I turned my relationships into a fortress, each person around me a stone in the wall to protect me from the loss outside the wall and from the loneliness within.

For a long time, I couldn’t even let go of people who irrevocably hurt me or betrayed me. I thought of this as loyalty, and I thought it would protect me, but there was a denial baked into that thought from the start. In the end, it mostly didn't help. If anything, holding on to people so fiercely just made losing them hurt all the more.

Loss still unmoors me, but it hasn't stopped me from loving. My skin has thickened somewhat since childhood, although I still bleed plenty when pricked. But I know myself: I'm the kind of hedgehog who will take sharp, bloody warmth, no matter how flickering, over the cold safety of distance any day of the week. Because that, when it comes down to it, is the choice: it is between the uncertainties of prickly intimacies, so fickle in their comforts, and the absolute certainty of stony protective distance. For me, it's not a hard choice to make, no matter how often I may come to regret it. The warmth, I keep hoping, is worth it.

Misato tells us that eventually, we "figure out the right amount of distance to keep to avoid hurting each other." Is that true? I'm not so sure it is, at least in any satisfying way. But if it's what we have to tell ourselves to keep trying, so be it. The choice to open ourselves up to others or to remain closed off from them in some way is, after all, not a solution to the problem. Even after we choose our answer, the question remains. The good news about this is that we can always choose again. The bad news is that we must.

In his great 1997 novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth—I know, I know, I'm canceled—touches on the hedgehog's dilemma in his own way by questioning another aspect that complicates the nature of human intimacy: whether we can ever really know the people we learn to care for and about. The book's protagonist, infamous Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, ponders this in a passage that is worth, despite its length, quoting in full.

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.


—Philip Roth, American Pastoral


We do need those lonely writers. People turn to painful art in part to identify with it and to process their pain, knowing it will hurt but also knowing they need it to move through it. (It will surely come as no surprise that, just as I am the kind of person who obsesses over anime like Evangelion, I am also the kind of person who listens to sad music when I am sad.) Art, both making it and taking it in, can indeed provide a closeness to other people that is (arguably, at least) safer than actually being with and caring for them, than attempting to know the unknowable. Still, for artists and those who benefit from their work, the refuge is a temporary one. Escape into whatever you like, but in the end, you and I and Shinji still wake up in a world filled with other people, some of whom we'll inevitably have to let in.

There's no real answer to the hedgehog's dilemma, just the opportunity to acknowledge that we all face it. Intimacy is hard. It rewards us and rips us to pieces, often in unequal measure. And we can't escape its centrality to the human experience. All we can do is try to learn, as Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman suggests we must when dealing with a broken heart, to carry it gracefully.

Another great literary work by another problematic Philip, this one named Larkin, has a hedgehog with a dilemma of its own. Larkin's poem, too, offers a lesson on the horrors that come alongside living beside each other. It also attempts to provide an answer on how to do it well.

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.


—Philip Larkin, Collected Poems


Easier said than done, of course. But what else can we do? It often feels safer to be alone. Maybe it is. But none of us can be. All we can be is careful and kind in the ways we live with and love each other and, as best we can, mind the spikes. Again, easier said than done. But what else is there to do but try?


All She Wrote

Recent pieces I've written and other projects.

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Lest you thought I was done writing about Castlevania after last week, let it be known that I wrote about it again for Vulture this week, mostly in order to recommend a bunch of other bloody anime that are worth your time if you are the kind of person who enjoyed watching the hordes of hell wreak havoc across Wallachia for 32 episodes.


Tips for the Tooned In

What I'm loving right now and other sundries.


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This past week, Cassandra Jenkins's An Overview on Phenomenal Nature absolutely blew me away, in no small part thanks to its third track, "Hard Drive," which finds such extraordinary and excruciating beauty among the incidental encounters with other people (they're unavoidable!) that line the road to acceptance that I didn't know what to do with myself upon first listening to it—I just stood in my kitchen, mouth open, staring blankly for five-and-a-half minutes, whatever tasks I had been busying myself with at the time utterly forgotten.

The song reminded me of the name of Jonas Mekas's experimental cinematic masterpiece, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. What a title! It's especially powerful for what it leaves out, I think: what exists outside those brief glimpses of beauty? A lot, obviously—including hedgehogs.


Cartoon GIF of the Week

Like a newspaper cartoon, but animated.

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