Isaac Bashevis Singer | Critical Essay by Charles Isenberg

This literature criticism consists of approximately 22 pages of analysis & critique of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
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Critical Essay by Charles Isenberg

SOURCE: "Satan in Goray and Ironic Restitution," in Yiddish, Vol. 6, Nos. 2-3, Summer-Fall, 1985, pp. 87-102.

In the following essay, Isenberg discusses the progressive themes of catastrophe, ambiguity, and restitution in Satan in Goray. Isenberg concludes that in this novel restitution is not redemptive, as "restitution can only be an ironic impossibility because Singer's subject is the inevitability of living after the tradition."

Satan in Goray explores the reflection, in a remote Polish town, of the rise and degeneration of the messianic movement centering on Sabbatai Zevi, a Jew from Smyrna, whose revelation of his messianic role in May 1665 triggered the major messianic explosion in modern Jewish history. The novel's action covers something over a year, beginning in October 1666, but it has its wellsprings in the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648–49, a Cossack-led peasant war in which some 100,000 Polish Jews perished. The importance of these atrocities as an initiating event is stressed by three chapters of exposition that describe 1648 and its aftermath in Goray. The novel begins as follows:

In the year 1648, the wicked Ukrainian hetman, Bogdan Chmelnicki, and his followers besieged the city of Zamosc but could not take it, because it was strongly fortified; the rebelling haidamak peasants moved on to spread havoc in Tomaszow, Bilgoraj, Kransnik, Turbin, Frampol—and in Goray, too, the town that lay in the midst of the hills at the end of the world. They slaughtered on every hand, flayed men alive, murdered small children, violated women and afterwards ripped open their bellies and sewed cats inside. Many fled to Lublin, many underwent baptism or were sold into slavery. Goray, which once had been known for its scholars and men of accomplishment, was completely deserted. The market place, to which peasants from everywhere came for the fair, was overgrown with weeds, the prayer house and the study house were filled with dung left by the horses that the soldiers had stabled there. Most of the houses had been leveled by fire. For weeks after the razing of Goray, corpses lay neglected in every street, with no one to bury them. Savage dogs tugged at dismembered limbs, and vultures and crows fed on human flesh. The handful who survived left the town and wandered away. It seemed as if Goray had been erased forever.

Satan in Goray might be read as a ghost story, the history of a communal afterlife. As such it participates in an important thematic current in Singer's work: narratives about the dead who attempt to go on as before, either because they are compelled to, or because they do not realize they are dead. Stories that make this pattern manifest include "The Man Who Came Back," "The Unseen," and "Two Corpses Go Dancing"; however, allusions to this condition may be found throughout the major fiction, where, at its most global reach, it becomes a figure for the postexilic condition.

One of the first questions that Satan in Goray raises is that of its historicity. In this connection it is illuminating to juxtapose Singer's novel with Gershom Scholem's monograph on Sabbataianism. Both the fictionist and the scholar see the Sabbataian movement as a watershed in Jewish history, and both are concerned to explore the spiritual basis for the movement's appeal. Reading Scholem on the background to Polish Sabbataianism, we even find ourselves, at one point, in a hermeneutic circle:

a unique fascination with the sphere of evil, and a markedly personalistic conception of it, were typical of Polish kabbalism…. The result was an extraordinary growth of weird and bewildering demonology for which, in our time, I know of no better illustration than that displayed in Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories.

But what will most strike the reader who turns to Scholem's account is the extent to which Singer selects motifs from the historical record and recombines them in his fiction. Most remarkable is the way in which he takes traditions concerning the personality and behavior of the false messiah, his wife Sarah, and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, and reallocates them among Itche Mates and Gedaliya, who are the successive leaders of the sect in Goray, and the 17-year-old Rechele. Daughter of the town's former secular leader, Rechele becomes the wife, first of Itche Mates, then of Gedaliya.

