Monday, May 22, 2017

Over-analyzing Arrested Development in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is one of the worst books I have read to completion, so the essay that follows should not be taken as a recommendation so much as a deconstructive cheat sheet for anyone who is considering or being coerced to read it.  With any luck, this will be the last so-called close-reading I have to do in, like, ever.

The protagonist of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is 44 years old, married, and a father, but continuously exhibits tendencies that suggest he’s trapped in some kind of arrested development. Themes of adolescence, adulthood, and masculinity to a lesser extent all pervade Seize the Day, and Bellow traces most of Wilhelm’s psychological malaise back to a lack of sympathy from his father, Dr. Adler. Instead of giving in to pity, Adler’s apathetic attitude towards his beleaguered son compounds with Wilhelm’s problems, engendering a cycle of passive behavior and unfulfilled dependency on paternal affirmation. The further Wilhelm drifts from his father and his father’s approval, the harder he finds it to attain fulfillment as a grown man, and the more entrenched he gets in a prodigal son inertia of his own making. The final scene depicts the culmination of all Wilhelm’s varied reversions to childhood, rendering Seize the Day an essentially deterministic novel.

Although Wilhelm thinks, “Dad never was a pal to my when I was young,” the son’s first major act of straying from his detached father is abandoning his education to chase after a highly dubious career in acting. Wilhelm bears disdain towards academic pursuits, personified by his cousin Artie, an intelligent professor whom his mother casually brings up to avail him against leaving for Los Angeles. Artie is competent in multiple languages, and Wilhelm dislikes him for that very fact, thinking him “boring” or, worse, cynical.
How could anyone bear to know so many languages… Did Artie love his languages, and live for them, or was he also, in his heart, cynical? So many people nowadays were. No one seemed satisfied, and Wilhelm was especially horrified by the cynicism of successful people.

As a child might, Wilhelm strains to see the value of learning in and of itself, and looks down on the elitism he observes in people like Artie or Adler, whom he deems a “vain man”, albeit a respected and medically knowledgeable one. Moreover, he condenses the nearly two years of college he did experience into a set of memories with no educational aspect, and prides himself on eventually taking a different course.
Sometimes he told people, “I was too mature for college. I was a big boy, you see. Well, I thought, when do you start to become a man?” After he had driven a painted flivver and had worn a yellow slicker with slogans on it, and played illegal poker, and gone out on Coke dates, he had had college.

Here, and also later in the book when Margaret admits that college “seemed practical”, Bellow gives a window into Wilhelm’s prevailing, reactionary mindset, and leaves little room to wonder why he finds Tamkin’s carpe diem speech so enticing. Because of his overwhelming inadequacies relative to his father’s accomplishments, Wilhelm reassures himself by diminishing these accomplishments as empty or somehow injurious to him. In the paragraph describing Wilhelm’s fear of Artie’s cynicism, Bellow goes on to write, “Whenever at the end of the day he was unnaturally fatigued he attributed it to cynicism. Too much of the world’s business done.” Wilhelm’s default recourse in his extended adolescence tends to lie in distancing himself as much as possible from the antiquated success models of his parents, hence his “bid for liberty” in choosing the actor name Tommy. As the only person in his family not to complete higher education, he retains a scornful distaste for those who do adhere to that tradition, calling them cynical or selfish, and he mentally justifies his less prudent alternative as more independent or adult. “But Wilhelm had been eager for life to start. College was merely another delay.”

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, Wilhelm chooses to lie about his educational history, perhaps for fear of being rebuked, perhaps because he knows subconsciously he was wrong and doesn’t want to admit it. “Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie and one of the things he lied often about was his education, [saying] he was an alumnus of Penn State.” In fact, the son lies constantly, even to himself sometimes, and when he isn’t lying, he happens to be drawn to habitual liars, viz. Tamkin and Venice. First he lies about his prospects of actually making it in Hollywood, massively inflating the credibility of Venice’s offer when “the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection”. Once his trust in Venice starts to disintegrate, he lies to his parents yet again, saying the scout fully believes in his acting talents. Then he lies to his father about the pills he’s taking and the woman he has been seeing in Roxbury.

