Roberto Carlos de Andrade
Universidade Federal de Roraima


O artigo propõe uma análise de como o conceito de vigilância de Michel Foucault é exercido sobre Tommy Wilhelm, protagonista de Seize the Day de Saul Bellow, como ele afeta a vida do personagem e quais as consequências que ele traz.


The article proposes an analysis of how Michel Foucault's concept of surveillance is exerted upon Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, how it affects his life, and what is the outcome that it can bring forth.


The episodes in Tommy Wilhelm's life in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day are mainly influenced by the protagonist's failure in supporting his own life. Thus, money is of key importance in the novella and we notice that its presence is one of the--if not the most important--mechanisms to maintain people entangled in a very complex system that controls everyone's life. This complex system can be associated to one of Michel Foucault's basic concepts in Discipline and Punish, the surveillance society. The most important point in Foucault's book is the shift from what the author calls spectacle to discipline or surveillance. This means that before the more humane regimes of modern times, there used to be regimes whose judicial systems were based on the spectacle, i.e., on public punishment. Then, from a point in time--the 18th century--on, there started to appear new regimes where punishment became more and more humane, eventually reaching the rise of a modern soul which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint (Foucault, 1991, 29). In this new kind of regimes, the way power is exerted is essential; it must be better distributed, in homogeneous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body (id., 80). The effect of this new way of exercising power over people's behavior is predictable: The disciplinary institutions secreted a machinery of control that functioned like a microscope of conduct (ibid., 173).

One important aspect of surveillance that we can notice in Bellow's novella is direct control of individuals upon each other's lives. We can feel this especially in the relationship between Wilhelm and his father, Dr. Adler, who psychologically controls his son. One of the ways he does so is by boasting his son's achievements in front of other people; at those moments, the only important thing is that Wilhelm is allegedly able to earn money--`My son's income was up in the five figures' (Bellow, 1965, 41)--regardless if he is happy or not. Another stronger way in which Dr. Adler controls his son is by denying him financial help. According to Wilhelm, not only is death on his mind but through money he forces me to think about it, too. It gives him power over me... If he was poor, I could care for him and show it (id., 63). Thus, Dr. Adler seems to be saying to his son that he wants him to be able to work and be a respectable man on his own right and not by getting on someone else's back.

The individual control can also be felt in the novella through a sort of social code with some specific rules that must be secretly obeyed; Rubin, the man at the newsstand, is a man who, according to Wilhelm, knew, and knew and knew, and even Wilhelm knows many things about Rubin, but, [n]one of these could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about (ibid., 10). Another man who also knew and knew and knew is the German manager at the brokerage office (ibid., 67), who does not warn Wilhelm against Dr. Tamkin because [it] was not in the code to give information to anyone (ibid., 95).

In fact, besides following an established code, people are described as being aware of a competition going on, mainly represented by the stock market. Regarding Dr. Tamkin's awareness of the business world in contrast to Wilhelm's ignorance, we are told that [Dr. Tamkin] saw [Wilhelm's] fears and smiled at them. `It's something... to see how the competition-factor will manifest itself in different individuals' (ibid., 71). This sense of competition is also present in the image of the killing that appear once and again; more generally, when Wilhelm is describing how a husband is supposed to work hard in order to support his ex-wife and children: The court says, `You want to be free. Then you have to work twice as hard... Work! You bum.' So then guys kill each other for the buck... (ibid., 55); and more specifically to the stock market, when Tamkin says, `People come to the market to kill. They say, `I'm going to make a killing.'... Only they haven't got the genuine courage to kill, and they erect a symbol of it. The money. They make a killing by a fantasy' (ibid., 76).

The utter sense of competition and of lack of communicability helps building Wilhelm's sense of anxiety and is more fully described by the main character's own thoughts:

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking; he had his own ideas and peculiar ways.... And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell not to understand or be understood.... The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons. You had to talk with yourself in the daytime and reason with yourself at night. Who else was there to talk to in a city like New York? (ibid., 91)

In a world like this, you can trust nobody and things and people--including Wilhelm himself--look distorted: The Ansonia... looked like the image of itself reflected in deep water... with cavernous distortions underneath (ibid., 9). Wilhelm's broad back, stooped with its own weight, its strength warped almost into deformity... (ibid., 20); the dark tunnel, in the haste, heat, and darkness which disfigure and make freaks and fragments of nose and eyes and teeth.... He was imperfect and disfigured himself... (ibid., 92); It was the old Czech prizefighter with the deformed nose and ears... (ibid., 116) It is, thus, an alienating world, a feeling reinforced by cynicism, which

was bread and meat to everyone.... Whenever at the end of the day he was unusually fatigued he attributed it to cynicism. Too much of the world's business done. Too much falsity. He had various words to express the effect this had on him. Chicken! Unclean! Congestion! He exclaimed in his heart. Rat race! Phony! Murder! Play the Game! Buggers! (ibid., 21)