Thus Sabbatai Zevi represented himself as a man who had married three times before consummating a marriage, and we are told that Itche Mates is impotent and has left a string of grass widows behind him. After his marriage to Sarah, his third wife and reputedly a former prostitute, and especially after his apostasy, Sabbatai Zevi acquired a reputation for debauchery, Gedaliya, his second representative in Goray, is a libertine. By the same token, Itche Mates embodies the first, penitential, and ascetic phase of the movement; Gedaliya, its post-apostasy fascination with the potential holiness of sin.

It is suggestive that Zeydel Ber, the uncle who raises Rechele, invokes a benediction upon her that alludes to the Biblical matriarchs and therefore begins, "May the Lord make thee as Sarah" for Sabbatai Zevi's wife resembles Rechele in her Polish origins, her being orphaned in consequence of the Chmielnicki massacre, and her reputation for eccentric behavior. As for Rechele's prophetic gift, which she acquires after becoming Gedaliya's mistress, it seems significant that her revelation shares with Nathan's a common eschatological content but refers to the divine destiny only of her master, that is, Gedaliya, and makes no mention of Sabbatai Zevi.

Earlier, at the betrothal of Rechele to Itche Mates, the bridegroom flouts the norms of decency by dancing with a woman. The guests are initially startled but soon come to understand the dancing as a mystical or allegorical act, a "reaching for the higher spheres." Eventually most of the company joins in the dancing. In permitting men and women to dance together, Itche Mates is emulating Sabbatai Zevi. So is Gedaliya when he calls women to the reading of the Torah. Sabbatai Zevi shocked the rabbis of Salonika by performing a marriage ceremony between himself and the Torah; Singer's variation upon this motif is to describe Rechele, in her state of prophetic illumination, as a living Torah (later she will be described as a living ikon), and to have Gedaliya place a scroll of the Law in her chamber.

By and large, the sequence of historical events, as it is communicated to or reflected in Goray, agrees with the progress of the movement in Scholem's account: the kabbalistic excitement after 1648, rumors of the conquest of Mecca and Stamboul by the Ten Lost Tribes, the revelation of the Messiah, the great penitential awakening, the popular prophesying, the reports of Sabbatai Zevi's progress toward Stamboul and then of his having taken refuge in a fortress, and finally, the apostasy. To this extent we can see the history of the Sabbataian movement as an inner text around which the Goray chronicle forms. But there is an important difference in the relative timing of the universal and local sequences: Sabbatai Zevi was brought to the sultan's court and made to apostasize in mid-September 1666; in Goray, "the town in the midst of the hills at the end of the world," as it is repeatedly described, the action begins only the next month, with the arrival of two bearers of miraculous tidings, and the Sabbataian faction only coalesces in January of 1667, that is, four months after the apostasy. Thus the reports about Sabbatai Zevi that initiate phases of the action in Goray are like signals from an extinguished star, and the townsfolk are belatedly caught up in a drama whose denouement has already taken place. (Gedaliya is the exception here. When he counters the news of the apostasy with the "Docetist" doctrine that only the Messiah's shadow has converted and offers to show the congregation authoritative letters to this effect, it becomes clear that he has been keeping his followers in the dark. The whole discourse is thus given in an ironic mode.)

Ironic distance is also maintained by a refusal to authenticate any particular record of the action, a refusal that also turns out to be one way of keeping the narrative suspended between natural and supernatural interpretations of events. Or, to put it in terms suggested by the novel itself, we are in a region where the boundary between the sacred and the profane becomes highly unstable.

Satan in Goray is characterized by a range of narrative voices and potential points of view. There is the primary narrator, whose closeness to the collective is signaled by his use of folk expressions (such as "It rained hard as if seven witches were being hanged"), his predilection for magical threes and sevens, his habit of keying the action into a chain of natural omens, and his familiarity with the details of the townsfolk's lives. Other voices are heard within the narrator's discourse: the villagers' rumors and tales and the conflicting interpretations placed upon events by adherents and adversaries of the sect. His chronicle also makes room for two documents. First there is the text of a letter sent from Lublin to the rabbi of Goray, Benish; the rabbi's correspondent warns him against Itche Mates in the most inflated terms. Though written in Hebrew, the letter has a style and point of view similar to that of the second inserted document, a morality tale said to be "rendered into Yiddish" (from a Hebrew original), which ends the novel. The opposition between the more or less colloquial style of the body of the discourse and the self-conscious scriptiveness of the letter and morality tale has an indexical value, for it helps to establish the opposition between a complex, ambiguous, carnivalized world of experience and a less fluid orthodox world of authoritative interpretation.