On top of these dishonesties, the son willfully indulges Tamkin’s clearly fabricated claims simply because the man makes him feel better than his own father. When Adler ridicules one of the “psychological poet’s” conceptual inventions, Wilhelm excuses it as “just his kind of fantasy”, and later he ponders to himself, “I must be a real jerk to sit and listen to such impossible stories. I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life, even the way he does.”

Wilhelm’s predilection to telling and tolerating lies is closely related to his childlike ego, which is always excusing itself from responsibility and avoiding commitment. As has already been mentioned, “he used to pretend that it [Hollywood] had all been the doing of a certain talent scout,” even though the idea to drop out of college originated with him. In response to his dad reprimanding him over his messy room – another youthful quality –, he places the room’s condition squarely on his wife, or lack thereof. Wilhelm’s conviction of his own helplessness manifests most clearly in his thoughts after meeting with his father. “And not only is death on his mind but through money he forces me to think about it, too. It gives him power over me. He forces me that way, he himself, and then he’s sore.” Wilhelm cannot help but see himself as a victim of others’ cruelty: his company’s, his wife’s, and his father’s. His future in his view is so laid out before him that he is basically enslaved. “The Emancipation Proclamation was only for colored people,” he mopes. “A husband like me is a slave, with an iron collar.”

In puerile fashion, he refuses to take responsibility whenever he is in the wrong, up until the very end, when he tells his pale father, “I should have listened to you,” but not before checking to see if the masseur is paying attention to them. Even after this humble admission, though, he backpedals and hides behind “bad luck”, the perennial cause of his woes. Just so, he reels at the thought of groveling before his former employees and begging them to take him back. “I can’t get on my knees to them,” he exclaims. “Rojax take me back? I’d have to crawl back.” His character is completely passive and determined by his social climate, borne along by forces he dares not oppose. This fact elucidates the meaning of one of the final scenes, in which he walks along Broadway with a great crowd, “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive…” (111) In such a crowd, the motiveless Wilhelm must stand out.

The protagonist also balks at opportunities to promote himself, letting his father do that work for him. Multiple times Adler is described as a salesman, boasting of his son and daughter to business associates, but Wilhelm considers this inappropriate. “Now God alone can tell me why I have to lay my whole life bare to this blasted herring here. I’m sure nobody else does it.” Repelled by the success of his father, he generally shies from asserting himself in any threatening capacity or even from contradicting other people. Like a typical millennial critic who’s afraid of drawing harsh words from others, he peppers his speech with weasel phrases that downplay his own observations as subjective and undermine the purpose of argument altogether. Bellow writes, “When he was forced to differ he would declare, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really see it that way. I’m of two minds about it.’ He would never willingly hurt any man’s feelings.” He won’t venture even to criticize his sister Catherine’s art, waving away any misgivings he has with it as a matter of personal taste.

Driving home his pessimistic determinism, Wilhelm also has a habit of hugely overstating and dramatizing the plights in which he finds himself, bringing everything back to his literal suffocation and murder. “It would kill me to go back to school now,” he tells Venice at one point. Later in the book, he actually starts choking himself in front of his father to demonstrate his wife’s animosity towards him, and on the phone with her he yet again brings up the topic of her choking him. “You must realize you’re killing me,” he says. “You can’t be as blind as all that. Thou shalt not kill! Don’t you remember that?” When Tamkin elaborately compares money-making to the art of killing, Wilhelm listens, ill at ease, possibly because he connects it to his own life. All these references to or mock enactments of violence serve two purposes: first to emphasize the childish mentality of Wilhelm, second to show how powerless he feels to change his fortunes.

