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.

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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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Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and Other Stories”, Part Two; Stories from “Gifts”

Creativity is for me a very encompassing idea. I would say that everything which gives a man pleasure is creative and what causes him pain is an inhibition in his creative desire. Like Spinoza, I am a hedonist. Like the Cabalists, I believe that the principle of male and female exists not only in the lower world but also in the higher ones. The universal novel of creation, like the novel of an earthly writer, is finally a love story. (562)

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In his introduction to the short story collection Gifts, Isaac Bashevis Singer discussed writing. Readers of his stories would not be surprised by any of the autobiographical bits he gives, but it does provide a useful summary to what he was trying to achieve in his life’s work. Two important points that emerge is that he felt—with good reasons—that he was in a world becoming more insane. The craziness that his characters faced was minor compared to the craziness in the world that created the world wars, Stalinism, and Hitler. “No. The world that was revealed to me was not rational. One could as easily question the validity of reason as the existence of God. In my own spirit, there was chaos.” (554) In the face of this, Singer chose to embrace writing as a creative act. He discusses at considerable length how he saw God as a writer and writers extending the creative work of God (complete with errors and destructive tendencies).  Of course you would need to be a theist to accept the second part of this argument which explains away Biblical nonsense with the trial and error of composition, the idea of witches and dybbuks existing is more rational than fascism and the gulag is worth considering.

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The second half of The Image and Other Stories carried on many of the same themes from the first half, including fate and show Singer’s revived interest in various aspects of life in pre-war Poland. But for today, I would like to take inspiration from Singer’s introduction to Gifts (also published in 1985) and consider briefly the question of liquidity. In hindsight, this is probably something I should have been saying more about because it so effectively summarizes Singer’s often complicated themes. One of their central struggles is holding onto family, community, tradition, and value in a rapidly changing world. Throughout his stories then we find characters who try desperately to cling to tradition and those who throw up their hands and openly reject those traditions, joining radical groups and embracing the philosophies of the Jewish Enlightenment. Zionists are a bit in the middle. Some seem to truly see Israel as a solution to the problem of liquidity but in a few examples, these characters are just as destructive to family life.

Let me give just a few examples:

“The Conference” puts us right into the heart of the radical community with a 1936 conference of Jewish radicals, communists, feminists, and Zionists. Of course, none of these people are able to get along and they constantly disagree and spend inordinate time revising proposals and minutes until some basic agreement could be made. Very little is accomplished. This is ominous since we know that the right is moving more much active at that time across the border in Germany. Of more interest to the delegates than creating a radical alternative to creeping fascism was a beautiful woman who attended the conference, one of only three women there. Competition for this one woman paralleled the increasingly vitriolic debates at the conference. Singer is clearly pointing out the inefficacy of the pre-war radicals in Poland.

“Strangers” is about an aging Zionist who divorces his wife of fifty years, taking what little property he needed to resettle in Palestine. Right away we notice that his effort to life out a traditional life required him to reject his family and his community. “I want to spend my last years with the Torah and prayer. If I move to the Land of Israel now, my bones won’t have to travel underground to get there when the Messiah comes. I want to breath holy air.” (497–498) After the divorce he moves to Palestine and soon marries a young woman citing the need for a son. Much like the leftists at the conference, this aging Jew turns his personal motivation into what appears to an outsider to be rather lurid. The narrator, observing this as an outsider, finds his own escape to a world going insane saying, “I would run away from home and become a cabalist and a recluse.” (503) Whether it is Israel or mysticism it seems there is a strong element of escapism either as a solution to liquidity or  way to flee from it.

“Miracles” is a fascinating story of how one man experienced a dramatically changing world as a series of miracles. His escape from Poland, his arrival in France, his survival of the Holocaust are all unlikely. He encounters someone who survived a concentration camp who rejected the role of miracles in life. The solution that is offered up over their conversation is that they are fated. “There are powers up above which play with us. Lately it occurred to me that this earth is ruled by a divine prodigy who toys with little soldiers and dolls. When he ties of them, he rips off their heads.” (480) Of course, an acceptance of fate is yet another response to liquidity and as the story shows it may not mean passivity or clinging to tradition.

