Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is one of the most profoundly sad novels to be written since Tender is the Night. On this day of reckoning, during the seven hours or so that comprise the action of the novel, all the troubles that constitute the present condition of Wilhelm Adler descend upon him and crush him, leaving him penniless, alone, and in such profound misery that one can hardly imagine his going on. He is, as he says, at the end of his rope. This has been one of those days, he says to his wife, May I never live to go through another like it. We feel that he may not live at all, so great is his misery, so completely has he been destroyed. Yet if we look more deeply, more accurately, we see that the meaning of the novel only begins here, that beneath this profound and moving sense of despair is the birth of a soul, Wilhelm’s, and that Bellow, far from having depicted the defeat of man, has given us one of his most moving accounts of the conditions under which he can hope to be victorious. Wilhelm does not emerge triumphantly out of his troubles; but the very sufferings they cause him have brought his soul into being: Wilhelm’s pretender soul has died, his real soul has been born. It may not live long.
Although Bellow takes us no further than the birth, Marcus Klein [in The Kenyon Review, Spring 1962] has pointed out that At the moment of death, his motion is toward existence, the vitality that defines and unites everyone, and his weeping is an acceptance of it and therefore an act of love toward life. Yet this is by no means obvious. In fact, on a first or even a second reading, the opposite seems to be true. Wilhelm’s seemingly deliberate attempts to ruin his own life, his own complete abandonment to tears at the end, both of these seem to point more to a love of death. Only after we have entered Bellow’s world, after we have begun to grasp the craft with which this remarkable novel is written, can we understand the truth of Mr. Klein’s statement. The concluding paragraph of the novel at first deceives but is finally the crucial one to our understanding of the work: The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s wet eyes; the heavy sea-like music came up to his ears. It poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.
That need, the whole of the novel comes to reveal, is the need not to die, writes Marcus Klein. But Wilhelm is drowning. The repeated use of the image only intensifies the force of the metaphor, and it is not until we discover Bellow’s attitude toward that state that we can accept Mr. Klein’s statement. In fact, only by a study of how water imagery is employed in the whole novel can the paradox, life by drowning, be fully understood. Human misery is generally the result of one of two things: being in a condition of life that is intolerable or being trapped within a self that creates its own hell. In the modern world the various social agencies aim at alleviating the former, the psychiatrist the latter. But when one is in need of both the social worker and the psychiatrist at the same time, the depths of human misery begin to be seen. Essentially this is Wilhelm’s state, and what Bellow is saying is that under such conditions the self that feels these afflictions from within and without must be destroyed. Nothing can be done for it because it defeats its own good. Wilhelm is a born loser: After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times.
Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. Although the conditions of his life are not those that would appeal to the sympathy of a social worker, he is none the less destitute: jobless, homeless, and penniless. On this final day in which his misery overwhelms him, he drowns; but he goes deeper than sorrow and out of this figurative death his soul is born. Because Wilhelm is hardly aware of the new life he has entered, the whole action of the novel is ironic. What appeared to be the agonizing and increasingly fruitless efforts to escape destruction become the necessary contractions of birth. The escape turns out to be a pilgrimage, the victim a penitent, and the descent into hell the necessary suffering out of which the soul is born. Deep within himself Wilhelm is dimly aware of this. He curses himself for having fought with his father: But at the same time, since there were depths in Wilhelm not unsuspected by himself, he received a suggestion from some remote element in his thoughts that the business of life, the real business to carry his peculiar burden, to feel shame and impotence, to taste those quelled tears the only important business, the highest business was being done.
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 for them on this earth. At moments he ceases from flight and pursues the good, his characteristic self-loathing falls away and he even feels within himself the powers of a savior. For instance, what really appeals to him about becoming an actor is that he believes that in this way he can be a lover to the whole world. The sense of a universal spirit that unites and blesses all mankind has recently come to him as he is walking through a dark tunnel beneath Times Square: A general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm’s breast. He loved them. One and all, he passionately loved them. They were his brothers and sisters. He was imperfect and disfigured himself, but what difference did that make if he was united with them by this blaze of love? And as he walked he began to say, Oh my brothers my brothers and my sisters, blessing them all as well as himself. Although such feelings never last long and are usually fled from rather than welcomed, on this day of reckoning he remembers this experience and thinks, I must go back to that. That’s the right clue and may do me the most good. Something very big. Truth, like.
