Isaac Bashevis Singer | Critical Essay by Sally Ann Drucker

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
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Critical Essay by Sally Ann Drucker

SOURCE: "I. B. Singer's Two Holy Fools," in Yiddish, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1992, pp. 35-9.

In the following essay, Drucker examines "wise fool" characters in "Gimpel the Fool" and Shosha. As Drucker notes, these characters achieve transcendent vision through spiritual openness rather than traditional Jewish religious study based on logical deduction.

     A gantser nar iz a halber novi. A whole fool is half a prophet.
     A halber nar iz a gantser khokhem. Half a fool is a complete sage.

These proverbs, seemingly contradictory, are usually interpreted as having ironic import—yet at first glance, their meaning is ambiguous and could imply the wisdom of fools. There are many words for fool in Yiddish and many types of fools in Yiddish literature: clever fools like Hershel Ostropolier, witless fools like the residents of Chelm, and a variety of luckless fools, whether schlemiels or schlimazls. This paper focuses on the holy fool, whose foolish wisdom or wise foolishness reaches transcendent levels. In particular, it compares Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Gimpel the Fool" with his novel Shosha.

In Eastern Europe, the popular picture of the Jew, held by Jew and Gentile alike, was true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture included the tendency to examine, analyze, and re-analyze; to seek for meanings behind meanings, implications, and secondary consequences. Deductive logic was the ideal basis for practical conclusions and actions.

Because Jewish culture placed a high value on intelligence and learning, the holy fool, a fool who is more than a fool, who appears in a number of literary works, both subverts and augments this value. "Bontsche Shweig," Yoshe Kalb, "Gimpel the Fool," and Shosha are all works in which a character displays a kind of wisdom that does not have to do with ability to reason—which is closer, perhaps, to the Khassidic religious tradition of the heart, than the Talmudic ideal of the head.

"Gimpl tam," the Yiddish title of Singer's story, more closely translates as "Gimpel the Simple"—a title perhaps too cutely alliterative but with a relevant double meaning. Gimpel spends his early life considered a simpleton by the townspeople, but his philosophy, expressed in the narration, belies actual foolishness. Gimpel lets the mocking of others go with, "Let it pass," and, "I hope I did them some good." On why he believes the stories his neighbors concoct to trick him, no matter how outlandish these stories are, he says, "Everything is possible," and, "Today it's your wife you don't believe, tomorrow it's God Himself you won't take stock in." On the burdens of the human condition, particularly his own: "You can't pass through life unscathed, nor expect to," and, "Shoulders are from God, and burdens too."

Ultimately, Gimpel becomes a wandering storyteller of the fantastic, saying,

"The longer I lived the more I understood that there really were no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year."

Gimpel, a storyteller, an artist, with foolish (by worldly standards) wisdom, becomes a shaman of sorts, someone who mediates between worlds.

As pointed out by Sanford Pinsker, in the derivation of the word "schlemiel," one of the possible linguistic sources for the word is the Hebrew phrase "sheluakh min 'el," which literally means "sent away from God." However, another possible translation is "sent from God," in the sense of a biblical messenger. Gimpel, archetype schlemiel, holy fool, can be seen as this type of messenger. And, as Ruth Wisse puts it, "In Gimpel our rational prejudice is confronted with an appeal to a deeper truth."

Singer's novel Shosha appeared in 1978, twenty five years after "Gimpel the Fool," and seven years after Wisse's and Pinsker's critical treatments of schlemiels ably covered the ambiguities of Gimpel's foolishness. In Shosha, we have a female holy fool; perhaps the time had come for one. Although there might be female schlemiels in Jewish literature, such as Aunt Rosie of Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck" or the female residents of Chelm, and while there might be legendary female saints and martyrs, female fools, holy or otherwise, do not abound in Yiddish literature as protagonists. Shosha is the closest that we get to one.

In Europe, because women were not expected to participate in learning and scholarship, a female fool would not have had the same power of subverting the ideal. Too much learning or cleverness was considered unwomanly, in any case. A woman might be asked by her husband about an issue, "What do you say?" and her convoluted response would be, "What can a silly woman say? I have only a womanish brain, but if I were in your place…." Gimpel himself repeats the proverb, "Women are often long on hair and short on sense." Traditionally, a man was expected not to be foolish, but a woman was automatically assumed to be so. In Shosha, however, the female fool is the narrator's, and perhaps the author's, double, inspiration, and link to the past. Representing the creative part of his consciousness, she is the neshoma, the soul, of his work.

Shosha, the narrator's double, looks like a shikse blonde, blue-eyed, straightnosed. The narrator, Aaron Greidinger, is also fair-haired (as are many of Singer's protagonists), but his resemblance to Shosha goes deeper than that. As a writer, he leads the life of a luftmentsh, a schlemiel, if not a total fool. He is a procrastinator who consistently undercuts his own possible success. Furthermore, he writes about dybbuks, ghosts, and goblins, not unlike Singer himself; only when Warsaw is on the edge of capitulation to Hitler, not until things are truly topsy-turvy, does Aaron's escapist literature, particularly the fictionalized biography of the false messiah Jacob Frank, win him popularity. Shosha, who awake or asleep sees her dead sister regularly, also lives in a world that blends dream and reality. When asked what he sees in the childish and childlike Shosha, Aaron says, "I see myself."

