The major dilemma of the twentieth century has been the conflict between the individual and the institution. While the nineteenth century saw the rise of nations, industrial capitalism, and expanded state power, as well as ideologies that serviced the needs or challenged the foundation of those institutions (liberalism – for the welfare state, scientific management – for industrial capitalism, anarchism – in opposition), the twentieth century proved that these institutions were in practice horrific and degrading. We do not need to even get into the list of horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare. It is enough to point out the failure of these institutions to deliver on their promise of expanded human freedom or happiness. A Friend of Kafka, a collection of Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, was published in 1970 with most of the stories appearing in the previous decade. He and his readers had plenty of time to dwell on the growing feeling of alienation that came from decades of broken promises. One of the most powerful themes in these stories is the exhausting banality of life and a total feeling of rootless isolation. Often all that is left for people is to play the game against fate. Interestingly, these stories came at a time when Singer’ career was peaking. He had a solid income and much success, but he was also looking to leave the United States for Palestine.
For today, I read the first half of the stories in A Friend of Kafka. It began with the story “A Friend of Kafka,” which is about a bohemian amateur philosophy and former actor, Jaques Kohn, who spent his life pursuing women, drinking and otherwise living the hedonist lifestyle that his life philosophy demanded. He was an intriguing figure for the narrator who saw in him glimpses of Western Europe. “The very way he carried his silver-handled cane seemed exotic to me. He even smoked his cigarettes differently from the way we did in Warsaw.” (7) He was also an acquaintance of Kafka, or more precisely a woman that Kafka loved. It often seems he inflated his connection to the writer. Kohn likes to tell a story about Kafka’s failure in a brothel. His sexual reservations are the same as the reservations he had about writing. Kohn is obsessed with the idea that he is playing a game of chess with fate. “My partner wants to play a slow game. He’ll go on taking my pieces one by one. First he removed my appeal as an actor and turned me into a so-called writer. He’d no sooner done that than he provided me with writer’s cramps. His next move was to deprive me of my potency.” (14) In short, while he finds something invigorating about the struggle, he is slowly dying. His stories of his acting career and his knowledge of Kafka are all that keeps him from total fatalism. Many if the characters in this collection are involved in same sort of slow death. No longer capable of a projectural life, they limp along, trying to find meaning in banalities, religious, hedonism, of their own delusions.
That delusional selfishness is the major theme of “The Key” about a woman so overcome by the fear and loneliness of urban life in New York City that she developed an intense hatred for everyone in her neighborhood. Overtime she comes to neglect everything about her life, paying her bills or writing her will included. In the end she is barely able to speak to anyone else. She is completely blinded by modern life and saw enemies around every corner. “How many tricks were played on her and how much she had to wrangle in order not to perish or fall into insanity.” (34)
“Dr. Beeber” reminds us a bit of “A Friend of Kafka,” both stories are about bohemians living on the margin of respectability, living lives of hedonistic pleasure. “Mark Beeber remained good-natured and full of lust for life. Poor as he was, he smoked fine cigars. Though his suits were shabby, they were English tweeds. For hours, he would tell stories about Switzerland. He had known everyone personally: Lenin, Kropotkin, Bergson, Kuno Fisher, Wundt, Georg Kaiser – even a number of princes and pretenders to thrones.” (45) Now, while he does not think he is fighting a losing chess match with death, he does become more and more disgusted with his life of pleasure, especially as he ages. He makes the decision to marry. His wife, Saltsche, is fairly well-educated and beautiful. However he soon becomes bored with marriage as well, almost losing his entire family when he gambles away all of his wife’s money. It seems that there is a deeper misery at the heart of these characters. A simple change of position does not make things necessarily better. Like Melville’s characters in Omoo deserting one ship to take a job on a plantation only to leave that a few weeks later, Singer’s characters are unable to find happiness in the banality of their lives. Staying the same fails, changing circumstances fails.
“The Cafeteria” has a more interesting metaphysical argument about time and perception surrounding a former war-time prisoner working at a button factory, who claims she saw Hitler the night the New York City cafeteria she frequented burned down. The narrator, a successful author much like Singer, meets her several times over the years, seeing her one last time after she killed herself. The uncanny visions are disturbing but no more than the paralysis of the characters, rooted in loneliness and habit (such as eating at the cafeterias). The narrator’s vision of the woman shows her happy, in contrast to her normal malaise.
In a more brutal example of isolation, “Pigeons” tells the story of a retired Jewish history Professor at Warsaw University. He had lost interest in history – maybe he never had that curiosity about the past suggesting another example of paralysis – and embraces the study of science. He is alone in life and his only companions are the pigeons he feeds everyday. He is plagued (as he was during his final years teaching) by young gangs of anti-Semitic youth. Eventually, they wound him and he later dies.
These stories pose a very troubling dilemma. if no one seems happy in their habits, whether a career choice, a lifestyle, or a marriage, why is it that change does not help things. One problem is that the tendency of these characters is to replace one paralysis with another. Dr. Beeber replaced hedonism with marriage. The professor in “Pigeons” replaced history with feathered companions. So they question is why is it that our world so boring.