This affirmation, feeble as it is, constitutes his own dim recognition of the saving end of what more often appears to him as a destructive element his own intensely emotional nature. He continually blames his failures on his strong and often uncontrollable emotions; yet we are finally made aware that it is just this capacity to feel, more specifically this need to love and be loved, that makes possible the birth of Wilhelm’s soul at the end of the novel. Ultimately, the clearest indication that the action of Seize the Day is ironic is found in Bellow’s attitude toward man’s emotional nature, not just as revealed in this novel but throughout his writing. That Bellow is in the tradition of the great English Romantic poets Wordsworth in particular in this respect has been brilliantly argued by Irvin Stock in [The Southern Review, Winter 1967]. Understanding the structure of Bellow’s novel to be ironic, we are now able to state its major theme. Man’s soul has existence only when it can love and feel love in return. Modern society, however, has no use for the soul. Kill or be killed is its law and that of material life. Most people learn this early and conform to it.
They are not even aware that their souls have died in the process. Those few who refuse to abandon the life of the soul, who still yearn for its fruition, are punished through suffering and eventually destroyed, unable to fight against what appears to them to be the law of nature. Such destruction can only affect the pretender soul, however. And the real soul is born as a result. That Bellow should use water imagery more fully to render his theme is appropriate considering that water and the emotional life have been linked since ancient times and particularly so within the English Romantic tradition. What is striking, however, is the care he has taken to weave his imagery into so much of the novel, to illuminate it on so many different levels. Our understanding of how Bellow uses water imagery not only underlines for us his thematic intent, not only reveals to us the greater significance of details we might otherwise pass over, but dramatizes for us the workings of a subtle and profound creative imagination. The image, in fact, so powerfully is it used, takes on the radiance of the symbol; and like other great symbolist achievements, Seize the Day becomes richer with each re-reading.
A short novel of just over a hundred pages, it is a marvelous compression, an artistic distillation of the kind that beautifully demonstrates the strengths of the symbolist technique used at its best, a technique that gives a particular kind of pleasurable intensity that is not found in novels that employ other methods. The image of the drowning Wilhelm is the controlling one, but because of the book’s ironic structure it is an image that functions in two ways. On a first reading, and on each rereading on the surface of our experience, it intensifies our sympathy for Wilhelm’s condition. Even when Wilhelm is being depicted least sympathetically, when he is most in the wrong, most the slob, we are continually made aware that we are witnessing the strugglings of a drowning man and we want to see him rescued. Thus our sympathy is continual in a way that it is not, for instance, with Dostoevski’s underground man.
Once the ironic structure of the novel has been seen, however, this same image functions to bring us to an understanding of Bellow’s real theme the paradoxical life by drowning. In the first part of the novel the image of the drowning Wilhelm is only barely suggested and in a way that would have little significance if it were not strengthened by the presence of other things: closely related water images and figures of speech linking his plight to that of a drowning man. At the end of the novel, however, we see him as almost literally drowning, unable to breath; then finally the suppressed tears rise to overflow his face; and then the sense of peace and the languorous movement of the drifting body toward its final resting place.
Only after one has felt the full force of the image at the end can one go back and see where it lay, implicit but veiled in the story of Wilhelm’s day. Only then can one appreciate the double significance the image holds. The novel opens with Wilhelm’s coming down in an elevator from the twenty-third floor of the Hotel Gloriana in New York City to the mezzanine to have breakfast with his father. The elevator sank and sank. Then the smooth door opened and the great dark red uneven carpet that covered the lobby billowed toward Wilhelm’s feet. In the foreground the lobby was dark, sleepy. French drapes like sails kept out the sun, but three high, narrow windows were open, and in the blue air Wilhelm saw a pigeon about to light on the great chain that supported the marquee of the movie house directly underneath the lobby. For one moment he heard the wings beating strongly. As we realize later, if we do not at the time, Wilhelm is here imagined as already drowned, under the water where all is still, dark, sleepy, merged with the other dead inhabitants of the earth.
Only the pigeon is free, outside of this element, his wings beating strongly. Because of Wilhelm’s fear, because he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due, because of the symbolic kinship between the pigeon and the dove, and because to Wilhelm the bird is clearly thought of in contrast to himself; because of these things coupled with other similar suggestions in the whole passage, we see that the pigeon is meant to suggest Wilhelm’s soul departing from him, that this is a scene foreshadowing the struggle to come. Other details indicate that the whole scene is to be imagined as taking place beneath the water. Rubin, the man at the newsstand, is staring dreamily out of the window as if he too were submerged. The Hotel Ansonia, at which he is gazing, looked like the image of itself reflected in deep water, white and cumulous above, with cavernous distortions underneath. Both men are trapped in a mutual vision, as if they were actually aware of their metaphorical existence beneath the waters.
