Isaac Bashevis Singer | Critical Essay by Grace Farrell Lee

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This section contains 3,643 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Grace Farrell Lee

Critical Essay by Grace Farrell Lee

SOURCE: "Isaac Bashevis Singer: Mediating Between the Biblical and the Modern," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 117-23.

In the following essay, Lee examines Singer's use of Biblical metaphors to confront profound existential dilemmas. Drawing comparison to Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, Lee contends that Singer's fiction is "an uneasy meditation between the Biblical image of God who hides his face and the modern image of a cosmos empty of transcendent meaning."

Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Old Love" concludes as Harry Bendiner, eighty-two year old millionaire, survivor of three wives and two children, dreams of meditating in a solitary British Columbian tent with the daughter of a dead love on why a man is born and why he must die. In one way or another each of Singer's stories is a variation on this essential meditation, and the exiled meditant is the prototypical Singer character. The questions posed by the meditant and the exile he endures are intimately connected; for while the questions concern a search for a source of meaning which might explain the mystery of mortality, the exile can be defined as the separation of humankind from that source of meaning. Ultimately, to find answers to one's questions is to be redeemed from one's exile.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus defined that modern phenomenon, absurdity, in terms of exile. He tells us that we confront our exile in a universe which does not yield up answers to our question of "why?" He writes, "A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity." The exiled meditant, deprived of a promised land, while recognizable as an essential figure in Camus and much of modern literature, certainly has its metaphorical echoes in Biblical material. I. B. Singer, perhaps more so than any other serious contemporary writer, utilizes Biblical metaphors not only to confront the "ultimate questions," but also to discover the possibility of finding answers to them. In the process we find in Singer's fiction an uneasy mediation between the Biblical image of a God who hides his face and the modern image of a cosmos empty of transcendent meaning.

It is a dangerous mediation, for the specter of God cancels the profound cosmic emptiness which is the essence of the modern vision. But an absent God who hides his face provides metaphoric ambivalences which Singer uses to enrich, with a bit of uncertainty, the dogmatic starkness of the contemporary view. It is dangerous in yet another way, for a fundamentalist reading of Singer can lead to the all too easy dismissal of him as other than modern, a criticism which he has learned to ignore, but which I would rather put into a new perspective. For, although their cries are couched in religious terms, as his characters, like Job, search out their elusive God, Singer evokes a universe akin to that of modern secular absurdists, a place where humankind appears to be exiled from any source of meaning and where the phenomenal world forever disintegrates about us.

While Camus' modern man bewails a universe which remains silent in the face of human questioning, and while the Biblical Job may shake his fist toward a hidden God, Singer creates a cacophony of voices shouting to the universe, each posing questions in its own human way. "How high is the sky? How deep is the earth? What's at the other side of the end of the world? Who made God?" "'How is it possible, after all, that someone should simply vanish? How can someone who lived, loved, hoped, and wrangled with God and with himself just disappear?'" Why must God be concealed? How can evil and suffering be explained? Why are innocent children tormented with pain? Why is God silent in the face of misery? For what were we born and why must we die?

Like the townspeople of Krasnobród who ponder and explain, yet never discover the truth, "Because if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers," so Singer's characters speculate—humorously, morosely, endlessly. In Enemies: A Love Story Herman Broder suggests in despair, "Wasn't it possible that a Hitler presided on high and inflicted suffering on imprisoned souls?" Or perhaps, a dybbuk whispers to Morris Feitelzohn in Shosha, "God suffers from a kind of divine amnesia that made Him lose the purpose of His creation…. God tried to do too much in too short an eternity. He has lost both criterion and control and is badly in need of help…. I see Him as a very sick God, so bewildered by His galaxies and the multitude of laws He established that He doesn't know what He aimed for to start with."

Sometimes it seems that the only truth is that with which the narrator concludes "Neighbors": "The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: 'Dust, dust, dust.' The singsong penetrated my bones together with the warmth. It repeated a truth as old as the world, as profound as sleep."

