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Critical Essay by Dan Miron
SOURCE: "Passivity and Narration: The Spell of Bashevis Singer," translated by Uriel Miron, in Judaism, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 6-17.
In the following essay, Miron contends that Singer's fiction is not typical of contemporary Yiddish literature, citing the fatalistic passivity and underlying nihilism in his work as the major point of divergence. According to Miron, Singer's characters portray a "human existence that runs from birth without will to a death without choice."
Isaac Bashevis Singer, last of the great Yiddish story-tellers, passed away at a ripe old age, crowned with international success and renown. His death seems to carry a note of half-reconciled farewell to a rich and vital literary tradition that won neither the appreciation nor the longevity that it deserved.
The beginnings of this tradition appeared about a hundred and thirty years ago in the form of the juvenile works in Yiddish of Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Yitschak Yoel Linetsky: The Pupil [eye], The Magic Ring, Fishke the Lame, and The Polish Lad. From these roots Yiddish fiction flowered into its "classical" age with the mature Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz. The decades between the two World Wars saw the great branching out of this tradition in the works of maestros like Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister and Moshe Kulbak, and in many other talented writers, such as Sholem Asch, Itshe Meir Weissberg, Yonah Rosenfeld, Yisrael Yehoshua Singer, Yosef Opatoshu, E. M. Fuchs and their colleagues. During the war and after it, in the dark, final days of Stalin's rule, the Yiddish literary tradition succumbed to the axeblows of murderers and tyrants, and now it seems to have reached its final hour. In the long chain of brilliant and colorful reflections, highly diverse and yet complementary, of the life of the Jewish Ashkenazi tribe of eastern Europe as it was mirrored in the minds of the tribe's most talented members, soaked through with the essential juices of its unique historical presence and yet cut loose from their cultural moorings, open to the culture of their times—in this chain the final link has been closed.
These days, it is said, prophecy is the privilege of fools alone, and this rule may apply even to the prophecy regarding the future of the Yiddish tongue and its literature. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that the spiritual-literary reality that found its last concentrated expression in the works of Bashevis Singer is no longer. This was clear to all, long before Bashevis himself reached the pinnacle of his literary successes with the receiving of the Nobel prize for literature in 1978. This witty, skeptical Jew, devoid of all pathos and full of humor, who combined sarcasm with tragedy and fatalism, traveled across the American and international literary scene like a "last of his kind." The international cultural community that lavished its appreciation upon him (as opposed to the servings of envy and hatred that he received from the rapidly shrinking Yiddishist cultural establishment), did so, of course, because of his ability to tell stories that conquered hearts almost in any language, and in any place where they were told but it did so, among other reasons, as a gesture of farewell to a literary culture that was rich and vital in its day, and as a gesture of grief and regret for the horrifying circumstances that brought that culture to the point of extinction. Isaac Bashevis was the last great emissary of the kingdom of Yiddish to the world of western culture in the second half of the twentieth century.
Because of this historical representivity, which, by the way, was thrust upon Bashevis neither to his benefit nor by his consent, and without taking his qualities and character into account (he possessed none of the attributes of a "cultural leader"), it is perhaps fitting that we turn our attention to the fact that he was not actually a typical representative of modern Yiddish literary culture. Even though he grew up in the heart of this culture during the peak of its development in Poland, in the period between the two World Wars, he remained a stranger and an oddity within it. This, and not just the almost insane personal envy, might be the reason for the suspicion and even aversion with which he was held by the Yiddishist establishment.
