Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Reader as Parent in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Academic journal article Saul Bellow Journal

The Reader as Parent in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Article excerpt

Seize the Day is a frustrating read. We want to shout, "No, you idiot," when Tommy gives Tamkin all his remaining money. At the same time, we want to shout at Adler to show a bit of fatherly feeling despite his disappointment--no, disgust--with his loser of a son. It is a commonplace that when we identify with a character or situation, we become more absorbed in our reading, but what of a book that has no character we would care to identify with? Rather, we wish we could step in and knock some sense into one character, or human feeling into another. As a character, Tommy is exasperating: we can agree with Adler that he is a slob, that he makes terrible decisions, that it's time he became more self-sufficient, and yet he has our sympathy, even possibly our affection; he is like a needy child craving parental love and guidance whether he will listen or not. Inge Crossman Wimmers suggests the importance of studying role playing, in particular, the imaginary roles we play as we read, which can include identification, projection, sympathy, or antipathy (157). To those feelings I would add exasperation, in this case complicated by sympathy of the sort that cannot stop caring, that still does not want to give up--in other words, what many of us have experienced as parents. Tommy needs (has probably always needed and still seeks) a father. To Wimmers's list of roles I submit yet another category: roles we wish we could play could we enter the text. If Tommy needs the firm but guiding hand of a father who can still love unconditionally, we might think (perhaps erroneously) that we could have done so much better than Adler. We judge, and so remain frustrated.

Umberto Eco examines the way "art deliberately frustrates our expectations in order to arouse our natural craving for completeness"; how "art in general depends upon deliberately provoking incomplete experiences" (Open 74). Wolfgang Iser's reading theories also show that those inevitable gaps in the text entangle the reader as the reader works to fill them, thereby making the reader increasingly involved in the text's "production." He assumes that the writer constructs the text in such a way that it provokes the reader to supplement it, the motive being "to bring about an intensified participation" in the text (qtd. in Suleiman 25). Notice that both authors use the term "provoke"--not ultimately as annoyance, but as a positive attribute of a book that does more than just invite us in; instead, we are challenged by an irritant that stimulates us into taking a more active role in our reading. It is no coincidence that this little book has provoked so many articles, or that despite our frustration we don't throw the book away.

Stanley Fish "redefine[s] literature not as an object but as something that happens when we read" (104). What is that something? And what is our part in that "happening?" In terms of what's inside the book--no part at all; in terms of what's happening to us, or to our perceptions of the book--a great deal. Here's where frustration entangles us and makes us wish we had an active role in the events so we could stop some terrible thing from happening. For example, even though we really do know better, we cannot help hoping that this time Othello won't kill Desdemona. But we cannot enter that text, not unless we rewrite it, as Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear in the eighteenth century (not to mention Der Yiddische King Lear). At least (and at last) our knowledge of the truth is given voice by Emilia, albeit too late to save Desdemona. She shouts for us as she castigates Othello and not only exposes but cries out in rage against Iago, as we have wanted to do. In so doing, she offers some relief from the terrible tension that has been building throughout the drama. But what if there were no Emilia? We would then be left with frustration--the frustration of lies winning the day, of an unbridgeable gap between our knowledge (or finer instincts) and that of the personae enclosed within the covers of the book or separated from us by the proscenium arch. …

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