Isaac Bashevis Singer | Critical Essay by Irving H. Buchen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This section contains 5,211 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Irving H. Buchen

SOURCE: "Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Eternal Past," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1966, pp. 5-18.

In the following essay, Buchen examines elements of Singer's narrative structure that "meaningfully violate and reconstitute the reader's identity, morality and chronology" to evoke a timeless quality in his fiction. Buchen discusses The Magician of Lublin as a typical example of Singer's all-encompassing vision in which time and space converge on absolute morality.

The basic obstacle to an understanding of the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer is its effect of critical dislocation. Thus, the few existing studies symptomatically tend to be partial or fragmented: Eugene Goodheart emphasizes Singer's Yiddishkeit; Irving Howe his modernity and demonism; David Boroff his faddish popularity among college intellectuals; and Dan Jacobson the complexity of his stylistic simplicity. But the whole of Singer is greater than the sum of these parts, and any consideration which has pretensions to fullness and fidelity initially must situate itself in the midst of the contrary and fragmenting impulses of his art. Moreover, to avoid a rapid journey to universality at the expense of Singer's stylistic and Jewish uniqueness, any general examination must be tied to the details of at least one of his most representative works.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to notice what in Singer's work has led so many reviewers and readers primarily to stress his oddity or to concentrate solely on his disintegrating effect. At least three aspects of Singer's work set him apart not only from most American Jewish writers, but also from most American writers. First, all his novels and short stories published in America originally were written in Yiddish. Second, almost all his works are geographically removed from these shores by their old world settings and chronologically distant from our time by one to three generations or centuries. Third, Singer does not fit into the conventional pattern which characterizes the development of most American writers, Jewish as well as gentile. The first novel is usually autobiographical and regional (the two perhaps correlations of each other), and subsequent works move toward the centrality of American experience. Singer, however, stubbornly stands still. Indeed, although his first novel appeared fifteen years after his arrival in America, he still shows no signs of making any of the customary literary and cultural adjustments or assimilations.

The entire problem of discussing such a living anachronism can be solved by divorcing Singer from the entire American experience and by associating him exclusively with the Yiddish tradition of the Old World: a neat solution, except that it makes surface substance. That "solution" also misses a novel element in Singer's most recent work, Short Friday (1965). In this collection, two stories are set in America, one in Miami Beach, the other in Brooklyn. Yet so tenacious is the notion that Singer employs only Old World settings that The New York Times Book Review, in its section of recommended fiction, described Short Friday as "Sixteen short stories, all of them with the background of Yiddish-Poland." Leaving aside the disturbing implications of that inaccurate summary by the Time's "critic," one might suppose that these two American-based stories at last put Singer into American literature. Such a conclusion, however, would be as distortive as making him part of the European-Jewish tradition merely because he writes in Yiddish; for the real novelty of these two stories is that what takes place in Miami and Brooklyn is as nightmarish, demoniacal, and cosmic as what occurs in Lashnik, Lublin, and Tishevetz. Suddenly, we discover that an old Polish crone weaving spells in 18th century Lublin reappears as a Cuban hag attempting to seduce a man who has come to Miami to relieve his asthma. A noisy, heimesh wedding in Brownsville provides the occasion for the same mystical reunion of lovers separated by Nazis as it does for those separated by 17th century pogroms. In short, what makes Singer strange and foreign is not so much the obvious—the distant settings and times or even the Yiddish or Jewish customs and rituals—but his vision which is no respecter of time and place and which by its absolutist fervor refuses to yield to changing cultural values.

Like all obsessive writers, Singer's vision is tyrannical. It comes from such a deep and even hidden source that it will not be compromised or dictated to. Powerfully and compulsively, it burns away the surface differences of Miami and Brooklyn to reveal 18th century Poland. Or rather vice versa, for the bulk of Singer's work enters the modern world through the backdoor of history. Evidently for Singer the shortest way to modern times involves taking the longest way around. In literary terms, Singer's way of reviving tastes jaded by excessively realistic or psychoanalytical novels is to resurrect the parabolic form. In moral terms, Singer's answer to the chaos and relativism of contemporary ethical judgments is the rebirth of Satan.

