Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

SEIZE THE DAY: Saul Bellow's Perspective on the American Dream

Tommy Wilhelm is not an easy character to admire. Most of his pain is self-inflicted: he quits his job after being passed over for promotion; he leaves his wife and children for a bachelor's pad in a hotel; he asks his father for money but doesn't want any real advice. Instead of changing his attitude, he just wants to change his luck. Thus, his one technique for survival is to see what life brings each day, then to complain bitterly when he finds it's not enough. His father, Dr. Adler, is a respected and wealthy physician who retired from a successful practice of internal medicine. But the kind of medicine Tommy needs is not the kind his father can provide. Dr. Adler is pragmatic and would like to help his son, but he knows that simply giving Tommy additional money is not a solution to the problem. So what is the problem? Why is Tommy incapable of living life better than he does?

Tommy Wilhelm's real name happens to be Wilky Adler (his father calls him "Wilky," not Tommy). He is a man who lives his entire life without regard for what lies ahead or behind the present moment. With his laissez faire approach to career planning, Tommy awakens one day to find himself deeply in debt, out of work, estranged from his wife, and in disgrace with his father. In short, a clueless forty-something child chasing after salvation with an older man named Tamkin, who studies the commodities market, and convinces Tommy to invest his last 700 dollars in a dubious attempt to hit the big time. But, soon, the scheme unravels, Tommy loses all his money, and wanders the streets of New York, aimlessly searching for answers from the mysterious Tamkin, who has suddenly vanished from Wall Street, along with Tommy's hopes for a better future.

The dénouement of this tale has Tommy joining a receiving line at a funeral for a man Tommy does not know. As he passes the coffin of the recently deceased, Tommy unleashes the full measure of his existential grief. But we are left unsure if this sudden torrent of tears is a sign of complete emotional surrender, and a turning point in his odyssey to become a man, or just the final collapse of a another broken human being.

The easy answer is that he refuses to grow up and accept responsibility for his actions. But the real truth is that Tommy believes in the American dream, in the golden promise that hard work will always be rewarded, and that prosperity is just around the corner. At the same time, he clings to the notion that happiness is the only meaningful goal in life, so that if we awaken one day to find our self unhappy, then we should abandon whatever path we're on and strike out for a new destination. Unfortunately for Tommy, his father fails to mention that not everyone succeeds in life, and that hard work is not always rewarded. Tommy's biggest misfortune is the discovery that happiness doesn't mean doing whatever you feel like doing, and that life is full of disappointments and sorrow. Sometimes you have to accept a little less than you dreamed of achieving.

At some level, Tommy suspects this bitter truth. Although he gives money to Tamkin to invest in the commodities market, he can't help wondering if Tamkin is a financial genius or a lunatic. Either way, Tommy feels swept along by events. He can't afford to wait for good things to happen. He needs a miracle right away and Tamkin is the only prophet available. For Tommy, the allure of Wall Street beckons like a prostitute, while Tamkin makes the whole venture seem rational and in some sense, inevitable. It's simply a matter of doing the right calculations. Thus, any intelligent man can be the architect of his own destiny. This is the medicine that Tommy craves and that his father will not give him, a belief in his own autonomy. And so he rebels against a society that would bind him to conventional values, and smother his creative potential. For Tommy, autonomy means freedom from troubling entanglements. Every person should follow his bliss, and if that means quitting your job and leaving a wife you no longer love, then so be it.

The words "seize the day" ("carpe diem") originally came from an ode by the Roman poet Horace, who advised young people to live life fully. Bellow's novel explores the question of what happens when we take bold affirmation as a lifestyle, and ignore our duty to ourselves and to others. At the end of the day, when the money's all gone and there's no one else to feel our pain, to whom shall we cry for relief? To no one. Tommy suffers alone, which, as Saul Bellow reveals, is the fate of every human being in our post-modern world, a world in which faith has been made obsolete by chaos theory and God has retreated to the domain of silence. Even the ancient Greeks knew that our attempts to circumvent fate (i.e., mortality and the eternal laws of nature) are pure folly and lead only to more heartache. For human life unfolds in a vale of tears, and the invocation to "seize the day" reminds us that our stay is temporary, and we should make the best use of the time we have before our earthly travail ends...ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

"Even as we speak, envious time is running away from us. Seize the day, and trust as little as possible in the future."[Horace (Odes 1.11)]


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