The hotel itself is described as if it were beneath the waters and being viewed from them. The Ansonia, the neighborhood’s great landmark, was built by Stanford White. It looks like a baroque palace from Prague or Munich enlarged a hundred times, with towers, domes, huge swells and bubbles of metal gone green from exposure, iron fretwork and festoons. Black television antennae are densely planted on its round summits. Under the changes of weather it may look like marble or like sea water, black as slate in the fog, white as tufa in sunlight. The Ansonia is significantly the neighborhood’s great landmark. The area itself is a retired, elderly one and suggests in its own right the death of heart as well as the underwater world of spiritless existence. The suggestions of the drowning Wilhelm amid a society that is already dead in its soul are far more obvious as the novel progresses, and they build toward the climactic final scene in which the sudden reversal of the image is felt. Appropriately, Wilhelm quotes several times from Milton’s Lycidas: Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor. Bellow even adds after one such reference, such things had always swayed him. Wilhelm is chronically short of breath as he smokes too much, takes too many pills, and drinks too many Coca Colas; whenever he feels oppressed or even very stirred emotionally, he literally cannot catch his breath.
Many references to his chest hurting him, along with the other details, give us the impression throughout the work of a man swimming for his life and, since he is largely unsuccessful, of a man slowly and painfully drowning. At the end of the novel the symbolic and the literal merge as he reaches what appears to be the point of death, struggling for air in a telephone booth. He shouts to his wife: You’ve got to let up. I feel I’m about to burst. His face had expanded. He struck a blow upon the tin and wood and nails of the wall of the booth. You’ve got to let me breathe …~ He had scarcely enough air in his lungs to speak in a whisper, because his heart pushed upward with a frightful pressure … Wilhelm tried to tear the apparatus from the wall. He ground his teeth and seized the black box with insane digging fingers and made a stifled cry and pulled. Then he saw an elderly lady staring through the glass door, utterly appalled by him, and he ran from the booth, leaving a large amount of change on the shelf. Every detail here functions perfectly, both symbolically and literally, especially, perhaps, the glass door of the booth which separates the element that is choking him from that which surrounds us.
That element, on its deepest level, is the lack of love he feels so bitterly in his wife. Almost literally the very breath of his life is love, and when she hangs up on him it is as if she had cut the air hose. Wilhelm feels suffocated, though to a lesser extent, simply by living in the city. The grabbing for money and especially the cynicism of the business world oppress him in a physical as well as mental way. Yet Bellow does not make him a complete victim, for clearly he is his own worst enemy, and in one beautiful simile Bellow links Wilhelm’s self-destructiveness with these images of drowning: Like a ball in the surf, washed beyond reach, his self-control was going out. Only Professor Tamkin, one of Bellow’s strangely ambivalent seers, offers to help him. Here most clearly salvation for Wilhelm is presented in terms of an ability to rise to the top of the waters, to ride the crest of the wave of life to victory and success; but here, also clearly, Tamkin is a destroyer of the soul, a false image of salvation. Wilhelm must be drowned, in other words, for his soul to swim, and this part at least of Tamkin’s urging is aimed at a soulless success, an empty victory. Bellow calls Tamkin the great confuser of the imagination, and although Bellow uses him to state many of the truths of the novel, Tamkin most ruthlessly preys upon Wilhelm.
In the last words of section four Wilhelm imagines his own Lycidas-like end as he realizes how much he is now depending on Tamkin. But what have I let myself in for? The waters of the earth are going to roll over me. In connection with Tamkin, Bellow is most ironic in his use of water imagery. Tamkin is the confuser of the imagination, but he also appears to be the great man of feeling and Wilhelm, whose deepest need is to live positively in his emotional life turns to him as a potential savior: Secretly he prayed the doctor would give him some useful advice and transform his life. The doctor is the one who encourages Wilhelm to trust his emotions, who makes for Wilhelm the distinction between the real and pretender soul, and who apparently sees that Wilhelm is killing himself and being killed because he cannot release the deepest sources of his emotional being. He sees him as symbolic of sick humanity and offers to heal him. My real calling is to be a healer, he tells Wilhelm: I get wounded. I suffer from it. I would like to escape from the sicknesses of others, but I can’t. I am only on loan to myself, so to speak.