The authority of the various strands of the narrative is rendered problematic not only by their lack of agreement but also by certain qualities of the primary narrator. Most of the news about Sabbatai Zevi, for example, is traceable to some speaker who has a stake in having his or her account accepted. Moreover, the truth status of what is narrated is continually being undercut by the use of indirect-discourse markers that qualify reported speech or thought, such as "it was said," "it was rumored," "it seemed," or simply "as if." Alternative interpretations are already implicit in these devices, but the narrator is also inclined to overdetermine motives: that is, he will explain an action in two ways, with each explanation tending to vitiate the other. The description of a woman who comes to Goray with news about the imminence of redemption can serve as an illustration of the narrator's manner:

The rumor [reported speech] that the days of the Messiah were drawing near gradually aroused even Goray, that town in the midst of the hills at the end of the world.

A highly respectable woman [hyperbolic index of character], who for many years now had been journeying in search of her husband (collecting alms at the same time) [double explanation] related [reported speech] that in all the provinces of Poland people were saying [report of reported speech; her evidence is now third-hand] that the Exile had come to an end.

Searching for a lost husband is a sacred obligation, but the parenthetic addition about alms-collecting makes us suspect a profane motive, the missing spouse serving as a pretext for a successful carrier as a swindler. Indeed, by the time she leaves Goray, narrowly eluding a summons from the rabbi and carrying off gold coins, jugs of cherry juice, and Sabbath cookies, we have little choice but to see irony in the opening characterization of her.

Of course if the whole novel worked this way, it would not be a question of the fantastic but only of an unreliable narrator. However, the more central episodes, such as the events leading up to the rabbi's departure or Rechele's illumination or her possession by a dybbuk, cannot be reduced to a coherent pattern so easily. For example, despite the usual reported-thought or comparison markers, when Rabbi Benish goes out on the night of Rechele's betrothal for what turns out to be the last round in his war against the Sabbataians, there is something uncanny going on:

It was after midnight. In the bright night that lay over Goray a wind blew, a strong wind that swept away the dry snow and bore it off to pile up in mounds. The frozen earth was bared; trees shook off their winter white; branches broke; moss suddenly appeared on the housetops. In the very middle of the winter the roofs faced the world, with all their rotten shingles and patches. Crows awoke and cawed hoarsely, as at some unexpected sorrow. Snowflakes whirled through the air like wild geese. Between dark, plowed clouds, full of pits and holes, a faceless moon rushed through the sky. One might have thought the town had been doomed to a sudden alteration that had to be completed before the rising of the morning star.

The rabbi is convinced that there is evil in the air, and the townsfolk blame the rabbi's fall on demons. If the sequence of events suggests that it is the impious dancing of the Sabbataians that conjures up the demons, the text states only that the rabbi is borne aloft and swept down by the storm; hence neither mode of interpretation is ruled out.

As for Rechele, we may accept her visions and her demons as authentic, or we may see them as symptoms in a delusional remolding of reality. Singer does allow considerable scope for a psychological reduction of Rechele. Her childhood is genuinely horrific: before returning to Goray with her father, she lives in Lublin at the home of her uncle, a ritual slaughterer like Gedaliya. Terrified by the butchering that goes on daily in the yard, she is brutally treated by the old crone who looks after her; "'Sit down, you monster', she would cry, and pinch Rechele black and blue. 'Throw fits and jump as high as a house! May the fit carry you off!'" Since this reads like a prediction of Rechele's fate, we may see the old woman's curses as having a formative influence upon the child. This is clearly true of the ghost stories the old crone tells the little girl to keep her from leaving the house or simply for the pleasure of frightening her. After the old woman dies, the 12-year-old Rechele goes through a night of auditory and visual hallucinations (or of demonic incursion—take your choice) that leaves her literally paralyzed with fear. This is the source of her lameness and other "mysterious ills."

