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.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness”: The Case for Unlocking the Necronomicon

Continuing my study of the collected stories of H. P. Lovecraft, I read two long stories, both produced around 1930: “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” In that last two posts, I critiqued Lovecraft from the Promethean perspective of the Enlightenment.  It seems to me that Lovecraft’s suspicions about science, his tendency to punish people for opening forbidden books or exploring forbidden knowledge, and the often-used plot device where a character recommends that everything is done to avoid revising a strange phenomenon (rather than exploring it in more detail) all are informed by his deep political conservatism, his xenophobia, and his fear of modernity. What I have not confessed is that I very much enjoyed reading his stories, even as I find their moral or political perspective troubling.  I certainly do not think all work needs to necessarily assume a projectoral life. But at the same time, I think Lovecraft’s writings come from an all too common and very unfortunate perspective on the world, based on fear (the most primal emotion according to Lovecraft) and cowardice.  Most of his stories are based on investigation of an unknown phenomenon, but almost always end with an attempt to seal the truth because the truth simply cannot be understood by human senses or experiences (describable). Like the Necronomicon, locked behind the desk at the Miskatonic University Library, the indifferent alien forces that surround us are best unknown. In short, my perspective was that the “Unknowable Horror” is a very weak and passive position to take through life and generally not suitable to free and creative people.  However, I am not realizing that this not an entirely fair way to read Lovecraft. We should start, not from a commitment to the Enlightenment project, but instead by starting with the reality of the unknowable.

Lovecraft is embracing a not uncommon modernist critique of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, progress, and equality. Any rightwing politics he embraced derived from this, but it is not a unique perspective. This skepticism of the Enlightenment is deep in the DNA of modernist thought, science, literature, and art.  We can assume the worst and imagine that the senses fail us, that human progress is not possible or at least not very likely, that science can never explain the world enough to provide any security, and that the many enemies we face in life are ultimately unknowable. We can also just assume, with Lovecraft, that there are forces out there that look upon us with the indifference that we look at ants.  This does not actually take long to justify. A lab rat in a maze, certainly cannot conceive of the reasons he is being tormented, or even the ultimate purpose of the insane experiments we inflict on him.  And it takes a profound human arrogance to assume that we share any emotions, perspectives, or understanding with the rat.  This is not a random example because the plot of At the Mountains of Madness is based on aliens living in Antarctica, experimenting on the human explorers who discover their presence. If we can accept that the rat faced unknowable things, it is also arrogant to assume we would never face it ourselves.  So my question is: assuming that human reason has limits, what is the proper path of life?

Another way of stating this would be to ponder if the existence of the unknowable would suggest an abandonment of our inquisition of the world. Should we be like the narrator of At the Mountains of Madness and vow never to approach that unknowable again, better to lock it up with the Necronomicon?  I could point out that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories have at their center an investigator (often as narrator). In “The Whisperer in the Darkness” it is an investigator searching out the reality behind rumors of inhuman and unknown creatures in Vermont. In At the Mountains of Madness, the investigators are a team studying fossils in the Antarctic. Even if our conclusion of the tales we read is that the people would be better off not investigating the horrors, Lovecraft still cannot help but celebrate the investigator. They also always tend to move themsleves closer and closer to the horror before deciding that caution is essential.  Their curiosity about the unknown (reflected of course in Lovecraft himself in creating his myths) is quite admirable and perhaps a lesson about our proper orientation to any limitations we face as somewhat evolved apes.  Is Lovecraft telling us to push to the very limit of understanding?

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Our real danger is not our tendency to reach this limit of knowledge. Instead, we are mostly threatened by the cowardice or laziness coming in too soon.  Too often we accept the reality of unknowable or indescribable threats, evils, or dangers (think “terrorism” or “capitalism” or “the government”) and often fail to even pursue an analysis.  Like Lovecraft’s characters, perhaps we should err on the side of knowability and touch that limit even at the risk of facing the “unknowable horrors.”  And like Wilbur Whately did when he demanded that Miskatonic University allow him to read the Necronomicon, we should demand that at the very least our rulers open their books to our gaze.