Sunday, September 25, 2011
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Bellow followed up his huge novel The Adventures of Augie March with Seize the Day, a novella of 116 pages. Appearing simple on the surface, it takes a cue from the psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The fact that the psychiatrist's first name and that of the novel's protagonist are the same is evidence of intentional Reichianism. The novella takes place in a single day in New York's Upper West Side. The narrator is 3rd person omniscient, yet the point of view often changes and infiltrates the thoughts of the protagonist, taking on the 1st person. It therefore becomes hard to tell what is Tommy's imagination and reality. Water is a recurring motif that carries symbolic meaning.
Chap I. Tommy Wilhelm, the 44-year old protagonist joins his father Dr. Adler for breakfast at the Hotel Gloriana. Tommy and his father usually meet in the elevator, but "he was aware that his routine was about to break up and he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due" (p, 4). We soon learn that Tommy has gone into a commodities investment venture with Dr. Tamkin, a psychologist. Tommy is desperate financially and yearns for the assistance of his father. Several flashbacks reveal the talent scout Maurice Venice, attracted to Tommy by his good looks in college. On film, Tommy proves to be awkward. Venice refuses to take him on, yet he lies to his parents, drops out of college, and moves to California. Actually, Venice was a fraud and involved in a prostitution racket. In many ways, Venice is a double for Tommy, a failure and a liar, a drowning man (Venice conjures canals and water). We also learn that Tommy changed his name from Wilhelm Adler, a first indication of him shedding himself from his father (his sister Catherine changes her name to Phillippa). Tommy is quick to blame others for his circumstance, yet takes credit for his own failure. Tommy believes that self-determination is impossible in his world: "there's really very little that a man can change at will. He can't change his lungs, or nerves, or constitution or temperament" (p. 24). Tommy's aversion to water is disclosed as he remembers a line from Milton's Lycidas: "Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor..." (p. 13), in which Lycidas drowns.
Chap II. We learn that Tommy has separated from his wife Margaret and his children, a fact that meets with great disapproval from his father. At breakfast, Dr. Adler hounds Tommy about his pill addiction. We learn that Tommy had a job with the WPA and had a hotel job in Cuba. Adler constantly criticizes his son for misjudgements, especially with Dr. Tamkin, who fantasizes just like Tommy. Tamkin once described an underwater suit he wanted to invent so that a man could walk across the Hudson in case of an atomic attack (p. 41). This is symbolic of the figurative "wet suit" he will provide Tommy to prevent him from "drowning." Tommy defends Tamkin's entrepreneurial spirit "Everybody wants to make something. Any American does" (p. 41). Yet Tommy's aversion to water is acute: "He used an electric razor so that he didn't have to touch water" (p. 36).
Chap III. Father and son meet for breakfast. Adler suggests that Tommy go to the baths, since water cures ailments (p. 44). But the last thing a drowning man needs is more water ! They discuss Tommy's wife Margaret, who is asking for money. It is revealed that Tommy had a lover, Olive. Adler tells Tommy that he will not "carry" him on his back and gives the same advice to his son (p. 55). Tommy and his father do not speak the same language. His father's language is too concrete, whereas Tamkin's is more poetic and attuned to Tommy's feelings. Tamkin acts as Tommy's surrogate father (Tam-kin = kin of Tom) because they share the same language.
Chap IV. Tommy has a flashback to the day in which he signed over his money to Tamkin, although Tamkin could not contribute his equal share. Tamkin tells Tommy about the duplicity of the soul: the true soul and the pretend soul. He claims that one should live in the "here-and-now. Seize the day" (p. 66). Tamkin gives Tommy a poem he has written about him entitled "Mechanism vs. Functionalism/Ism vs. Hism" (p. 75), a nearly direct translation of Reichian philosophy. Reich claimed that neurosis and imbalance arise out of the inner self (the natural) and the external world (that of monetary pressures). Tamkin posits this in terms of the real and pretend souls. Tamkin's poem is paradoxical in that it makes fun of Romantic poetry. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) says that the point of this preposterous poem is surely that Tommy's grasp of it is more grotesquely inept than even Tamkin's verse. He says to Tamkin "I'm trying to figure out who this Thou is" (p. 76).