Both the angel that rouses Rechele to prophecy and the dybbuk that possesses her after the illumination leaves her can be interpreted as psychological projections that reflect phases in her relations with Gedaliya. The angelic voice, which appears just after she is seduced by Gedaliya, proclaims, ambiguously: "All the worlds on high do tremble at the union she [Gedaliya] doth form." The dybbuk, which exposes Gedaliya's wickedness, appears after Gedaliya has failed to lead the Goraians out of exile. As for Rechele's impregnation by Satan, from the moment of her return to Goray there are reports of her starving herself to the point where she ceases to menstruate. Moreover, just before her struggle with Satan there are allusions to what sounds like a hysterical pregnancy, whose symptoms are missed periods and a distended belly.

However, if we go too far in our search for evidence of childhood trauma, epilepsy, or anorexia—that is, for natural causes that explain Rechele's behavior—we will be brought up short when we find our skeptical and secular point of view being parodied through its ascription to the dybbuk, Abraham. At one point in the edifying tale of how he is condemned to be tormented by evil spirits because of his blasphemy in life, the dybbuk again denies God. Asked why, if there is no God, he is being punished, Abraham replies, "It is all chance and an event of nature," an answer completely incommensurate with his tale.

This is not Singer's only ironizing gesture in relation to the dybbuk-narrative, for the novel provides two contradictory accounts of Rechele's profanation by the forces of evil. The two versions are given in the novel's final three chapters, which center on Rechele, who loses her prophetic gift after hearing about Sabbatai Zevi's apostasy. Like Rabbi Benish in Part One of the novel, she becomes obsessed by an inner disputation; but where the rabbi hears disembodied night voices wrangling over "Sabbatai Zevi and the end of days," Rechele becomes the arena for a contest between vivid personifications of the Sacred and the Profane. The Sacred appears to her as a face with no body; the Profane, as a lewd and blaspheming shape-shifter. The Profane prevails, as it has in the town, and Rechele finds herself impregnated by Satan. In the morality tale that is interpolated into the text of the Goray chronicle, we are told that Rechele has been possessed by a dybbuk. The dybbuk is interrogated and finally expelled by the lame kabbalist Mordecai Joseph, who, having abjured the Sabbataian sect, now emerges as the next community leader. According to the dybbuk, it is because Gedaliya is an apostate and has defiled Rechele that he, the dybbuk, was able to enter Rechele on an occasion when she cried out the name of Satan in exasperation at not being able to get a fire started.

A comparison of these two accounts suggests that the primary narrator, privileged by his closeness to the events, gives Rechele's version; the tale from The Wonders of the Earth is much more distanced from the actors and reflects the biases of the rabbinic party. Thus the tale knows nothing of Rechele's internalization of the struggle between the Sacred and the Profane, and it represents her possession as an object lesson in what happens when you speak of the devil.

I will stand by my earlier claim that the novel as a whole is marked by a refusal to authenticate a point of view; yet if we restrict ourselves to the conclusion of Satan in Goray, there can be little question but that the narrator's version of what happens to Rechele whatever irreducible ambiguities of motivation it contains) is at least more authoritative than the version drawn from The Wonders of the Earth.

Equally significant is the obviously false portrait of Mordecai Joseph presented in The Wonders of the Earth. Throughout the novel he is shown as a twisted and sadistic personality. Mordecai Joseph's enmity toward the rabbi is based on envy and spite, and his only function as a leader has been to arouse hostility and violence. Every Passover, we are told, he tries to organize a Kristallnacht, inciting the mob to break the rabbi's windows. Mordecai Joseph is also responsible for the first fruits of the Sabbataian harvest, the riot in the study house and the beating of the rabbi's disciple Chanina.

For Mordecai Joseph in his Sabbataian phase, the movement means an opportunity for revenge: revenge against the Jews, not their enemies. This is how he perceives his mission when he goes forth to proclaim the news about Rechele's prophecy:

He already imagined himself in Lublin at the yearly fair, standing before the assembly of the Council of the Four Lands, roaring with his lion's voice at multitudes of important Jews—rabbis, righteous men, learned men, rich men—pouring pitch and tar on those who doubted Sabbatai Zevi, bidding that they be flogged and bound with heavy ropes. Their tracts and epistles must be burned in a fire whose flow would reach heaven.