Some readers will surely object to considering an author modern who makes no accommodations to verisimilitude, who employs the devil as a regular and familiar character, sets stories in heaven and hell, presents demons copulating with lonely and pious widows, bewilders the sexual distinctions between male and female, and arranges for miraculous reunions of lovers separated by the grave. Objectors also might claim that Singer reflects no real knowledge or use of modern psychology. In its place, Singer presents a radical and often bizarre partnership between sexuality and spirituality, between sexual deviations and religious purity. But far from being at odds with modern psychology, Singer's religious sexuality is actually very close to drawing its power and veracity from the same sources as Freud's psychological sexuality.

Strange as it may seem, if one were to search for an historical situation or system of belief which most closely reflects the assumptions of Freud, it would be that of religion. Both psychology and religion share the same absolutist notion that nothing is ultimately accidental and that everything is finally meaningful. Psychology also accepts with religion the existence of an unseen, mysterious and non-rational force which is essentially deterministic. The psychological agent is labeled the unconscious, the religious the cosmic. The former acquires orderly meaning through the detection of sexual and parental relations; the latter through the revelations of providence. Both Freud and Singer place great emphasis on the deterministic process, although Freud calls it compulsion and Singer the progression of possession. In psychological terms, the compulsion is rendered as the increasing dominance of unconscious desires. In Singer's religious terms, the possession is rendered as the steady dispossession of the soul by Satan or a dybbuk. For Freud the final pathological result is psychosis and debilitation; for Singer it is evil and damnation. In literature, the complicated process of mental stratagems and substitutions generally is presented in the form of the stream of consciousness. In Singer that complexity takes a more external and supernatural form and appears in the involved machinations of demoniacal agents. What to Freud is the enormous world of interior life appears in Singer as a cosmic universe laced by the triangulation of God, Satan and man. How close Freud and Singer are can be rapidly indicated by an author whom both acknowledge as a master, Dostoevsky. Significantly, Dostoevsky referred to the unconscious as the "Satanic depths." In short, Singer does not ignore or bypass modern psychology but parallels it with a vision that insists on its own integrity and autonomy all the while it is responsive to what are called the insights of modern psychology. As a result, again strange as it may seem, the more psychologically oriented the reader is the more comfortable he may feel with Satan and with Singer.

In one major respect, however, Singer differs from Freud and other psychologists. He makes moral judgments on the actions of his characters and evidences a belief in the clear-cut differences between right and wrong. Excesses of any kind, religious or sexual or both, are ultimately sinful and punishable. In fact, the presence of such judgments makes clear that Singer's use of the devil and his host of tempting demons is not scape-goating. Because the effectiveness of the devil is contingent both on the consent and the collusion of man's secret desires and presumptions, the stories are contained by a psychology that is responsive to moral law. Far from exonerating man, Singer employs Satan to bring renewed dread and urgency to moral choice and to make personal judgment a mode of self-creation or of self-destruction. To Singer the devil is mortality dressed in the garb of immortality; he is license parading as freedom. Satan's mission is to persuade the soul that it is the body. By reviving the enormous issue of evil, Singer thus besets the soul with its ancient adversary as well as indicates the medium for its continued vital existence.

This does not mean that Singer is a heavy-handed moralist or a Jewish Puritan. He does not intrude in his tales to draw lessons. Although he has enormous compassion, his sympathy never equals endorsement. Characteristically, his novels move from sympathy to judgment, from openness to containment. Indeed, the works appear to be written by a young-old man. The former recreates the situation with all its passion and frailty and ignorance. The latter waits patiently for the passion to be spent and makes his judgments with terrible serenity. Singer begins by presenting man as a free agent, confident of his powers and unconcerned about his responsibilities or his mortality. Singer concludes by presenting man as a slave. This pattern, which informs nearly all his works, appears in a particularly revealing form in a novel which stands almost midway between his earliest and latest works, The Magician of Lublin (1960). In examining this novel, my aim throughout is to describe the ways in which Singer's thematic concerns and modes of presentation meaningfully violate and reconstitute the reader's identity, morality and chronology. To be sure, the reconstitution occurs in Singer's terms. If those terms are shared initially or ultimately by the reader, Singer's power is registered as sympathetic coincidence. If not, the power appears as dialectical discrepancy. In either case, the reader's engagement remains strong and committed; and the effect is intense, reverberating and intimate.

