Isaac Bashevis Singer
Wisdom in the Wind
A writer like Isaac Bashevis Singer might have been loosely part of the same generation as the Surrealists that included Andr Breton, Luis Buuel, Salvador Dali and Louis Aragon, but this Polish migr to the US, while sharing an interest in a world beyond the rational, has little in common with Breton and others. Chiefly the difference lies in the interest in perceptual dissolution and the atheistic concerns of the Surrealists, and the fascination with the narrow divide between our world and the beyond in Singer. If Surrealism often worked from the irrationality of dreams, a state that worked off a Freudian notion of the id, of basic drives, and that allowed little space for a moral universe, Singer is much more interested in what Freud would call the super-ego, the moral structures that dictate our lives and have often been signified by a religious authority. As Freud says, "the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the danger of life; the establishing of a moral world-order ensures the fulfilment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization." (The Future of an Illusion) If in the Paris Review Singer talks of other writers initially thinking him old-fashioned ("I seemed a most reactionary writer"), this might not especially be through his interest in magic and the supernatural, but more the moral and the super-egotistical. If many writers of the thirties onwards have been getting rid of morality from literature, has Singer been trying to put it back in? As Singer insists, "It is true I believe in miracles, or rather, grace from Heaven...I don't know if I should call myself a mystic, but I feel always that we are surrounded by powers, by mysterious powers..." As the narrator says in 'Henne Fire': "yes, there are people who are demons. God preserve us! Mothers see things when they give birth, but they'll never tell what they see!"
In, for example, the short story collection, Short Friday and Other Stories, many of the tales focus on morality meeting the supernatural. 'Blood' opens: "The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason 'though shalt not kill' is followed by 'though shalt not commit adultery." "In a prison", 'Jachid and Jechidah' opens, "where souls bound for Sheol - Earth they call it there - await destruction, there hovered the female soul Jechidah". 'Zedlius the Pope' begins: "In ancient times there always lived a few men in every generation whom I, the Evil One, could not corrupt in the usual manner. It was impossible to tempt them to murder, lechery, robbery...In one way only could the inner passions of these righteous souls be reached: through their vanity." These are stories morally shaped but also religiously inclined. It gives Singer's writing a double rectitude, but also no sense of ready assumption. It is partly that Singer is writing outside of his time which gives the stories a morally hypothetical dimension that might have been less evident if the stories were merely moral. If he writes within the rational expectations of social contract theory, of an ethos that makes society work, and where adultery, avarice, pride and murder were eroding the social contract between citizens, then the stories would be more justifiably contained and more straightforwardly read. But Singer, who would write in Yiddish and often publish in Jewish magazines and papers, clearly also believes in powers beyond rational thinking, and his purpose, and his importance, resides in creating worlds that do not coincide with the modern moral mind, but nevertheless offer lessons to it. Paradoxically, Singer's double rectitude - his morality tales within religious belief - creates a strange ethical distance inside narrative authority. It is finally the way Singer tells his stories that give them power, and power is a different word from moral rectitude.