If this context is used to frame the account from Wonders of the Earth, we will see more than the tale's partisan narrator intends us to see. Here, for example, is Mordecai Joseph's revenge upon Gedaliya:

Then Reb Mordecai Joseph rose and smote Gedaliya with violence: Moreover the other men flung themselves at him and beat him and shed his blood and tore his beard until he fell fainting to the ground: and Reb Mordecai Joseph (may his remembrance be a blessing) flogged him forty times until his blood flowed like water.

What reading convention would allow us to see anything but antiphrasis in the description of the bloody-minded Mordecai Joseph as "that pious man (may his remembrance be a blessing to us all)," a formula that is repeated, with variations, nine times? The moralist's repetitions can only underscore what has actually transpired over the course of the novel: leadership of the community has passed from Goray's best representative, the learned and relatively tolerant Rabbi Benish, to its worst, the intolerant fanatic Mordecai Joseph. The ending is thus also a negative verdict upon the town's attempt to enact a new beginning, or to come back to life.

The town's dilemma is reproduced in the novel's symbol system. Satan in Goray is not a symbolist novel in the sense that it centers in figuration rather than plot, but it does have a semantic coherence that is based on the image-reservoirs of marriage and slaughter. That these are indeed symbols is demonstrated by their persistence and, partly in consequence of this, by the impossibility of giving a full inventory of their signifieds.

These symbolic patterns are privileged by the centrality of rituals of marriage and slaughter in the ritually structured world of Satan in Goray. The novel's other, less ramified symbolic patterns also refer to ritual—or at least to notions of ritual pollution. Thus the horse dung that profanes the study hall and prayer house in the exposition is paralleled by the dung that is found in the Ark of the Torah in Chapter 12, and Mordecai Joseph presides over two acts of ritual expulsion: at the beginning of the town's Sabbataian period, Mordecai Joseph, directing the beating of Chanina, goads on his followers by invoking the formula from the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual: "Let this be in place of me!" The scapegoat motif is echoed at the end of the Sabbataian outbreak, which is marked by Mordecai Joseph's exorcism of the dybbuk from Rechele, who now functions as a kind of scapegoat for Goray.

Among the semantic fields with which the symbols of marriage and slaughter operate are: life and death, unity and disintegration, the sacred and the profane, and authority and its denial. Let us try to unravel at least some of the ways in which this symbolic cluster intersects with character and plot in Satan in Goray.

The novel begins with a slaughter, and the idea of marriage immediately becomes a figure for the possibility of collective renewal. Before his return to Goray, Rabbi Benish's chief concern had been questions of martial status, because "the events of 1648 and 1649 had left thousands of women neither married nor widowed, since it was uncertain whether their husbands were alive." Very early on, the question of the town's ability "to begin anew" becomes compounded with the question of Rechele's marriageability. But the issue of her marriage (= the town's new life) is always linked to the counterpossibility of a return to, or an inability to escape from, the consequences of the initiating catastrophe.

The intertwining of slaughter and marriage in Rechele's experience is a sign of a more general dissolution of boundaries between the sacred and the profane. Rechele's one-time guardian, her uncle Zeydel Ber, is a ritual slaughterer who had intended to marry her. Hence in her union with Gedaliya, she has found the man she has been fleeing since childhood. When Rechele first meets Itche Mates she foreshadows her fate with the profane joke that no one will marry her unless Satan will have her. (The imagery of dead eyes and corpselike smells that expresses her physical loathing for Itche Mates is drawn from her memories of the Lublin slaughteryard and her uncle's house.)

At Rechele's betrothal an epithalamium is sung that joins the social and the cosmic:

      Protect, Lord God, this bride and groom;
      May we see the Messiah soon.
      The Holy Presence, Lord God, wed
      As these two seek the marriage bed.

