He was astonished to discover that after he had solved the problem on which he had worked for twenty-seven years, after he had disposed of all the objections to his proof, he missed the problem in its unsolved state.
Yes, there had been great satisfaction in completing the proof, even exhilaration. Yes, there had been an access of inner pride, a sense of validation after long years of wandering in what felt like a succession of deserts. Yes, he had enjoyed the discomfiture of rivals who had come close to mocking him and his methods over the years,. All that was true. He had achieved a new degree of eminence and was treated with new respect.
But he missed the problem in its raw state, when it was new and tantalizing, when it seemed like it would defeat him countless times, when it allowed him hints as to how to approach and then showed him that those hints were spurious, perhaps deliberate ruses to throw him off.
It was not only that he had no idea what to do with himself, how to invest his heart and mind. He was an empty creature and felt lost in his emptiness. All this was the case, indubitably so. However, the real ache was more intimate, nearer his heart,
He missed the problem the way you might miss a lover, but not just any lover, rather one who had been everything to you, so that that lover had been all that you really knew of yourself over a very long period of time. While you were so engaged that long period of time had seemed that it could never end, so that it was forever, or at least tantamount to forever. It filled up every nook and cranny, ever crevice of you.
There was no way to see outside of it. Actually there was no desire to find a way to see outside of it. Solution was revealed to him as dissolution. It was he himself who had been dissolved.
The problem was seductive. It led him on. It beckoned to him in myriad ways. It forced him into adventure after adventure of new understandings. It made him understand that what he had taken for understanding was so partial as to be shockingly inadequate. It did this over and over, making it impossible for him to take himself for granted
The problem remade him and kept on remaking him. It had a persistence that was ferocious. He could not let go. It held him in its thrall. He could not explain or justify its hold over him.
It was all day long every day. He dreamed about the problem. Within himself he knew that it took priority over his wife and children, over everyone he knew. He tried to dissemble but his inner eye saw clearly what was the state of his affairs. If there was shame over this, he kept it well hidden from himself. Passion precluded a nearer approach.
The problem was not only seductive in ways that were overpowering. It was also sadistic. It had many ruses and wiles to exploit him and cause him pain, to mock him and require a more and more abject devotion of him.
The problem was irresistible and then irresistibly frustrating. The frustration made him furious, not just a little furious. It threw him into frenzies.. Now he missed how enraged he had been not only by day but through countless sleepless nights.
His fury was charged with life and energy. It had a force that was intoxicating and, in its own way, nourishing. HIs rage gave him a sense of significance. It made him feel important, even as the problem humbled him. It made him feel wealthy even as the problem mocked his poverty in coming up with real avenues of approach.
He watched the seasons through the problem. He watched the leaves coming down, the snow swirling, the buds bursting, the fullness of summer harvest through the lens of the problem, not in a single cycle but over and over down the succession of years of his affair with the problem, just this problem and none other. Now, after the solution, how was he to look? How was he to see? How was he to be?
Could he find another problem? First of all, he was not sure how much time he had left. Did he have enough time left for another problem? Secondly, even to seek another problem seemed like an act of infidelity.
This was a characteristic of the problem, that it had demanded complete fidelity just as a start. Because it had demanded it so uncompromisingly, so violently, it had shown him that he was capable of such fidelity. It had been the enormous pressure that had compressed him into becoming a diamond,
He preferred to drown in recollection, even though recollection was not reliving. It never brought what was recollected truly alive. It remained dispersed in time. Recollection always had a pallor which attached to it. Just the thinnest coating of grime or dust.
It was no use to try to polish it away. There was no cloth equal to the task. No energy of elbow sufficed. Recollections were here and not here, being and unbeing, inextricably tied one to the other.
The problem once solved was just what it was, nothing else. In this sense it was simple, lucid, accessible to anyone. What was much more profound than the proof that ultimately issued forth from all those years of struggle was the struggle itself.
There had been flashes of insight, but much of the time the progress he made was like chewing through solid rock with an inadequate pick. Some of what he thought were flashes of insight proved to be snares, not insight at all.
Not infrequently he had been reduced to laughing at himself, sometimes a bitter hollow laughter, but occasionally a full throated laughter, a bubbling spring of appreciation not solely for his adversary, the problem, for his collaborator, the problem but also for himself, so far from home.
Sometimes the closer he got, the more the problem seemed about to yield to his embrace, he would be startled to discover that he was farther away. A subtle confusion could lead to an extensive disaster, one that led him to doubt his thinking.
Sometimes he wondered whether he was in the grips of an obsession that was a form of insanity. There were months on end when he did not look in the mirror for fear that he would see his own face,
Yet it was love, not love without an admixture of hate to make a unique alloy. A strong alloy. A fierce alloy. Had he chosen the problem or had the problem chosen him? Where did agency lie? What was agency?
After the solution, which had a logical form accessible to all. he made no effort to describe or communicate his grief over what had been accessible only to him. the inner tempest of hope and doubt, the extended contention of hopeful illusion and disillusionment. He was a success and a ruin all in one.
He and the problem had lived together quite incommunicado. It was a secret affair, one whose reality never could be disclosed because there was no way accurately to describe it. Even as it was him, the experience eluded him, danced just out of reach as it had always done.
Others could believe, following the solution, that they were treading in his footsteps, but he had a much different understanding. He knew no one else could follow in what had been his actual footsteps, the maze of recursive trails and wanderings in which he had lived so long with himself and without himself.
“You look haggard,” his wife said to him one morning.
This startled him. It was absolutely out of character for her to be so direct. Her statement brought him news of himself, news that was unwelcome.
“Of course,” he thought, “I do look haggard. How else could I look, given what has happened, given what I have been through?”
He tried to smile but the smile was wan, pale, a faint lip line, a miserable excuse for a smile.
It was obvious it did not pass muster with his wife. She questioned him with her eyes.
“I’ve had enough,” he thought.
His wife put her hand softly on his forearm. A strange sensation took hold of him, strange and yet both delicate and ravishing.
He tried to remember her name and finally it came to him with all the mysteriousness of the real name of an actual person, a person present as flesh and blood, desire and fear, tenderness and travail.
“Alice,” he said softly. His eyes engaged with her pale green eyes.
He was here, at least momentarily