Tamkin has some truth telling moments. "You can't march in a straight line to the victory...You fluctuate toward it. From Euclid to Newton, there was straight lines. The modern age analyzes the wavers" (p. 64). Tommy is in his "watery" state, on track to clarity. Tamkin feels Tommy must embrace the water he is drowning in to achieve rebirth. Contrast this to his father, an advocate of a straight line to victory. Bellow allows us to see books in Tamkin's home that exist in opposition or discuss opposing philosophies, e.g., W.H. Sheldon was a staunch anti-Freudian (p. 72). To add to the "naturalism" it is important to note the significance of the fact that Tommy's grandfather called him "Velvel," Hebrew for wolf. It points to Tommy's lonely howling, a Reichian animalistic trait. The last sentence of the chapter picks up the water theme: "The waters of the earth are going to roll over me" (p. 77).
Chap V. This chapter opens on Broadway and jumps to stock market floor. Tamkin becomes Tommy's guide in this chapter. Ironically, memory (not the here-and-now) is the most significant action for Tommy here as he recalls feeling at one with humanity in Times Square and Margaret nursing him back to health. His internal self and the external world merge in his Times Square memory: "Today, his day of reckoning, he consulted his memory and thought, I must go back to that. That's the right clue and may do me the most good. Something very big. Truth, like" (p. 85). In the second memory, Margaret reads to him "somewhat unwillingly" (p. 90) a poem about love. The poem is about someone who thought to leave the other until they grew in love. The memory is unresolved, like the love. This chapter is not about Tommy learning to swim but more about the process, it is a path to understanding.
Chap VI. Tamkin and Tommy have lunch. Tamkin tells Tommy not to "marry suffering" (p. 98). Tamkin says his wife died of drowning, which Tommy does not believe. After visiting the market, Tommy discovers that Tamkin is missing. This chapter appears regressive in that Tommy has lost faith in Tamkin. Although this is a backward step, Tommy will have to learn to get on without Tamkin. A mirror is presented to Tommy in the guise of the blind man Rappaport, who appears obsessed with money, a mirror image that Tommy fails to see. Tommy feels threatened in a naturalist way by his surroundings, as evidenced by the beggarly violinist who "pointed his bow at Wilhelm, saying, "You!'"' (p. 100).
Chap VII. The chapter begins with Tommy using his father's language "Tamkin was on my back" (p. 105). Tommy seeks Tamkin in the Hotel Gloriana. On entering the hotel, he is recognized as Dr. Adler's son. Tommy will have to learn to be more than just someone's son if he is to come to any understanding. He then seeks out his father, finding him in the massage. His father rebukes him once again in their final confrontation. On his way to look again for Tamkin, he takes a call from Margaret, asking for money. One, two, three, he sheds Tamkin, his father, and his wife. It is only when he is left completely alone that he can piece together the puzzle. Racing out onto the street, amidst teeming humanity, he believes he sees Tamkin at a funeral. He follows the funeral procession into the church in the final scene of the book. Tommy cries with all his heart over the dead stranger, ending the novella with redeeming tears. Again, it is only through distance and separation that Tommy can achieve understanding. The dead human being gives him a rare distance. In the end, he discovers his own language: feeling, tears, and love.
Kiernan observes that the parallel with Lycidas' regenerative death is unmistakable in the last paragraph containing the lines "sea-like music came up to his ears," "poured into him," and "sank deeper than sorrow" (p. 118). Most critics read the final scene in salvific terms. The passage should be understood as mocking Wilhelm's sense of himself as a drowning man. Ironically, his role as mourner links him to Milton rather than to Lycidas - to an ignoble Milton, in fact, drowning in self-pity.