Bellow insinuates the son’s immaturity, and the immaturity of modern society broadly, in many other ways both subtle and patently obvious.  As an example of the former, there is Wilhelm’s heavy reliance on Coca Cola, which Mr. Perls disapprovingly notices him drinking for breakfast.  As for the latter, the point that Wilhelm’s job at Rojax Manufacturing involved selling “kiddie’s furniture” can hardly be dismissed as mere coincidence.  Extended adolescence applies to women too in the world of Seize the Day: inside the cafeteria, Wilhelm observes a crowd of elderly ladies who are heavily made-up and acting in a manner he thinks unbecoming of their age.  “Were there no longer any respectable old ladies who knitted and cooked and looked after their grandchildren?”  At the same time, the sight of the ostentatious women stirs in him a memory of how his grandmother treated him as a small child, implying that he is still mired to some extent in the stage of youth.  In his argument with Margaret on the phone, the wife expresses dedication to her traditional role as mother, saying, “Growing boys need parental authority and a home,” but even this exchange harkens back to the theme of Wilhelm’s arrested development.  Margaret says she has cannot afford to get a job if it means having a couple kids running loose, to which Wilhelm replies, “They’re not babies.  Tommy is fourteen.  Pauline is going to be ten.”  In this aspect, Seize the Day has become even more pertinent with age.  50 years ago, a man might have been shamed and frowned upon for suckling off his parents after college, or even after high school; now, under Obamacare, young Americans can continue to reap some of childhood’s perks until they turn 26.

Wilhelm’s objection to Margaret’s babying of his kids reflects his ongoing struggle to reconcile his true age with his emotional need for validation from his father. At least twice in the book he crosses himself for acting like a little kid with respect to Adler, and characters often reinforce that impression in his mind, Adler scolding him for speaking “nonsense and kid’s talk” and Tamkin arguing with him “dryly, as though he were dealing with a child”. Bellow seems to make the case that Wilhelm’s firmest claim upon adulthood is his ability to regulate his emotional vulnerability in public, viz. by suppressing the urge to cry. In his protracted conversation with Wilhelm, he feels tears welling up at one point but does not let them out. Later, in the brokerage office, he fights the temptation even harder.
His need to cry, like someone in a crowd, pushed and jostled and abused him from behind, and Wilhelm did not dare turn. He said to himself, I will not cry in front of these people. I’ll be damned if I’ll break down in front of them like a kid, even though I never expect to see them again. No! No! And yet his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown.

By the protagonist’s correlation of crying with his own latent childishness, the last scene of Seize of the Day signifies more than just the “consummation of his heart’s ultimate need”. It also shows that Wilhelm has given up on attaining the one thing, his father’s approval, that would make him feel like a mature man, implying also that he’s given up trying to determine his own fate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pepperdine Chaplain Sara Barton Writes Poem For Freedom Wall Denouncing the Freedom Wall

Article written by George Stefano Pallas.  School spirit and lingering optimism practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

On January 25, three print-outs of a poem attributed to Pepperdine University Chaplain Sara Barton were pinned to the Freedom Wall outside the school’s main cafeteria. The poem was written in some kind of free verse and appears to have been addressed to another user of the wall, although the lack of specific details in the text leaves no definite pointers to the context of the poem. In it, Barton voiced disapproval with the way that certain individuals exercised their freedom on the wall, using words and images she deems hurtful, and asserted that freedom of this kind is a form of voluntary slavery or entrapment.

Although it was initially instituted as an open bulletin board for expressing their opinions, most Pepperdine students utilize the so-called “Freedom Wall” as another advertising place for fraternity recruitment, club events, off-campus apartments, and other illicit materials that can be displayed in no shortage of other locations. The Freedom Wall typically goes many weeks without receiving new student-authored content, and when someone does pin something of an unpopular or conservative bent to the Wall, it’s often torn down within a matter of hours.

In the short time preceding the poem, two articles were posted to the Freedom Wall that may have inspired Barton’s response. One was a meme posted on January 20, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which depicted Pepperdine’s since-banished Christopher Columbus statue wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “White Lives Matter Too”.

A crude and disgusting meme posted to Pepperdine's Freedom Wall

The other potentially offending target of Barton’s criticism was a set of posters created by the conservative group Turning Point USA that used quotes from TV figures to promote free-market capitalism and freedom of speech. Although the Files’ staff arrived at the scene too late to examine the materials in question, the Pepperdine Graphic newspaper reported afterwards that someone had scrawled obscenities, presumably of the hateful variety, over the posters and removed them within a day of their being posted on January 12.

