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Philosophy Made Simple: A Novel Hardcover – March 8, 2006
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Rudy, the main character is at the inevitable crossroads in his life: daughters leaving the nest, his wife dead, the old house too large, a new phase in life begins. It is natural that at such a point a man starts thinking about God, freedom, truth, mortality, purpose, morality and to seek a rational attitude toward life. Rudy is simple and naive—heartbreakingly so, as is obvious when he is trying to find the answers to the most important questions in a slim book of someone’s intrerpretation of the great western thinkers. Philosophy in Ten Easy Lessons. One cannot help but love him for his innocence. His artless way is touching, like a child trying to learn how to fly a Boeing 747 from a comic book.
This beginning promises a great and rich reading experience. Yes, this is the way a great author writes. But the promise was just that—a promise.
At the Age of Enlightment, of Reason, the former ways of transcendental thinking, intuition, a priori knowledge, convictions rooted in a two thousand year old foundation have been negated and the new philosophers, predominantly German and anti-christian, were trying to explain what the mind could not understand in view of the new, scientific thinking. Were they successful? Hard to tell.
There is only a very thin story line in the novel, which is fine—I much prefer a novel with less action and like it more when it is rich in meditation and the magic of character development. With great anticipation I settled back with the book.
I respect the right of an author to shape his plot and his character as he sees fit; nevertheless, this novel left me empty and dissatisfied. If art is a mirror of our culture, of the society we live in, than this novel is a master piece, because it shows the futility and occasional idiocy of our life, including the absurdity when art is sinking to the level of an animal’s „painting”, which is admired and valued.
And yet, even the futility is not complete and does not ring true.
After all, his daughters are well settled, happy and loving. Rudy is generous, forgiving, content and gentle. They are genuine, fully developed characters, and in the Aristotelian sense, have realized themselves. All are the kind, who add to the value of the world, whose life have not been wasted. What more can we want, what more can we achieve in the few decades we spend on this planet? Their life is real, not pointless. The Nirvana as Rudy sees it, is only a borrowed and temporary illusion.
Toward the end when there is less of Schopenhauer, of Kant, of Nietzche and more of Rudy, I was hopeful that the promise will be fuliflled, yet ultimately there were no redeeming insights, even though a lot of oriental religious beliefs was thrown in (nowadays quite fashionable, although rather alien to our western, Judeo-Christian thinking). This would have been fine if it were presented as comparisons, or additions, but it was neither. It appeared almost as a replacement. Rudy thought that God was dead (a phrase originally written by the atheist Nietzche and now found all over on the walls of buildings and of public toilettes as graffiti, scribbled by people who never believed that God existed in the first place, and who probably never read a line written by that philospher.) Rudy saw everything as pointless, without purpose or reason and drifted off into a state where he was able to extinguish all desires which then lead him to the ultimate freedom, into Nirvana. Nihilism as the ultimate goal -- or is it death? It is hard to tell. I was becoming rather impatient and dissatisfied toward the end; my mind drifted into futile arguments with Rudy and Hellenga and I did not pay as much attention as the book deserved.
So what is my final opinion? Obviously it is a well crafted piece of work. Obviously, Hellenga knows his subject. Obviously it would appeal to many. It did not to me. JPB author and reader
Plato is the first of many great philosophers Rudy meets in the book he has been given and Plato's Allegory of the Cave from The Republic fascinates him. What is real and what is an illusion? This question will resonate throughout the novel. Perhaps the reader of this review is now wondering whether questions of philosophy take center stage in the story and the answer is that Helenga's novel is primarily about Rudy and his search for meaning and purpose in his life as he enters his sixties and is confronted with his own mortality.
One of the first people Rudy meets and becomes friends with in Texas is a Russian who owns an extraordinary Indian elephant named Norma Jean. This elephant actually paints pictures that sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. The Russian moves to Rudy's avocado farm with Norma Jean. As the story unfolds, the Russian leaves Norma Jean with Rudy as the sole caretaker. For me Norma Jean is one of the most interesting characters in this novel. We learn much about Indian elephants and I must say I was fascinated by all that I learned. Norma Jean loves Rudy and in turn Rudy comes to love and respect the great power and talent of this extraordinary animal.
Rudy's family and the Indian family his daughter is marrying into converge on the avocado farm in Texas for a traditional Indian wedding. Norma Jean is much appreciated by the Indians, who include her in the wedding plans. The wedding is the single most important event in the story and becomes a turning point in Rudy's life.
Philosophy Made Simple is a most unusual story, blending western thoughts on philosophy with eastern ideas about marriage, family, and what it means to live a good life. Robert Hellenga brings the two cultures together in a meaningful and entertaining fashion. We don't learn much about academic philosophy, made simple or not. We do learn much about Rudy and his struggle to be a good father and a decent and honest human being.