Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories” (1988)

After a long and mostly pleasurable journey I have finished with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected stories. I started reading them over a year ago when I first started this blog. The Death of Methuselah was the last of his short story collections, published just three years before his death. It was his tenth collection. As impressive as his stories are, he also published numerous novels and wrote plays and screenplays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his achievements in 1978. I could not find his Stockholm Speech (the English one anyway), but here is a short address given at the University at Albany, where I got my terminal degree.

He was quite famous outside of the Yiddish reading community—which was diminishing if we believe some of his comments on this in his stories—at the end of his life thanks to the Nobel Prize and a 1986 documentary film Isaac in America. When he died he was 88 years old and still an active writer.

The stories in The Death of Methuselah look and feel like many of his others, although I did notice an even more intense consideration of the question of misplaced and problematic love. He also became more fond of a narration style, where the narrator is only the observer. Most the stories in this collection put the narrator as part of the audience. This gives the feel of oral histories. Of course this makes the stories themselves less trustworthy from the reader’s point of view, but it does get a bit tedious. I came to see the narrator as a single person (Singer himself, I suppose) going through life listening and recording what he heard without embellishment or elaboration. This also gives the collection a feeling of liquidity that I have gotten used to from him. Of course, Singer was devastated by the destruction of the Jewish communities of his homeland and the Holocaust is always in the backdrop. We are constantly reminded that we are talking to the lucky survivors and that most of the people discussed in memory are likely dead.

Take the following dialog from “A Peephole in the Gate,” my favorite in this collection:

“I know Eve is no longer alive. She must have perished in the Nazi slaughter. Even if she were alive she would be a tottering old woman by now. But in my mind, she is still a young girl and Bolek, the janitor’s son, is still a young boy and the gate is still a gate. I lie awake at night, not able to sleep a wink, and I burn up with rage at Eve. Sometimes I regret that I did not hit her harder. I know that I would have married her if I hadn’t looked through the peephole that night. Her father wanted to arrange the wedding in a hall. A carriage would have been sent for her, and Bolek would have been standing there winking and laughing.”

“It may be,” I said, “that if you didn’t look through the peephole that evening you would never have gone to America. You and Eve and your children would all have been burned in Auschwitz or tortured to death in some other concentration camp.”

“Yes, I thought about that too. One look through a peephole and your whole life is changed. . . . What does all this mean? That everything is nothing but a miserable accident.” (651–652)

So, we are back to the question of disaster, mobility, liquidity and fate. How is a solid approach to life possible when the world shifts under our feet? How can we plan or even dream of a future in such a situation? I am finding this to be the central concern of Singer’s work and it was becoming stronger near the end of his life.

Methuselah, a Biblical figure notable for his long life of over 900 years, is presented as a stable figure in a rapidly changing world. Even his illicit love for Naamah is strangely enduring. Like the speaker in “A Peephole in the Gate,” Methuselah’s inaccessible love lives in the realm of ideas. Methuselah is out of time, so aloof from what is going on around him that he cannot tell the difference between his slaves and his grandchildren (he had sired both groups). Yet, he is in a liquid world that seems to have several parallels with modern America.

Methuselah knew that the earth was immense and rich, yet now he could it from on high—mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, fields, forests, orchards, and plants of all kinds. While he, Methuselah, ate, slept and dreamed, the sons of Adam had built towns, villages, roads, bridges, houses, towers, sailboats. Naamah flew with him into Cain’s city, which teemed with horsemen and pedestrians, as well as stores and workshops of all sorts. Methuselah saw many people of various races and colors: white, black, and brown. They had built temples to serve their gods. Bells were ringing. Priests sacrificed animals on altars, sprinkled blood on their corners, burned fat and incense. Soldiers with swords hanging from their hips and spears on their backs bound captives in chains, tortured them, and killed them. (728–729)

In all of these changes, Methuselah was a passive observer. This must have been how Singer and those of his generation felt. Singer’s efforts to document and understand the village life of his youth is symbolized in the everlasting figure of Methuselah. He can look on the rapid changes but he cannot be part of them. As Singer summarized, Methuselah knew the past and had a glimpse of the future.

grave

Certainly, Isaac Bashevis Singer was a conservative writer who looked unfavorably on rapid change and radical thought. This conservatism grew over his lifetime and was certainly shaped by the traumas of the twentieth century. The few pictures we get of anarchists and other leftist activists are not very attractive and focus on either the hypocrisy of their ideas or the rapid evaporation of their significance. He certainly seemed to develop a contempt for irreligious Jews (even if his own beliefs were far from orthodox). But, if we think tradition had any place in the future we hope to build, Singer has something to teach us. More importantly, he believed that no matter how mixed up the world has become the relationships between people—even broken or dysfunctional relationships—are what make us human. Better a series of ruined marriages than isolation. Better a libertine than a hermit. Better a living tradition (full of mystery and wonder) than dead traditions—the living traditions seem to weigh less on our backs.

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