I belong to humanity. Just before this passage, however, he has told Wilhelm that his wife committed suicide, by drowning herself; and Tamkin is first mentioned in the novel in connection with his invention of an underwater suit in which one might escape from New York City by walking up the floor of the Hudson in case of an atomic attack. Increasingly we are made aware that Tamkin is using others rather than being used by them, that his is the touch of death, not life. Yet it is Bellow’s genius to render him for us as both a savior and a destroyer, a fact which gives deeper meaning to Mr. Perls’ statement about him: He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which. The exact nature of Tamkin’s dual role becomes clear when one compares the following passages, passages which are themselves contrasting water images. In the first Tamkin preaches to Wilhelm one of the fundamental doctrines of romanticism union with nature through reliance on her goodness: If you could have confidence in nature you would not have to fear. It would keep you up. Creative is nature. Rapid. Lavish. Inspirational. It shapes leaves. It rolls the waters of the earth.
Man is the chief of this. All creations are his just inheritance. You don’t know what you’ve got within you. A person either creates or destroys. There is no neutrality…. Making even more specific use of water imagery, he tells Wilhelm somewhat later in the novel: Nature only knows one thing, and that’s the present. Present, present, eternal present, like a big, huge, giant wavecolossal, bright and beautiful, full of life and death, climbing into the sky, standing in the seas. You must go along with the actual, the Here-and-Now, the glory…. In the first passage Tamkin is telling Wilhelm not to fear, that if he relies on nature it will keep him up. Nature is like a great sea on which man can float. In the second passage, however, nature is a wave, man a surfer, and the feeling is desperate if also exhilarating. The first is passive and comforting, the second vital and rather terrifying.
Within a broader literary tradition, the difference is roughly between the early Wordsworth and Nietzsche, and the difference is immense. Wilhelm feels incapable of the faith involved in accepting what is demanded in the first passage. Right after it, in fact, he says, The waters of the earth are going to roll over me. But his reaction to the second is even stronger; it interrupts Tamkin’s very words and is a memory, not a conscious thought: … chest weakness, Wilhelm’s recollection went on. Margaret nursed him. They had two rooms of furniture, which was later seized. She sat on the bed and read to him. He made her read for days, and she read stories, poetry, everything in the house. He felt dizzy, stifled when he tried to smoke. They had him wear a flannel vest. Come then, Sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast!
Why did he remember that? Why?
In the sense that Tamkin drives Wilhelm further toward despair, he turns out to be his destroyer, not his savior, though ultimately, since Wilhelm must be destroyed in order to be saved, we see Tamkin as ironically a savior figure even here. To Wilhelm, however, Tamkin is at last recognized as the great betrayer. The final section of the novel opens with Wilhelm realizing, I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back and I thought I was on his. While this specifically applies to the fact that Tamkin has lost Wilhelm’s money for him in the stock exchange, it must also be read as a water image. Wilhelm has thought that Tamkin was supporting him in the waters of his troubles. It turns out that Wilhelm, struggling to swim himself, has been drowned by Tamkin who has been supporting himself on him. The beauty of the pun is that it also applies to Wilhelm’s father whose real character is shown in the advice he gives his son earlier in the novel, advice which, because it is so cold-hearted, is what originally drove Wilhelm to seek help elsewhere: I can’t give you any money … You and your sister would take every last buck from me … And I want nobody on my back. Get off!
And I give you the same advice, Wilky. Carry nobody on your back. If Wilhelm is crushed by the Nietzschean, he finally discovers the true source of his being in something deeply Wordsworthean, for at the end of the novel it is the still, sad music of humanity that opens his heart, that chastens and subdues, and so gives birth to his real soul. Caught by the crowd on Broadway, he moves along within the inexhaustible current of millions. A series of images bring Wilhelm to his vision and his birth in which he is imagined as a drowning body moving with the currents under the sea to its final resting place: It was he himself who was carried from the street into the chapel. The pressure ended inside, where it was dark and cool. The flow of fan-driven air dried his face, which he wiped hard with his handkerchief to stop the slight salt itch. He gave a sigh when he heard the organ notes that stirred and breathed from the pipes and he saw people in the pews. He is caught in the line of mourners moving toward the coffin, and when he reaches it the meditative look on the face of the dead stranger forces him to step out of the procession.
Here again Bellow uses water imagery to give us the deeper significance of the action, for suddenly it is the dead man who is imagined as having drowned, not Wilhelm. Wilhelm can finally breathe. He even wipes his face to rid himself of the slight salt itch. All the imagery points to our seeing Wilhelm as suddenly saved from drowning, saved because he can now express his deepest emotions. He can love and pity mankind as a whole. The dead man was gray-haired. He had two large waves of gray hair at the front. But he was not old. His face was long, And he had a bony nose, slightly, delicately twisted, His brows were raised as though he had sunk into the final thought. Now at last he was with it, after the end of all distractions, and when his flesh was no longer flesh. Wilhelm can at last cry. The seas of feeling, that have been welling up within him but have never found their natural outlet before, at last find their release. At the surface level of meaning he can now cry because the funeral is the one place where that is not only permissible but honorable. On a deeper level, however, he can be drowned in tears because these are the life-giving seas of feeling, not the terrifying Nietzschean wave of life and death. Soon he was past words, past reason, coherence. He could not stop.
