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
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.
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.