In its essence, the difference between Bashevis' work and the whole of the modern Yiddish literary corpus (apart from a few very narrow and marginal segments of it) reveals itself in one crucial aspect. Bashevis approached the act of literary creation with a base-experience of underlying awareness that falls under the sign of fatalism and nihilism. Human existence and, certainly, Jewish existence appeared to him suffused with evil and suffering, torn apart from within by internal conflicts that cannot be resolved, pervaded by an absurdity both comical and tragic. Moreover, he was convinced that any organized effort to correct and improve man's lot, any will to guide it towards some "salvation" according to an ideological-eschatological program, was doomed to failure. Not only would such efforts fail to right life's wrongs, they would even increase the suffering and evil to the point of holocaust. Bashevis "understood" the twentieth century as an age in which a suffering humanity was forced to follow lethal ideological-eschatological agendas which gave birth to a murderousness unequaled in viciousness and horror by any evil known to man throughout all of history. He was opposed with all his heart (and even that without pathos and with the awareness that opposition itself was hopeless) to any eschatological human organization and especially Soviet and international Communism, and almost to the same degree any Jewish eschatological movement such as Zionism, national socialism (the Bund), etc. The only spiritual position that he accepted was passive-fatalistic. By adopting this stance a person might achieve a certain "saintliness," to the degree that he or she gives up from the very start any attempt to control his or her own destiny, let alone that of others, and this out of the awareness of the moral superiority of surrender over initiative or over the desire to steer the course of events in the "desired" direction. Bashevis' "saint" is the "fool" who is not a fool at all. Gimpel the Fool, the hero of his early story of the same name, that, in its superb English translation by Saul Bellow, opened for Bashevis the door through which he could address the American and international audiences and capture their hearts, is in the framework of the Bashevian story-telling art, the most complete human being. He is not the fool that those who exploit him throughout his entire life believe him to be. He sees through their lies. He knows of their malice towards him. He knows that his wife is deceiving him and that his children are not of his seed. He knows full well that he has always been cheated and exploited in everything, yet he accepts this state of affairs in his awareness that any response on his part would only serve to increase the wickedness and suffering.
In the eyes of Bashevis, Gimpel is the archetypical Jew, just as he is the embodiment of the Yiddish language—a language with no territory, no protection, no cultural-political alliances, no prestige and no army or any military terminology—the language of the weak, the victims. It is as a representative of this Yiddish and its speakers that Bashevis trod the paths of the modern world of power-struggles and protest, the world of the demanders of rights and the "discrimination-gruntled." As such an emissary he reached Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize for literature and, likewise, he arrived in Israel for his famous conversation with Menachem Begin, in which he demonstrated to the primeminister how ridiculous military pomp would be if it were carried out in Yiddish. Neither Begin nor the Israeli public caught on that, in his ironic-humorous way, Bashevis was expressing his reservations towards Israel as an authentic Jewish entity, as though he were saying: A real, authentic Jew who thinks and behaves as you do, my dear Israeli friends, is nothing but a joke, an incongruity, a Yeshiva-Boher brandishing a sword and clutching a general's staff as if it were a broom-stick.
This moral and philosophical position (not, however, the opposition to Zionism itself) was utterly alien to the mainstream of the new Yiddish literature. Like much of modern Jewish culture, the central tradition of Yiddish literature had sprung out of the opposition to what appeared to be the inertia and passivity of the old, traditional Jewish way of life. This is not the forum for a deliberation of the degree of truth in the claims made over the last two-hundred years against Jewish inertia and passivity. Modern Jewish culture and the new Yiddish literature as a whole operated under the assumption that the Jewish people, who had for centuries refused to take an active part in the formation of history, and had thus relegated themselves to the passive position in its most extreme sense (the position of the victim), must break out of their national passivity. To achieve this they must also abandon their static adherence to the religious-halakhic tradition, to which they clung in their effort to preserve their distinctiveness and exclusiveness and to worship their God (their only desiderali). This new culture and literature asserted that the Jewish nation must open its world to humanistic ideas that place man, his values, qualities and needs, at the center of life and culture: ideas that point towards ways of attending to these needs while improving man's qualities and realizing the positive potential hidden in the "human condition."
Modern Jewish culture demanded that the people of Israel apprehend life through the lens of humanism, and by this willful act of comprehension break through to the heart of historical becoming. It hoped for the awakening of a national will ("Awake my people, how long will you slumber?"), recommended activity, vigor readiness to struggle and effort to change. Yiddish literature endorsed these recommendations with the best of its talents, all of its earthy vivacity and all of the immediacy of its contact with the Jewish masses. When Yiddish literature sprang from the ideological soil of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) in the nineteenth century, or when it reflected, at the turn of the century, the birth of modern Jewish nationalism, or when it played a central role, later in the twentieth century, in the burgeoning Jewish socialist movements, its call to the Jewish people was a call for change and awakening. The voice of this call was not mitigated even when this literature appeared to be clinging with nostalgia to the popular-traditional Jewish milieu with its religio-cultural underpinnings and its colorful folklore which had already acquired an "exotic" flavor, as it were. It can be shown that Y. L. Peretz's hassidic tales and folk-like-legends, for example, not only infuse the pseudo-folk narrative material with modern humanist referents, but also cast doubts upon the validity of the traditional culture that they presumed to represent or duplicate, and even undermine it. The call of Yiddish literature was not just against halakhic-religious rule and the control which it exerted over every aspect of Jewish life, or against hassidic supernaturalism (although these did inform a major part of its message throughout the nineteenth century); it was primarily directed against the passivity, weakness, inertia, and stagnation that encumbered any process of awakening or overcoming.
