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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.)

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.’
‘Who then?’
‘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.

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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