Singer's novel Shosha ends as two friends, exiled in Tel Aviv after the Holocaust, sit in a darkening room, waiting, as one says with a laugh, for an answer. Their final conversation expresses feelings of abandonment and resentment in a world devoid of revelation. Haiml says,

"If God is wisdom, how can there be foolishness? And if God is life, how can there be death? I lie at night, a little man, a half-squashed fly, and I talk with the dead, with the living, with God—if He exists—and with Satan, who certainly does exist. I ask them, 'What need was there for all this?' and I wait for an answer. What do you think, Tsutsik, is there an answer somewhere or not?"

"No, no answer."

"Why not?"

"There can't be any answer for suffering—not for the sufferer."

"In that case, what am I waiting for?"

Genia opened the door. "Why are you two sitting in the dark, eh?"

Haiml laughed. "We're waiting for an answer."

Singer here speaks of humankind as Isaiah spoke of the Children of Israel: "we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night, we are in desolate places as dead men." With its almost Beckett-like despair of waiting, the ending of Shosha also becomes a metaphor for the modern condition. Darkness spreads throughout the room as it spreads throughout Singer's stories and his universe; yet, as Shosha ends, the two men still sit in the midst of the darkness waiting in exile for an answer, an answer which they fear will never come. Yet still they wait.

Singer creates fiction which has the power to make us know that we all wait. We wait in exile for an answer, or, like Gimpel the Fool, we wait for the true world where even Gimpel will not be deceived and where revelation will be more than a faint glimmer in a darkened room.

Harry Bendiner of "Old Love" waits in his plastic chaise, on his balcony eleven stories up from Miami Beach, brooding in solitude on how he is "condemned to live alone and to die alone." The Angel of Death had taken his family from him, but Harry, as suspicious as he is rich, completes the process which death began by exiling himself from any but the most casual of human contacts. Through a series of paltry fantasies, he experiences the world as hostile and threatening: "Maybe someone was following him. Maybe some crook had found out how rich he was and was scheming to kidnap him. Although the day was bright and the street full of people, no one would interfere if he was grabbed, forced into a car, and dragged off to some ruin or cave. No one would pay ransom for him." Harry's fears are so insistent, and for the most part so unfounded, that they create an edge of amusement which serves to exile even the reader somewhat from this lonely old man whose paranoia is tinged with self-pity.

His whining fears are symptomatic of a profound struggle within Harry Bendiner. As each of his days takes on a shape like all the others—breakfast, elevator, mail, checks, stock exchange office or bank, nap, dinner—Harry's routine is punctuated by a single, simple question: "Why go on living?" This question, always threatening to break through the surface of his life, becomes the center of the story.

Camus' absurd man finds many echoes in the aged Harry Bendiner. Camus tells us that the "state set" which is the fragile surface of our lives can collapse suddenly when the question "why?" emerges. Like Harry Bendiner, Camus' everyman moves through his day:

Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. "Begins"—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows.

What follows is our recognition of the irrationality of the world, of the strangeness of the world. That which was once familiar is now alien and distant. We begin to feel the separateness of our reality from that of all others. We begin to confront our exile in an absurd universe.

Job, too, reduced to a leprous beast, stripped of children and property, no longer certain of his connection with anything beyond the limits of his own mortality, he too is finally forced out of a life which provided him with comfortable answers and into a confrontation with the ambiguities of human existence. "What is man," Job asks, "that thou makest much of him / and turnest thy thoughts towards him, / only to punish him morning by morning / or to test him every hour of the day?" This cry of anguish was once an easily answered question. Personally, Job was a good and upright man; socially, he had status as a successful property owner and father; metaphysically, he was in close dialogue with his God. Such complacent, superficial answers are ready-made by social and religious structures for Job, for Harry Bendiner, and for every person who does not wish to look deeply into the 'ultimate' questions and to face the awesomeness and the terrors which lie beneath the surfaces of reality.