Into this cultural continuity, that cast its lot with change, will-power and "the courage to transform," entered Isaac Bashevis Singer, bringing with him both as innate qualities and as a fully developed world view, a deep distrust in human will-power and an absolute aversion for both the Nietzschean "will to power" and the liberal faith in "progress." He brought an aversion to any overly vigorous human activity—individual and even more so collective, national or class activity. He was suspicious of the motives of such activity and predicted catastrophic results for it. He didn't believe that penetration into the "heart of history," which was nothing more than the heart of a dark and murderous power struggle, would bring the people of Israel any profit, let alone relief. He was willing to accept—and this is very rare in both modern Yiddish literature and its Hebrew counterpart—complete passivity. Y. L. Peretz wrote the story "Bontshe Shweig" as a bitter satire on Jewish passivity, although it has also been given a sentimental, nonsatiric interpretation in the service of which editors of readers and anthologies have seen fit to excise parts of the original text. (When Bontshe reaches the after-life and the heavenly court of justice offers him all the luxuries of the earth and the heavens, he is content to have a buttered roll.) Bashevis, however, took Bontshe to his heart, relieved him of his intellectual numbness, and transformed him into Gimpel the Fool. He accepted Bontshe's attitude as a moral and Jewish stance; he refused to accept Peretz's derision.
Sholem Aleichem, in his marvelous monologues (including the series of Tevye's monologues), presented archetypes of Jewish passivity: men and women in the gravest distress who experience terrible trials and are unable to envision a way of extricating themselves from their hellish situation, other than the act embodied in the telling of their tribulations in rich and digressive speech, a narration that advances in a nervous and absurd zigzag motion that, in itself, reveals the pattern of the scuttling from wall to wall of the prisoner who knows not how to break through his prison-walls. The great author's criticism lay in this very rhythm, arising from the words of geese-herdesses and Yeshiva-students still sitting at their in-laws' table, Jews who had supposedly won the lottery, or, on the contrary, Jews who had been "burned" and are suspected of having themselves acted out the blessing "Barukh borei me'orei ha'esh" (Blessed be the Creator of the fiery lights). Out of these frenzied monologues rises a cry that even the juiciest humor cannot conceal; a cry that calls, without the speaker's awareness, for change, for salvation. Bashevis, who in many respects carried on Sholem Aleichem's great art of the monologue to achievements that do not fall short of those of the creator of the model, also presented, in tens of monologues, situations of great distress, but deprived them utterly of the nervous, tortured rhythm, of the hopeless internal scrambling. In Bashevis' monologues the flow of speech is the tempestuous or relaxed flow of the human soul that is carried upon the waves of a current over which it has no control. The demons, great and small, that often make their voices heard in these monologues, are none other than expressions of the speaker's awareness that his or her attempt to fight the current will not end successfully. Bashevis' monologues are, in this respect, not just a continuation of Sholem-Aleichem's monologues but, also, their inversion.