However, I do not find a satisfying response to liquidity and the upsetting instability and insanity of the world in Singer’s fiction. Actually, it is quite rare to find a satisfying answer to this question and this is something that radicals should always keep on their mind or we will always be fighting the battles of the past.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “The Image and other Stories” (1985): Part One

I am continuing my slow slog through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collected short stories. In order to read through them as leisurely as they seem to demand and prevent it from slowing down my blog too much, I am going to start reading the slave narrative collection. To be blunt, I will be mixing in works that are easier to interpret and quicker to process rather than slow this entire blog down yet again with Singer’s stories. I cannot fully explain why this seems to always happen. I actually enjoy these stories. Perhaps it is their richness that causes my difficulties. They are certainly not straight forward and not conducive to my reckless (let my typos and numerous interpretative errors be forever forgiven) and accelerated approach.

The Image and Other Stories collects twenty-two stories. In a shift from his previous two collections, the stories are less personal. He seems to have exhausted his autobiographical insights. The aging Yiddish scholar, teacher, and writer living out his days in post-Holocaust New York fades to the background. Instead, he returns to the site of his earliest stories: pre-war Poland. It is from this setting that he is able to explore fate and free will. Even stories that are technically set in the post-war world are much more tied to that past. Is this a thematic shift for Singer? His earliest writings was interested in Poland as a means to preserve some folklore and tradition among a Diaspora community. His middle work moved to the personal and results in a series of works of profound alienation, loneliness, failure, and loss. Now I only half way through The Image, but it seems that alienation is gone as we once again find characters deeply tied to communities, traditions, and cultures. The question of fate v. free will is necessarily rooted in this social milieu.  Although I am often hostile to traditions, I find that communities can often be the foundation from which individualism emerges. In this I found some common ground with the conservative Singer. But for now I will focus on fate.

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In his brief introduction to these stories Singer wrote: “Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand. Literature is the story of love and fate, a description of the made hurricane of human passions and the struggle with them.” (291) We can read fate religiously or mystically but this is not necessary. We are fated in the sense that the vast majority of the things that affect us on a daily basis are outside of our control. The arena were free will exists is incredibly small, but not insignificant. This situation has been worsened in late capitalism with its atomizing institutions, oppressive workplace cultures, and macroeconomic trends that limit our capacity for free choice. Singer seems to agree with this in broad terms. When people do express their individual freedom, the results are often catastrophic. But if fate is a common theme in Singer’s later stories, so is resistance to fate. Fate is often connected to “the Angel of Death” in these stories.

This dilemma is explored in the opening story “Advice” about a cuckold husband who falls deeper in love with his wife after she abandons him only to accept her and her new lover under his roof. He becomes a believer that he is fated saying: “When a man stands before the gallows with a noose around his neck and they bring him the good tidings that the execution has been postponed, he does not ask any questions.” (295) The narrator later meets the man and finds that his wife died, her love left for the Soviet Union and he “became king.” While all of this may have also been prescripted, especially his rival’s doom in the Soviet Union, the man starts to take the view that he is wrestling with “the Angel of Death,” not its passive victim.

“One Day of Happiness” is a devastating story about a ugly young woman – Penna Fela – who writes a love letter to a celebrity (a general) that she loved. The general invites her for a tryst, taking her virginity and pushing her out of the door as soon as he was done, citing his need to meet a superior officer. Despite bleeding profusely (almost unnaturally) she makes it home. She slits her wrists. While her parents are trying to stop the bleeding the general’s aide comes with flowers. At the end she welcomes death having had her one day of happiness. Now while her doom seems inevitable, she was an active architect. She wrote the letter, sent it, prepared herself carefully for the tryst, and willingly went to bed with him. She is more in control than we perhaps want to admit at the first reading, where we want to condemn the general, obviously taking advantage of the women’s silly infatuation. Penna Fela is in rebellion against her family and its expectations and in many ways the active role in the story. I actually imagine the general as more bound, probably unable to refuse a meeting with any woman who writes him love letters.