The Magician of Lublin is typical of Singer's works in that the solutions seem inferior to the problems raised, as if the questions Singer poses are in excess of the answers given. Thus, the reader may be especially puzzled by the novel's narrowing movement toward a constricted ending. It begins with the buoyant, somewhat immoral Yasha the Magician freely and deftly moving from one circus engagement and love affair to another. It concludes with the ascetic figure of Yasha the Penitent voluntarily self-imprisoned in a brick house and undergoing mortification. The transformation takes place during a period of twenty four hours in Warsaw when Yasha attempts to steal money from the safe of the wealthy Zuraski. With the money he hopes to be able to divorce his wife, marry the widow of a professor and pay for the cost of preparing a new act to be performed before the crowned heads of Europe. All his plans come to nothing and the concluding image of Yasha is so stark and pathetic that it appears to violate our sense of what he initially was.

Actually, the reader's movement through the book is not as haphazard or unrelated to the ending as might appear. In effect, the novel falls into three parts, like a three act drama, except that the structural divisions really support three different aspects of reality. The first deals with Yasha in a situation that is characteristically modern in its admixture of freedom and restraint, adultery and fidelity, secularity and religiosity. The second part is nightmarish, wild and surrealistic. All bars are drawn and Yasha forgoes all restraint. The conclusion presents the penitential portrait of imprisonment and slavery to God. The problem of accepting the ending is thus contingent on comprehending the total arc of Singer's vision.

When we first meet Yasha the Magician, he is lively and engaging, always the master of complicated looks and situations, and looks and acts ten years younger than his forty years. Moreover, what rapidly becomes clear is that Singer has selected Yasha's profession with symbolic care, for it characterizes not only his way of earning a living, but also his way of life. Thus, Yasha "had tangled and disentangled himself on numerous occasions." He juggles various love affairs and walks an emotional tightrope as deftly as he does on stage. In the house of Zeptel, one of his mistresses, Yasha participates in the local ritual of entertaining the villagers by opening a lock that they feel will stump his skill. But Yasha says, "'A lock is like a woman. Sooner or later it must surrender…. It'll give, it'll give. You only need to squeeze the belly button.'"

Although Yasha manipulates people as he does locks and although he carries on with other women, Singer does not present his hero as without virtue or conscience. He has an affair with two women, one Jewish and the other gentile, but his love for his wife remains intact and he holds his marriage sacred. Although he mixes with thieves and low life, he refuses to employ his lock-picking talents for dishonest ends. Finally, Yasha is not without respect for God, although the respect is colored by his profession. Driving along the road in spring, he surveys the budding fields, inhales the scent of growing newness, and spontaneously exclaims: "'Oh, God Almighty, You are the magician, not I!… To bring out plants, flowers and colors from a bit of black soil.'" Although he treasures his belief in God, he often plays the role of the devil's advocate in taverns, scoffing at the pious certainty of believers. In short, in the first part we have the portrait of an appealing scoundrel who is no fool. Sensitive to conscience and responsive to the godly, he is nevertheless too confident of his magical powers, too flushed by the power of his still youthful body, and too skeptical of glib religious answers to accept any restrictions of life, love, and marriage. Singer sums him up:

He was a maze of personalities—religious and heretical, good and evil, false and sincere. He could love many women at once. He was ready to renounce his religion, yet—when he found a page torn from a holy book he always picked it up and put it to his lips.