There is a certain proximity between Bashevis and Agnon (reflected in the elegant insights that Bashevis made in his article on Agnon that was published in The New York Times on the occasion of Agnon's receiving the Nobel prize for literature, together with Nelly Sachs). Agnon love is given wholly to the lost man, the cornered individual who is passive and inarticulate, the victim of cruel manipulation at the hands of his environment, who is carried, willy-nilly, upon the waves of historical developments. He, too, in fact, introduced into Jewish literature the figure of the "fool" who is no fool, but is no resounding intellectual either. There is an intimate proximity between some of Bashevis' folk-heroes and Agnon's Ovadiah the Cripple, or between his most educated and aware heroes and Hershel Horovitz from Agnon's A Simple Story or Yitzhak Kummer from Yesteryear. The similarity is, however, limited and, actually, superficial. Agnon's work is shaped entirely by the powerful tension between a Zionist-religious belief in salvation and a dark, bitter, chilling disappointment in the heavenly order of the world and the slim chances that the people of Israel have of survival in the framework of this order. Agnon's passive heroes are tragic in the sense that, in the possible framework of a "correct" world order, their passivity would be appropriate and would produce no ill effects. The "wheel of time" that rolled off its axle is the force that crushes Agnon's heroes. Accordingly, if the Zionist effort were to bridge the pernicious rift between salvation and the savior (according to Agnon the world of the second aliyah was split into two groups: those who struggle for salvation but are estranged from God the savior, and those who attach themselves to the savior yet refuse to lift a finger for the sake of salvation), Yitzhak Kummer could have found his place between Jaffa and Jerusalem and would not have died insane. If the Jewish community that is described in A Simple Story were not dissociated both from the spirituality of authentic faith and from modern humanistic endeavor (and not devoted solely to provincial materialism), Hershel could have found a cure for his suffering either in the strength of religious faith or in the realization of his romantic love for Bluma—and would not have become, at the end of the story, a shell of a human fly that a spider has sucked dry of all vitality.
In Bashevis' work, on the contrary, passivity is not the result of a malfunction in the social or the cosmic mechanism; rather, it is the only correct stance in the face of the essential order (or disorder) of things, be they what they may, always and everywhere. Chaos is in a superior position everywhere. It engulfs man in tidal waves from without (historical events) and from within (lusts, perversities of character, internal conflicts, and unexplained distortions in the existential flow of the psyche). The conscious man (like the hero of The Moskat Family) faces reality and himself while gripped by boundless terror and curiosity. He knows full well that he can control neither himself nor his environment. He is bound to commit every possible blunder to which external circumstances and his own incomprehensible lusts and desires drive him. No rational life-plan of his will ever reach fruition; in all his actions he will always be swept, led, and discharged further and further towards some unclear goal determined by an unknown force; and, like that hero, Yehoshua Heshel Banet, so the rich and influential Moskat family and the whole of Polish Jewry, in their journey towards extinction.
In many of Bashevis' novels and stories, this basic feature repeats itself: a person watches, as if from afar, his own existence driven by forces which he does not recognize or by wild currents that he cannot fathom. While, objectively, this person participates fully in the destructive activity which brings about his downfall, his subjective sense of existence is passive and semi-detached. Often, the author introduces some tragic occurrence which supposedly explains this separation between the objective and subjective "I", such as the death of Arturo, Max Barabander's only son in Scum, or the loss of Herman Broder's entire past (as a result of his experiences during World War II) in Enemies: A Love Story. However, this does not mean that Bashevis regards passivity and the paralysis of the will as characteristic of a certain type of person or as a result of a specific set of circumstances. Rather, the people who react this way to loss and bereavement, as Barabander and Broder do, represent for him the human norm.
Here, by the way, is the place to comment on the sexuality in Bashevis' stories which won him so many denunciations (the Yiddish critics could not swallow it, and some saw it as an intentional sullying of Jewish life by an author who was libeling his own people), and was thought of as the spice by which Bashevis contrived to "sell" his wares to his millions of readers. This last claim is, of course, utter hogwash. Explicit and implicit sexuality can be found in the works of hundreds of writers of whom only a handful achieved true popularity; sex itself has yet to sell a single scrap of paper outside of the prescribed and highly specific domain of the pornography industry and its audience. At any rate, even the presentation of sexuality in Bashevis' stories is entirely different from its presentation in the whole tradition of modern Jewish literature. In this tradition, sexuality appears—usually in a positive role—as the representative of an oppressed vitality, of an internal libidinal energy, individual and national, that was repressed by an ascetic culture and now, with the relaxing of that culture's norms, is capable of bursting out and realizing itself not just via pure sexuality, but also through a whole system of earthly and human pathways of vitality—even national, sovereign vitality. For Bashevis, sexuality is none other than that absurd force that pulsates within the human body and mind, and exerts its maddening influence which is intended to break apart any order in life, any logic and any rational intentionality. Humankind is subjugated by sexuality as it is subjugated by historical events.
Singer's attitude towards sex is actually compatible, up to a point, with that of traditional religious Puritanism, which identifies the sexual drive with the disruptive presence of Satan. However, whereas the religious tradition demands, if not complete repression, at least a channeling and controlling of sexual drives, Bashevis, in his fatalistic way, does not believe that such measures are possible. Accordingly, even in his stories that are set in traditional Jewish society, many of the characters are completely overwhelmed by their sexual instincts. His work is completely devoid of any moral imperative of continence, as it is devoid of didacticism.
