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I.B. Singer, the Last Demon

In stories written in Poland and the U.S., the modernist master Isaac Bashevis Singer mined folk tales to convey the 20th century’s essential cruelty

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Michal Chelbin, detail from Alona in the Bedroom, Ukraine, 2006, C-Print, 37 x 37 inches. (Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York.)

Scripture” is a series exploring 20th-century Jewish fiction.

For American Jews, one legacy of the Holocaust is a sense of guilty nostalgia toward the life of our ancestors in Eastern Europe. The nostalgia is natural enough—it is the idealization of an unknown past that is common among American immigrant groups, as Irish or Italian as it is Jewish. What makes the Jewish American experience different is the fact that our “old country” did not continue to evolve and develop after we left it, because it was violently destroyed. We treat our past with kid gloves—see, for instance, Fiddler on the Roof—because we are afraid that if we handle it too roughly it will be shattered beyond repair.

Issac Bashevis Singer had a darker, less-pious take on this overwhelming sense of fragility in “The Last Demon,” a very short tale that can be found in The Collected Stories—his single greatest book, and the one by which he is known to most readers. It takes the form of a monologue by a demon who is the last survivor of the town of Tishevitz, now that the human inhabitants have been killed in the Holocaust. This manifestation of human evil has made supernatural evil irrelevant, obsolete: “Why demons, when man himself is a demon? Why persuade to evil someone who is already convinced?” the demon-narrator asks. He himself has no one left to prey on, and no source of sustenance except an old Yiddish storybook left behind in an abandoned house: “But nevertheless the letters are Jewish. The alphabet they could not squander. I suck on the letters and feed myself. … Yes, as long as a single volume remains, I have something to sustain me.”

The parallel between demon and writer could hardly be clearer: Both are living on language, after the people who spoke the language are gone. But the story also constitutes a complaint about the incongruity of a demon, or a writer, having to take up the task of commemoration and preservation. For Singer, this was a particularly ironic fate, because the whole energy of his fiction is negative—mocking, disputatious, despairing, perverse. These are the characteristic traits of so much modern fiction that it should not be surprising to find them in Singer, a younger contemporary of Mann, Proust, and Kafka. Yet even now, 21 years after his death, there remains something odd, even transgressive, about thinking of Singer as a modernist. Modernism rebels, disrupts, and tears down; but the civilization against which Singer’s rebellion was directed was itself disrupted and torn down, rendering any kind of modernist impiety not just unnecessary but almost blasphemous.

It took great courage and luck simply for Singer to break with his Hasidic background and establish himself in the Yiddish literary circles of interwar Warsaw—along with a large dose of help from his initially more successful older brother, the novelist Israel Joshua Singer. It was another stroke of luck that allowed Israel Joshua to bring Isaac to America in 1935, in time to avoid the Nazi Holocaust that would annihilate the majority of his readership. Most remarkable of all, however, was Singer’s ability to go on to producing fiction in a language of ghosts—stories dealing with a dead or dying world that were nonetheless living works of art. No wonder that as a Yiddish writer after 1945—the only one known to most American Jewish readers—Singer was regarded as, and called upon to be, a representative of the Old World, a medium channeling a perished Yiddish culture. After all, wasn’t his work itself filled with mediums, ghosts, and spirits, with dybbuks and demonic possession—all the paraphernalia of a vanished superstition? Where but in Singer’s pages was this lore kept alive?

To read Singer’s collected stories is to realize the extent of American Jewish piety toward the Old World, because of its total absence from Singer’s fiction. As the son and grandson of Hasidic rabbis, growing up in the small town of Bilgoray, Singer needed to summon all the negative force he could to propel himself into a modern intellectual and literary world. This was a familiar Jewish story, dating back to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th century. What made Singer different, and left him so well suited to misreading by an American audience, is that he did not attack Jewish belief and superstition and folk culture, the way so many maskilim did in the 19th century. A Singer tale about demonic possession does not ridicule its characters for believing in such a thing. Rather, Singer grants the existence of possession but allows us to understand it as a species of obsession; he paints ancient mysticism in the lurid colors of modern psychology. Above all, like Freud, Singer focuses on the destructive energies of sexuality, which he sees pulsing just below the surface of a traditionally puritanical Jewish culture.

