It is a narcotic dullness. There are times when I am not even aware that there is anything wrong with this existence. But, on the other hand, there are times when I rouse myself in bewilderment and vexation, and then I think of myself as a moral casualty of the war.
—Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (1944)
Choosing is existence: to the extent that you don’t choose, you don’t exist.
—John Barth, End of the Road (1958)
To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1960)
In recent American literature, if not in American life, the pathology seems to be exclusively male: an intense, monomaniacal, and often highly eloquent scrutiny of the (actionless, indeterminate) self forever poised to act, to “choose to exist,” yet somehow suspended from action, paralyzed. Its symptoms, examined like rare gems, are virtually indistinguishable from one another: “despair”—“malaise”—“strangeness”—“dissociation”—“ambivalence”—“self-loathing”—“self-revulsion”—“anxiety”—“abulia”—“low-level autism.” Surrounded by hordes of presumably normal people who make decisions with seeming ease, make choices constantly, “wear the uniform of the times” (Dangling Man), the afflicted person exists in a kind of perpetual stasis, a metaphysical vacuum, detached from others whom he regards with commingled pity, contempt, and envy. Even if he’s married like Bellow’s young “dangling man” Joseph (“dangling” as he waits with increasing anxiety to be inducted into the US Army in 1942), or allows himself to be drawn into a destructive ménage à trois like Barth’s Jacob Horner in End of the Road, or, like Percy’s genial New Orleans stock broker Binx Bolling, is casually promiscuous with a succession of secretaries (“Marcias and Sandras and Lindas”), the afflicted person is essentially solitary and asexual; his asceticism can take the form of ceaseless self-examination and recrimination, ruling out sympathy for others.
He is detached from emotion if not from his own body: “There’s something to be said for the manic-depressive if his manics are really manic; but me, I was a placid-depressive…. My lows were low but my highs were middle-register” (End of the Road). The afflicted one is a kind of catatonic: “I have begun to notice that the more active the rest of the world becomes, the more slowly I move, and that my solitude increases in the same proportion as its racket and frenzy” (Dangling Man).
The afflicted one is likely to observe himself in a detached, clinical way, as Dwight Wilmerding in Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel sees himself, as a “specimen in a box,” in which case such a microscopic examination of the self is meant not just to be self-indulgent but might be considered scientific, even allegorical.
Inevitably, and ironically, the afflicted person is intellectually under-employed: though he’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and something of a historian-scholar, Bellow’s twenty-seven-year-old Joseph works for the Chicago-based American Travel Bureau; Barth’s …