Yasha is fully and humanly greedy. He is involved in the body and in the spirit, in this world and the next. Singer has made him a magician to dramatize his role as a chameleon, a man of many faces and lives. What Yasha resists above all is being fixed with a permanent identity. As long as he can juggle his various love affairs, like pins in the air, and be different persons or wear different masks—boy, lover, father—to different women, he is unfinished, still to be defined, still in a state of becoming. This is the domain of comedy, for tragedy requires the sharp pressure of finality. Comedy measures the span of life; tragedy the span of death. Yasha is determined to be various and endless, which to Singer are the impulses of the body and of the spiritual allies the body can enlist. Variety to Yasha is not just the spice of life; it is the substitute for termination. He is the magician as picaresque hero. But whereas in the first part of the novel, Yasha magically seems to be able to play both sides of the moral and religious fence, his relationship with Emilia in the second part threatens his dualistic straddling. Specifically, Emilia, who moves among elevated cultural circles of Warsaw and is a converted Jewess, makes not only marriage but also conversion a condition of her sexual surrender and love. Thus, for all his deft side-stepping, Yasha finds the pressure of identity intrude into his life in the form of Emilia's demands.

Although in the second part the comedy shifts to tragedy, Yasha is unaware that Emilia's wishes represent a damnation in disguise. All Yasha knows is that Emilia reflects his own aspirations to rise above the petty life he has been leading and to reach for the artistic recognition he believes he deserves. If anything, Emilia appeals to Yasha's desire for more freedom, more variety, more secularity. Ironically, however, in rejecting the duality of liberality and restraint that characterizes the first part for the harmonious singularity of total freedom, Yasha far from gaining more life nearly encounters his death. Here is a brief catalog of what happens to Yasha by the end of the second part: he ages rapidly, becomes a thief, nearly cripples himself, drives Magda, his gentile mistress, to suicide, and hastens his Jewish paramour, Zeptel, into a house of prostitution. Add to all of this the nightmarish night he spends after the robbery—the fear of detection, the encounters with the twitching cripple, the humiliation and disgrace, the experience for the first time of impotency—and one has the sense of an enormous collapse. It is necessary, then, to see the expansive and worldly reality that Emilia offers to Yasha as essentially a temptation.

At the heart of that temptation is Emilia's request for conversion. Significantly, that request involves another which Yasha previously had resisted—the temptation to steal. Indeed, one wonders whether this is not a symbolic connection. Thievery seems to be Singer's way of stigmatizing conversion as the act of taking something that does not belong to you. Evidently, to Singer a Jew is free to be a Jew or to be a non-believing Jew but he is not free to be a Christian. This is not mere chauvinism, for it applies to any conversion in which one takes what is not his to take. The issue of conversion serves as Singer's special way of approaching the modern and eternal problem of identity. Central to Singer's notion of identity is the image of the tightrope which reverberates throughout the novel.

Just as earlier aspects of Yasha's craft were extended to characterize his attitude toward others and God, so his walking the tightrope is not limited to his performing as a magician. "He constantly felt that only the thinnest of barriers separated him from those dark ones who swarmed around him, aiding and thwarting him, playing all sorts of tricks on him. He, Yasha, had to fight them constantly or else fall from the tightrope, lose the power of speech, grow infirm and impotent." Yasha is aware that the aim of the devil is to throw him off his moral balance. In fact, just before the robbery, Yasha "felt its presence—a dybbuk, a Satan, an implacable adversary who would disconcert him, while he was juggling, push him from the tightrope, make him impotent."

Walking the tightrope is Singer's image of what it is to be alive, not only as a Jew but as man. It represents the precariousness of identity which has no authentic meaning without dangerous duration. Moreover, identity is not a product but a process. It is not achieved once and for all time but is the endless task of making and remaking the self. Weary of the perilous equilibrium between faith and doubt and of the endless struggles within him, Yasha instead seeks the peace, permanence and new prospects that he believes conversion will grant him. He also hopes to escape from the tantalizing burden of dealing with a Jewish God who has no face or form and has never accommodated Himself to man by assuming mortality. In addition, because as Singer notes God revealed himself to no one, gave no indication of what is permitted and forbidden, Jewish identity historically has been characterized by an endless and indecisive dialogue between men about God. Indeed, at one point in the novel when Yasha, out of his desperation, pleads with God to give him a sign, he is essentially requesting God to make himself tangible and unambiguous. The absence of peace in this life and the constant doubts that assail men's minds and hearts are the reflections of an absence of metaphysical clarity in Judaism. And yet precisely because God's relationship with the Jew is so removed, it is intimate; precisely because it is so impossible, it is necessary. The special Jewish burden is to exist among the unknown and the unknowable; it is to achieve fullness in the face of limitation and unconfirmation. To Singer the final strain that is put upon Jewish identity comes from God's terrifying Oneness—a relentless singularity that refuses to yield or adjust to human and social pluralism. Indeed, after the robbery, Yasha, who now feels the terrible burden of freedom from God, cries out, "This is no life!… I don't have a moment's peace of mind anymore. I must give up magic and women. One God, one wife, like everyone else…."