Shosha also symbolizes the narrator's past. Aaron was brought up a rabbi's son, on, as he puts it, "three dead languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish." As a child, he was drawn to the simple Shosha, a neighbor on Krochmalna Street who could barely read. He tells her fantastic stories, and like Gimpel she believes them all. He tells her that he knows a name that contains seventy-two letters, and when it is uttered "the sky would turn red, the moon topple, and the world be destroyed." Shosha begs him not to say it, and he replies, "Don't be afraid. I will make it so that you'll live forever." Through language, Aaron has the power to destroy or immortalize Shosha and Krochmalna Street.

Twenty years later, when Aaron revisits his old neighborhood, he says, "It was like a deep stratum of an archeological dig which I would never uncover." Aaron begins to visit Shosha and her mother Bashele. Like the street, their apartment seems to exist in a time warp. They wear the same clothes, eat on the same plates, and talk about the same things they did twenty years before. Shosha still has the height and figure of a child, or a girl just reaching puberty. In staying young, she denies death.

At one point, Aaron says: "From the day I had left my father's house I had existed in a state of perpetual despair." For him, a return to Krochmalna Street is a return to innocence. Shosha and her mother still observe Kashruth, the Sabbath, and holidays. As a child, he could always find tastier morsels at Shosha's house than at his own. Now, recently vegetarian, Aaron receives little sympathy for his new diet except from Shosha's mother, who caters to his requirements. When he stays at their house overnight, he sleeps in a tiny, womblike alcove.

Although Aaron finally marries Shosha, he retains his old apartment as a study, without telling Shosha or her mother. Also, while professing love for Shosha only, he presumably maintains some of the many romantic liaisons he had before they remet. Himself a betrayer, he tells one of his liaison: "She [Shosha] is the only woman I can trust."

Each previous liaison symbolizes some aspect of his Warsaw life: a communist, an intellectual, an actress, a peasant maid. Shosha, from the world of his childhood, simple, uncomplicated, still a girl physically, is the only one who will not betray him. His only emotional truth is that of the past. In this, Aaron resembles Yasha of Singer's The Magician of Lublin. In that book, it is the simple and sterile Jewish wife to whom the narrator always and ultimately returns, despite his romantic wanderings around different levels of Jewish and non-Jewish society.

Although Aaron is attracted to Shosha for her childlike and childish qualities, she is not completely simple. She often notices details to which she can relate emotionally, such as the interactions of Aaron and his romantic liaisons. She also asks the right questions when he brings up abstract issues—questions that more worldly people would not ask but which get straight to the point.

Aaron talks to her when he is trying out ideas, as a form of "automatic writing," and she is the listener to "stream of consciousness" monologues. Further, she appears to be precognitive, predicting her own death. In short, Shosha, somewhat of an intellectual blank slate herself, reflects and represents deeper levels of consciousness. She responds to life emotionally rather than intellectually. The worldly, word-slinging Aaron can only approach her simplicity without ever reaching it.

In "Gimpel the Fool," the protagonist becomes a storyteller of the fantastic, wise in his foolishness—he becomes the artist as shaman, mediator between worlds. In Shosha the female fool does not herself become an artist, but is the mediator between worlds for the storytelling male narrator. The actual female artist in Shosha, Aaron's benefactor and sometime lover, the actress Betty, has male traits and a persecution complex. Ultimately, she survives by teaming up with a rich and crass businessman. Betty is no shaman. Through her money, however, she helps Aaron bribe his way out of Poland, with Shosha at his side. Betty, an adult woman, is an enabler for the writer/narrator in the worldly sphere—a traditional role for a Jewish woman. Shosha, the child-woman, is an enabler of the otherworldly, but cannot survive outside of the actual world that engendered her. Shosha dies on the second day of the journey out of Poland. Yet, just as Aaron tells Shosha that he will make her live forever, Singer immortalizes the world that Shosha represents, and the qualities of innocence and preconscious thought that she represents, in the book that carries her name.

There are, of course, wise fools in the British and French literary traditions and holy fools in texts such as Dostoyevski's The Idiot. What makes the Yiddish holy fool noteworthy is his subversion of the traditional Jewish values of learning and reasoning as an approach to religious transcendence, a concept that appears to incorporate Khassidic influence. When the fool is a "she" instead of a "he," it subverts the subversion, and actually valorizes the life led by simple women as closer to the essence of spirituality. Singer portrays Shosha in relation to a male narrator, Aaron—a trickster, an artist, a magician of sorts, a shaman, named after the first Jewish high priest, who was the brother of Moses. Singer's Aaron also has a brother Moyshe, who became a rabbi. Again and again, this Aaron is impelled to return to the spiritual essence that Shosha, the fool, represents, in deed, in writing, and in asking for answers.

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