But the real prospects for marriage and renewal are imaged in a bathhouse floor "as bloody as a slaughterhouse (my italics) because of the activities of healers who are letting blood there, when Rechele visits the ritual bath as part of the wedding rites. Blood is a symbol that unites both paradigms, since it suggests the blood of victims but also the menstrual flow—so strangely absent in Rechele's case—which, on the one hand, implies the possibility of new life and on the other, is the object of a prohibition on marital intercourse.

Even more ominous is the singularly inappropriate song sung by the wedding jester, which is almost a repetition of the novel's opening words:

     The haidamaks slaughtered and martyred us.
     They murdered young children, they ravished women
     Chmelnicki slit open bellies, he sewed cats inside (because of our sins!).
     This is why we wail so loudly and implore
     Revenge, O Lord, the blood of thy slaughtered saints!

The jester's song not only implies a reversion to 1648; it also anticipates Rechele's monstrous pregnancy at the end of the novel. The jester's performance is answered by that of the dybbuk in a pattern of repetition and inversion: the wedding song offered by the jester, with its motifs of rape and monstrous pregnancy, fails to entertain its audience; the dybbuk, the product of an unnatural impregnation, successfully entertains the congregation with, among other things, his rendition of wedding music:

And he sang the bridal canopy tunes with great skill item the Covering Tune for when the groom covers the bride's hair, item the Canopy Dance Tune, item the Escort Tune for when the bride and groom are escorted to their chamber: And he mimicked the sound of the fife and of the cymbal and of the bagpipe and of the other instruments and all with locked lips and the hearts of the congregation were melted like wax at the sight of the woman's gesticulations and grimaces.

On her unfortunate honeymoon ("The Seven Days of Benediction"), Rechele dreams of her uncle: "He was wearing a bloody shroud, and he waved a long butcher's knife in the air, and shouted angrily: 'Your days are numbered!'" Even the women's jest at Rechele's still-virginal state returns us to the same field of imagery: "Rechele … they said, had had her head cut off with no knife." Poor Rechele's seven unhappy days of benediction modulate into a vision of seven crowned maidens (seven Sabbaths?), and this is the vision that sends her to Gedaliya for the first time.

Gedaliya is the most disturbing figure in Satan in Goray. The image of the uxorious butcher, the slaughterer who preaches sexual liberation, carries implications that other works will make explicit. In The Magician of Lublin, for example, the narrator says of the hero: "He had looked on the faces of death and lechery and had seen that they were the same." In The Magician of Lublin, as in the story "Blood" (another tale about a lecherous butcher), sensual desire is the root of apostasy.

In his personality and beliefs, Gedaliya offers a sharp contrast to Itche Mates, the itinerant peddler he displaces as leader of the sect. A fisheyed, corpselike vegetarian, Itche Mates is an ascetic with a taste for self-flagellation and for immersing himself in icewater. He expounds an extreme gnostical version of Sabbataianism. After the Messiah's triumph, he preaches,

Bodies would become pure spirit. From the World of Emanations and from under the Throne of Glory new souls would descend. There would be no more eating and drinking. Instead of being fruitful and multiplying, beings would unite in combinations of holy letters.

Gedaliya, on the other hand, is warm, witty, and jovial. Where Itche Mates's belief and behavior constitute a denial of the injunction "Be fruitful and multiply," Gedaliya makes this "principle of principle" the cornerstone of his doctrine. Not only would its neglect delay the redemption, but in the coming messianic age, all the sexual prohibitions would be annulled: "Men would be permitted to know strange women. Such encounters might even be considered a religious duty; for each time a man and a woman unite they form a mystical combination and promote a union between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Divine Presence," that is the Shekinah, treated as a feminine aspect of the godhead.

The contrast between Itche Mates's gnostic asceticism and Gedaliya's mystic eroticism can be translated into rhetorical terms: Itche Mates is a hyperallegorist who would like to sacrifice the earthly term to its allegorized ideal: no more sex, just combinations of divine letters. Gedaliya is a hypersymbolist who argues a correspondence between the divine and the earthly; "as above, so below," as the hermetic formula has it.

