I solved the problem of existence when I was 38. In itself this isn’t a big deal. Plenty of other people have solved it, too. What’s tricky is communicating it to others. That’s no easy feat. Plato shares it, but Aristotle doesn’t. Spinoza delivers the goods, but Kant flounders. Cervantes nails it, but Chaucer blows chunks. Sorry, he does. Proust gets it and gives it, but Joyce, that drunken Irish pirate, only amasses details and complexity. Among American novelists, M. Robinson (Gilead) and C. McCarthy (The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and The Road), as different as their subject matter and narrative techniques are, both solve the problem of existence, while Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, and a host of other splendid writers do not.** Of course I reserve the right to change my mind about Roth because American Pastoral strikes a profoundly revelatory note. Wait, yes, I just changed my mind. Roth is in the mix. Which is apropos, because his mentor S. Bellow follows in the footsteps of Plato, Spinoza, Cervantes, Proust, and other great unriddlers of life.
wherein bellow is compared to spinoza but not joyce
In Herzog, Bellow presents a picture of Moses Herzog. Moses is a sick man, unhinged, not physically but mentally, emotionally. He writes long beautifully barbed letters dipped in the poison of anger and regret. He writes to the living and the dead, to old lovers, scholars, and politicians, and to Nietzsche and Heidegger, among others. Moses is addicted to ideas, “sick with abstractions.” “Curse Hegel!” his now ex-wife screams at him in a rage. Gradually Moses realizes that his pursuit of a “grand synthesis” has separated him from reality, from fact and value. He frees himself from “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness” and solves the problem of existence.
The solution is simple and sweet. It really is. I’m tempted by silence because I’m no Plato or Spinoza; I’m no Proust or C. McCarthy; I’m no Bellow. At the risk of clicking like a porpoise, excitedly yet unintelligibly, I give you The Answer, in outline form only, mere signposts. You’ll have to chase down a philosopher or an artist—or read Herzog. Here goes. Break the identification of the “I” with the ego, as Moses does when he realizes his scholarly concerns are infected by ambition and vengeance. Feel the pain of others, or witness several painful courtroom scenes, just like Moses right before his awakening. Devote yourself to something bigger and more important than yourself. In Moses’ case, he renews his attachment to his children, to his family and friends. Delight in the word despite its impermanence: “Life is life only when it is understood clearly as dying,” or, “Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably.” Love your monkey. Literally. Moses’ good friend Asphalter is devastated by the death of his pet monkey. Not a fan of hirsute primates? Then weed your garden, instead; tend your tomatoes and cantaloupes, or like Moses, paint a piano for your daughter. Actively participate in life; attend to the simple things that make it go. At the end of the novel, after parting the sea of illusion from reality, Moses turns the pump switch on, connects the range, and turns the refrigerator on. He chills a bottle of wine, makes dinner, and chats and laughs with Ramona. Then he cleans up and listens to the hermit thrushes and blackbirds.
Like I said, simple.
**Wharton, for one. A first-rate writer. She puts most novelists to shame. But she’s no where near solving the riddle of life, focusing as she does on all the ways one’s pursuit of love, freedom, and happiness can go sideways.