Anxiety is exactly one aspect in Foucault's writings that can be applied to novels dealing with city life--like Seize the Day. For Foucault, while discussing the effect of an overreaching surveillance, [t]he more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed (Foucault, 1991, 202). There are many examples of how anxiety is overwhelmingly present in Wilhelm's life. First, while still being lured by Maurice Venice into artistic life, he is told that He was to be freed from the anxious and narrow life of the average (Bellow, 1965, 27); but the fact is that after a chain of mistakes, Wilhelm becomes [a] regular mountain of tics... [having] a habit of moving his feet back and forth... (id., 33). Even his relation to cars and traffic is not an easy one: `Then some fool puts advertising leaflets under your windshield wiper and you have heart failure a block away because you think you've got a ticket' (ibid., 38). Other instances of how bad his health is because of nervousness abound: `Yesterday, late in the afternoon, my head was about to bust.... There's too much push here for me.' (ibid., 50-51); He was horribly worked up; his neck and shoulders, his entire chest ached as though they had been tightly tied with ropes. He smelled the salt odor of tears in his nose. (ibid., 62); His heart, accustomed to many sorts of crisis, was now in a new panic (ibid., 112). While talking to Dr. Tamkin about New York, the latter suggests, If you only knew one per cent of what goes on in the city of New York! You see, I understand what it is when the lonely person begins to feel like an animal (ibid., 73).

All of the aspects shown above are examples of Wilhelm's utter isolation and loneliness in a big city, and this loneliness is only reinforced by the way his father treats him: Wilhelm's father... lived in an entirely different world from his son... (ibid., 14); He behaved toward his son as he had formerly done toward his patients, and it was a great grief to Wilhelm.... Had he lost his family sense? (ibid., 15); The doctor couldn't bear Wilky's dirty habits (ibid., 41). Above all, Dr. Adler hates his son's need to plea for help:

He recognized that his father was now furiously angry.... His mouth opened, wide, dark, twisted, and he said to Wilhelm, `You want to make yourself into my cross. But I am not going to pick up a cross. I'll see you dead, Wilky, by Christ, before I let you do that to me.' (ibid., 119)

The fact is that all the negative aspects in Tommy Wilhelm's life are brought out by his own wrong choices. But his choices are wrong if evaluated according to a society that measures people by what amount of money they can earn. In fact, as has been said, the power of money in controlling people's lives is essential to Bellow's novella. Foucault calls our attention to the fact that a society based on discipline or surveillance is mainly concerned with productivity:

...this new régime of surveillance, the employers saw that it was indissociable from the system of industrial production, private property and profit.... Surveillance thus becomes a decisive economic operator both as an internal part of the production machinery and as a specific mechanism in the disciplinary power. `The work of directing, superintending and adjusting becomes one of the functions of capital...' (Foucault, 1991, 175)

Tommy Wilhelm believes that [e]veryone was supposed to have money.... They made it a shame not to have money and set everybody to work. (Bellow, 1965, 35);

Uch! How they love money... They adore money! Holy money! Beautiful money! It was getting so that people were feeble-minded about everything except money. While if you didn't have it you were a dummy, a dummy! (id., 41)

Money is thus related to an endless net of power that controls everything in a big and modern city. As Wilhelm says, In the old days a man was put in prison for debt, but there were subtler things now (ibid., 35); `A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead' (ibid., 55).

Because of money, Wilhelm despises everything and everyone deeply involved with it. He cannot cope with life in a big city anymore: `...I'm not used to New York anymore. For a native, that's very peculiar, isn't it? It was never so noisy at night as now, and every little thing is a strain' (ibid., 38); `But even though I was raised here... I can't take city life any more, and I miss the country. There's too much push here for me.' (ibid., 51); Wilhelm thought, I will get out of here. I don't belong in New York any more (ibid., 89). Eventually, Wilhelm longs to set himself free from money:

So ______k it all! The money and everything. Take it away! When I have the money they eat me alive, like those piranha fish in the movie about the Brazilian jungle.... When I haven't got it any more, at least they'll let me alone. (ibid., 83).

To Wilhelm's eyes, the big city life is wrong because people like his father have control over things. His father, being close to death as he is, still holds lots of money, just like Mr. Rappaport, the old blind man at the stock market, and Wilhelm thinks, Who controls everything? Old men of this type (ibid., 110). He sees people like his father as inferior because of their love for money: ...he had raised himself above Mr. Perls and his father because they adored money... (ibid., 62).

