- "If Love Is Love, It's Free":A Vedantic Reading of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day
Ay, you may be astonished to hear that as practical Vedantists the Americans are better than we are.-Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Vedanta
My postulate was that there was a core of the eternal in every human being.-Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
Seize the Day (1957)1 is inarguably one of Saul Bellow's shortest and best novels. It is therefore no surprise that the Nobel Committee hailed it as "a classic" of the twentieth century. Such praise has attracted scores of scholars to the novel with as much interpretive enthusiasm, if not more, as in the case of Bellow's other popular works such as The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), and Humboldt's Gift (1975). These commentators have, over the years, offered diverse critical opinions, varying from psychoanalytical to sociological and from philosophical to cultural.2 Amid this variety of existing studies, critics have neglected examining Seize the Day in light of the Hindu philosophy of Advaitvedanta, which has influenced writers of all genres worldwide by exploring the concepts of the cosmic "Wholeness" and "Universal Brotherhood." This article gauges the growth of the protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, from an ahmkari (egoist) to a samkari (humanist) in the light of the Vedantic philosophy of advaita (non-dualism). In the process, the article attempts to demonstrate how Wilhelm's consciousness expands as the narrative action of the novel gravitates towards the final resolution signifying the inexorable cosmic oneness of all of humankind. [End Page 423]
Swami Vivekananda's assertion, which forms part of the epigraph to this article, that Americans are superior Vedantists (Advaita Vedanta 56) in comparison to Indians is not intended to flatter Americans and increase their interest in his philosophy of Vedanta. Based on his personal experience in America, he elaborates-perhaps uncritically and naively-on how Americans, unlike Indians, practically live the principle of equality in letter and spirit (Advaita Vedanta 56-57).3 His view arises from the pervasive Hindu belief that Vedanta is "the whole and the original whereof the different religio-philosophic systems are parts and variants" (Mahadevan 33). Here, Vivekananda implies that there is an ingrained substance of Vedanta in American society, perhaps referring to the legacy of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment as well as the US Declaration of Independence and its famous statement that "all men are created equal." Whatever the reason, the Hare Krishna movement spread within a short span of time and a host of Ramakrishna and Rajneesh ashrams (monasteries) sprung up throughout America. Hence, before we proceed to the examination of Bellow's Vedantic themes, it is appropriate to briefly discuss some of the dominant perceptions and postulates of the Vedanta doctrine, especially those that occupied several American writers' imaginations in the postwar period. Such a discussion will facilitate a comprehensive correlation of the Vedantic principles to Bellow's fictional ideas in Seize the Day.
Vedanta is the anta or final result of the four Vedas and is enshrined in the Upanishads, which mark the "highest and final" point of the Vedic and Vedantic teachings in Hinduism. In addition, Ved Vyasa's Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) and Brahmsutras (Divine Aphorisms) also offer the essence of both the Vedas and Upanishads and therefore add to the corpus of the Vedanta. Hence, the philosophy of Vedanta streams from these three holy Hindu texts. Sri Sankaracharaya (Adi Sankra), the eighth-century Saivite saint and devotee of the Hindu god Shiva, was the earliest proponent of the philosophy of Advaitvedanta (Non-dualism). Though the philosophy was already ingrained in the Vedas and Upanishads, he systematically turned it into a long-lasting spiritual discipline of the universal import. The advaita branch of Vedanta is monotheistic, unlike the Sankhya and Yoga, which believe in the duality of the human soul (jivatman) and the Super-soul (Pramatman). The advaita believes that the anantsatya (eternal reality)-Brahman-is the sole adhaar (substratum) of the nashwar samsara (mortal or temporal universe). According to the Upanishads, Brahman is an Impersonal deity-Formless, Infinite, Pure (nirguna), True, Secular, and Eternal: "braham...