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Critical Essay by Dinah Pladott
SOURCE: "Casanova or Schlemiel? The Don Juan Archetype in I. B. Singer's Fiction," in Yiddish, Vol. 6, Nos. 2-3, Summer-Fall, 1985, pp. 55-71.
In the following essay, Pladott examines the role of the amorous male protagonist as a central figure in Singer's fiction. According to Pladott, these recurring characters underscore man's struggle to reconcile individual desires and universal meaning.
The popularity of I. B. Singer's fiction in recent years does not mitigate the fact that he suffers the same fate as other complex and fecund writers: he gives critics grounds for interpretations or points of emphasis that are divergent to the point of being contrary. Is he a parochial writer, speaking directly to insular Jewish concerns and dilemmas, or a moral fabulist of the stature of Hawthorne and Faulkner, touching the core of universal predicaments? Is he a humorist, a realist, a mythmaker, a metaphysical writer, a chronicler of Jewish history and lore, a demonologue, or a fantasist? Can and should one label him a traditional Jewish believer or an apostate, a modern and a modernist writer or a "shutin"?
The questions are not idle, since several flaws have been identified in Singer's oeuvre. The "oddest aspect of Singer's work," as Eisenberg defines it, is the "inordinate stress, certainly for a Yiddish writer, which is placed on sex—on evocative scenes of passionate sensualism." Nereo Condini elaborates Eisenberg's criticism by commenting on "a repetition of themes and motives often smacking of obsession, hackneyed situations, trivial details, ludicrous and sensational bric-a-brac." But as Bezanker points out, Singer's form, most notably his irresolute endings and his ambivalence," have constituted the "two blemishes" critics have taken the greatest exception to.
Needless to say, these objections depend on the critic's view of Singer's overall purpose and direction. I suggest, therefore, that a fruitful approach to Singer's fiction may be found in searching for the "deep structure" that underlies narratives marked by a wealth of imaginative detail, by a convincing authenticity of diverse and disparate fictive worlds and realities, and richly populated by a gallery of natural and supernatural characters. Once we isolate this "deep structure" in a number of Singer's novels, we may find a useful key both to the "obsessive" theme and to the open-ended form of Singer's "ambivalent" fiction.
The need for such an approach is encouraged and invited by Singer's progressive departure from stories evoking the life of the Polish Jewish shtetl with all its colors and verve. As if to give the reader a clue that he is more than just a "fictional historian of the whole Jewish experience in Eastern Europe," as Kazin put it, Singer's latest stories and novels shift the scene historically as well as geographically.
In Enemies: A Love Story the plot is set in post-World War II New York, whereas in Shosha Singer paints in broad strokes the tense life in Warsaw of the 1930s. The surface texture of these novels has little in common with The Magician of Lublin, whose story unfolds and moves between the miserable shtetl and the large urban center of late nineteenth-century Warsaw. Nor do these novels seem related to The Slave, which takes seventeenth-century Poland as the backdrop for its action. Yet, when one penetrates beneath the surface incidents and details, one is struck by the recurrence of a single configuration.
This paradigm consists of a male protagonist surrounded by a large number of female characters who entangle him in a web of variegated relationships. This central male character is always the pivotal figure in the novel, although only in Shosha does he attain the influential role of first-person narrator.
Singer's novels and short stories first impress the reader with the writer's storytelling capacity. In epic family sagas and short novellas, in wide-ranging picaresque novels and condensed folk tales, Singer unfailingly spins good yarns. He effortlessly mixes the real and the fantastic, the mundane and the fabulous. His compelling stories convince us both of the concrete nature of everyday joys and sorrows of Jewish life in different epochs, and of the equally (or apparently equally) tangible doings of dybbuks and demons. Yet beneath the surface adventures and misadventures, beneath the panoramic dramatization of ribaldry and catastrophe, one often senses the insistent presence of eternal moral questions, often literally voiced by the characters as they struggle with each other and with themselves: Is there a God? Does He rule, or has He abdicated His responsibility for His creatures? Is He benign, or malign? How can one account for all the suffering in the universe? In the absence of a clear moral force in the world, what is the purpose of our existence?
