Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street”

I ended last post with a suggestion that we can take Singer’s descriptions of a conservative, inward-looking world under threat of external forces as an opportunity for liberation.  What these demons, devils, ghosts and the like challenges was the static moral world of the peasant community.  This is a moral order reinforced in many cultures through folklore.  Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, often end with a return to normalcy after a threat is confronted or to some for of justice being meet out by the cosmos (think of “The Juniper Tree”).  I wondered last time whether we should embrace the devil and refuse to “serve in heaven”.  No small amount of the moral universe of the religious community and the peasant commune is odious to say the least: oppressive marriages, fear of outsiders, wasteful religious traditions.  And as many of these same themes are worked out in The Spinoza of Market Street I thought I would on this some more.


I want to take the other approach and try to look at these external threats from the perspective of the peasant moral universe.  It is relatively easy for outsiders, who do not benefit directly from the traditional rural community to see it as backward and reactionary at best, oppressive and delusional at worst.  James Scott has written a great deal about the moral universe of the peasant.  In his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance he explores this moral universe’s confrontation with modern capitalism.  “The historically given, negotiated, moral context of village life is one in which, if only ideological, the cards are stacked against the newer forms of capitalist behavior.  This moral context consists of a set of expectation and preferences about relations between the well-to-do and the poor.  By and large, these expectations are cast in the idioms of patronage, assistance, consideration, and helpfulness.  They apply to employment, tenancy, charity, feast giving, and the conduct of daily social encounter.  They imply that those who meet these expectation will be treated with respect, loyalty, and social recognition.  What is involved, to put it crudely, is a kind of ‘politics of reputation’ in which a good name is conferred in exchange for adherence to a certain code of conduct.” (Jame Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 184–185).  For Scott, capitalism broke down this moral order based on reciprocity.  The response of peasants in various times and contexts was resistance.  This same argument was made in the field of Chinese history by Roxann Prazniak and Prasenjit Duara.  Both considered how peasants responded to the destruction of what Duara called the “cultural nexus of power,” or, to put it simply, the moral economy of peasant life.  In both authors’ perspective, the destroyer was modernity in its manifest forms.  For these thinkers, the peasant world was conservative, but it was collectively lived and cooperative.  Most importantly, the ruling classes were bound by the same moral universe.  They were a part of it and their right to command the society, to tax it, or to exploit it ended when the survival of the peasants was threatened.  This is perhaps what made “The Gentleman of Cracow” such an attractive figure. He promised to restore the normalcy that was devastated by a drought.


In The Spinoza of Market Street we start to see evidence of the threats facing the Eastern European peasant community in the later nineteenth century.  As in other peasant cultures of the time, the shtetl was under threat from encroaching capitalism and the state.  In these stories, the state is still largely a distant threat, but it is a threat and it does challenge the moral order of the village.  In “The Shadow of a Crib” a new doctor arrived.  To help secure his position in the town he sided with the values and politics of the town against that of the Russian state.  “The apothecary, the mayor appointed by the Russians, the notary public and the Russian authorities were all partisan to Dr. Chwaschinski.  Since Yaretzky [the newcomer] did not attend church, the priest maintained that the doctor was no Christian but an infidel, perhaps a Tartar — and a heathen.  Some suggested that he might even poison people.  He could be a sorcerer.  Bu the destitute Jews of bridge street and the sand flats patronized Dr. Yaretzky.” (206)  The real test came during the conscription, when he aided the Jews by providing (for a fee) deferments for service.  More broadly than the state, and much more visible in most of the stories, is the mobility caused by a changing world more shaped by capitalism than ever.  Inequality led to greater mobility as poor beggars searched for work.  In “The Beggar Said So” we are introduced to a poor man looking for work as a chimney sweep.  In the cornerstone piece of this collection “The Destruction of Kreshev” the readers are introduced to Mendel.  “No one in Kreshev knew quite where this Mendel had come from.  One story was that he’d been a love child who’d been abandoned in the steets.  Others said he was the child of a convert. Whatever his origins, he was certainly an ignoramus.”  (289)  He was also a sexual threat, famous for seducing the women of the town.    Intellectuals trained in distant cities came in with new ideas.  While “the Spinoza” of Market Street spend his life with the classic Jewish philosopher, others came in with more radical worldviews.  One of the principle characters of “The Destruction of Kreshev” was Shloimele, who married Lise – a precious and intellectually-curious young woman.  Shloimele “had studied philosophy and the cabala, and was an adept in mystical mathematics, being able even to work out fractions which are to be found in the treatise of Kilaim.  It goes without saying that he had had a look at the Zohar and “The Tree of Life” and he knew “The Guide to the Perplexed” as well as his own first name.” (293-294)  This intellectualism leads Shloimele to sexual perversions and became a threat to the town’s stability when he convinced his wife to have sex with Mendel.

It is hard to deny that Singer seems to be on the side of the moral economy as it comes under threat of the modern world.  But let us not hastily paint it as social conservatism run amok.  As the scholars of peasant economies and peasant resistance have pointed out, resistance to the encroachment of capitalism and the state could only emerge from the moral argument.  That moral universe may have much we find repugnant but it nevertheless remains a source of significant power.  In the world today, some of the most significant (if possibly doomed) movements against capitalism come from the rapidly disintegrating peasant world (Zapatistas, Maoist rebels in India).