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
What follows, however, is not remotely suitable for children. Singer tells the story of an intelligent and beautiful young woman, Lise, who is married off to a brilliant and arrogant Talmudist named Shloimele. In a more conventional kind of story, Lise would resent her marriage to this unworldly and awkward man; here, on the contrary, she falls deeply in love with Shloimele, because she has always longed for the kind of intellectual pursuits forbidden to women. She becomes obsessed with her new husband and falls under his spell to a degree that seems unwholesome. The genius of the story lies in the way Shloimele and Lise unsettle us, not by their violation of Jewish custom, but by their excessively passionate fulfillment of it. Just as Lise honors the Torah, but more than a woman should, so she loves and submits to her husband much too much:
They were always whispering together, telling each other secrets, consulting books together, and calling each other odd nicknames. They also ate from the same dish, drank from the same goblet, and held hands the way young men and women of the Polish aristocracy did. Once the maid had seen Shloimele hitch up Lise with a sash as if she were a dray horse and then proceed to whip her with a twig. Lise had cooperated in this game by simulating the whinny and gait of a mare. Another game the maid had seen them play was one in which the winner pulls the earlobes of the loser, and she swore that they had continued this nonsense until the ears of both of them had been a blood red.
All of a sudden, an immemorial Jewish shtetl has become a scene of fetishism and sadomasochism. We might think of these as modern discoveries, symptoms out of Krafft-Ebing, or the tastes of jaded Viennese bourgeois; to find them in a place like Kreshev feels bizarre and unwholesome. And things only get stranger from there. Playing on Lise’s intellectual vanity as well as her sexual desire, Shloimele teaches her the antinomian theology of Shabbatai Zevi, according to which evil is good and sin hastens the coming of the Messiah. “Soon he gained such mastery over her that she obeyed him implicitly. … He commanded her to strip naked before him, crawl on all fours like an animal, dance before him … ” The climactic sin comes when Shloimele forces Lise to sleep with Mendel the coachman, explaining to her that they are the reincarnation of biblical lovers whose physical and spiritual union will bring redemption to the world.
By casting the lovers’ transgression in these terms, Singer reminds his readers that transgression is in fact not a modern phenomenon—the Shabbatai Zevi movement began in the 17th century—and that the ingenuities of sexual domination and submission can wear the costume of any period. Similar themes come up in almost all of Singer’s supernatural tales. In “Taibele and Her Demon,” a man seduces a woman under cover of darkness by claiming he is a demon, and her initial resistance gives way to passionate love. In “The Dead Fiddler,” a teenage girl’s increasing neurosis turns into full-blown demonic possession, as two dybbuks take up residence in her body; the ghosts’ dirty jokes and cruelty can be read as a genuine haunting or as the ferocious return of the repressed. In “Henne Fire,” a woman with a bad temper ends up spontaneously combusting, in a revenge of metaphor on the body.
Singer’s ghosts are expressive the way a Freudian symptom is expressive: They always reveal a truth that an individual or a society prefers to keep hidden. 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. That is because the ability to experience the supernatural in its frightening forms is the flip side of the ability to believe in its benevolent ones—above all, to believe in God.
And Singer is like Dostoevsky in his terror at the consequences that ensue when this belief vanishes. “Joy,” one of the earliest pieces in The Collected Stories, chronicles the loss of faith of a Hasidic rabbi after the death of his son. He terrifies his followers by declaring that he has become a pure materialist:
‘Then who rules the world, Rabbi?’
‘It’s not ruled.’
‘A total lie!’
‘Come, come …’
‘A heap of dung …’
‘Where did the dung come from?’
‘In the beginning was the dung.’
By the end of “Joy,” as its title promises, the rabbi regains his faith, when he is vouchsafed a deathbed vision of his loved ones in heaven. But Singer knows, and wants the reader to know, how precarious a piece of evidence such visions are. The possibility that the world is nothing but dung, sheer matter without purpose or creator, haunts him with a ferocity more often found in great 19th-century writers than 20th-century ones. It is a sign that Singer grew up in a pre-Darwinian intellectual world, in which loss of faith was still a shattering, life-defining crisis.
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.