Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

“You can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half. ”

Carpe Diem. A widely known Latin phrase but it seems many people, including myself, rarely ever apply this maxim to our lives. Why is that? Personally, it seems to be a combination of fear, apathy and delusional complacency sprinkled with a little bit of insanity. It's a scary thought that I am going to be 28 years old at the end of this month and have done nothing with my life. I'm depressed, a college dropout, can't maintain relationships, stuck working at a terrible retail job, barely make enough money to survive, find myself constantly miserable--in essence, life sucks right now and the thought of suicide has often crossed my mind. Sure, my passion for literature and reading makes me makes me happy but it's not enough to fill that void of not living my life to fullest. I am not seeking pity; nor do I deserve it but I open with this cynical self-assessment because Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day got me thinking about the state of my own life and its current downward trajectory. Yes, I have made mistakes and am paying for them dearly but it is time to make some serious changes before it is too late.

Saul Bellow has often been praised as one of the great American novelists but his stature seems to have waned over the years. This is a travesty! His writing is philosophical at its core but rarely dense; he is a shrewd intellect capable of writing thought provoking and emotionally charged stories with a mesmerizing, baroque  style. Furthermore, he displays a wonderful sense of humor and acerbic wit, which makes his prose even more delectable and awe-inspiring. In Seize the Day, Bellow is in top form and delivers another great literary work. This novella reminded me of a distilled version of Herzog but in no way do I mean this as a negative criticism. It showcases Bellow at his most economical; he eschews with the usual protracted verbosity found in his work (many readers seem to find this type of writing annoying but I can't get enough of it) to focus on a more minimalist approach.

The story takes place over the course of one day and centers on Wilhelm, a man in his 30's whose life has taken a turn for the worse: he is a failed actor, loses his recent job as a salesman, his wife leaves him with the kids, his querulous father is reluctant to help him financially and the last of his savings has been invested in the stock market for lard based on the suggestion of his shifty friend Dr. Tamkin. Much like other Saul Bellow protagonists, Wilhelm may not be very likeable but he is easy to sympathize and identify with because he has made mistakes throughout his life and is trying desperately to make amends. Much of the novella consists of Wilhelm dwelling on past memories, contemplating his current situation and engaging in philosophical discussions with himself and Dr. Tamkin who becomes a mentor but whose intentions may not be entirely genuine. Here is one of the doctor's most striking admonitions towards Wilhelm, which gives the title of the book:

"I am most efficient when I don't need the fee. When I only love. Without a financial reward. I remove myself from the social influence. Especially money. The spiritual compensation is what I look for. Bringing people into the here-and-now. The real universe. That's the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real--the here-and-now. Seize the day" (74).

At the end of the novel, this statement becomes painfully ironic but it also alludes to the novella's concern with capitalism, class conflict and the struggle to achieve a meaningful life. Tamkin is a romantic idealist and although his ideology is comforting, Wilhelm remains skeptical as a realist. He understand that is nearly impossible to "seize the day" if one is constantly constrained by the capitalist system without sufficient income to live modestly.

Even though the novella may appear simple in its style and narrative, there exists a rich complexity of ideas and sociological issues that still remain relevant today. It's astonishing that this novel was written in the late 1950's and does not feel in the least bit dated. As expected, Bellow's writing is full of insight and this is one of those timeless, life-affirming kind of literary works that struck me on a very personal level--it made me question a lot of different aspects about my life and the capitalist world many of us live in. I could quote this novella ad-nausem but here are a few standout passages:

"What had he to think back on that he could call good? Very, very little. You had to forgive. First, to forgive yourself, and then, general forgiveness. Didn't he suffer from mistakes far more than his father could?" (27).

"In any moment of quiet, when sheer fatigue prevented him from struggling, he was apt to feel this mysterious weight, this growth or collection of nameless things which it was business of his life to carry about. That must be what man was for" (42). 

"Maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here. Maybe he was supposed to make them and suffer from them on this earth" (62).

"There's a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go onward. If you canst not love, what art thou? ...Nothing! So of course you can't stand that and want to be Something and you try. But instead of being this Something, the man puts it over on everybody instead. You can't be strict to yourself. You love a little. Like you have a dog or give some money to a charity drive. Now that isn't love, is it? What is it? Egotism, pure and simple. It's a way to love the pretender soul. Vanity. Only vanity is what it is. And social control. The interest of the pretender soul is the same as the interest of the social life, the society mechanism. This is the main tragedy of human life...You are not free. Your own betrayer is inside of you and sells you out. You have to obey him like a slave. He makes you work like a horse. And for what? For who?" (79).

“Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking; he had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. "I'm fainting, please get me a little water." You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood”  (94-95).

Wow. Saul Bellow, you are a genius.

This review is part of my Saul Bellow project

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