The result is that Singer’s stories about supernatural occurrences are neither folkish nor preciously magical-realist, but genuinely uncanny and often frightening studies of human nature. Take, for instance, “The Destruction of Kreshev,” another story narrated by the devil: “I am the Primeval Snake, the Evil One, Satan,” he begins. The effect of such an opening is almost reassuring: Singer knows that his audience does not believe in Satan, and we are not expected to take such a narrator seriously. The coyness continues when Singer describes Kreshev as a town “about as large as one of the smallest letters in the smallest prayer books”: This is the language of a children’s story.

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gemel says:

This is a wonderful article on Singer’s work. It is important to also acknowledge the other side of  IB Singer; the IB Singer who wrote “In My Father’s Court,” which in many ways is semi-autobiographical, a loving picture of Chasidism and Jewish life in Poland pre WWI and in the post-war period.

Sari_Friedman says:

Thank you Adam Kirsch for your superb and beautifully-reasoned analysis of IB Singer’s brilliant work. My personal favorite is “Gimple the Fool” — such a bald, authentic, cri de creur.

This side of Singer is the one I have always been least attracted by. There is of course another Singer, the Singer of ‘The Little Shoemakers’ ‘The Spinoza of Market Street’ ‘Short Friday’. This the Singer of powerful love and sympathy for his characters, for a real sense of the holiness of Jewish life. This is the Singer which sees the beauty of his Jewish world and characters. He has irony and humor and a depth of warm feeling. This ‘positive’ Singer for me is the more real Singer, or perhaps the more lovable and admirable one. And this Singer however many defects he may find it does show a kind of love for much of the Jewish traditional world.

maayan kreitzman says:

I picked up “The Magician of Lublin” just recently for the first time. I was actually shocked (in a good way) by it. Having never read anything by IB Singer, I was expecting something folksy, which is why the book languished on the shelf for so long after I got is as a gift.
Instead I discovered an ultra-modern character haunted by loss of faith, sexual excess, and very compelling psychological torture. In Poland, in Yiddish, but there was nothing nostalgic here.
Thanks to Mr. Kirsch for assuring me that I’m not imagining things!

shularosen says:

“Indeed, because demons are so much a part of
Singer’s human ecology, their absence in a Singer story is usually more
terrible than their presence. ” Oh my yes. This is so true of reading Singer’s work. For those who are used to reading all about demons in his short stories, when he writes a “naturalistic” work like “Enemies a Love Story” without demons, one sees demons everywhere. Herman is a lost soul, and demons are lost souls, trying to inhabit bodies in the form of the women he sleeps with and marries. Masha is a demonic character with endless energy, a temper of fire, chain-smoking, constantly breathing smoke, filled with love and pain. Tamar is half-dead and half-alive, she describes herself this way…she is also a “demon.” Herman is a “ghost writer” for a rabbi, and that is also somewhat like demonic possession. Yadwiga is a convert to Judaism, and according to Jewish tradition, a non Jew who is destined to convert has a Jewish soul lodged within them…a kind of demonic possession, no? Interesting that, in Enemies a Love Story, it is possible to see as many implied demons, perhaps more, than one sees in Singers stories that explicitly deal with demons. 

BenBochner says:

Thank you, Adam.  Your thoughtful commentary is worthy of Singer’s work. It reminded me, again, of how much I love this totally original writer.

I don’t think Singer has ever been truly recognized for his contributions, perhaps the greatest of which was creating the persona of the nebbishy writer with philosophical pre-occupations that Woody Allen turned into a movie star. Without Isaac Bashevis Singer, would there ever have been a Woody Allen?

Luke Lea says:

For life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust I Hope you review The Family Mashber by Der Nister  if you haven’t already.  An under appreciated  masterpiece in world literature in my  opinion.

Some time ago, in an old American Jewish Yearbook, there was a
“review” of “Satan in Goray,” wherein the reviewer, in an attempt to perpetuate the sepia-toned nostalgia of the shtetl so cherished by American Jews, ended with (and I paraphrase): “But that is not the way things were . . . ”

I was in Singer’s apartment once. Saw his desk and books and everything. I recall his seeing his Nobel Prize; looked like a big leatherette-bound menu. I couldn’t see them, but I sensed the presence of imps and goblins . . .

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I.B. Singer, the Last Demon

In stories written in Poland and the U.S., the modernist master Isaac Bashevis Singer mined folk tales to convey the 20th century’s essential cruelty