If we take for example 'Zeidlus the Pope', Singer explores what happens when someone who seems to be staying well within the faith, can be tempted by the Evil One who wants to take him away from his beliefs: beliefs that the evil narrator calls into question, and though we may not be happy with siding with the Evil One, the values Zeidel possesses and the life he practises seem hardly condoned by the narrative. Zeidel "possessed such intensity that all his surroundings acquired his character. Though a servant took care of his rooms, the furniture was always covered with dust." Even when Zeidel marries a "beauty", even though "untroubled by passions or the need to make a living", the narrative appears unsympathetic towards him. Yet isn't the narrator and narrative one and the same here; doesn't the first person narrative voice create the story, give it the context for its telling? Perhaps usually, but not always, otherwise why would we bother having the term an unreliable narrator unless a gap was created between the narrator and the narrative? There is no necessary link between a first person narrator and the narrative being told, and in this instance what Singer gives us is a tale with an unsympathetic narrator and an unsympathetic central character, and we find the value in the space in between. Though there is Singer's double rectitude in the moral tale contained by religion, it doesn't at all lead to a smooth moral affirmation, but a strangely perplexing one. Here the narrator admits that he wants to destroy a man, but we also realise that maybe the man needs to be destroyed because he lives too narrowly for spiritual growth, no matter his mastering of the religious texts, and his brilliant mind. "Are you aware that you outshine all other grammarians in your knowledge of Hebrew?...", the devil tells him. "Are you aware that you know more of the Cabala than was divulged to Reb Chaim Vital? Do you know that you are a greater philosopher than Maimondes?" Yet this is not the same thing as spiritual development; it is in his destruction that Zeidel becomes an object lesson for the reader. As Zeidel gets tempted by pride, as the Evil One insists he can get the respect he deserves if he converts to Catholicism, so Zeidel gives up his goods and property and divorces his wife. All potential signs of profound virtuousness, but of course the Evil One knows that he has appealed to Zeidel's pride: the moral of the story is contained by the questionable religiosity of the character, who, versed in theology, initially Judaism and then Catholicism, loses his soul instead of finding it. As the Evil One says near the end of the story, "Drawing my sword I finished him off, took hold of his soul and, accompanied by a band of demons, flew to the nether world."
What Singer offers us within his double rectitude is a narrator at odds with the narrative, but in which the moral holds as two wrongs make a curious form of the right. The narrator takes from the central character what he can by appealing to the character's pride, but the story itself shows how an evil narrator can find his way into a person's soul when vanity is their weakness. Here is higher case moral failure, and even more troublesome than the lower case sins of gluttony, lust and avarice, for at least in the others it is unlikely one can pretend to be serving God - but in vanity and pride one may seem to be serving a higher purpose but actually contained within this love of God is a vain love of oneself. It is why the Evil One can find a way into Zindel's soul by saying: "I'm telling you because it's not right that a great man such as you, a master of the Torah, an encyclopedia of knowledge, should be buried in a God-forsaken village such as this where no one pays the slightest attention to you..."
It is this double rectitude but paradoxical examination of it that makes Singer's work interesting, and obviously not simply a reiteration of biblical chapter and verse. The rectitude may sound Old Testament, but the teasing out of contradictions are Singer's own. In Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, the central character is a woman who decides that she will impersonate a man, believing she is not one for womanly activities: "She couldn't sew, she couldn't knit. She let the food burn and the milk boil over." Even her father would say: "'Yentl you have the soul of a man.' 'So why was I born a woman? Even Heaven makes mistakes.'" So she impersonates a man, befriends someone, Avigdor, who decides he doesn't want to marry the beautiful Hadass, and then when Yentl sees her Yentl says to herself, "A pity I'm not a man." Yet by this stage everybody takes Yentl/Anshel for one, and so it is possible for Yentl to marry Hadass. However since no child can be conceived, though Yentl finds ways to offer Hadass pleasure without Hadass noticing she is sleeping with a woman, Yentl still feels the urge to run away at night. Also, though Avigdor has married Peshe, who "had a lot of money and her father was a rich man", he can't forget Hadass. By the end of the story, Yentl/Anshel leaves Hadass with the hope that eventually Avigdor and Hadass will be together, and indeed by the end of the story they will be, even though at their wedding Hadass still mourns the loss of Yentl. There are many rumours behind exactly what happened and one of the main ones is offered by Peshe, who "spread the rumor that Anshel had sold his wife to Avigdor for a price..." Come the end of the story Hadass is impregnated by Avigdor unaware that she could never have conceived a child with Yentl, and at the boy's circumcision everyone assembled is astonished to hear that the child will be named Anshel.
