Isaac Bashevis Singer | Critical Essay by Max F. Schulz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This section contains 2,915 words
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Critical Essay by Max F. Schulz

SOURCE: "Isaac Bashevis Singer, Radical Sophistication, and the Jewish-American Novel," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 3, 1968, pp. 60-6.

In the following essay, Schulz discusses Singer's modern sensibility in relation to his portrayal of the social and religious attitudes of Polish Jewry from an earlier era. According to Schulz, this tension between "Old World Judaism" and "New World skepticism," as evident in Singer's fiction, represents a prominent theme in the contemporary Jewish-American novel.

I wish in this paper to offer a generalization about the current Jewish-American novel, using as my major illustration the admittedly special case of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The arbitrariness of this procedure, since Singer would appear to occupy a peripheral position in relation to the American novel, will, I hope, become less objectionable as I go along. Because he is imbued with Old-World Jewish habits of thought more thoroughly than his American counterparts, while continuing undeniably also to be a New-World Jew, the radical sophistication of his creative imagination lends itself uniquely to the attempt to isolate the sources, and to define the achievement, of contemporary Jewish-American fiction.

Singer's is a twentieth-century sensibility attempting an imaginative re-creation of the social and religious milieu of Polish Jewry of the previous three centuries. The unique—and now vanished—circumstances of this society confront Singer's historical consciousness with special irrefrangibility. Tolstoy could revert in War and Peace to the time of the Napoleonic invasions without risking intellectual dislocation, for his society still assented essentially to the assumptions of his grandfather. But tension of a profound philosophical order, however, affects the moral pattern of Singer's stories as a result of the radically different Zeitgeists of the author and his dramatis personae. One of the central paradoxes of Singer's fictional world is that even as he pays loving tribute to the value system of a back-country Jewry, dirty, ignorant, but firm in a simplistic faith in what Dr. Yaretzky in "The Shadow of a Crib" calls "a seeing universe, rather than a blind one," Singer questions such a world picture with the narrative structures he composes for them. His rabbis and pious matrons may think and act in unquestioning accord with a Jewish cosmic vision but their lives present the absurd pattern familiar to the modern sensibility. It is not without significance that in at least three of Singer's novels the historical setting is that of a catastrophe wrought upon the Jews by external circumstances, and that his protagonists are caught between rival claims of the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. As in a Greek tragedy impersonal fate and individual responsibility merge ambiguously in his stories.

The symbolic overtones implied in the title The Slave underscore this ambiguity. Jacob is carried off into slavery in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki pogroms of the second half of the seventeenth century. Yet even as he struggles, in captivity among the Polish peasants to whom he is sold, to retain his Yiddish tongue, to observe his religion, and to recreate in effect the Law, he falls in love with Wanda, the daughter of his master. Rescued after many years by elders of his village he is driven by his love furtively to return for Wanda, and against both the laws of the Jews and the Poles to introduce her into the shtetl as a true daughter of Israel. Thus Jacob is enslaved by man, society, religious law, spiritual fervor, human desires, and earthly passions. Who can discriminate between Jacob the individual who is personally accountable for his actions, and Jacob the victim who is determined by historical, social, and biological forces? Between the Jacob who observes the historic role of the Jews by bringing Wanda to God and who fulfills in his life the return to Palestine, and the Jacob who is profoundly alienated from village and synagogue because of these deeds?

Similarly, the enlightened and richly human integration of Yasha Mazur, The Magician of Lublin, into the free-thinking, mobile, circus habitat of Warsaw contrasts pointlessly with the sudden lapse of his skill at lock-picking and gymnastics when he attempts a burglary. The irony comes full circle when Yasha turns his back on his former life in favor of the Jewish faith of his father and the result is his radical alienation from his pious wife and friends, his former associates, and the shtetl community. Yasha may accept the Jewish religious ethos but the consequences of his action hardly reassure us of its efficacy. The temptations from within of empty fancies, daydreams, and repulsive desires, and from without of evil talk, slander, wrath, and false flattery in the form of supplicants, who both look upon him as a holy man, and still somewhat as an entertainer very much like his earlier circus audiences, continue to assail him and to interrupt his meditations. His non-Jewish, monastic action of walling himself off from the world as a way of serving both God and society gives no more moral illumination or meaningful pattern to his life than had his previous consorting with the thieves of Piask and his amoral roaming of Poland as a circus performer.

Singer is seriously concerned with the complicated moral and ethical relationship of man to his God and to his society—with the degree to which human conduct describes a moral pattern affecting that of the community and with the extent to which man's actions lurch in pointless arabesques to the indifferent push and pull of historical and psychobiological forces. In The Family Moskat, for example, Asa Heshel Bannett and the Warsaw Jews are portrayed as bringing about their own dissolution. Yet the advent of the Nazi at the end, plus the many other chance turns that his life has taken, makes Asa Heshel as much a victim of cosmic irony as any of Hardy's characters. The possibility that there was no coherent relation between Asa Heshol and the world robs his life of moral significance, reducing its events to incoherent moments of sensation.