Dr. Tamkin, who Wilhelm at times calls a charlatan (ibid., 104) and a faker (ibid., 106), is the only person capable of making him forget his troubles and laugh: Without warning, Wilhelm began to laugh... His face became warm and pleasant, and he forgot his father, his anxieties; he panted bearlike, happily, through his teeth (ibid., 72). Wilhelm can't help but agree with some of Dr. Tamkin's statements; sometimes, the two characters have very similar thoughts: while describing the two main souls a man has inside--the real soul and the pretender soul--Tamkin explains that

`[t]he interest of the pretender soul is the same as the interest of the social life, the society mechanism. This is the main tragedy of human life.... You are not free. Your own betrayer is inside of you and sells you out. You have to obey him like a slave. He makes you work like a horse;' (ibid., 77)

Wilhelm reacts saying, `I couldn't agree more' (ibid., 78). When Tamkin talks about people marrying suffering, the other admits that there was a great deal in Tamkin's words.... This time the faker knows what he's talking about (ibid., 106). Finally, when saying that there are only two classes of people--`Some want to live, but the great majority don't,'--Wilhelm reacts thus: True, true! Thought Wilhelm, profoundly moved by these revelations (ibid., 107).

Besides, Dr. Tamkin is the only character in the whole book who is not only sympathetic but also seems to comprehend Wilhelm's feelings and to be able to give him what he really wants: to Wilhelm, he asserts that `[a] man like you, humble for life, who wants to feel and live, has trouble--not wanting... to exchange an ounce of soul for a pound of social power--he'll never make it without help in a world like this.' (ibid., 88) Wilhelm himself admits that [t]hat the doctor cared about him pleased him. This was what he craved, that someone should care about him, wish him well (ibid., 80). Therefore, we can see how important Dr. Tamkin becomes in Wilhelm's life, even though always being suspect.

Of course, one can argue that Dr. Tamkin is just a deceiver who uses fake contempt, or even hate, towards money in order to get more money from people like Wilhelm. But if one believes in what he says when Wilhelm asks him, `...what are you doing on the market?'--`Maybe I am better at speculation because I don't care. Basically, I don't wish hard enough for money, and therefore I come with a cool head to it' (ibid., 76)--then one would be able to see Dr. Tamkin as the main responsible for Wilhelm's final illuminating moment. Because then what seems important in the final scene is that Wilhelm finally forgets his problems with money and in a cathartic fit seems to get into communion with his fellow men. Only in this sense can we take the end of Seize the Day as positive. As Daniel Fuchs states in Saul Bellow - Vision and Revision, [t]he metaphors of pressure, pain, bursting, the whole Reichian paraphernalia of breathlessness and ties, lead to what is literally an emotional explosion, a catharsis, a denouement... which is literally an unknotting (Fuchs, 1984, 79).

However, if we tend to see Dr. Tamkin as just an empty talker who is really concerned with speculating with other people's money, then there's not much of positive in the ending of the novella. To Sarah Blacher Cohen, Tamkin is clearly the bird on Wilhelm's back who is more of a parasite than a guide (Cohen, 1974, 96). In this sense, Wilhelm reaches the end of the novella as isolated as he was in the beginning and even worse in financial terms. And the power of his tears cannot be seen as a communal experience, since no one else in the funeral cries with him. It represents more an individual awareness. The only social position for Wilhelm I can think of is that of the marginalized, of the castaway who was isolated exactly because of the barriers man has created. The awareness that Wilhelm eventually reaches, in my view, is that all social constraints are ultimately useless in the face of death. Thus, we would agree with Fuchs' statement that [t]o realize the loss of love, the distortions of the cash-nexus, in the face of mortality--this is what brings Wilhelm to overwhelming tears (Fuchs, 1984, 83).

We can see, then, how the undercurrent image of a network of power relationships is crucial in the development of anxiety in Tommy Wilhelm. This network is exactly what Foucault talks about in his concept of the micro-physics of power. For him--just as for Tommy, we could say-- the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body (Foucault, 1991, 26). Thus, we sense how all the mutual surveillance among individuals can eventually be so excruciating as to lead someone to an utterly isolated and lonely position.


BELLOW, Saul. Seize the Day. N.Y. Fawcett Publications, Inc. & Crest Books. 1965.
CLAYTON, John J. Saul Bellow: in Defense of Man. Midland Book. 1971.
COHEN, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter. Chicago, London. University of Illinois Press. Urbana, 1974.
FOUCAULT, Michel. Discipline and Punish (The Birth of the Prison). Penguin Books. 1991.
FUCHS, Daniel. Saul Bellow - Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C. Duke University Press. 1984.
GELFANT, Blanche Housman. The American City Novel. Norman & University of Oklahoma Press. 2nd edition. 1970.

Roberto Carlos de Andrade é Professor Assistente III da Universidade Federal de Roraima; Mestre em Inglês e Literatura Correspondente. Área de concentração: Literatura Americana Contemporânea.

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