Indeed, the halakhic code did make an heroic effort to assist Jews in conquering their sexuality and in ruling their lives by a transcendental and spiritual logic. This struggle, in Bashevis' view, was lost from the beginning, and became hopeless as historical events utterly undermined the power of the religious code. The demons had always haunted the abandoned cellars and attics of the Jewish psyche. With boundless cunning, patience, wisdom, humor, with threats and temptations, they diverted this psyche from its proper path. Now that the psyche has been all but murdered and hardly exists in the world, the demons remain, lonely and wretched, in the crumbling attics of the ruined homes of Israel. Together with the Yiddish language, they are fading away, becoming transparent, spiritual, ephemeral beings, melting into nothingness.
The sober, self-aware man in Bashevis' works, both those that unfold against an East-European background and those that take place in America (particularly in the American book of memoirs and, also, to a certain degree, the novel, Enemies)—this man is thrown about, surprised, from wave to wave like driftwood from a shipwreck on stormy seas. Each time he is taken by surprise anew, even though he knows that anything is possible in this existence of his. His only recourse is to wonder at the world and about the meaning of the will of "God," if such a one exists. He is distinguished by his power of memory, but his memories can neither guide nor teach him; they can only torture his soul. Often, the intellectual point of departure of the Bashevian protagonist is the teaching of Spinoza that interprets human existence and nature alike as expressions of the will and presence of God. This was the most logical philosophy for someone who had just emerged from the world of religious tradition. The typical Yeshiva student, having lost his faith in a personal God, clutches at the compromise of pantheism. The life experience of the Bashevian protagonist, however, completely negates Spinozian optimism. It points, rather, at an existence devoid of all will or directed divine presence. Thus, a kind of philosophical debate is built into the stories; but, the Spinozan way of thinking does not really represent in this dispute a positive or even possible alternative. It merely constitutes a connecting link between the guileless religious faith that the traditional Jew carries over from the past and the absurd existential amazement that envelops him in the present. Furthermore, it acts as a foil to emphasize this absurdity. The amazement is existential, but not existentialist. A vast distance separates the belief in the Camusian "rebel", the existential absurdity, or the Sartrian necessity of choice and commitment in the face of existential meaninglessness, from the Bashevian view of a human existence that runs from birth without will to a death without choice.
Bashevis began creating in the late Twenties and early Thirties, in a Poland squeezed between the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany. The political and social horizon appeared grim and the future of Polish Jewry, particularly after the closing of the American doors to mass immigration in 1924, appeared very grim, indeed. It was clear that this great Jewry, although much of it had undergone processes of modernization that had unleashed tremendous creative forces, was walking a deadened street, that its fate was catastrophical (although no one dared imagine the utter destruction that it underwent during World War II). Caught in an ever-tightening economic stranglehold, exposed to hatred that periodically exploded in the form of pogroms and murders, discriminated against in every possible way, in fact, locked into a country that bore it only malice—this Jewry, with its deep historical roots and richly diverse traditional and modern culture, existed in a state of constant pressure and depression. There were those who announced the way out of the siege: the Communists (the best of the Jewish youth flocked to them) pointed towards the revolution that would negate the class structure of society and, together with it, presumably, the "Jewish Question;" the Bundists called for a struggle "here" on the historical raising-ground of Polish Jewry in the name of socialism and national Jewish and Yiddish distinctness; the Zionists spoke Hebrew and pointed out the way to Eretz-Yisrael, even though the crisis of the third and fourth aliyot, together with the immigration limitations declared by the British in the Thirties, precluded the possibility of a Jewish evacuation of Poland to Israel.
Bashevis absorbed the grim despair of stress-burdened Polish Jewry, but he didn't "buy" any of the popularly disseminated "solutions." He lived in an atmosphere similar to that described in Agnon's "A Guest for the Night," but he lacked the eschatological-Zionist perspective that informs the Agnonic novel, and that situates its deep gloom in the context of a "positive" perspective. Bashevis picked up mostly the feeling of no-way-out, of being swept away by a grim and uncontrollable current towards a catastrophic future.