“The Interview” is philosophically profound and explores the aftermath of the First World War in Poland. The narrator is a young journalist who meets a conservative writer for an interview but ends up meeting a woman who was visiting the writer at the same time. She is the minor poet Machla Krumbein. Her poems offend the older writer because they are aggressively sexual and libertine. “I had never before read such obscenities. I didn’t know what was stronger in me, my passion or my nausea.” (332) We learn that her perspective emerged during the Austrian occupation of the war, where she was traumatized by rape and violence. The narrator reports some of this to his girlfriend who is horrified and kicks him out. Years later, after the war, he discovers one copy of Machla Krumbein’s poetry that survived and sees her as a more malevolent figure, understanding her less as a fascinating libertine and more like a woman who “wanted all males for herself and no one else.” (328)

“Why Heisherik was Born” is about a delusion writer who suffers greatly first in the Polish-Bolshevik war and then in travels through the Holy Land. He is poor and barely holding his family together. But he spends much of his time writing, most of it barely literate. He leaves his family to go to the Holy Land and returns with more writings. He asks the narrator to edit his work, which focuses on how he struggled to maintain Jewish rituals despite his situation. We learn later that he died in the Second World War performing an important job as an illegal underground courier. The narrator realizes that he was being prepared for this task by his earlier adventures, giving new meaning to the neglected manuscript.

He could never have become a holy messenger without having going through all the ordeals he had described in his pathetic book and had recited to me at such length. I believe that there must be, somewhere in the universe, an archive in which all human sufferings and acts of self-sacrifice are stored. There could be no divine justice if Heinsherik’s story did not grace God’s infinite library for time eternal. (365)

Perhaps his life was simply preparation for his minor role in the war. If so, he was fated to suffer through life. That may be easier to get our head around than one’s freedom to suffer.

In these four stories we have people who have chosen to destroy relationships, accept humiliation, or willingly suffered greatly for strange reasons, youthful infatuation, religious devotion, an idea implanted in their mind by a strange vengeful woman. By looking at these figures as wrestling with fate rather than being passive servants, even the fatalist can find room for free will even if it is only in resistance to predestination.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Old Love” (1979)

As in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s other short story collections, Old Love is thematically diverse but largely confined to the experiences of the Jewish Disapora, being set either in pre-war Poland or in the United States. The most common character is someone like Singer, an aging scholar or writer who emigrated to the United States and enjoys rising fame. Singer himself was never a radical, although many of his themes touch on the struggle for locating human freedom within familial, institutional and cultural confines. In the introduction to Old Love he writes on what he sees as the major theme uniting this collection of stories.

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The love of the old and middle-aged is a theme that is recurring more and more in my work of fiction. Literature has neglected the old and their emotions. The novelists never told us that in love, as in other matters, the young are just beginners and that the art of loving matures with age and experience. Furthermore, while many of the young believe that the world can be made better by sudden changes in social order and by bloody and exhausting revolutions, most older people have learned that hatred and cruelty never produce anything by their own kind. The only hope of mankind is love in its various forms and manifestations.

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Now, while I certainly agree with the first point and would submit that much suffering would be removed from the world if marriages entered into by people in their 20s expired after five years. The centrality of young people to romantic comedies is ridiculous beyond measure to anyone who actually gone through a dozen relations in as many years (especially the happily ever after parts). I do not think the logical conclusion of this is to reject youthful revolt, and his claim that revolt against the social order is always bloody and exhausting. I think Singer’s own evidence reveals a great number of older people in revolt against the central institution of their lives: family and marriage. Despite wanting to approach the theme of love among older people, we find it quite elusive and frustrated.

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Take for instance the first story in the collection, “One Night in Brazil.” The narrator visits an intellectual friend and finds his friend married an old acquaintance from Warsaw. She claims she has been possessed by a dybbuk. The husband goes off with a girlfriend. Lena, the woman, attempts to seduce the narrator but they are consumed by mosquitoes, return home full of bugs and blood. They wash it off in a grotesque scene just as the husband returns. We see in this story the themes of serial monogamy, the resultant alienation in marriage (seemingly made worse by the third or fourth attempt) and a strange pining for lost love. If this is an attempt at love among the old, the next story “Yochna and Schmelke” is about young people. Yochna is raised pious and arranged to marry Scmelk through her father. The story discusses the early feelings of Yochna during the marriage, especially the wedding night and its rituals. Contrary to tradition Scmelke left on the holy days with his father in law. The later returns, with the other assumed lost. She is abandoned and pregnant, because she cannot remarry if they do not find a body. Of course, this is not unlike marriages once they pass the honeymoon which quickly become corpses.

