Toward the end of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day, Wilhelm endeavors to answer a question that Tamkin asks of him, and in the course of hearing and answering this question “there was a great pull at the very center of his soul. When a fish strikes the line you feel the live force in your hand. A mysterious being beneath the water, driven by hunger, has taken the hook and rushes away and fights, writhing. Wilhelm never identified what struck within him. It did not reveal itself. It got away.” So many such momentary flashes seem to visit or to call one over a week or a day, particularly if one is often alone or regretfully unhurried—wishing one had somewhere to go, or could be somewhere where one is not or with someone with whom one is not. A dear friend tells me that she often feels most herself alone in an airport, ‘standing listlessly at a gate, waiting to move.’
A lesson in Seize The Day issues from the mouth of Bellow’s most detestable character, Tamkin. He trades on commodities futures and traffics in sensational stories of the past, but Tamkin’s counsel to Wilhelm is: “…The real universe. That’s the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real—the here-and-now. Seize the day.”
Can one draw Bellow’s ‘ceaseless present’ against temporal borders? I am more likely to see this present as simultaneously comprised of (rather than contrasted against) a ceaseless past and eternal future. The universe ‘only knows a ceaseless present,’ he writes. But can I not equally feel this constant present, at my darkest and most wistful moments, as instead a ceaseless past, in which each second eternally brushes beyond me as already happened, already gone, before I can taste it or make anything of it? Can I not also equally feel this constant present, at my most expansive and creative points, as perpetual but limited glimpses into a boundless future, as my participation in and intimation of what is always yet to come? Doesn’t each second foretell the accumulation of infinitesimal changes over temporal expanses too vast for my consciousness to hold, and of which I will never be part? How can I arbitrarily distinguish a ceaseless present from other temporal orders, when it relies upon them constantly for definition?
Bellow’s lesson is not definitional, but, rather, positional. It is about staking out a present for one to inhabit within all the backwards and forwards roilings of time. It is within these moments of presentness, these “moods of keenest appetency,” to use Edgar Allan Poe’s words, that one can feel a fish strike the line. I often find, as my friend does, that I am most keenly positioned in the present when I inhabit certain liminal spaces.
Ten summers ago, I was walking over a certain square in East London when a tall man in glasses, about twenty years my senior, approached me. He told me that he was writing a book on voyeurism, and asked if I would be willing to allow him to follow me as I went about my day. I would walk into stores, he said, and when I went into the changing room, he would stand back but look through the cracks. I would leave the store, and he would follow me from several meters back. We would never interact; we would never speak. We would merely carve out a bounded, liminal present, between and away from our regular lives, in which I would walk and he would follow, I would pay for my purchases and he would watch. And we would never see one another again after; we would just share from afar a suspended present, never to be repeated. Not only this, he would pay me 300 pounds. I was to receive 100 pounds at the start of my shopping trip and 200 pounds at the end.
I gave his proposition a few seconds of serious consideration before rejecting it. Then I never thought of it again. Until, nine summers ago, exactly one year after meeting him, I walked along the same East London square and found him again, a tall man in glasses, about twenty-one years my senior, and he approached me and told me that he was writing a book on voyeurism and asked would I be willing to allow him to follow me. My mouth dropped incredulously and I very nearly hugged him as I broke the news that exactly a year ago he had made the exact proposition to me in exactly this spot. His face turned a scarlet red and he suddenly seemed a little boy, ten years my junior. His ceaseless present had somehow randomly, chaotically looped back onto itself. Perhaps he re-meets his formerly propositioned all the time, and is still standing in East London eternally re-meeting them. But, I felt as though I had walked into the arms of some temporal truth, or at least a personal cosmic joke. How bounded are our eternal presents? How separated are they from our world’s ceaseless pasts and futures? Is the thrill of the present that I will never see these people on the street again or that unbeknownst to me I may already have?
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University