This conjunction of form and content, of a Chaucerian wealth of earthly details and a serious philosophic questioning, has made many of Singer's readers pause. "It must be a common experience among Singer's readers," says Irving Howe, "to find a quick pleasure in the caustic surface of his prose, the nervous tokens of his virtuosity, but then to acknowledge themselves baffled as to his point and purpose." What is the relevance of scenes of orgiastic excess and libertine adventures in Satan in Goray or The Magician of Lublin, critics and readers asked, if the central point of interest was the depiction of the collective destiny of a Jewish nation, deprived of nationhood, stripped of worldly powers, yet sustained by the memory of chosenness and the promise of salvation? On the other hand, even readers trained to accept the expressionist distortions, the ambiguity and the irresolution of "modernistic" sensibility took exception to Singer's formal solutions. "Singer exults in sexuality, the grotesque and absurd," commented Prescott. Similarly, at the very moment of comparing Singer to the moral fabulator Hawthorne, and celebrating Singer's ability to write "old fashioned romances," Hyman also complains about The Slave that "the miraculous end is hard to take." Some of these difficulties, however, may be answered if Singer's writing is viewed from a different perspective. From this new point of view, both Singer's diversity of surface texture and his integral union of the container and the thing contained become manifest.
I suggest that a possible key both to the formal arrangement and to the thematic concerns in Singer's fiction may be found once we penetrate beyond the surface to the underlying structure. We discover that a number of the novels are marked by a recurrent structural model. The geographical and historical locale of the action and the specific details of characterization and plot are vastly different. Yet these provide the fictional covering for a similar structural paradigm which consists of a single male figure enmeshed in a web of diverse erotic relationships with a rich variety of female protagonists.
In The Magician of Lublin the hero is Yasha, a forty-year-old simple and uneducated man who combines the talents of a physical and a spiritual sorcerer. Literally, as well as metaphorically, Yasha is a rope-walker. Not least among his balancing feats is his ability to juggle a number of simultaneous relationships with the women in his life. Esther, his barren seamstress wife, reminiscent of Penelope in her faithful devotion, is described as eternally young, and she is an undiminished source of love and sustenance to Yasha's aspirations. Yet Yasha also collects an impressive array of lovers: Magda, his pimply-skinned, flat-chested, spindly-legged assistant; Elzbietta, her mountainous and passionate mother; Zeftel, a thief's forsaken wife who is as much of a "gypsy" as Yasha is; and Emilia, the well-bred, educated, and aristocratic Christian widow who wages a campaign to convert Yasha with the aid of philosophy, religion, mysticism, and erotic temptation.
Shosha takes as its focus a different male character. Aaron Greidinger is a budding writer and a journalist who has an even more impressive collection of mistresses: Celia Chentshiner, a blooming woman in her thirties, functions as mother rather than a wife to her husband Heiml, and is involved in a love affair with Aaron's literary mentor, Morrish Feitelzohn. Yet she enters into an attachment with Aaron that combines the function of a literary amanuensis and the role of a sensually seductive older woman. In absolute contrast to Celia's civilizing and elevating influence, Betty Slonim, the overripe actress, pulls Aaron in the direction of vulgarization and pedestrianism both in his personal and his artistic life. She holds the temptation of a marriage of convenience and urges Aaron to aim at popular artistic success by filling his plays with "love and sex." Another influence, bringing out of Aaron his paternal, protective, and adult aspect, is represented by the figure of his childhood sweetheart, Shosha, who has virtually remained a child. Tekla the peasant servant, on the other hand, coddles and pampers Aaron, ministering to all his physical needs as selflessly as he ministers to Shosha's emotional ones. Finally, Aaron is both drawn to and upset by Dora, the intensely fanatic communist ideologue, whom he teases and provokes by his own distrust of all creeds or "isms."