What is the moral behind this story? Does God muddy the moral waters rather than clarify them? Yentl's father's comments seem astute: as if Yentl were a spiritual hermaphrodite, physically one thing, but divinely something else. Yentl is someone who must live out her paradoxical identity, and we might be inclined to think she does so in the most ethically appropriate way possible. By the end of the story, Yentl has allowed Hadass and Avigdor to marry, and they have a child together. Yentl's last comment before leaving the town is "it was destined to be" - Yentl's future does not lie in a marriage that cannot produce children and where his wife would have to remain ignorant of Yentl's actual gender. Earlier in the story the narrator tells us: "Once you say 'A', you must say 'B'. Thoughts lead to words, words lead to deeds." This is the logic Yentl catches herself in as she becomes socially the man who will marry Hadass. But is destiny the same as logic? On the one hand we have this inexorable social logic where Yentl moves towards marrying Hadass, but on the other there is what she sees as her destiny. How can these two incompatibles be resolved? In his book on Christian existentialism, Existence and the Existent, Jacques Maritain believes that "religion is essentially that which no philosophy can be: a relation of person to person with all the risk, the mystery, the dread, the confidence, the delight and the torment that lie in such a relationship." This is a relationship not of social logic but personal destiny, and Yentl realises that her destiny is at odds with the logic of the situation in which she is caught. Socially it finally makes sense that Hadass and Avigdor should marry and produce a child, and that Yentl must pursue her own direction. Now of course for the locals none of this makes any sense, and as in many of Singer's stories, gossip often functions as social logic or superstition. "It is a general rule that when the grain of truth cannot be found, men will swallow great helpings of falsehood." This is why Peshe can spread the rumour that Anshel sold his wife to Avigdor, and why others superstitiously suggest that "Anshel was carried away by evil spirits, or was even one himself". Often gossip and social logic are detrimental to spiritual growth, just as any of the seven deadly sins erode man's soul likewise.
If 'Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy', ends much more optimistically than 'Zeidlus, The Pope', it rests in 'Yentl the Yeshiva Boy' allowing Yentl to follow her destiny; Zeidel lets himself be taken from his path. When in 'Zeidlus the Pope', Zeidel works on his great treatise as a Catholic, "after years of effort, he was so fatigued that he could no longer distinguish between right and wrong, sense and nonsense, between what would please and what displease the church," he has lost sight of his destiny as Maritain might describe it. "With regard to my subjectivity in act, I am the centre of the world ('the most important person in the world'). My destiny is the most important of all destinies. Worthless as I know myself to be, I am more interesting than all the saints." Zeidel fails to see that his worthlessness is contained within his greatness, as he takes the Evil One's advice and believes he can be much greater than he happens to be, that he can be much more recognised. However, fame, celebrity, success, are not the same as following one's own destiny, and where Zeidel is lost and his soul taken by the end of the story as he pursues the social logic offered to him by the devil, Yentl continues following hers to the detriment of the social.
Now just as we have noted the theological plays an important role in Singer's work, so we have also observed the importance of gossip, while also running through many of Singer's stories are moral generalisations. The notion of generalisation is of course potentially troublesome, yet Singer's use of the generalisation is rather different from the bourgeois assumptions Flaubert mocks in his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. The latter are often close cousins to gossip, while Singer's generalisations are much more distant relatives to tittle-tattle and function antithetically to them. Numerous stories allude to loose talk, but are also contained by the tight talk of these homilies. "People knew about him, talked about him", the narrator says in 'Under the Knife'. In 'Esther Kreindel the Second', "the town sceptics reverted to the subject, referring to Zorach as an old goat; they asserted that he had arranged the miracle with Reitze, and speculated on how much he had paid." "The story was immediately all over town, but people found it difficult to believe", we're told in 'Big and Little'. But then there are words of wisdom to counter them: 'In I Place my Reliance on no Man', "The rabbi told them [those offering petty accusations] that this was a sin, quoting from the Talmud that gossip hurts all three parties: the gossiper, the one who receives the gossip, and the one gossiped about." "Like all those who devote themselves entirely to the pleasures of the flesh", a passage in 'Blood' goes, "Risha and Reuben grew prematurely old." In 'Short Friday', "as is usual with bunglers, he was also slow."