On the same day that the posters were removed, a sign was taped to the upper-left corner of the Freedom Wall, presumably aimed to address the Turning Points situation. The sign read, “The Freedom Wall is a venue for individual members of the community to express themselves. The wall is governed by the principle that when we speak freely in our participatory democracy, we must do so responsibly. Therefore, personal attacks, profanity or indecency of any kind is prohibited. When posting an item, you are encouraged to sign and date it.”

A positive note of encouragement left on the Pepperdine Friendly Wall

The warning is taken almost verbatim from the Student Activities handbook, excepting the part about the types of speech prohibited, but the print-out doesn’t identify whether a student representative, a staff member, or some other actor posted it.

According to Turning Points USA’s website, the mission of the group is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”.  None of the posters distributed on the Freedom Wall expressed animosity towards any group based on non-political attributes.

With this in mind, it remains uncertain to what exactly the Pepperdine chaplain was referring when she wrote, “So to the persons who disgraced / our community freedom wall / with words and images designed / to wound sisters and brothers who are not you, / heed not my words or views, / but that of natural law.” To date Barton has made no other public remarks about the systemic suppression of conservative articles on the Freedom Wall.

Barton’s poem advances an interpretation of freedom as a zero-sum economy in which claiming more freedom for oneself necessarily involves seizing freedom from some other person, unless one “exhale[es] compassion for another”. At the same time, Barton argues that the amount of freedom one wields in self-interest directly relates to how socially isolated and enslaved one is.

Freedom, in a sense, only threatens to put us all back in chains, a word Barton herself employs to describe the plight of the unnamed person who utilized the Wall. “This is neither sentiment nor drivel,” she says, preemptively implying that someone would find the poetry to be sentimental and also drivel.

Barton began working as the university chaplain in July of 2014. Before rising to her stewardship over the spiritual development and faith of Pepperdine’s youth, she was a vocal proponent of women in church ministry, authoring a book on the subject. Barton’s tweets reflect her ongoing interest in this and other Feminist causes.

In addition to endorsing the much-reported “Women’s March”, the Black Lives Matter movement, egalitarian T-shirts, and husbands submitting to their wives, Barton has been especially active on the social media platform since the election of President Donald Trump. The chaplain’s preferred method of Resistance has entailed issuing a series of #mypresident pound signs in support of President Barack Obama, defending migrant rights on the basis of Jesus being a refugee of King Herod, and retweeting a profile posing as a character invented by J.K. Rowling, who subsequently clarified that the oldest, wisest character in the popular children’s series was a closeted homosexual.

Over the last year, Pepperdine swapped DirecTV service for Rokus in all living areas, destroyed a parking lot and stripped out 84 beds, got rid of a Bank of America ATM in the main plaza, shipped the aforementioned Columbus statue to Europe, and removed both a frozen yogurt machine and mural artwork from the main cafeteria so as to free up more white space on the wall. Pepperdine also fired resident directors Michael Harri and Brittney Patag for setting off a fire alarm in an unoccupied building that the school had already planned to demolish before anyone would enter it again.  None of the student advisors under the authority of the directors were alerted to the firing until well after the decision had been made.

The base tuition rate set by Pepperdine for the last academic year was $49,770 and will rise by 3.96% to $51,740 for 2017-2018. Dean of Seaver College Michael Feltner said, “In determining the tuition rate, Pepperdine considers numerous factors including the external economic environment, the tuition rates at peer institutions, and the needs of the university.”

With all that said, as the needs of the university continue to rise by a paltry 4% each year, here is a joyous and fast-paced video documenting a year in the life at Pepperdine that the Author unconsciously edited to LCD Soundsystem’s resounding and beautiful Someone Great, a seemingly cheery, dance-inducing single which, much like Pepperdine, is actually really sad when examined and pondered more deeply.