The entanglement in a net of amorous associations reappears in Enemies: A Love Story. The hero, Herman Broder, is an aging survivor of the Holocaust, living with his second wife. This wife, Yadwiga, is a nearly illiterate peasant woman who used to serve in Herman's ancestral home, whereas Herman is a man of education and culture. She saved his life by hiding him throughout the war, even from her own parents. Yadwiga's monosyllabic simplicity and even primitivism are thrown into relief by the beautiful, intellectual Masha. In her smoldering passions and strong will, Masha spins a magic web of love for Herman. Yet she, too, is no lighthearted butterfly. Her temperamental and nervous tantrums are repeatedly traced back to her own searing experience of surviving the German death camps, and the bereavement entailed by that experience. Herman, like the other womanizers, maintains the delicate balance between these women with the aid of an extensive system of lies and deceptions. The equilibrium is disrupted, however, by the sudden appearance of his first wife, Tamara, whom he believed to have perished along with their two sons. Tamara, a beautiful and vibrant woman in her past existence, used to be fired by Marxist ideology and a reformer's zeal. She fascinated and hen-pecked Herman, in turn. Now, having seen all that has given her life meaning shrivel and die, she is literally a ghost risen from the dead, haunted and self-tormenting. But Herman finds her alluring and is torn by the attractions of his three women.
In its embryonic form, the paradigm of the single male who is the lover of many women appears in the earlier novel, The Slave. Jacob, a Talmudic scholar who has been forcibly impressed into bondage on a seventeenth-century Polish farm, resembles the later Singer males in attracting several women. These women include Zelda Leah, his first wife; Tyrza, the gentile noblewoman, a rich and lusty temptress who cannot shatter his reserve and asceticism; the many gentile peasant girls who are drawn to his gentleness and innate culture; and Wanda, the latter-day Ruth who is willing to go after her seventeenth-century Boaz and to risk everything, even to the point of adopting a mute mien, in order to become his Jewish wife, Sarah. In The Slave, the two marriages are not simultaneous but sequential. Yet the outline is already present of the model that will be developed and perfected in the subsequent novels: a plot revolving around a central male protagonist who holds a special attraction for a multitude of unlikely and disparate female figures. Moreover, even in The Slave Singer provides the reader with clues to the thematic significance of this formal configuration. The story unfolds as the action zigzags along the spatial and temporal continuums, constantly disrupted and filled in by flashbacks and flash-forwards. All the while Jacob is groping his way toward an understanding of his relationship with each of the women in his life. He is the first of a long line of male figures in Singer's fiction who are basically inquirers, searching for personal answers.
In seeking to establish his role and his ties to each of the women, Jacob exhibits, and discovers, different facets of his character and self. Thus he progressively discovers the answers to the question "Who am I?" as a man and as a Jew. But this enquiry also has significance on a macrocosmic level. Jacob's insistent questions vis-à-vis his women are typical of the Singerian male lover, insofar as they simultaneously probe the validity of moral, philosophic, and aesthetic values in his world. In the novel set in seventeenth-century Poland as much as in the novels set in pre- and post-Holocaust Europe and America, this world is apparently shorn of its human order and meaning by the cumulative effect of countless catastrophes and bloodshed. Thus Jacob contemplates his life with Wanda after hearing of the pogroms in his hometown of Yuzepov:
There were no answers to his questions. Everything was one great puzzle; the suffering of man, the origin of human evil. The Jews looked at Jacob as if waiting for him to speak, but he sat silent. When he had explained to Wanda that there is no free will and freedom of choice without the existence of evil, and there is no Grace without injustice, he had thought that this was the answer. Now the answer seemed too simplistic, blasphemous. Can the creator of the universe be incapable of showing his goodness and omnipotence without the aid of rampaging soldiers? Is it necessary to rely on burying babies alive?
Jacob is a man desired by many females but who nevertheless manages to retain his faithful love in his purity. But his bafflement resembles the floundering of the more mendacious male protagonists in Singer's fiction. They, too, continuously link the microcosmic realm of their lusts and loves to the macrocosmic realm of universal rationality and meaning. Like him, they experience the clash between the questioning human mind and the dark universe that frustrates the human search for coherence and meaning. The universal nature of this clash is dramatized by the fact that it is confined to a single point in time or in space. The Magician of Lublin takes as its historical backdrop the relatively peaceful and enlightened time of late nineteenth-century Poland, untroubled by cataclysmic or violent eruptions comparable to the Holocaust or the pogroms. Moreover, Yasha Mazur is devoid of scholastic training in Talmud or philosophy of the kind enjoyed by Jacob. Yet Yasha ponders his acrobatic feats in the arena and in the beds of his lovers and sees them as inseparable from the larger framework of existential questioning:
together with his ambition and lust for life, dwelt a sadness, a sense of the vanity of everything, a guilt that could neither be repaid nor forgotten. What was life's purpose if one did not know why one was born nor why one died?… Had he been through the world simply to turn a few tricks and deceive a few females? On the other hand, could he, Yasha, revere a God whom someone had invented?