Gedaliya's doctrines reflect kabbalistic and Sabbataian trends. First, as Scholem tells us, it is kabbalistic interpretation that makes the Sabbataian worldview possible. The universe is understood to be symbolic, so that "Creation does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of pointing to the divine emanation that shines through it." Further, once symbolic interpretation escapes the confines imposed upon it by a unified, hegemonic (in this case, rabbinic) source of authority, "no traditional commandment or prohibition is safe from spiritual and figurative reinterpretation."

The last significant threshold in this process is the doctrine of the apostate redeemer, who must betray his religion and descend into evil as part of his divine mission. As Scholem puts it, "once the first step was taken on this slippery road, anything became possible." Gedaliya and his loyalists abandon the tamer notion that only the Messiah's shadow had converted and follow Sabbatai Zevi's example, into apostasy and beyond.

As leader of Goray, Gedaliya institutes an orgy of resemanticization, whose most important element is a resemanticization of the orgiastic. The streets are soon filled with pregnant 12-year-old brides, adultery is encouraged, and the Yeshiva students copulate with each other and with the local goat population. Here too Gedaliya is influenced by a kabbalistic tradition that divides the universe into male and female cosmic functions. In his interpretation of the principle "Be fruitful and multiply," Gedaliya sees sex as a way of reuniting the dichotomized male and female worlds. His intercourse with Rechele he represents as a mystical union that keeps the cosmos going. Yet after the initial euphoria of Gedaliya's rule in Goray, the cosmos winds down. As the narrator tells us, "There was no longer even sinning. The Evil Spirit himself seemed to have dozed off."

If the sacred and the profane finally merge for the radical Sabbataians, for the other townsfolk the boundaries between these realms are reestablished at the end of the novel. Rechele's last union, with Satan, is only profane, as are the antics of the dybbuk. The reader's response to the reimposition of orthodoxy under Mordecai Joseph's leadership must, however, be more ambivalent than that of the author-moralist of The Wonders of the Earth. Singer offers no privileged position from which to judge or condemn; by the end, the rabbinic party seems as compromised as the Sabbataians.

Singer's fictions always remain suspended between belief and unbelief. In his fables he often seems to embrace the orthodox position. However this is in part substitutive satisfaction—embracing in fiction what cannot be accepted in life—and in part literary strategy. Singer has said of his stories (and I think this can be extended to his novels) that they are written not around a moral, but around a moral point of view. That is, they ask, what would be the consequences of seeing the world in a certain way? A moral is authoritative, but a moral point of view is open to stylization, parody, and irony, and is not likely to conduce to any sort of final interpretive repose. Pierre Macherey's hypothesis (in A Theory of Literary Production) that fiction is shaped by the juxtaposition and conflict of several meanings and that "this conflict is not resolved or absorbed but simply displayed," thus seems to provide suitable terms for reading Satan in Goray.

In his most recent volume of memoirs, Lost in America, Singer describes his frame of mind in the early thirties, the period when Satan in Goray was written:

my disillusionment with myself reached a stage in which I had lost all hope. If truth be told, I had little of it to lose. Hitler was on the verge of assuming power in Germany. The Polish fascists proclaimed that as far as the Jews were concerned they had the same plans for them as did the Nazis….

One didn't have to be particularly prescient to foresee the hell that was coming. Only those who were totally hypnotized by silly slogans could not see what was descending upon us. There was no lack of demagogues and plain fools who promised the Jewish masses that they would fight alongside the Polish gentiles on the barricades and that, following the victory over fascism, the Jews and gentiles in Poland would evolve into brothers forever after. The pious Jewish leaders, from their side, promised that if the Jews studied the Torah and sent their children to cheders and yeshivas, the Almighty would perform miracles in their behalf.

I had always believed in God, but I knew enough of Jewish history to doubt in His miracles. In Chmielnitzki's times, Jews had studied the Torah and given themselves up to Jewishness perhaps more than in all the generations before and after. There was no Enlightenment or heresy at that time. The tortured and massacred victims were all God-fearing Jews. I had written a book about that period, Satan in Goray.