“The Psychic Journey” explores the banality of marriage, the attraction to novelty and the desire for companionship in late capitalist marriages that often keep couples separated. A psychic connection provides some hope for a more meaningful relationship. The narrator meets a woman interested in the occult while feeding birds. They begin a friendship based on mutual interests. It turns out she has been watching him and following his work and interests.  They take a trip together to Israel at the time the 1976 war breaks out. She abandons him. After the trip, he stops seeing Margaret and reunites with wife, Dora. He tells her he went to California, never mentioning the trip to Israel although Dora was in Tel Aviv at the time of their illicit trip. He later learns that Margaret has started psychic business in New York leading him to confess his trip with the strange woman.

Readers can easily come away from this collection with a feeling that married couples are required to scheme to keep sane, crafting elaborate images of each other or themselves just to keep the facade of the institution together. In “The Bus,” Singer uses the device of changing seats on a tour bus in Spain to allow the narrator to see two sides of each couple. Here is how one married couple talks about each other:

One good trait she did have—she could attact a man. Sexually, she was amazingly strong. I don’t believe myself that I am speaking of these things—in my circles, talk of sex is taboo. But why? Man thinks of it from cradle to grave. She has a powerful imagination, a perverse fantasy. I’ve had experiences with women and I know. She has said things to me that drove me to frenzy. She has more stories in her than Scheherazade. Our days were cursed, but the nights were wild. . .

Nothing is left me except my imagination. He drained my blood like a vampire. He isn’t sexually normal. He is a latent homosexual—not so latent—although when I tell him this he denies it vehemently. He only wants to be with men, and when we still shared a bedroom he spent whole nights questioning me about my relationships with other men. I had to invent affairs to satisfy him. Late, he threw these imaginary sins up to me and called me filthy names. (214–216)

Well, if Singer is after a description of love among middle-aged people, he may have succeeded in convincing me that as we get older our relationships get only more sociopathic and absurd. Maybe there is some wisdom in this. There are limits to how much any one of us can overturn our cultural and social baggage. This must explain the remarriage rates. Rationally, a marriage as a youthful mistake makes since, but remarriage must be insanity (more than once Since shows affairs to have the same banalities of regular relationships). But if for whatever reason staying is impossible and one finds themselves back into relationships, perhaps a bit of playful fatalism is the best we can hope for. But always beware that the strange sleeping next to you may burn your life’s work, decide to put a knife in your chest, or become possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is all to be expected.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Passions” (1975)

I have gone out of the habit of writing. One day a Hitler comes and burns books. The next day it’s a Stalin who demands that all poets exalt his murders. New tyrants will emerge and they will destroy the literature of the world. Since sex is only for two—and sometimes even for one—why must poetry be for many? I am my own bard. Sometimes when I used to lie with Getzele in bed, we held a poetic duet. Well, but two can also be too many. L’chayim. (737)

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I am taking another stab at Isaac Bashevis Singer. I do not quite know why he has provided such difficulty for me, more than any other author in the Library of America series. It is not because of the themes, which actually are much in line with this blog. Singer’s characters are often on the move, challenging or controlled by their tradition and institutions in their life. As in his other story collections, Passions, published in 1975, is set either in pre-World War II Poland or in the United States (mostly New York City) in the middle of the century. These twenty stories reflect the experiences of the Jewish Diaspora in the twentieth century, often resulting in extremely lonely, isolated, alienated characters carrying heavy burdens of history (sometimes personal sometimes of the Holocaust). Many of these characters are college professors, writers, or teachers at some level of conflict with the Jewish tradition. Transgression, as a means of escaping these burdens is often an option, but Singer’s characters rarely pursue this path without hesitation or tragic consequences. Nevertheless, Singer is never willing to reject entirely the transgressive option. We can also assume that these writings are heavily autobiographical, either deriving from Singer’s childhood and youth in Poland or his professional success in New York.

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Many of his characters exist in a sort of spiritual or social death, often despite success. A general state of paralysis and indifference exists over the lives of several characters people. In “Old Love,” Harry Bendiner lives a lonely life between Miami and New York. He even confesses, when looking at the development in Miami that: “once you pass eighty, you’re as good as a corpse.” (584) He meets a widowed woman who shuffles through life in much the same way. She speaks of her daughter and this almost inspires Harry to seek her out in British Columbia, but the story ends with the same oppressive burden of paralysis that it began with.