Whereas Jacob represents the early prototype of Singer's lover-philosopher, Yasha is characteristic of the fully developed male hero who combines Don Juan's deception of many women with a quest for significance and purpose in human existence. Yasha, as well as Aaron Greidinger (Shosha) and Herman Broder (Enemies: A Love Story) are set apart from the average skirt-chaser. Their passionate conquests and mishaps are lifted above mere hedonism. This narrative achievement is illuminated and elucidated if we consider the fact that Singer repeatedly depicts his male protagonists as experiencing the discovery described by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. This is the discovery that an absurd divorce holds between the human thirst for meaning and purpose, and the obdurate indifference of a mute and unreasonable universe:
This world is in itself not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.
Camus's discussion of the consequences of this confrontation provides a new perspective from which we can view the complex role Singer assigns to his ribald and sensual lovers. The experience of existential nausea and anguished sense of absurd divorce may lead the individual to suicidal despair, comments Camus, but it can also lead to a creative and rebellious acceptance of the human lot. The collapse of illusion, the clear-eyed acceptance of existence in a world "in which nothing is possible but everything is given" may mean not paralysis but a newfound lucidity and defiance that enable one to surmount despair. The individual discovers "his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation." In Camus's view, which is admittedly revisionist in the extreme, Don Juan exemplifies one of the positive, creative, and defiant responses to life in a universe so divested of its illusions and consolations. His posture, which exclaims "everything is permitted," constitutes not licentiousness but creativity. The universal nothingness is filled with meaning as Don Juan enters into his many loves in the same way the actor enters into his variegated roles: "entering into all these lives, experiencing them in their diversity." Moreover, Don Juan as Camus sees him is conscious and that awareness is celebrated as his prime attribute. It is interpreted as the defiant response that elevates man above the absurd, which threatens to crush him. "Nothing is vanity for him," says Camus of Don Juan, "except the hope of another life." Consequently, Don Juan is placed by Camus in the gallery of heroes to be admired and emulated: those who have found means of responding to absurd incoherence and futility with lucidity, creativity, and defiance. Don Juan's multiple loves, generally read as external expression of internal dissolution and dissipation, are seen by Camus as the ingenious means for replacing disintegrating quality with regenerative quantity: "The absurd man multiplies here what he cannot unify." Where tradition represents Don Juan as succumbing to physical drives, Camus sees him as liberated and victorious, finally attaining a triumph over darkness and despair. Don Juan "achieves a way of knowledge without illusions…. Loving and possessing, conquering and consuming—that is his way of knowledge." It now remains to be seen whether Singer's Don Juans—who similarly love and possess, conquer and consume as they ponder the rationality and coherence of their universe—are equally victorious and heroic.
It should be noted at this point that I am not attempting to present the Jew as the perfect symbol of the Camusian man. On the contrary, I am calling attention to a compositional device that enables Singer to probe deeper than the surface characterization of his heroes as Jewish males. Hawthorne wrote in the idiom and using the incidents of daily life typical of Puritan New England, and Faulkner infuses his writing with the dialect, folklore, social, and moral reality of the antebellum and postbellum South. Yet few people are unaware today that Hawthorne was writing about the "unpardonable sin against the human heart," and that Faulkner is concerned not with black-white relations but with "man's injustice to man." Similarly, Singer's heroes are steeped in Jewish lore, religion, morality, and folk-wisdom, as they also speak the cadences and rhythms of Yiddish and reflect its humorous irony. But these characteristic traits that ground them in the reality Singer knows so well are only half the picture. Singer seems to be doing what Faulkner said he himself has done: "sublimating the actual into the apocryphal." The "deep structure" links Yasha, Jacob, Aaron, and Herman to the mythic figure of Don Juan and to his newly mythicized role as a seeker of universal answers. These amorous heroes become therefore representative of all men in their insistent attempt to reconcile the contradictory yearnings and needs of the individual. They span the ungodly and the god-seeker, the terrestrial and the heaven-bound, the ordinary and the miraculous, the humane and the inhuman. Even as they succumb to the urgings and temptations of their flesh, they obsessively search for a sign from above. These Don Juans constantly violate the traditional sexual and moral interdictions of their culture and religion, yet they await a message and proof of sorts that there is a guardian eye ruling their universe, that evil is not arbitrary but a retribution, and that their life in this world is not mere chance or a blind event. Consequently, they are instrumental in Singer's exploding and transcending the narrow bounds of regional, sectarian, and parochial concerns, in order to depict and dramatize what is first and foremost a universal human quest.