The problem with gossip is that it is often no more than accepted opinion, a few words passed along without substantiation, but is the homily substantiated, or does its purpose lie not in being justified, but being meaningful? If one were to say as Singer's first person narrator does in 'Alone': "those who toy with the unknown must be doubly careful", we would not be expected to justify it with a series of examples; it is a statement that gains much of its impact from its oracular emphasis.
Examples somehow dilute the impact if it feels like the narrator has to justify the statement; instead what we often find in Singer's stories is that the narrator offers rather than justifies it. When he says in 'Blood' that people who devote themselves entirely to the pleasures of the flesh grow old, he does so with an awareness that such a statement will be exemplified by the story he tells. It gives the story an air of inevitable rectitude. Indeed it gives his prose that sense of double rectitude, of the theological and the practical, as a number of the comments come out of the religious texts, with the Talmud belief on gossip, for example, or when Singer opens 'Blood' by saying, as we've noted, that "the cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason 'though shalt not kill' is followed by 'Thou shalt not commit adultery."
But isn't the gossip of many of Singer's characters contained by double rectitude also: is their gossip not both social and theological? Not quite, because where Singer's double rectitude comes from the social serving the theological; for many of his characters the theological serves the social. The double rectitude doesn't arrive at a strong value, but at a weak rationale. When Singer's narrator says at the end of 'Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy', that, as we've observed, "it is a general rule that when the grain of truth cannot be found, men will swallow great helpings of falsehood", he also adds, "truth itself is often found concealed in such a way that the harder you look for it, the harder it is to find." How does one know whether the double rectitude arrives at the truth, or a convenient falsehood? Perhaps it lies partly in supposition and empathy, rather than assumption and spite. When someone offers a hypothesis near the end of 'Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy' that the narrator says is closest to the truth, it is partly because the person creates space for meditation and leaves room for speculation. "Tevel maintained that Avigdor had been unable to forget Hadass and that Anshel had divorced her so that his friend would be able to marry her. But was such friendship possible in this world? And in that case, why had Anshell divorced Hadass even before Avigdor divorced Peshe?" Such reasoning has not so much double rectitude but double doubt, as the character muses over the possible reasons why an inexplicable action takes place. Does gossip often work off a false double rectitude, where the person thinks they are right, epistemologically and also morally, without very much grounding?
The narrator's position however is usually based on wisdom, hence the moral generalisations that do not fall under the rubric of assumption, but possess something of the wise words of a fable, When Singer often opens his stories with words of wisdom, as in 'Big and Little', 'Blood', and 'Zeidlus the Pope', we know he is searching out the truth of the given situation, and hence of the story. In the Paris Review, Singer talks of how often stories will be told to him by people he meets, but these are obviously not tales told as gossip but as stories potentially containing the grain of truth that become a moral tale. Yet the stories seem to show, and this is perhaps what makes them moral, that the truth extracted is not a given, but one that Singer takes. What is perhaps finally so paradoxical about Singer's work is that it possesses wisdom but does not necessarily feel it can be shared, merely offered, as if accepting that most people now reckon the soul is what a character in 'Jachid and Jechidah' believes it to be: "What you call a soul is nothing but vibrations of matter, the product of the nervous system. I should know, I'm a medical student." Part of Singer's final melancholy is that he is a master anatomist of the soul, but it is now in the hands of modern medicine. There is possibly even triple rectitude: an awareness of the foible, the containment of it by God, and its dismissal by a world that no longer believes in a deity capable of such contextualization. Singer wasn't so much whistling in the wind, but he may have felt any wisdom he offered was being blown away by prevailing ones. Writers working with the dissolution of certainties, perceptual, moral, philosophical, have been understandably far more culturally significant than Singer, but this Yiddish writer remains much more than simply a good read.
© Tony McKibbin