Such a confrontation is one which Harry Bendiner would rather avoid; "… one couldn't constantly brood," he says, "about the fact that everything was vanity of vanities. It was easier to think about practical matters." The practical, commercial world of Miami, thickly people with those who ask "to buy or not to buy," reveals, in this playfully obvious allusion to Hamlet, the essence of human questioning. "Man is no more than a puff of wind, / his days a passing shadow," says the Psalmist; "a foul and pestulent congregation of vapors" it oftentimes seems to Hamlet. Singer literalizes Shakespeare's disease metaphors, and for Harry Bendiner the questions of philosophy are outshouted by the complaints of an aged body; the functioning of his bowels becomes more important than the workings of the universe. For Hamlet, Denmark is a prison, and he could count himself king of infinite space tho' surrounded by a nutshell, if he had not bad dreams. But Harry Bendiner is imprisoned within his apartment, isolated from all those around him, fearful of the world outside, and he cannot remember his dreams; they "dissolved like foam." Harry is exiled from that deep dream world of his own self.

It is the chance encounter with love—for an elderly neighbor, Ethel, who soon throws herself to her death from a window—which wrenches Harry from his immersion in the materialism of the world to face the questions which lie in wait for every human being. Ethel's friendship makes him realize how lonely he has been and how empty is his world. Separated from her by only the thin walls of their apartments, Harry finally acknowledges that "walls possess a power of their own."

Harry Bendiner comes to a point where the questions do break through the surface of his life and he wants to direct the rest of his days to them. Although we leave him just as he was when first sighted, sitting in his plastic chaise on his balcony eleven stories up from Miami Beach, he has been transformed. Where once he brooded upon his personal exile, Harry has come to recognize a larger exile, one which, paradoxically, can be shared and, thus, in the very act of that sharing, overcome.

Job is also forced from his complacency to find the path which is his existence walled up. Harry had felt the thin walls of his apartment assume a power of their own, and, in "Absurd Walls," Camus reminds us of the nature of walls. They are the limitations of our existence, limitations which culminate in death, limitations which we long to transcend in some meaningful way. Job is forced to acknowledge his mortal limitations and his longing to transcend them. But the resentment Job feels towards his God renders him incapable of the prayerful dialogue which once was the sustenance of his life. He feels abandoned by a God who has retreated from him, who has "hidden his face," and who can no longer be found. Job is in exile from his God.

The absence of God from Job's world is the spiritual equivalent of the secular dilemma defined by Camus. Absurdity, Camus tells us, is the questor's confrontation with a universe which does not give forth an answer, which remains silent in the face of human questioning. This silent universe is the same as that confronted by Job and by each of Singer's characters: by "Tsutsik" and Haiml as they wait in their darkening room, by Harry Bendiner as he lies belching and hiccupping on his bed, unable to comprehend the suicide of his newfound love, unable to know day from dream, unable anymore to perform those rituals of his mechanical life:

Well, from now on I won't hope for anything, he decided with the solemnity of a man taking an oath. He felt cold, and he covered himself with the blanket…. That day Harry Bendiner did not go down for his mail. He did not prepare breakfast for himself, nor did he bother to bathe and dress. He kept on dozing in the plastic chaise on the balcony and thinking about … Ethel's daughter—who was living in a tent in British Columbia. Why had she run away so far? he asked himself. Did her father's death drive her into despair? Could she not stand her mother? Or did she already at her age realize the futility of all human efforts and decide to become a hermit? Is she endeavoring to discover herself, or God? An adventurous idea came into the old man's mind: to fly to British Columbia, find the young woman in the wilderness, comfort her, be a father to her, and perhaps try to meditate together with her on why a man is born and why he must die.

While the silent universe of which Camus speaks is not necessarily a God-filled universe, the feelings of abandonment and resentment and alienation exist whether one looks up to the heavens and shakes a fist at an absent God or whether one sees an empty cosmos which does not provide answers to one's questions. These are two different contexts in which to express the same human predicament: Harry Bendiner, Camus' everyman, and Job are each alienated from a source of ultimate meaning. They cry out and there is no response to their anguish. They are each alone in a silent universe.