Clearly, Singer does not find it easy to fix the blame for personal catastrophe, as an older Judaic dispensation would have—and as Reb Abraham Hirsh, in I. J. Singer's The Brothers Askenazi, does, when he is replaced as general agent of the Huntze factory by his son Simcha Meyer. Reb Abraham consoles himself with the words of King Solomon, "there is a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted, a time to build up and a time to break down." "Nothing happens," he sighs, "without the will of God, not even the breaking of a little finger." No such easy comfort is available to Isaac Bashevis Singer, despite the tender sympathy that he on occasion expresses for unaffected Jewish ritual and piety, as in the Jewish Cotter's—Saturday-Night story, "Short Friday." But, even in this story, there is the inexplicable twist of fate, which prompts the pious couple to copulate, following the Sabbath meal, and then lets them suffocate in their sleep because of a defective stove. I suspect that it is this divorce of his religious sensibility from precise religious beliefs, this drift of his thought away from the ethical certainties of the Judaic Law, that allows Americans to read Singer with an understanding and sympathy unavailable to the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon and to such Yiddish writers as Sholom Aleichem and I. L. Peretz. Such stories as "A Tale of Two Liars," "The Destruction of Kreshev," "Skiddah and Kuziba," and "The Shadow of a Crib" dramatize the ambiguous hold on Singer's mind of belief and skepticism. His use of an Arch-Devil narrator simultaneously demonstrates the notion of a seeing will, purpose, and plan in the everyday affairs of the shtetl, while underscoring the capriciousness of the forces manipulating human actions. At other times, in even more explicit fashion, Singer often parallels, as in "The Black Wedding" and in some of the stories just mentioned, a pious account of the protagonist's actions, with a psychological or naturalistic explanation which denies the moral cohesion of that world. The danger in this strategy is real, for the coherence of Singer's fictional world depends on his maintaining a perilous tension between irreconcilables. If he relaxes an instant, his story is threatened with fragmentation. The endings of The Slave and The Magician of Lublin are painful instances of such falls into disunity. Miraculously to transform Wanda the Polish peasant into a Jewish Sarah and Jacob into a righteous man, or to metamorphose Yasha Mazur from circus prestidigitator to holy Zaddik, is to sentimentalize their lives under the intolerable pressure to give some kind of meaningful construct to them.

Singer's mind seems to rejoice in dichotomies. In his autobiographical account of his boyhood, In My Father's Court, he refers to his home as a "stronghold of Jewish puritanism, where the body was looked upon as a mere appendage to the soul." One day, he tells us, while visiting his older brother's atelier, he discovered the artist's healthy respect for the flesh. "This was quite a change from my father's court," he remarks, "but it seems to me that this pattern has become inherent to me. Even in my stories it is just one step from the study house to sexuality and back again. Both phases of human existence have continued to interest me." The ambivalence of this intellectual position is pervasive in much that Singer writes. Like the tight-rope walker Yasha Mazur, he balances between contrary modes of thought, his modus operandi at once archaic and modern, preoccupied with angels and demons and with Freud and Spinoza. He is drawn to the simple piety of his ancestors who never doubted the moral importance of life. He is also a man of the twentieth century, an uprooted European transplanted to America, seized by the contemporary vision of an absurd world—and his artistic integrity will not let the comfortable climate of divine reward and punishment remain intact. In the tension between moral cause and effect which his divided mind creates, his protagonists act out the unwitting drama of their lives. That these stories do not fragment into their unresolved elements attests to the remarkable narrative skill of Singer. That Singer has persisted despite the absence of an answer in posing again and again the question of the moral meaning of human experience attests to the radical sophistication of his vision.

It is fashionable these days to see the Jew as the perfect symbol of the Camusian man. Although not as viable a fact in the fifties and sixties as in earlier periods, the Jew's lot of perpetual exile lends itself as a convenient symbol of alienation and hence of what one segment of contemporary thought conceives of as the essential consciousness of being man. Yet only in a highly qualified sense can what I have called the radical sophistication of Singer's vision be considered existential. As a Jew he appeals, however hesitantly, to a construct of beliefs that makes sense of the human experience. Nor does he, like the Christian, reject earth because of the expulsion from paradise. The Jew has historically been God-intoxicated and man-centered. His relationship with the world reveals itself simultaneously as eros and as agapé. "Mazeltov," Shifrah Tammer greets her daughter the morning after her wedding in Singer's "The Destruction of Kreshev"; "'You are now a woman and share with us all the curse of Eve.' And weeping, she threw her arms about Lise's neck and kissed her." Like the holy men of Chassidim bent on the hallowing of each day, she acknowledges the edict that love of man is a prerequisite to adoration of Jehovah. In short, the Jew pursues not the Christian pilgrimage from this world to the next, but performs the miracle of merger of the other world with this one.