The chasm between the apparently frivolous surface and the thoughtful, solemn, subterranean core of the Don Juan archetype invoked by Singer is thrown into prominent relief by the conversation of Yasha Mazur and his mistress Zeftel in The Magician of Lublin. To Zeftel, Yasha appears to be playing a joyful and carefree game: "to you women are like flowers to a bee. Always a new one. A sniff here, a lick there—and 'whist!' you buzz away." Yasha, however, exposes the obsessive aspect of his role as winner of hearts, and concludes that his deliberate courting of danger stems from what Camus called "an ethic of quantity:" "just as thieves had to steal money—he had to steal love." The danger involved in "stealing love" is not merely the actual danger of being unmasked. Far more troubling to Yasha is the danger that his erotic transgressions may indeed constitute a violation of a universal system of absolute values. The frisky amorous exploits mask a serious concern with the moral boundaries of the universe. But whereas Camus's Don Juan has already established these boundaries and smiles scornfully at the absurdity of the universe, Yasha views his Don Juanism with greater skepticism. The freedom of Don Juan is mere bondage to present and future hell, and his many loves merely damning "burdens," muses Yasha, if the world is after all ruled by some just and retributive moral force:
He had burdened himself with too heavy a yoke even before Emilia. He had supported Magda, Elzbietta and Bolek…. Esther grumbled frequently that he worked only for the devil…. How much longer would he drift along like this? How many more burdens would he assume? With how many perils and disasters would he load himself?… His passions flayed him like whips. Never had he ceased to suffer regret, shame, and the fear of death…. Thoughts of repentance enveloped him. Perhaps there was a God after all?… Perhaps a Day of Reckoning really waited and a scale where good deeds were weighed against the evil? If it were so, then every minute was precious. If it were so, then he had arranged not for one, but for two Hells for himself, one in this world, the second in the other.
All Singer's skirt-chasers are likewise preoccupied with questions about the possible presence or absence of rationality and retributive justice in the universe. By the same token, they also embody the ironic parameters of the writer's rendering of the newly mythicized model. Singer's Don Juans resemble Camus's lover in multiplying where they "cannot unify." Unlike him, however, they feel keenly the sting of this incapacity. Instead of heroically and blithely defying the absurd void, they feel dwarfed and hamstrung by the operation of unintelligible evil in their universe. Humorous as the confrontation with malignity may be, evil, even in its least stupendous forms, remains incomprehensible and insurmountable for Singer's Casanovas.
A case in point, exemplifying the humor and the helplessness of Singer's Don Juans in the face of malevolence, is the childhood encounter of Aaron Greidinger and his Shosha in their Krochmalna Street habitat. The young Aaron, in the best tradition of Singer's womanizers, is already a rebellious thinker questioning the Talmudic teachings of his strict father. Like Jacob and Herman, he ponders scientific teachings and dissects the philosophic notions of Aristotle, Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza in an attempt to verify the presence or absence of God. Shosha, whose innocent lack of any intellectual accoutrements makes her a version of the saintly fool, Gimpel Tam, provides Aaron with a willing audience. But as Aaron expounds his secondhand understanding of Spinoza, namely, that God is the world and the world is God, Shosha ingenuously brings the theoretical disquisition down to the ground of their daily reality: "Is Leibele Bontz also God?" Leibele Bontz was the worst bully in the court, full of tricks and excuses for inflicting pain on the weaker children. The notion that this early incarnation of motiveless malignity could also partake of divinity, reminisces the adult Aaron humorously, "cooled my enthusiasm for Spinoza's philosophy."
This self-directed irony with which Aaron remembers his early helplessness, his failure to either counteract or to account successfully for the palpable reality of malevolence, is characteristic of Singer's sardonic presentation of his Don Juans. Yasha, Aaron, and Herman Broder are constantly placed in the position of realizing their own impotence and ridiculousness.
