Navigate to Arts & Letters section

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

Adam Kirsch
April 18, 2012
Michal Chelbin, detail from Alona in the Bedroom, Ukraine, 2006, C-Print, 37 x 37 inches.(Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York.)
Michal Chelbin, detail from Alona in the Bedroom, Ukraine, 2006, C-Print, 37 x 37 inches.(Courtesy of Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York.)

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.

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.

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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.