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: “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.

Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1906–1910

Who devised the blood? Who devised the wonderful machinery which automatically drives its renewing and refreshing streams through the body, day and night, without assistance or advice from the man? Who devised the man’s mind, whose machinery works automatically, interests itself in what is pleases, regardless of his will or desire, labors all night when it likes, deaf to his appeals for mercy? God devised all these things. I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine. I am merely calling attention to the fact, nothing more. It is wrong to call attention to a fact? Is it a crime?

The last five years of Mark Twain’s life were devoted to religious speculation. Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?” The first of these is about the lack of human agency (“man as a machine”). The second argument is about the basic self-interest of human and the impossibility of real selflessness. These are essentially related because Twain believed that humans were by nature and design selfish and could not choose to be altruistic. This extends the problem of evil in an interesting way. God is the direct cause of human evil as the creator of a flawed animal.

“What is Man?” was published during Twain’s lifetime, but not under his name. It is presented in the form of an extended dialogue between an old man and a young man. The young man is idealistic and a believer in selflessness, individual merit, and freedom. The old man breaks down all of these concepts by showing that people are machines with set natures, like animals, and do all things out of selfishness. Even the charitable person, who gives his last cent to a poor woman is doing this either for self-satisfaction or for the praise of others. The dialogue ends with the young man pleading to the old man never to publish his ideas, as they will have a horrible effect on human society.

These arguments are very troubling to libertarians, but these are ideas that need to be taken on, especially since people have been making compelling arguments that free will may be a myth. What meaning can liberty have when free will is an illusion? Often these arguments can be used to justify the state, prisons, police, and asylums. We require protection from our fallen nature. The best we can hope for is freedom in the form of amor fati, acceptance and love of fate.

What this argument does give us is a rejection of hero worship and the claim that the wealthy and powerful are somehow worthy or more deserving of their share of the world’s bounty.

Personal merit? No. A brave man does not create his bravery. He is entitled to no personal credit for possessing it. It is born to him. A baby born with a billion dollars—where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing—where is the personal demerit in that? That one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it? (737)

Perhaps in this we can extract a type of argument for socialism, since individual merit does not account for individual success. But it does not see very convincing as an argument for freedom.

A second major late work of Twain’s was not published during his life is “Letters from Earth,” which consists of reports by the devil to God about the progression of his creation. It is largely a restatement of “What is Man?” but adds some mockery of Biblical literalism and the manifestation of religion among the humans. He also adds that people seem to take satisfaction in the reality of the problem of evil.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing. (905)

As with his arguments for political hierarchy, Twain believes that humans prefer to be unfree, not responsible, and controlled.

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Several months ago, I questioned the utility of cynicism when looking at Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Although Twain is much more thoughtful than Bierce in his lampooning of human nature and human motivations, the result is the same comfortable inaction. Twain is probably aware that he is establishing a self-fulfilling philosophy. By arguing that optimism is an odious immaturity and saying that moral progress is impossible, he justifies inaction and therefore a lack of moral progress. Even if Twain’s cynicism is largely right (at least for humanity since the rise of civilization), his arguments can easily be used to accept the world as it is. While this attitude may have helped give birth to the Duke and the King, it did not create Huck Finn and cannot explain his moral progress and courage.

It seems to me there is little liberty to be gained in attempting to define human nature. Perhaps that is my prejudice as a historian. Even the worst historians can tell you that humans have lived in a great diversity of social structures with a great diversity of values. Mark Twain’s approach in later life, moving from a critique of an expanding and overly optimistic America to a condemnation of all of human, strikes me as rather lazy and without benefit. On this, I am with the young man in “What is Man?”

I will leave this systematic reading of Twain’s works troubled that the same mind that created Huck Finn could leave the world so burdened by cynicism, constantly repeating the argument that man is a selfish machine. I wonder if he had to repeat it so many times to convince himself.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1970): Part One, Bordeom and Alienation

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.

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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.

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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.

Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life” (1887-1897): “Civilians”

The second half of In the Midst of Life is a bit more difficult to come to terms with because its themes are more opaque.  The first fifteen stories considered the lives of soldiers in the Civil War and suggested Bierce’s quite modern (almost 20th century) view of warfare as indiscriminate and fundamentally at odds with a republic based on the elevation of individuals due to talent.  The second half – “Civilians” – puts people in no less extraordinary situations.  We get the same feeling that there is a thin line between the extraordinary and the banal.  Criminals are hung, marriages are strained, wills are enforced, and people go mad.  This is all the everyday happenings in a society, but Bierce masterfully presents these events are bizarre, almost supernatural happenings.  It almost makes us wonder how extraordinary our own lives are.

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We also find men and women capable of transcending existing reality.  A writer in “The Suitable Surroundings” suggests the ability of literature of doing this.  The writer justifies his demand for the reader’s absolute attention as follows.  “To deny him this is immoral.  to make him share your attention with the rattle of a street car, the moving panorama of the crowds on the sidewalks, and the buildings beyond — with any of the thousands of distractions which make our customary environment — is to treat him with gross injustice.” (184)  The eleven stories that make up the second half of In the Midst of Life are full of characters who actively refuse to accept the world as it is.  Yes, their situations are often banal but as we learned in the stories about soldiers, we do not experience grand events.  Even when part of what will be larger remembered grandly (a Civil War battle for instance) our experiences are downright commonplace.  The ability to refuse existing reality is an important skill as we search for alternatives, but we do not need to be imagining alternative systems.  Often shaking our mundane lives by refusing to accept the hand we have been dealt is enough.  For instance, in “The Famous Gilson Bequest” a condemned thief leaves in his will a provision that his fortune (which turned out to be sizable) will go to the man that can provide his guilt, otherwise the wealth will go to his lawyer.  Through this simple act – a poorly-written will – a simple criminal challenged the legal system and in effect controlled the future destiny of his lawyer.  In “A Holy Terror” the protagonist goes West to hunt for gold, which he believes exists in a liquid state.  In the process he abandons his family and eventually resorts to grave robbing.

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More troubling is the many characters in these stories who are bound or trapped by their situations.  The most extreme example of this is in “The Man and the Snake,” where a bookish fellow is horrified at the presence of a snake in his room.  He dies of fright, but as it turns out the snake was merely a stuffed specimen, “its eyes were two shoe buttons.” (166)  In more run of the mill examples, people are trapped by the state, marriage, or their own personalities.  In “The Boarded Window” an Ohio frontiersman is unable to save his wife from a fever but is also unable to grieve.  “He had had no experience in grief, his capacity had not been enlarged by use.  his heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it.” (191)  Another man, incapable of admitting his adultery spends years in prison for burglary.  When he later meets his former lover, she falls out of her window in a mad effort to reach out to him.  The narrator reminds us that although she was capable of breaking the divine law of God against adultery she could not break the natural law of gravity. (“The Man out of the Nose”)  In the same way that the line between the extraordinary and the banal is subtle and depends on your perspective, the line between freedom and confinement is vague at best.

Perhaps due to his 1888 separation from his wife over concerns about her infidelity, Bierce’s stories from this 1890s seems to suggest a profound ambivalence about marriage.  The relationships we see in these stories are often shallow, existing in name only, shattered by adultery, or simply bizarre.  He even used one character’s lack of knowledge about snake species to throw out “a man who ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is entitled to a divorce.”  (165)  More brutal is “An Adventure of Brownville” which involves the narrator observing the violence within another family after overhearing a conversation.  In attempts to intervene to the wife after her sister died under suspicious circumstances.  The wife eventually finds escape only in suicide, which had no affect on her husband who treated her death with legalistic abstraction.  He strolled from his wife’s body singing “La donna e mobile.”

Bierce is decidedly misanthropic and often pessimistic, but there are brief windows of optimism in his work.  Not only does he embrace characters who are capable of acts of goodness and conscious in the face of systems or individuals that are clearly psychopathic.  More importantly, he sometimes shows that is possible to transcend the traps fate lays for us.  As with prisoners, escape may be all but impossible but that does not relieve of us the obligation to attempt escape.  Our first step, and the one Bierce embraces, is to step away from the gigantism of the era.  Compared to the soldiers, the civilians had options to escape the indiscriminate violence and enforced indifference.