As Yasha explains to Emilia, "I am just a bungler." The Yiddish word for "bungler" is Schlemiel, and it is used to describe the little fellow, the one who is so unfit for life in this world that he botches all his undertakings. The Schlemiel, a butt of humor and an object of gentle ridicule, is a prominent archetype of Jewish humorous fiction. It is also the very antipode of the heroic, triumphant Don Juan described by Camus. The continuum between these two antithetical models provides Singer with a rich variety of intermediate figures, spanning the whole spectrum from the newly heroic to the utterly inept. Consequently, true to his fictional mastery, Singer paints a gallery of variegated portraits. Jacob, the prototype who is untainted by Casanova's double-dealing, is the most heroic of Singer's male lovers. Yasha already combines the heroic and the antiheroic; he exemplifies the fall from the grace of achievement and assertive power to the disgrace of passive enslavement, failure, and disparagement. Aaron combines a lucidity and eloquence unsurpassed by any of the other Don Juans with a diminutive nickname, "Tsutsik" ("little one" in Russian and Yiddish). The nickname underscores Aaron's circumscribed stature as an unfulfilled promise, a bud that has not yet bloomed. Moreover, if Yasha feels pushed in different directions by the women in his life, Aaron is actually pressed, compressed, impressed, and depressed in turn by his various lovers. This aspect of Singer's Don Juan, his ineffectual will and his passivity in the female hands that would mold and shape him, becomes the central trait of Herman Broder. Herman is the least like Camus's Don Juan, who victoriously experiences his multiple loves "in their diversity." Instead, he is as clay in the hands of his powerful temptresses who manipulate his thinking and behavior. In fact, Herman is so much like the archetypal Schlemiel that his amorous conquests seem incongruous. As one mishap follows another, Herman claims a place as the most maladroit and least imposing of Singer's skirt-chasers:
These mistakes in the subway, his habit of putting things away and not remembering where, straying into the wrong streets, losing manuscripts, books and notebooks, hung over Herman like a curse. He was always searching through his pockets for something he had lost. His fountain pen or his sunglasses would be missing, his wallet would vanish, his own phone number would slip from his mind. He would buy an umbrella and leave it somewhere within the day. He would put on a pair of rubbers and lose them in a matter of hours. Sometimes he imagined that imps and goblins were playing tricks on him.
Singer, with a recognizable Yiddish rhythm even in this English translation, does not spare his hero as he piles on detail after damning detail. However, this same Schlemiel also functions as the philosopher—Don Juan described by Camus. Like all of Singer's Casanovas, Herman is engrossed by questions about the moral timbre of the universe. After describing an inquisitive childhood and a rebellious youth reminiscent of those attributed to Jacob, Yasha, and Aaron, the narrator fills in the facts about the present Herman and his questionings:
During the war and in the years after, Herman had time enough to regret his behavior to his family. But basically he remained the same; without belief in himself or in the human race; a fatalist hedonist who lived in presuicidal gloom. Religion lied. Philosophy was bankrupt from the beginning. The idle promises of progress were no more than the spit in the face of the martyrs of all generations. If time was just a form of perception, or a category of reason, then the past is as present as today; Cain continues to murder Abel. Nebuchadnezzar is still slaughtering the sons of Zedekiah and putting out Zedekiah's eyes. The pogrom in Kichinev never ceases. Jews are forever burned in Auschwitz.
The conjunction of these two passages exposes the two facets of the ironic Don Juan as he appears in Singer's fiction. He is simultaneously a "fatalist hedonist" and a seeker of moral answers; an inept bungler and a powerful thinker: man floundering under the pressures of the world and an individual attempting to chart his own progress in a universe divested of sign posts and guidelines; a Schlemiel and a heroic questioner out on an individual and lonely quest. The question that insistently suggests itself is: What function does this paradoxical figure fulfill in Singer's overall design?
