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)

singer

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.

cover

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)

feathers

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.