He gave this feeling powerful expression even in his first novel, Satan in Goray, a masterpiece of stylization and dramatic symbolization that, even today, it seems, is still his most concentrated, coherent and complete work in the genre of the novel. Going back through history, as it were, to the days of Shabtai Zvi, Bashevis described the wretchedness of Polish Jewry after the Chmelnitsky massacres, its spiritual and physical collapse, the terrible fears that haunted its conscious and subconscious. On the background of these sorrows, the old rabbi tries in vain to reinstate the rule of rabbinical law over the congregation of Goray, this law being the only shield of historical Jewish life.
The crisis breaks out in his own home. Belief in Shabtai Zvi, the false messiah, gains a foothold in his family, and the expectation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah soon engulfs the entire town. For a while, the reality of the town becomes a wondrously harmonic, messianic reality. The town is unified and happy. It is led by an authoritative man who radiated charismatic sexual vigor, prepares the town, as it were, for the arrival of the messiah, and has intercourse with the "prophetess," Rachel, a physically deformed and terrified young woman who had been married to an impotent Kabbalist and became a hearer of voices and seer of visions. In truth, however, it is Satan who takes over the Jews of Goray, the Satan of false salvation, and only now, not in the days of Chmelnitsky, does the town approach its complete disintegration. The disappointment of the false messiah who converted to Islam breaks the strength of the town and it can no longer face its pain. The destiny of the town is mirrored in that of Rachel: she is recognized as being possessed by a Satanic "dybbuk," and she dies at the moment that her "dybbuk" is supposedly exorcized by means of consecrations. The criticism of the novel points primarily to the Communist promise of salvation and Stalin's seductive charisma, but it protests, in fact, against all human and Jewish eschatological hopes. The novel can be compared to the play, The End of Days, by Haim Hazaz on the one hand (written during the same period), and the famous prologue of The Jews of Zierndorf, the work by Jakob Wasserman, on the other.
Hazaz's play and Wasserman's prose-poem describe, as does Satan in Goray, the tremendous excitement that, like fire, seizes the ancient and long suffering Jewish-Ashkenazi community when news of the coming messianic salvation breaks. These pieces also end with the destruction of the Jewish town—in "The End of Days" with the actual burning of the town by the messiah's emissary, Yuspa. This comes out of the assumption that, as long as the exilic condition remains, Jews will cling to it, and that only a complete dissolution of this condition can bring about salvation. In The Jews of Zierndorf the entire community of the town of Fürth sets out on a so-called journey to Eretz Yisrael, but this journey turns quickly into a disaster that finishes off most of the community. In both pieces, at any rate, destruction is accompanied by a vision of renewed integration. In Hazaz's play it is the vision of Zionist salvation, in Wasserman's work the vision is of Jewish integration within a "prophetic," liberal European culture as embodied in the figure of the half-Jew, Agathon (the hero) and in the village of Zierndorf, which was founded by the survivors of the Fürth Jews who had set out on their false messianic journey. Bashevis, however, is unique in that, in his novel, destruction is not followed by any vision of, or direction towards, a possible salvation. Satan in Goray ends in the author's "escape" to the stylized texts of traditional "dybbuk" stories, but this, nevertheless, holds no hint of a return to a naive, folkoristic religious faith.
Satan in Goray is still the best key to understanding the Bashevian grasp of reality, according to which the sufferings of humanity are solemn truth but its "salvation," are complete lies. Satan in Goray is also a key to the stylistic qualities of Bashevis' work, for his world view bears unique poetic and stylistic results that achieve their full development even in his debut novel. His fatalism finds its expression in an opposition to any structural or syntactic complication of the continuity of the story. Since no event or gesture has the power to change the course of events, there is no point in describing them with tangled structures and complex sentences that, by their very hypotactic quality, confer primary significance onto others. Everything can be expressed in simple sentences that follow each other in the either loosely or tightly knit flow of the story "as it is." Likewise, there is no point in splitting hairs or piling on relations of cause and effect or precedence and antecedence. It is better to put the events down on paper as they are in their finality and arbitrariness in a free-flowing and evenly rhythmed narrative sequence. Thus, Bashevis brought the modern Yiddish narrative back from the superlative structural and syntactical complexity of writers like Dovid Bergelson and from the self-aware stylistic and structural virtuosity of maestros like Der Nister and Moshe Kulbak, to some sort of basic, epic simplicity. It would seem that one can hear in this narrative yet again and with great force the voice of the "naive" narrator, who treats every event with respect and unfolds before the reader event after event, apparently of equal significance, in a single, moderate tone, accepting everything, knowing everything, wondering at everything, resigning itself to everything. This so-called naiveté is actually the understanding that no sophistication can explain a baffling reality, and that the gesture of sophistication is superbly naive.