Because Singer's vision is always situated where the horizontal line of human history and the vertical line of cosmic history intersect, the issue of conversion, especially by thievery, is never limited merely to a personal or social temptation. The Jew who converts not only forsakes an authentic, troublesome identity for a safer mask of assimilation. He also forsakes God for Satan. In Singer's world the devil's way of seducing Yasha from the tightrope is to offer him metaphysical amnesia. Specifically, Satan provides the opportunity to escape the endless battle between good and evil, between God and the Devil, waging within and constituting the identity of the Jew. To Singer evil thus appears not only in the obvious forms of immorality and disobedience, but also in man's striving to be more than he can be or settling for less than he is. In either case, the Satanic impulse attempts to free man from his reliance and dependence on God. It makes man the total magician—the adept performer who pushes self-reliance to the point of self-sufficiency. But as Singer warns, the result of stepping off the tightrope is not power but impotency. At the end of the second part, Yasha, in fact, discovers that in trying to become more than a man—a god—he has become less than a man—a twitching, impotent cripple, like the one he encounters. Instead of total freedom, he lives a life of total imprisonment; at the end of the novel Yasha far from expanding his existence ends up contained in a "living grave."

But before going on to a consideration of the final third of the novel, one might speculate on an unexpected yield from the image of the tightrope and the issue of conversion. Perhaps, Singer has allegorically built into the situation of Yasha the Magician his own situation as a Jewish writer. Perhaps, to Singer the basic temptation offered to the Jewish writer is also conversion—the temptation to turn away from his special Jewish materials for the wider world of American or world experience—to give up the stubborn, nagging yearnings of the Jewish soul for an historical and cosmic identity and choose instead the social and political variety of New World culture. To Singer, at least, the Jewish artist who does so is a thief and runs the risk of producing work that is crippled or impotent. Whether this allegory has application to other Jewish writers, it certainly has meaning for Singer. By remaining within the sharp and troubling confines of his own special Jewish area, Singer is proof of the paradox that intense narrowness may be the surest avenue to comprehensive statement. Moreover, Singer appears to be recommending to Yasha his own solution; namely, that in slavery Yasha will find his true freedom.

It is at this point that we come full circle and back to the problem of the ending. Not only is the ascetic figure of Yasha the Penitent a painful contrast to that of the vital Yasha the Magician. Even more objectionable is that Yasha's retirement from the world seems not only in excess of his crime, but also fails to reflect it. In Singer's behalf, however, it should be noted that the ending not only is consistent with his vision, but also can be defended against charges of escapism or punitive orthodoxy.

First, Singer makes it quite clear that Yasha's attempt to escape the temptations of the world by self-imprisonment fails. The tightrope is portable—the temptations go wherever Yasha does. Yasha, in fact, admits, "No, the temptations never cease." Second, Yasha's prison is Singer's metaphor for the slavery of man to God. As long as man lives, he is hemmed in by doubt. The soul is sustained by conflict and restriction; it is put to sleep or turned into the body by unchallenged certainty. The prison is comparable to anesthetizing the body not so that the conflicts can be avoided or eliminated but that they be confronted with less turbulence. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising additional meaning of the prison emerges through Yasha's broodings on the Cabala.

From this mystical work Yasha learns that "evil was merely God's diminishing of Himself to create the world, so that he might be called Creator and have mercy toward his Creatures." For the first time Yasha contemplates God's creative act as well as the existence of evil not just in moral but in artistic terms. The evil impulse in the world and in man is the result of God's shrinking or contracting His Being so as to make creation possible in the first place. The important realization for Yasha is that the creative act is not solely an expressive but also an inhibiting act. God wilfully and willingly imprisons part of His Being; He limits His immortal extent. Had He not, He would have made a creation that is finished or dead before it is born. If the world were a total reflection of God, it would be a dead world as we know life to be. But by withholding His fullness, He imparted to creation and especially to man the capacity to create and to perfect himself. God's inhibition makes possible man's expression; His withholding His full identity makes necessary man's.

