Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, 1956

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by Saul Bellow, 1956

Published between two of his most expansive novels, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King—two "loose, baggy monsters," to borrow Henry James's term for such works—is Seize the Day, the tautest composition of Saul Bellow. All of the action in the novella takes place within the compass of a few blocks on New York's West Side during several hours of what the protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, senses from the outset will be his day of reckoning. Far from sharing the ebullience of Augie March or Henderson, Tommy is among the most abject and passive of Bellow's heroes, and yet he resembles the protagonists of the big novels in being "a visionary sort of animal. Who has to believe that he can know why he exists." Unlike the two of them Tommy has never seriously attempted to plumb that question. What he has not actively sought is, nonetheless, seeking him. Bellow recounts the story almost entirely from Wilhelm's point of view, albeit with a psychological penetration and a power of expression of which the protagonist himself is scarcely capable. As Daniel Fuchs's study of the successive drafts of Seize the Day reveals, Bellow is as scrupulous a pursuer of the mot juste as Flaubert or James, however much his racy, nervous idiom departs from theirs. The novella is Bellow's most patterned narrative; every word is made to count.

Seize the Day is the story, played out with a nearly Greek inexorability, of a failed actor, failed salesman, failed husband, ineffectual father, and fading lover, who on the day in question sees his last seven hundred dollars go up in smoke on the commodities market and experiences his own father's definitive repudiation of him. For most of these disasters—his career as a Hollywood extra, his marriage to the exacting Margaret, his financial dealings with the confidence man Tamkin—Tommy has set himself up, "After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times." At the root of this compulsion to err lies Wilhelm's relationship to his parents, to the mother whose brooding, tenderhearted nature he has inherited and whose memory he adores, as well as to the chilly, egocentric physician father whose professional success and impeccable demeanor constitute a standing reproach to the slovenly 44-year-old who still feels as though he were the doctor's "small son" and whose blessing he continues to crave. In all his ties Tommy endlessly reenacts his mother's humiliation at his father's hands.

Nowhere is this disposition more evident than in his affinity for "Dr." Tamkin, into whose investment schemes he allows himself, in spite of better knowledge, to be drawn. His doing so is in part a desperate wager, a hope that the survival artist Tamkin "would get through this crisis too and bring him, Wilhelm, to safety also," but beyond this, and more fundamentally, he is seeking in Tamkin the solicitude his father has denied him. Unfortunately, the chief resemblance between Dr. Tamkin, whose pointed shoulder, bald head, and clawlike nails suggest a buzzard, and Dr. Adler (German for "eagle") is their preying on others' emotions. Much of the time Tamkin mouths half-digested formulas out of Wilhelm Reich. "Biologically," he intones in his wonderfully fatuous fashion, "the pretender soul takes away the energy of the true soul and makes it feeble, like a parasite. It happens unconsciously, unawaringly, in the depths of the organism." And yet Tommy's sense that Tamkin does finally speak "a kind of truth" is not altogether wide of the mark. The doctrine of the two souls in particular touches a nerve.

Above all Seize the Day concerns itself with the protagonist's yearning to be restored—or raised up for the first time—to his essential being. "Tommy Wilhelm," the identity he has assumed during his Hollywood days, he acknowledges a pretender. Even Wilky, the name his parents have given him, seems a merely social self. "Might the name of his true soul," he speculates, "be the one by which his old grandfather had called him—Velvel?" Ultimately, he realizes, his essence cannot receive a personal name; it lies beyond individuality. The true soul consists of a "larger body" in which all of us are joined, an oversoul. This intimation stems from his experience in a dark tunnel under Times Square, a surreal moment in which the commonplace is revealed to be the extraordinary: "in the haste, heat, and darkness which disfigure and make freaks and fragments of nose and eyes and teeth, all of a sudden, unsought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm's breast…. And as he walked he began to say, 'Oh my brothers—my brothers and my sisters,' blessing them all as well as himself." How seriously is one to take this? Tommy himself is unsure. Perhaps it is just a figment that has surfaced out of some obscure corner of the psyche, with no more significance than—the analogy is his—a casual erection. The vision will not, however, admit of such vulgar dismissal. In this his hardest hour it offers, he decides: "the right clue…. Something very big. Truth, like." Neither the terms in which this affirmation is cast nor anything leading up to it will incline the reader to repose much trust in Tommy as a spiritual authority. All the same, the subway epiphany is pivotal. From this point on it becomes more difficult to view Wilhelm's suffering as mere pathology; one begins to look for a redemptive meaning in it.

The concluding scene of Seize the Day is one of the supreme moments in short fiction, akin to Gabriel Conroy's rapprochement with Michael Furey in Joyce's "The Dead" or the protagonist's acceptance of his mortality in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." In Tommy Wilhelm's case an unnamed corpse laid out in a Broadway funeral parlor becomes his secret sharer. "A man—another human creature," he reflects compassionately, but his lamentation quickly shifts to his own concerns; it is Tommy he grieves for. This may be a distinction without much of a difference. "The man's brother, maybe?" asks one of the mourners, awed and baffled by the intensity of Tommy's feeling. And so he is, in the sense he has recognized in the tunnel beneath Times Square. The last lines of the story depict him as having sunk "deeper than sorrow" to a depth it may be where he understands that he is "only on loan to [him]self." The phrase is Tamkin's, but that does not render it invalid. "One hundred falsehoods," remarks Tommy, "but at last one truth."

—Richard K. Cross