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
“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.
Evaluating comedy on its political merit is like disassembling a vibrator to analyze its mechanics: You can do it, but that’s not what it’s for.