Yasha in his prison realizes for the first time the virtues and benevolence of God's cosmic restriction. At the beginning of the novel Yasha was content to stay on the tightrope as long as he was in control and as long as no choice of a fixed identity was forced on him. In the process, he is interested only in having rather than denying. The temptation of Emilia and of Satan is to get off the tightrope altogether and to pursue a life of freedom without any inhibitions. It is to live sensually not ascetically. The end of the novel redresses the imbalance. Having yielded to all satisfactions, Yasha turns to burdens not so that he may choose one or the other but so that both may be once again brought together in a reconstituted and more informed human and Jewish identity. In these terms, the prison is merely the most intense form of the tightrope.

Finally, what has been said of God's artistry and Yasha's recovered duality can be applied to Singer's craft. It is no accident that Singer's work is simultaneously sexual and religious and that his vision is rendered with microscopic realism and mysterious demonology. The impulses and rhythms of Singer's art reflect those that God imparted to creation. Structurally, his novels move from the maximum to the minimum, from sensualism to asceticism. The narratives read as if they were written by a libertine and a saint, or a blasphemer and a believer. And in this arc which runs from freedom to slavery and from sympathy to judgment, we may have a final way of reconciling his modernity and traditionalism as well as his realism and supernaturalism.

Although Singer's tales are mostly set in the distant past, they characteristically begin with a situation of liberality or confused freedom which accommodates the moral relativism and self-interest of the modern reader and his situation. Thus, for all the distance in time and space, Singer encourages an initial ease of identification and through that engagement a suspension of disbelief. As the novel unfolds and deepens and as the spell of Singer's logic takes hold, the reader imperceptibly is taken back toward a point in time when absolute orthodoxy and judgment prevailed or at least was more accessible and believable. At this juncture the reader may feel a sense of betrayal as if he has been unknowingly lured into an embarrassing trap. Singer has tricked us into forgetting that his work is dated, just as every writer tries to make us forget that his work is fiction. We feel we have been caught with our moral relativism or disbelief exposed. Moreover, we can not get off the hook easily, for we are caught by our own responses. For much of the special persuasiveness of Singer's work is eliciting responses not just to what is obviously modern in his work, but more important and difficult to what is apparently past and beyond us—a religiously inspired code of absolute morality.

The result of all of this is not only a dislocation of our emotions but an equally confused sense of time and place. The initial clear-cut distinctions between the then and the now are increasingly blurred until one is uncertain where one is or in what century. Under the trance of Singer's magical chronology, we become aware that if a situation is made old enough, it becomes not merely forever old but thereby forever new. As a result, Singer establishes through the medium of our own responses a nexus in time which is neither modern nor ancient but both. In the process, the past has become eternal, the present has become forever and by the logic of continuity the future becomes always. In this connection, it is significant that Singer's works often have been characterized as modern parables or moral fables. There is about Singer's work and vision the durability of the archetypal and the mythical. His novels and short stories stand between the modern and the eternal worlds; they mediate between the contemporary realistic and psychological novel and its sense of timely relativism, and the ancient Bible and its sense of timeless absolutism. Nor are these merely abstract formulations. The responses of the reader serve as the cross-roads for the intersection of past and present.

From this final point of view, Goodheart is right in saying that Singer is the greatest Yiddish author and in thereby associating him with the Yiddish tradition of the Old World. Howe is also correct in insisting on Singer's modernity. The critical dilemma is that each commentator has only half of the whole. As for the problem of Isaac Bashevis Singer, as Jacobson puts it, one might perhaps be more accurate in saying that Singer does not have the problem; we do. To Singer the solution is simply the recognition that the ideals and needs of the human soul for belief are in the final analysis the only eminently practical objects of existence. Moreover, as Singer also demonstrates, they also are the most viable subjects of art; for they belong neither to the past and Eastern Europe nor to the present and America, but to all moments of eternal time and to all places where there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

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