When a writer makes a repeated use of a narrative device, an image, or a theme, he incurs the danger of being misunderstood. Readers who fail to see the larger frame of reference created by the very repetition may dismiss it as "obsessive," and even remark on the writer's drying powers of invention. In Enemies: A Love Story, Singer dangerously courts such misreading. He does not merely reiterate the Don Juan configuration, spiced as it is with titillating scenes of sensuality and eroticism. He even ascribed to Herman ruminations, attitudes, and queries that echo almost verbatim similar passages attributed to the other Don Juans. One is immediately reminded of Aaron upon reading Herman's philosophizing, which posits the Don Juan's double-dealings as the hedonistic response to the universal Nothingness:
He was deceiving Masha, and Masha was deceiving him. Both had the same goal; to get as much pleasure as possible out of life in the few years before darkness, the final end, an eternity without reward, without punishment, without will, would be upon them.
Compare Shosha: "she wants the same thing we all want, to grab some pleasure before we disappear forever."
Similarly, Herman's equivocations reflect and underscore Yasha's repeated vacillations between the admonition to renounce all his sublunary lusts and cling to God, and his equally strong doubts about the meaning and validity of creeds and dogmas. At a certain point, Herman echoes Yasha's avowals of absolute faith in a supreme God even to the point of relinquishing all earthly drives:
He had sworn to renounce all worldly ambitions, to give up the licentiousness into which he had sunk when he had strayed from God, the Torah, Judaism…. If a Jew departed in so much as one step from the Shulchan Aruch, he found himself spiritually in the sphere of everything base—Fascism, Bolshevism, murder, adultery, drunkenness.
Singer, however, puts the allusive echo to narrative use. Herman's words simultaneously recapitulate and throw into relief Yasha's attitude. They underscore the fact that from identical points of departure, the two Don Juans arrive at diametrically opposed courses of action. Yasha, by a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, clings finally to the conviction that "a single step away from God plunged one into the deepest abyss." He also concludes, however, that the frailty of the human will makes such true subservience to God impossible as long as one is truly involved in what Faulkner termed "the moil and seethe of human affairs": "one could not serve God among men, even though separated by brick walls."
Yasha, the magician who has grown impotent and awkward during the action of the novel, regains a measure of dignity and stature as "reb Jacob the Penitent." This solution requires, however, that he spend the rest of his life in a "living grave," dependent on his wife Esther for food. Herman, on the other hand, chooses another escape from God and from living: "I will leave everybody." Herman abandons the botched relationship with his three women and the wreck of everything he put his hands to, as well as his unborn baby daughter. The antithesis of both Yasha's and Herman's escapes, of their relinquishing of personal responsibility for life, is found in Aaron's steadfast refusal to forsake Shosha, though he risks perishing with her. Clearly, the reiteration of the Don Juan configuration is used by Singer to highlight not only the points of similarity but even more forcefully, the points of dissimilarity among the male protagonists. This serves, in the first instance, to refute charges made by otherwise perceptive critics that Singer's characters are "allegorical figures." Although the Don Juans confront the archetypal dilemma described by Camus, they remain distinct figures in their own right. Each must confront the universal riddle and determine for himself the degree of faith possible for him in the presence or absence of a moral divinity in the universe. But the manner in which they are acquainted with the prevalence of evil and with the ubiquitous nature of suffering is rendered in a new and fresh manner in each of the novels. Similarly, their response to the discovery of absurdity and futility is to fashion their own personal solution to the predicament.
Both the similarities and the dissimilarities function, however, on the global as well as the local textual level. When the novels are viewed as one frame of reference, Singer's utilization of the Don Juan model, and his rendering of that Don Juan as increasingly Schlemiel like, begins to make both thematic and formal sense. As a formal device, the Don Juans straddle the abyss between the sacred and the profane, their bodies steeped in the appetites and the pleasures of the flesh while their hearts and minds ponder the universal moral puzzle. Their progressively reduced stature functions like the absence of clear-cut resolution in Singer's narratives; it testifies to the difficulty of arriving at simple or definite answers. Unlike the triumphant Don Juan described by Camus, Singer's Casanovas find it well-nigh impossible to attain the "knowledge" that constitutes a victory over the absurd.
