Water Imagery in Seize the Day
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;...
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