Throughout Passions and Other Stories mobility does little to prevent this feeling. People can move around all they want (or sometimes as a result of outside pressure) but they either return home, fall back into new banal patterns, or simply find themselves more isolated and alone than they felt back in their home towns.  Clearly family is one of the burdens that traps people into a place, but it is often no more powerful that ideology. Modernism is a common issue in Singer’s stories, creating young modern Jews who seek out a modern world in the city, often finding only loneliness and isolation.

The story “Errors” points out how oppressive the traditional family can be, showing that there is not a clear preference in his writings for tradition or for modernity. Both can be ultimately alienating. In this story, the patriarchal Zablocki stands out as a symbol for traditional filial oppression, violently abusing both the farm hands and his wife, who he “tormented to death.” (599) Zablocki was finding his domain slowly evaporated by modernity, symbolized in his tendency to lose lawsuits. “The New Year Party” gives a brief glimpse into how migration forced shifting family relations, often disempowering patriarchs. Although a positive development, Singer wants to point out how distributing and alienating the change could be. In that story, Pearl’s father lost his moral authority over his family in part due to being forced to work on the Sabbath and seeing his daughter become attracted to leftism and atheism. The man she eventually married kept patriarchal privilege (suggested through his domination of the family and his serial adultery), while being nominally politically progressive.

The signs of modernity are everywhere, besieging the traditional moral communities that Singer grew up in. The following passage is from “A Tutor in the Village.”

The peasants were becoming enlightened. The young generation wanted leather boots, not makeshift shoes of rags and bark. They wanted shingled roofs, not thatch. They girls wanted to dress in the city style. Witos, the leader of the peasant party in the Sejm, sent speakers to Kocica, who lectured to the peasants on their needs. The Communists, too, had their agitators. (693)

This is repeatedly the cause of the dislocation and alienation that the characters often feel. This is not something we should necessarily worry too much about. For many of the men, what is being lost are patriarchal privileges rooted in the family and in tradition. Others did not have much of this power to begin with, but they were losing their voice. Many of the characters are writers and thinkers and speakers working in esoteric traditions that simply lose much of their power when facing the modern world. An idiosyncratic theologian may still have a place in a village, but in New York City or Israel or Miami he is forced into conformity or risk total alienation. “Modern civilization wipes out all individuality.” (750)

My three favorite stories in this collection are “The Witch,” “The Admirer,” and “The Fatalist.” “The Witch” is about a widower and math teacher who becomes strangely infatuated with an ugly, stupid former student of his. He begins a relationship with her, a relationship that he is ashamed to confess publically, but only after learning that she may be a witch and cursed his wife to die of cancer. This can be read literarily, that he was bewitched. But a more promising reading is that the man was declaring his independence from social expectations. The young woman’s ugliness is an objective, not a subjective fact. She is ugly and stupid in her eyes based on social expectation. The death of his wife helped liberate him from these expectations. “The Admirer” is an odd tale about a writer who gets a visit from a fan, who is exposed through a series of phone calls from her estranged husband and her mother to be crazy. It is another case where a lonely intellectual is prevented from possible companionship through external expectations about what is normal and proper (enforced in this case through telephone calls). “The Fatalist” is just a fun story about a believer in fate who wins a girl by taking his belief in fate to its logical conclusions.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973)

The twenty four stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories shift across the Jewish Diaspora creating a network of relationships and themes across Poland, New York, and Palestine. His most common characters are scholars frustrated by profound questions or hedonists without an ultimate purpose. The stories set in the United States are mostly shrouded by the legacy of the Holocaust. This was not a strong theme in some of his earlier stories that I looked at months ago in this blog. It seems that the Holocaust became a greater part of Singer’s consciousness over time. In the same way, the Diaspora becomes more significant. His first stories were all set in Poland and emerged from Jewish folklore. These carry on elements of that folklore tradition but thrust them onto a global stage. One thing that seems to run throughout his work without too much alternation is the feeling that characters have lost control of their lives, whether due to malevolent beings, malevolent historical burden, or others powers (institutions, family, and ideas). As with A Friend of Kafka, the characters in A Crown of Feathers are unable to find freedom under the heavy weight of the historical burden they carry. Even in the mundane and slightly beneficial this is true. “The man in the white uniform must have been the owner, or the manager, and the cashier didn’t want him to see that he was a customer get by without paying. The powers were conspiring to provide me with one stroke of luck after another. I went out, and through the glass door I saw the cashier and the man in the white uniform laughing. They were laughing at me, the greenhorn, with my Yiddish.” (304)