If we compare the achieved intention of the novel with this very retrospective statement of the impulses that lay behind its writing, we can easily find parallels. There is the apocalyptic mood, for example, and the presence of two Jewish parties, neither of whose claims can be accepted; there is also the allusion to the Chmielnicki massacres, in particular, to the challenge posed to orthodox belief by the slaughter of innocents. But Satan in Goray is less concerned with 1648 than it is with the victims' response—and for that reason, heresy is precisely what it is about. As such, it implicitly polemicizes with the belief, still represented in Jewish circles, that pogroms, and even the Holocaust, are punishments from God, deserved by a wayward people. Satan in Goray implies that the falling away from belief is, on the contrary, a response to catastrophe and not its cause. Beyond that, the novel seems only to offer a skepticism about any claim to knowledge about Divine Purpose, a skepticism that is consonant with Singer's own credo, which may be characterized as a belief in God but not in Man's pretensions.

Articulating its dilemma of impossible choices, Satan in Goray conjures up an ambiguous, dualized world but not a world devoid of meaning. Its contradictions are determinate, and they are determined by a paradox so prevalent in Singer's writings as to constitute an invariant in his fiction: the appeal to tradition against itself. Parallel to the way in which the novel's symbolism invites a reading that attends to ritual structures, its invariant paradox invites a transposition into a kabbalistic register. Thus the narrative is shaped in part by a triple movement of creation, dualization, and restitution.

The world of the novel is created by a catastrophe, the Chmielnicki massacre, which can be interpreted as evidence of a Divine withdrawal. The result of this catastrophic creation is a fallen, exilic condition, corresponding to the mixing of the Diving Sparks with evil in Lurianic kabbala. Hence the tale's dual explanation of events and its pairing of incommensurables, such as marriage and slaughter, the Sacred and the Profane. Hence too such other instances of dualization as the formal division of the text into two parts; the fact of Goray's two streams, so significant for the rites of divorce and remarriage; and the linguistic doubling inherent in the opposition both between oral and scriptive traditions and Hebrew and Yiddish.

The third movement—that of restitution—occurs in the reimposition of a monistic orthodoxy by the narrator of The Works of the Earth. Far from being redemptive, however, this restitution suggests another painting-over of disaster—a motif proleptically introduced in the painting over of the town's "blood-and-marrow-spattered walls" in Chapter 1.

Read in this way, Satan in Goray bears a strong formal resemblance to The Slave and The Magician of Lublin and a somewhat more distant likeness to Enemies and Shosha. Each of these works looks back to an originating catastrophe: in The Slave it is the Chmielnicki rebellion again; in The Magician of Lublin, it is the loss of traditional belief through secularization. In Enemies the initiating catastrophe is the Holocaust, and the retrospective narrative of Shosha reflects an exile from authoritative tradition that is brought about both by secularization and by the Holocaust. Each novel places its action in a fragmented and ethically dualized world. And each presents an attempted restitution, which, by virtue of its absurdity, must be read neither as a solution to the contradiction set forth by the fiction nor as an ethical recommendation to the reader, but as a flight from the complexities of a hopelessly fallen world. That is, Singer is not endorsing the ascetic absolutism arrived at by Yasha Mazur in The Magician of Lublin or by Jacob in The Slave. Nor (except by telling his story) is Aaron Greidinger permitted to redeem the lost paradise represented by his beloved Shosha. Finally, when Herman, the hero of Enemies, tries to escape the ambiguities of his life by becoming a missing person, the narrator presents Herman's flight as a reversion to the initiating catastrophe of the Holocaust. Whether he actually is "hiding somewhere in an American version of his Polish hayloft," as his wife believes, his fate imitates that of the war's missing and dead.

If we use Satan in Goray as a lens for viewing Singer's subsequent oeuvre, we can see that the movement of restitution in these texts always functions metalogically: restitution can only be an ironic impossibility because Singer's subject is the inevitability of living after the tradition. In its post-traditionalism, its contemplation of irreconcilables, its rejection of an authenticating narrator, and its emphasis on symbolism, Singer's first novel shows a kinship with literary modernism. But it is also modernist in its tension between despair at the course of the world and exultation in the writer's creative powers. It is antidionysian in its moral stance, yet it endorses the libidinal and the ecstatic by the fascinated attention it pays to them. One might say that Singer's text is his demon.

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