Of course the crucial difference between the modern and the Biblical models lies in the perspective each holds for the possibility of finding or receiving answers to the ultimate questions. Camus says that there is in humankind a "wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart." We need an answer to the question "why?" But this human need confronts again and again "the unreasonable silence of the world." Harry Bendiner confronts the silence and in so doing finds the questions towards which he dreams of directing his life. Job confronts the silence, but ultimately it is broken by the voice of a God who finally does reveal himself. Job again moves into dialogue with his God. He sought Him and he found Him. He questioned and he received an answer. The Book of Job ends with Job rejoicing as he is again blessed with property and children. Ironically, his answer is given in the same terms which had once blinded him to the awesome questions about the human condition. The nature of the answer given to Job is not sufficient; it does not touch upon the essence of his questioning.

As Singer says, "At the end Job is rewarded. He has more beautiful daughters and more donkeys and so on and so on, but we feel that this is not an answer to Job's suffering."

But even this renewed dialogue between humankind and the universe, however flawed, is not reached in modern literature. The silence continues; the abandonment deepens. Singer makes metaphorical use of the image of God's removal of himself from the universe to express the modern person's longing for transcendence and our inability to find it, our feelings of abandonment and of exile. That God is hidden means that our source of meaning, that which can provide answers to our questions of "why?," that which can give significance to us beyond the mortal limitations of our lives, cannot be found.

Maimonides, in the twelfth century Guide of the Perplexed discusses many aspects of God's hiddenness which Singer plays upon in his fiction. To see the face of God, Maimonides explains, indicates an apprehension of the nature of God, a knowledge which is "inaccessible in its very nature…. But My face shall not be seen [means] that the true reality of My existence as it veritably is cannot be grasped." This Biblical image can thus express the modern perspective that in their very nature the answers to humankind's questions are inaccessible. The "wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart" can never be satisfied. The universe is incomprehensible. To see the face of God is a metaphor expressing the acquisition of ultimate knowledge. And the image of God's hiddenness is the correlative of the silence of the universe in the face of the human need to know. The human predicament, then, is both irresolvable and absurd, for the silence is irrevocable and it defies the questioning nature of humankind.

But to have the face of God hidden also indicates, Maimonides says, "a privation of providence [which] leaves one abandoned and a target to all that may happen and come about … And just as the withdrawal of providence is referred to as the hiding of the face—as in its dictum: As for Me, I will surely hide My face—it also is referred to as going, which has the meaning to turn away from a thing. Thus Scripture says: I will go and return to My place." The hiding of God's face then is an expression of the emotional dilemma humankind faces, alone, separate, exiled. And the withdrawal of God from the universe expresses the abandonment humankind feels, lost in a universe which is intractable in the face of the human need for significance.

Maimonides also explains that to see God's face is to speak to God, to be in dialogue with God, "as a presence to another presence without an intermediary … Face is also an adverb of place that is rendered in Arabic by the words: 'in front of thee' or 'in thy presence.'" To have the face of God hidden is the ultimate expression of exile—to not be there, or to have that place of meaning removed from where one is.

In Singer's hands the hidden face of God becomes a central image of intricate complexity. The inaccessibility of God, his facelessness, his silence, his exile from humankind, and humankind's exile from him create the symbolic context of Singer's fiction. But while his work draws upon religious images, its significance is not limited to a religious context. The religious functions as an overall symbol system which enables Singer to explore the complexities of the human condition and to confront not only the traditional problems of faith and doubt, the existence of evil and the inexplicable mystery of creation but also those typically modern concerns of alienation, which is exile, and absurdity, which is silence.

But Singer's mediation between the Biblical and the modern is an uneasy mediation. He uses Biblical material metaphorically in a way which deepens our understanding of what has come to be seen as the modern dilemma. But inherent in the Biblical material, no matter the context in which it is used, is hope—hope that the exile may be eased, hope that the silence may be breached, hope that our disbelief may prove to be unnecessary. It is this which distinguishes Singer from his contemporaries, this quality of hope, this belief that no matter how dark the night, we ought to sit and wait, for anything is possible.

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