Singer's "modern" outlook pierces through the repeated discovery of his protagonists that all absolutes become relative in the face of the inexplicable, insurmountable ubiquity of evil and suffering. Jacob was quoted above as expressing the pain of this inability to suggest any enduring solutions to the universal "puzzle." Confronted by the inexplicability of evil, all Singer's Don Juans are similarly freshly reminded of their limited powers, of their Tsutsik and Schlemiel aspect. The characters themselves, as well as the open, ambivalent endings of the narratives, loudly proclaim their bafflement with the universal enigma. The point is dramatized by the discussion of the two survivors of the Holocaust, Heimel and Aaron, at the end of Shosha. Heimel, comparing himself to a squashed fly, is associating himself with Gloucester's famous comment, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" (King Lear, IV, i). Aaron, however, rejects even the view that ascribes suffering to malign gods who "kill us for their sport." In his view, there simply is no satisfactory explanation for suffering:
"At night I lie awake, a little man, a nearly squashed fly, and I talk to the dead, to the living, to God—if He exists—and to Satan, who doubtlessly exists, and I ask them, 'Why was all this necessary?' And I wait for an answer. What is your opinion, Tsutsik, is there an answer to this question anywhere?"
"No, there is no answer."
"And why not?"
Because there can be no answer to suffering—not for the sufferer."
The thematic implication of these narrative devices is heretic from the point of view of orthodox Judaism. It suggests that all systems of belief and abstract values are equally arbitrary and relative. Irving Howe rightly observes, therefore, that as a "modern writer" Singer is, by definition, "not quite trustworthy in relation to his culture." His "modern" awareness compels him to present Jewish orthodoxy as offering no greater a hope for an incontrovertible answer to the universal riddle, but only one partial answer among many.
At the same time, the very ambiguity of the formal conclusions allows the writer to balance a glimmer of hope against the degrading suffering, a putative affirmation against the overwhelming futility of questioning. The inept Don Juans fail, but their personal stories are framed and contained, in each of the four novels, by a larger, more comprehensive perspective that introduces a flicker of hope. The Magician of Lublin terminates with Emilia's letter, informing Yasha that his physical and emotional vicissitudes were not in vain, since their love, and his eventual "conversion," have illuminated and enriched her existence. Enemies: A Love Story concludes with a postscript describing the birth of a daughter to the missing Herman, named after the now-dead Masha. This ending invites comparison to the so-called miraculous ending of The Slave, in which Jacob succeeded in saving his newborn son and in spiriting him to Palestine after the death of his beloved Sarah-Wanda. The same miraculous alternation of death and renewed life marks the epilogue of Shosha. Aaron, and the reader, are informed that Heimel, like many other who have lost their loved ones in the Holocaust, has remarried.
The conclusions of Singer's narratives testify, then, symbolically as well as literally, to the consoling fact that life continues its eternal cycle of destruction and restoration, of death and rebirth. This cyclical alternation offers some hope for rejuvenation and invigoration even after the most deadening suffering and loss. Hence, it seems quite appropriate that the last lines of Shosha allude to Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Asked by his wife Genia what they are waiting for, Heimel "laughed and said, 'We are waiting for answers.'" Like Beckett, Singer has found a metaphoric device with which he explores and exposes the universal predicament. Like Beckett, he presents characters whose humanity is their most recognizable trait. As Beckett's characters wait for Godot, so Singer's protagonists wait for answers about the divine or satanic nature of the principle that rules their universe. And as Beckett's play shows the tree, its only scenic object, sprouting new leaves in the second act in token of the hope that it consistently mingles with despair, so Singer's novels culminate in the birth that relentlessly follows death. The mixture of comedy and tragedy, of irony and horror, of laughter and tears, in Beckett as well as in Singer, reveals that both writers are aware of the paradoxical nature of existence. They are cognizant of the terrible nature of life in a universe shorn of its illusions and comforting explanations. "If God is silent," Hemiel quotes Morris Feitelzohn's response to the Nazi occupation of Poland, "we owe him nothing."
But they are also convinced that all is not lost. Singer resembles Beckett in intimating that the human spirit may in the long run endure and prevail against all odds. This is a slim hope, but hope it is. Beckett's tree and Singer's little fellows burgeon with new life because of the implicit belief that man is capable of filling the universal void with some positive meaning. Once more, form and theme combine to exemplify the fact that that slim meaning is of human origin, not divine. Morris Feitelzohn is already dead, but his fiery repudiation of theocentric evil in favor of anthropocentric good nourishes and supports the survivors who go on living:
"True religion means not obeying God but defying and provoking him. If he wants evil, we should desire its opposite. If he wants war, inquisitions, crucifixions, Hitlers, we should desire honesty, Hassidism, grace in our own fashion."
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