During more than two thousand years of Diaspora the Jews have learned to breathe amidst the incertitude that is the daily air of a persecuted minority. A tenuous equipoise of irreconcilables is the best they could hope for; and it pervades their world picture. One could hardly expect otherwise with a people who have persisted for several millenniums in the belief that they are chosen, with a divine mission, when the contrary has been the fact of their daily lives. Out of this knowledge has grown a philosophy—anchored at one end by the teachings of Isaiah and at the other by the realities of this century—which conceives of the Jew as redeemer of the world through his acceptance of God's servitude. But the encumbrance of evil—even when put to the service of God—is an uncertain business, never quite relieving the mind of inquietude. Christianity has stumbled over this legacy of sin since its inception. The Age of Enlightenment could only palely affirm with Alexander Pope that "Whatever is, is right," "All partial evil, universal good." Among Western men the Jew has accepted most completely the ambience of this mixed blessing, this gift of the gods to man. The wisdom of his tragic passiveness is underscored by Singer in stories of what happens to a town when its people covenant with the Arch-Fiend in the interests of God, e.g. in "The Destruction of Kreshev" and Satan in Goray. Grounded in the harsh realities of this life, the Jew retains unshakable conviction of man's spiritual destiny.

This capacity for belief in the face of "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts" is a radical sophistication that the Jew, with a culture historically of long standing, is currently giving to a century convinced in its existentialist isolation of the incoherence of existence. Today's intellectual, like the Coleridge whom Keats characterized as "incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge," clutches at any "fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery." To him the contemporary Jewish novel has much to say. It is a commonplace among Jews that Judaism is not in the habit of disowning its great heretics completely. Rather it accommodates with worldly wisdom what is worthwhile in Spinoza, Maimonides, Freud, and Kafka. This willingness to accept the world on its own terms—disorderly, incoherent, absurd—"without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" and yet without losing faith in the moral significance of human actions, underlies the confrontation of experience in the best of the contemporary Jewish-American novels.

The patterns that this attitude takes in these novels vary; but most can be reduced to an antinomy which presumes some form of socio-religious determinism while insisting upon the existential will of the individual. Malamud may involve his protagonist simultaneously in a mythic and a private quest. Salinger may portray the Glass progeny as hoisted on the petard of their own Zen ideals by contradictory psychological determinants. Mailer may urge his hero to seek the American dream of illimitable power through sexual release. Wallant may define full spiritual growth of the individual in terms of caritas. Fiedler may dance his minority American through a pas de deux of cultural betrayal. Bellow may torture his protagonist in a lonely war of mind and heart. Still, these ambivalences are all reducible to the conflict between human autonomy and divine purpose, and its corollary conflict between personal desires and communal needs.

That this version of human experience should suddenly dominate the American literary scene is, of course, one of those cultural mysteries, like the creative outbursts of the Elizabethans and the Romantics, which defy ultimate comprehension. Yet there is discernible a convergence of literary and historical forces that makes the contemporary Jewish-American novel a logical heir of the central tradition of the American novel. This tradition Richard Chase has defined, in part, in The American Novel and Its Tradition, as the discovery of "putative unity in disunity" or willingness "to rest at last among irreconcilables." The Jewish imagination similarly has been stirred by the aesthetic possibilities of a radical sophistication, which simultaneously entertains contrary intellectual systems: the secular view of man alienated in an absurd universe and the religious view of man enthroned by divine fiat in God's earthly kingdom. A corollary factor is the historical parallel between the American frontier and the European shtetl. Both environments raised similar questions about individual rights. The American experience continues to grapple with a political and social system, defined by the tension between private freedom and public restriction. Marius Bewley, in The Eccentric Design, has brilliantly shown that the conflict over the rights and the powers of the one and the many has been a persistent preoccupation of American thought. The American dream of a freely roving Adamic man was disrupted by the reality of legal restraint almost as soon as the first Puritans put foot ashore on the new land, long before Natty Bumppo clashed wills with Marmaduke Temple. Old-World Judaism, in an effort to submerge the individual in the social whole, for internal purposes of psychic and spiritual continuity as much as because of external forces beyond its control, has wrestled with the obverse side of this problem. Living in the Pale, threatened by extinction from without and from within, the Jew developed in survival a strong identification of personal observation of the Law with continuation of the community. An individual in the sight of God, he was also a member of an embattled group. His actions affected not only his salvation but also the group's survival. Thus in Singer's stories the shtetl defines a moral and ethical principle as much as a physical place and social entity. Both frontier and shtetl versions of human aspiration meet in the Jewish-American novel of the past two decades, deepened and universalized by accommodation with the religio-scientific antinomies of Old-World Judaism and of New-World skepticism.

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This section contains 2,915 words
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