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.

William James, “Psychology: A Briefer Course”, Part Two

This is a continuation of my previous post on James’ psychology textbook, which was a condensed version of The Principles of Psychology.  As we saw, James’ moves us from the biological foundations of the mind and the senses (mostly common to all of us) to our individualized conception of “the self.”  The second half of the book, collected in the Library of America’s volume of James’ early writings, covers specific ways that this “self” interacts with the world through conception of the external world, association, memory, imagination, space, time, emotion, reason, instinct and will.  I suspect the most interesting question in psychology for libertarians is to what degree is liberty of will possible.  This is a question currently being discussed by neuroscientists.  The familiarity of James’ musings on free will, comes from my relatively brief exposure to some of these current debates, which seem to suggest free will as we normally understand it is an illusion, even if not entirely morally irrelevant.  James presents some skepticism about free will, but more or less rejects its relevance, because of the crucial nature of action.  We have already seen that James presents action as the key to habit formation (or breaking).  It is here there there is hope for freedom.  “The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life.  He can stand this Universe. . . . He forms a part of human destiny. . . . Thus not only our morality but our religion, so far as the latter is deliberate, depend on the effort which we can make.  “Will you or won’t you have it so?” is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.  We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words.  What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!  What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as men!  What wonder if the amount which we accord of it were the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!.” (425–426)

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As we go through the text with an eye to the question of action and will, we see the centrality of the material world, our interaction with it, and willingness to transform it to shape our will (and in doing so shaping our mental conception of the world).  Even pure reason (if even possible) is bound by this. “All consciousness is motor.  The reader will not have forgotten, in the jungle of purely inward processes and products through which the last chapters have born him, that the final result of them all must be some form of bodily activity.”  (347)  Even pure imagination is a product of experience and action.  A blind person cannot imagine color.  In the same way, we cannot imagine alternatives to the world we have without making them to some degree realized.  (The frustration of reading science fiction is that the authors rarely can envision economic, social, or political systems that do not have parallels to the world around us.)

So, yes, if we accept James’ position, we find that we are bound by the physicality of our experiences and physical construct.  Our capacity for imagination, free-will, and reason are inexorably bound.  This may frustrate those who seek liberty of thought and action.  Our solution is to act and through action, our will can be actualized.  In the process we may be surprised at what we create, do, think, or envision.

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I was reading the chronology of James’ life.  Every volume of the Library of America has an author’s bio in the form of a chronology.  William and Henry had a brother named Robert (Bob).  William James seems to have spend a bit of time keeping track of Bob, occasionally trying to set him straight.  Once Bob was running a cotton plantation in Florida, later he took a job in Iowa as a railroad clerk.  He was an amateur painter, worked as a curator of a Milwaukee museum.  A few years later William has to drag Bob from his drunken stupor in Milwaukee, where he can dry him out in Boston.  A wanderer with a soft-spot for Milwaukee will always warm my heart.
It seems to me that Bob James is worthy of a biographer, or that at least the three brothers show up in a television comedy (My Three James?)

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