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One thing we can consistently take away from Singer’s work is that freedom is difficult and the institutions that surround us shape so much of the details of our lives that escape is often unthinkable. The solution is either resistance, flight, or acceptance. However, none of these really work out. Flight most of all, because if the demons from Poland can come to haunt Jewish immigrants in New York (or more to the point the brutal legacy of the Holocaust). I am often reminded of Melville’s thesis in Omoo when I ponder desertion, flight and migration in respect to freedom. In his maritime fiction, Melville’s characters were often seeking something better elsewhere but always feel short, necessitating a permanent state of wandering. This may be seen most strongly in Mardi, where the wandering is truly endless.  Singer’s scale is less grand and his characters less able to move. Whether due to family, tradition, language, or age, their mobility cannot take them much farther than New York (or more rarely Miami). These migrants had one chance to leave the burdens of their homeland and they failed.

A Crown of Feathers also discusses the legacy of Jewish radicalism in the later twentieth century. Movement anarchists do not often come up in American literature despite the fact that vernacular anarchists are almost always there (a point I am trying to make in this blog). Singer’s Jewish intellectuals in Poland or New York often had ties to anarchists movements, but he describes these people as used up radicals, sometimes akin to the dried up and useless hedonists he also likes to describe. This point is strongest in the story “Property,” which is a deeply nostalgic look at these radicals. “Our Socialists have completely cooled off. They use the old phrases, but the spirit isn’t there. As for our Communists, they read the Red Sheet every morning, and repeat it like gospel… If their paper came out saying that Stalin was an enemy of the people and a mad dog, they would repeat it too.” (338) The anarchists were in decline even though Singer asserts that they were the ones with individuality (“even the ignorant ones had a kind of independence.”) Most of the story is a conversation with a movement anarchist Max Peshkin, who like the narrator, has moved to New York from Poland. However, his old radicalism exists only in memory, like the pictures of radical thinkers hanging on the apartment walls of washed up movement activists. Peshkin’s story moves from discussing the state of the movement to giving a rather gratuitous account of one of his affairs. The affair becomes metaphoric for the movement. “Strange, I remember in all its details how our affair began, but I have forgotten how it collapsed.” (346) If you read any histories of radical movements and revolutions you will know that this is commonly true.  (This is actually a good thing, since it means that movements and currents never fully die. Their body is never found.)

A second story on the theme of radicalism in Jewish life takes a look from the completely opposite perspective. “Grandfather and Grandson” is about a young man who rejects his grandfather’s strong Jewish identity through the emergence of his anti-capitalist beliefs. Instead of “Property,” which looked at a dying radical spirit this story considers it at its birth. As an idealistic and rather uninformed socialist, the youth thinks that all exploitation is rooted in capitalism. His grandfather tries to correct him by looking (like Singer does in these stories) at the numerous powers working to take away our freedom. The son thinks that capitalism is the only cause of Antisemitism. But his grandfather reminds him that “whoever rules will persecute Jews.” (552) I suppose both views are narrow and can be broken down without too much trouble, but we do find in this generational tale how the immigrants were ultimately able to break free of one form of ideological confinement (only to enter another one).

Singer wrote these tales at a time when cultural malaise was strong across America, affecting not only Jewish immigrants burdened by the legacy of the Holocaust. The paralysis evident in these tales is as horrifying as any of the demons that Singer’s characters encounter.