There can be no doubt that this simple, basic story-telling tone, when it is applied to a universe full of conflicts and complexities, is one of the secrets of the spell that Bashevis' stories cast over millions of readers, and it goes a certain way towards explaining the ability of these stories to live a full life in translation. In spite of its untranslatable, idiomatic juiciness, Bashevis' Yiddish demands of the translator primarily a responsiveness to the feeling of basic narrativity that is actually embodied in the rolling of simple sentences one after the other. The sensitive translator need only revive in his heart the epic, rhythmic sequence of the folklike tale in his own idiom and he immediately comes upon the recipe that enables a living duplication of the Bashevian narrative charm.
This is the place to bring up another point regarding the tremendous popularity of Bashevis' stories as the creations of a Jewish identity that is exotic, fascinating, alien, and seductive. We are forced to ask ourselves whether it is merely by chance that the great author who presents the historical Jewish identity as passive and victimized is the one who captured the hearts of so many non-Jewish readers. In posing this question I have no intention of belittling the virtues of Bashevis' work at its best, and yet it seems that these virtues are accompanied by a certain "weakness" that the non-Jewish reader seems particularly comfortable with. It is no accident that the view of the human condition that the non-Jewish world absorbs from Jewish culture comes mostly from a passive vantage point; the common denominator of passivity encompasses a broad spectrum of Jewish culture, from Kafka's "Metamorphosis" to "Fiddler on the Roof," supposedly after Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye" cycle. In the eyes of the non-Jewish world, it seems, Bashevis is not just a marvelous story-teller, but, also, some kind of wandering Jew, a modern Ahasuerus whose terrible destiny (the curse of Jesus) drives him on his endless journey and drags him through strange and wild experiences and events—all of them out of the realm of his control.
In this respect we can expect a certain degree of understanding of Bashevis, though uncomfortable and not as accepting as that of the "Goyim," by the Israeli and Zionist readership. It is doubtful, however, whether we can accept Bashevis' gospel which preaches surrender, being swept away, paralysis in the face of extinction, as basic truths—although, in the heat of our naive faith in our power to control our destiny, perhaps we should keep this truth in mind and accept something of its coolness and melancholy.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to be enraptured by Bashevis' narrative art, not to be drawn into the melancholy and mystery of his fatalism, not to identify, if only for a moment, with the nihilistic undercurrents hidden by the deceptive simplicity of his narrative frameworks. All the same, we cannot wholeheartedly accept all of these. A substantial critique from a Jewish-Zionist vantage point will have to struggle with Bashevis' work.
At any rate, it is clear that the best of his stories will live long literary lives—even though the author himself never thought of his work in terms of any literary-aesthetic immortality. Bashevis' attitude towards literary creation was devoid of any pretense or mystification. He knew that he was a great artist who tells stories better than most of the raconteurs of his generation. But this knowledge represented nothing more than excellence in a craft and not a spiritual virtue that can overcome time and the spiritual chaos of human existence; it is like the knowledge of a master carpenter who is sure that the object emerging from under his hand is more finely crafted and beautiful than any produced by another carpenter. Nevertheless, his pessimism was honest and real, and his fatalistic world view did not allow him to develop illusions about the timelessness of aesthetic achievement. He saw literature as a perishable thing, a human product given to destruction, wear, confusion, and insignificance, like any other product. Sometimes he made the appearance of viewing his craft in terms of mere parnuseh (livelihood). This was an ironic pretense, of course, under which, nonetheless, lay more than a grain of seriousness. There was no mistaking the look with which he would fix speakers and experts who extolled his works in public, composed orations about them, split hairs, and generally waxed verbose. Reflected in his blue-green eyes was a combination of derision and pity. Theirs was, once again, the particularly touching naiveté of the sophisticated in which Bashevis himself never took part. One can safely assume that this commemorative statement did not fully avoid the pitfalls of such naiveté. However, one hopes that it does retain some of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the master himself.
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