Thursday, February 4, 2010

American Strategy of Success as Shown in Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

The possibilities for self-creation, material success, and absolute freedom are the basis of a powerful American myth. Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is inspired by the same American myth of success.

Saul Bellow portrays that the main business of the city is making money, which is valued above the deeper connections between human beings. In Seize the day, New York City is presented as a soulless place, in which the authenticity of people's lives is distorted in the interests of serving the materialism of society. Ironically, it is the charlatan Tamkin who points this out most clearly, in his description of the conflict between the real soul and the pretender soul. No one is unaffected by this conflict, and in many cases, the pretender soul, the inauthentic self, has taken control.

Dr. Adler and Mr. Perls are materialistic and appear to worship money. It is a post-war, post-depression, cold war, technological world. Adler believes in power and "success" and in rationalism. He is the "self-made man." In fact, Bellow has given Adler the name of a psychiatrist whose teachings were based on ideas of "power." Tommy, on the other hand, is, deep down, is a naturalist and an idealist. He does not understand the financial ways of the city. He is not attuned to the prevailing materialism.

There is a telling moment when the coldly efficient German manager of the brokerage office has to explain to Wilhelm the nature of the document he has signed with Tamkin. The manager is completely familiar with the ways of the city: "Here was a man . . . who knew and knew and knew. He, a foreigner, knew; Wilhelm, in the city of his birth, was ignorant." Wilhelm is a man of feeling and emotion; he does not belong in an environment that values money over human connections.

Wilhelm's financial troubles have more than practical implications. He feels that "everyone was supposed to have money" (p. 30), and his conversations with Dr. Tamkin strengthen his belief that with just a modest amount of will and talent, he could rid himself of financial worry. Tamkin assures Wilhelm that it will be "easy" for him to make much more in the market than the fifteen thousand he needs. Just as Wilhelm believes that he will one day become the person his name represents, so he clings to the hope that easy money awaits him. He assumes that his father would accept him if he had more money.

Everywhere he goes he encounters the materialistic spirit. The old, shriveled, men he meets in the brokerage office have dedicated their lives to making money on the commodities market. But Wilhelm senses something inimical to life in the way the secretive, uncommunicative Mr. Rappaport has made his money, in the "chicken business." He imagines the appalling conditions in which the animals live on chicken farms. Then, when he notices that Rappaport will not let anyone see what he has written on his notepad, he thinks, "this was the way a man who had grown rich by the murder of millions of animals, little chickens, would act."

Again Tommy was not happy in his marriage life. He and his wife are incompatible, but she will not give him a divorce; he feels she is turning his two children against him even as she sends him bills. Among the many bits of advice Tamkin offers Wilhelm ("I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.") is to practice living in the "here-and-now" and to "seize the day".

Alienation and loneliness are the most adverse effects of American’s materialism. Tommy feels cut off not only from his father and from the rest of his family — his sister, his dead mother, his estranged wife and their two sons — but he also feels alienated from himself and from everyone he meets. Looking outside of himself and his small circle, Wilhelm feels alienated from humanity, as represented by New York City and its inhabitants. He feels that communication with others is as difficult as learning another language. Every other man spoke a language entirely his own. 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. Wilhelm has an encompassing sense that the alienation he feels is not unique to him, but that "everybody is outcast," that the experience of loneliness is part of the human condition.

The materialistic mentality dominates the city and it is the way that a life should be lived. The so-called "American Dream" has taken many shapes — streets paved with gold, a chicken in every pot — but the theme is always the same: financial success.