Here is Studs Terkel’s interview with Singer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970) Part 2: “Something Is There”

One story from the second half of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, A Friend of Kafka seems to me to summarize the thematic running through all the stories: the feeling of paralysis most of us get from the banality of life, whether it comes from our relationships, our community, our job, or even our religions. The early  story of the book, “Dr. Beeber,” is about a hedonist and libertine who finds boredom first in his lifestyle and then later in his a marriage he uses to replace his vulgar pursuit of pleasure. In “Something Is There,” the final story of the collection, Rabbit Nechemia fights a war against God, emerging from his growing disgust with religion, largely due to the problem of evil. “Yes, you are great, eternal, all mighty, wise, even full of mercy. But with whom do you play hide-and-seek—with flies? What help is your greatness to the fly when it falls into the net of the spider that sucks out its life?” (240) He projected all of the evils of the world – evils that as the head of the local Jewish court he helped perpetuate – onto God, his laws, and capricious nature.  His final thoughts before turning away from God was “God, is this your world?” (247)

kafka

His choice is to reject entirely his world, the village, and as much as he could, his religion, thinking that he can learn from the “heretics” in the city. He does this by moving to the city, where his brother resides. He finds it hard to escape the life of his village. He does not know how to order food to ensure it is kosher and he notices openly blasphemous books in the window of booksellers. He even toys with prostitution, but does not go through with it. He is completely out of his element. Despite his desire to leave the village he is unable to break free at the foundational level. His freedom is confined by all the experiences of his life. “Each time the rabbi asked how to reach Smotcha Street, where Simcho David [his younger brother] lived, he was advised to take a trolley car or a droshky, but the trolley seemed too formidable and a droshky was too expensive. Besides, the drive might be a Gentile. The rabbi spoke no Polish… He passed by stores that sold leather, hardware, dry-goods, and ready-made clothes. The salesman vied for customers, tore at their sleeves, winking and interspersing their Yiddish with Polish.” (249) Such disorientation shapes almost all experiences in the novel. The rabbi has detached himself from what he knew and whatever intellectual freedom he enjoyed is illusionary and burdened by the challenges of getting through life. Even his brother, he learns, is no longer familiar. He has become “a modern.” “What they worship is the ego,” he said pondering his brother’s change.

Things begin to change for Nechemia when he takes a closer look at a book on cosmology, How the Universe Came into Being. He discusses with the storekeeper about science. He warms him that the book is dated and that while the author can describe evolution, he cannot state how the universe began. He tells him to pick up the book in a few weeks and points out to him that urban life is beyond the dilemma of belief or unbelief. “In my time there were a few [unbelievers], but the old ones died and the new generation is practical. They want to improve the world but they don’t know to go about it.” (254)

In addition to learning a bit about modern science, the rabbit discovered much about the modern institutions, the prison, the hospital, and the police from a coal dealer. He mocks his stated desire to be a coal dealer, and like the book store owner suggested, had a practical understanding of God. He does not know if God exists, punishment comes in this world, not the next, and the way to make it in this world is to learn a trade, not teach ancient books. He is friendly, however, and allows the rabbi to stay with him, while he tries to teach him of the city (where to find healthy prostitutes, where he might get a job teaching if that is all he is good for).

There has been almost no progress in the rabbi. He is as mixed up as ever about life in Warsaw. He has managed to create a routine that gives his life some semblance of normalcy, but in truth he is still fully in the world of the village. This is most evidenced by this ongoing conflict with God, while surrounded people who have moved beyond such fears and concerns.  But all of that changes when the rabbi reads the cosmology book at the library. For the first time he learns of the scientific perspective. “Man descended from an ape—but where did the ape come from? And since the auuthor wasn’t present when all this happened, how could be be so sure? Their science explained everything away in distance of time and space. The first cell appeared hundreds of millions of years ago, in the slime at the edge of the ocean. The sun will be extinguished billions of years hence. Millions of stars, planets, comets, move in a space with no beginning and no end, without a plan or purpose. In the future all people will be alike, there will be a Kingdom of Freedom without competition, crises, wars, jealousy, or hatred… All books had one thing in common: they avoided the essential, spoke vaguely, and gave different names to the same object. They knew neither how the grass grew nor what light was.” (262) Bold certainty, optimism and confidence intersected with ambiguity and doubt.

At this point the story ends and the rabbi returns to the village, his spiritual conflict ended. He concludes that the entire world “worships idols” or “invented gods,” but that there are no heretics Heresy, it would seem, requires a certain engagement with religion that is lost on the urbanites.

The rabbi resolves his spiritual conflict by returning home but accepting some of the randomness, possibility, and diversity of human potential. He did not find freedom in the physical vagabondage that he pursued when he left the village, but rather in the intellectual uncertainty which is home to curiosity and wonder.