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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.)

His greatest story on this theme is “Something Is There,” another tale of a rabbi losing his faith. This time, however, the experience of Rabbi Nechemia seems to mirror that of Singer himself: Nechemia too leaves behind his small town and joins his older brother in Warsaw. And perhaps Singer also had the disillusioning experience of realizing that his kind of furious atheism was already passé. When Nechemia goes into a bookstore and asks to buy a book titled How the Universe Came Into Being, the clerk only laughs at him: “Well, I guess the Enlightenment is still alive, the same as fifty years ago. This is the way they used to come to Vilna and ask, ‘How was the world created? Why does the sun shine? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ We don’t know, my dear man, we don’t know. We have to live without faith and without knowledge.” On his deathbed, Nechemia, like the rabbi in “Joy,” experiences a revelation: but this time it is not a promise of Heaven, only the bare realization that “something is there.” The fact that there is something rather than nothing is the only metaphysical consolation available to us.

It is his reluctance to accept that conclusion that makes Singer—like Saul Bellow—so tolerant of certain kinds of mystical quackery. If his stories set in Poland use ghosts psychologically and expressionistically, Singer’s stories set in America after the war treat the whole subject with skeptical indulgence. That is the tone of a story like “The Seance,” in which Dr. Zorach Kalisher consults a medium, Mrs. Kopitzky, who is a patent fraud: “For Dr. Kalisher it was all one big joke; but if one lived in a bug-ridden room and had a stomach spoiled by cafeteria food, if one was in one’s sixties and completely without family, one became tolerant of all kinds of crackpots.” At the titular seance, Kalisher, who like many of Singer’s protagonists has prostate trouble, goes to the bathroom and stumbles upon the woman hired by Mrs. Kopitzky to impersonate a ghost. Still, the story’s final line gives the medium the last word: “You’re laughing, huh? There is no death, there isn’t any. We live forever, and we love forever. This is the pure truth.”

The longing in that declaration is all the more powerful for being assigned to a foolish and false prophet. And in other stories, Singer plays with the idea that time and space really are just veils over a deeper reality, which occasionally shines through. Perhaps the most famous example comes in “The Cafeteria,” in which a woman confides to the Singer-like narrator that she has seen Hitler in a cafeteria on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It had seemed utter nonsense,” he muses at the end of the story, “but now I began to reappraise the idea. If time and space are nothing more than forms of perception, as Kant argues … why shouldn’t Hitler confer with his Nazis in a cafeteria on Broadway? Esther didn’t sound insane. She had seen a piece of reality that the heavenly censorship prohibits as a rule.”

The way Hitler appears in this story is a sign of what is perhaps the greatest of Singer’s strengths: his refusal to allow his understanding of reality to be dictated by the experience of the Holocaust. It is unmistakable that Singer’s postwar stories take place in a world shaped by the Holocaust—a floating, intercontinental world of Jewish refugees and survivors, in which a face glimpsed in Warsaw decades earlier suddenly turns up in New York or Miami Beach or Tel Aviv. But the lives of Singer’s survivors are lives, full of absurdity and complication and love affairs and sickness. That is, they are lives beheld in their full reality, not as ghostly codas.

By the time he left Poland for America, Singer was already 33 years old; by the time the world learned the full dimensions of the Holocaust, he was 43. The terms of his engagement with the great questions of life and fiction—the existence of God, the power of sexuality, the terror of extinction—were already fully formed by the time the Holocaust came. As a result, Singer is not obsessed with the ethics of representing the Holocaust, the way so many later Jewish writers would be. In The Collected Stories, he has no interest in writing “Holocaust stories,” in the sense of narrating the experience of victims. Instead, when he wants to indict the essential cruelty of the world, Singer writes a story like “The Slaughterer,” in which a squeamish man is appointed as village shochet and is driven mad by the suffering of the animals:

He went outside and began to walk toward the river, the bridge, the wood. His prayer shawl and phylacteries? He needed none! The parchment was taken from the hide of a cow. The cases of the phylacteries were made of calf’s leather. The Torah itself was made of animal skin. ‘Father in Heaven, Thou art a slaughterer!’ a voice cried in Yonah Meir. ‘Thou are a slaughterer and the Angel of Death! The whole world is a slaughterhouse!’

It would be easy to read this simply as a Holocaust parable. But Singer’s vegetarianism was unshakable and has to be taken on its own terms. Indeed, in another story, “The Letter Writer,” he goes so far as to write that “in relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” One might say that Singer’s realization of the evils of the world was so early established, through reflection on animals and on ordinary human lives, that the Holocaust could add nothing to it—or else that he refused to allow the Holocaust the power to remake his understanding. To a surprising extent, the catastrophe that defined Singer’s life and times does not define The Collected Stories. This stubborn fidelity to his own vision and experience is one of the things that makes him timeless.

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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

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