The Indian guru Krishnamurti taught that bliss is the suspension of thought, and most religious mystics believe that thought -- the naming and analysis of experience -- is (alas) the enemy of both experience and true joy. We are compelled to organize our ideas about a moment, and thus lose the moment itself. This is the old cautionary fable of the poet, the philosopher, the crusader so enamored of abstraction -- world peace, justice, universal love -- he is oblivious to people, and to the embodiment of those ideals in his immediate vicinity.
To anyone who loves ideas and words, this is a painful wisdom, and a doubtful one. If we were not meant to cogitate our way through life, why were we blessed with the gift of thinking so elaborately and with such pleasure? Yet it is clearly true that mental virtuosity, however desirable a talent, is no guarantee of emotional satisfaction.
In her new high comic novel, The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick, one of our most gifted interpreters of the idea, delineates this dilemma in the person of Ruth Puttermesser -- brilliant, Jewish, bookish, pedantic, lonely, funny, endearing and so enamored of her ideals she invents life to fulfill them, featuring a job as a lawyer in Manhattan's civil service, a system she idealizes as the perfect meritocracy, the embodiment of democratic dreams, until she is summarily dismissed by a new commissioner who wants to appoint an old friend to replace her. A golem named Xanthippe (for the shrewish wife of Socrates) turns Ruth into the mayor of New York and helps her turn the city into a crime-free cultural and intellectual utopia. She wins a lover who seems the fulfillment of her fantasy of an intellectual soul mate, a dream modeled on 19th century novelist George Eliot's love affair with George Lewes. Lastly, she finds an afterlife in which old rejections and humiliations and failures are redeemed: Indifferent lovers turn ardent, audiences respond with respect to work they once disdained.
But each fulfillment of a desire, whether on earth or in Paradise, seems in the end to bring new pain. Golems and soul mates betray our Puttermesser. Edenic love fades away. For if meaning is an elusive pleasure and the intellectual life seems lonely and fraught with idiosyncratic cravings, pure experience -- Puttermesser in Paradise has a baby and marries her first unrequited love -- is equally unsatisfactory when it is invoked to fulfill old desires.
A Buddhist might say that desire itself is the problem, but Ozick's Puttermesser is so funny and lovely in her cravings. "In Eden (she writes) all satiabilities are nourished. I will learn about the linkages of genes, about quarks, about primate sign language, theories of the origin of the races, religions of ancient civilizations, what Stonehenge meant. I will study Roman law, the more arcane varieties of higher mathematics, the nuclear composition of the stars, what happened to the Monophysites, Chinese history, Russian and Icelandic."
Puttermesser is all of us who read and yearn, and if her world is illusory, her life often lonely and painful, Ozick has, with her acute sympathy and her own verbal virtuosity, rendered her unforgettable -- master of a sad, funny illusion that is nonetheless thrilling and worth having, however a mystic, or Puttermesser herself, might judge it in the end. -- Salon