The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him, black, deep, and hot, and they were pouring out and convulsing his body, bending his stubborn head, bowing his shoulders, twisting his face, crippling the very hands with which he held the handkerchief. His efforts to collect himself were useless. The great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept. He cried with all his heart. What is significant here is Wilhelm’s change of character. He has abandoned himself to a despair which is not merely personal, though it includes himself. A mananother human creature, was what first went through his thoughts. The fact of death, another’s death, has brought him to a state in which he is utterly passive and completely dependent. He now exists wholly in his feelings, not because he has chosen to but because all else has been taken from him. He has been humbled by a great fact of nature. His stubborn head is bowed. He has been forced into dependency on nature, but we see that this dependency brings him into union with her, for the important thing is that he is now afloat on a sea of feeling.
In Bellow’s own sense of the Wordsworthean vision, Wilhelm has see[n] into the life of things and become, at last, a living soul. Moreover, there is hope that he will be buoyed up in this state and receive a return of feeling. His girl friend, Olive, loves him and will marry him if he can get a divorce, and it is to her that he gives himself at the end. In fact the implication is that his very life is now in her hands. What makes this final scene so impressive as a literary achievement is just this sort of density of meaning. Wilhelm is the only person crying at the funeral, yet he is the only stranger. One of the suggestions here is that genuine sorrow is impersonal. Another is that only those in whom the soul is alive can truly mourn, for only they are capable of this intensity of feeling. Many other examples of Bellow’s use of water imagery to support and deepen his ironic vision of the drowning Wilhelm could be cited. The fluctuations of the stock market correspond to, and of course to a large extent determine, the alternations of hope and despair in Wilhelm’s mind; and when the market crashes when Wilhelm’s stocks go down and he loses the last of his money one can almost see Wilhelm crushed beneath Tamkin’s wave of life and death.
You have to feel the money flow says Tamkin to Wilhelm when he promises him success in the market: To know how it feels to be seaweed you have to get into the water. The stock market itself is symbolic of all the cold, impersonal forces that Wilhelm and Bellow regard as evil; and that Wilhelm is tempted by Tamkin to take the plunge, that this crushes him but does no serious harm to Tamkin, emphasizes, among other things, the difference between their two natures. Wilhelm is instantly punished for his sin. He had betrayed his soul. Tamkin has no soul and so cannot be punished in this manner. One of the ironies in the novel is that Wilhelm’s father, who is the epitome of soulless success, is constantly bathing himself, recommends water and exercise as the cure for his son’s miseries, and finally rejects him completely while in the steam baths of the hotel’s health club. Wilhelm himself seldom bathes and refuses to use the hotel’s swimming pool because he is offended by the smell of the chlorinated water.
What is suggested here is that the waters of the earth can sustain the life of the body, can even be used to bring about that meditative calm that comes from complete detachment from the emotions; but to those whose souls are alive deeper waters are needed, and the waters of the earth are instinctively abhorrent. Bellow’s great achievement in Seize the Day is that he finally forces us to see Wilhelm as a kind of hero. It is easy to miss his intention and feel only sadness at the end of the novel. Wilhelm may there appear to us only as a poor slob who is weeping at what we dimly sense is really his own funeral. But Bellow can make beauty out of ugliness, not only out of what in the hands of a lesser artist might have been merely the sordidness of ordinary life but out of a character who even to himself seems detestable. Wilhelm refers to himself early in the novel as a fair-haired Hippopotamus, and this image is repeated many times.
It is his characteristic way of seeing himself. Though Wilhelm is ugly to himself and a slob to others, his true element is, nevertheless, the waters of the spiritual life. The burden of this life, the suffering it contains, is suggested in the ugliness and massiveness of the hippo when out of water. The weight is removed, however, and the ugliness transformed into a sense of appropriateness that is the result of being powerfully in harmony with nature when the hippo is in the water. So it is with Wilhelm who at the end of the novel seizes the day of his soul’s birth, a soul whose capacity is as unlimited as the hippo is large, and floats for the first time, buoyed up by the greater life into which he has finally entered