Wednesday, July 27, 2011

800 Words: Isaac Bashevis Singer - The Literature of the Lost Six Million

Gimpel the Fool believes in the goodness of other people. His benevolence’s reward is nothing but humiliation and oppression from everyone he has ever met. Because Gimpel chooses to believe that people would never be so malicious as to lie, everyone he ever meets tries to fool him. The people of the town trick him into marriage with a woman who named Elka who had already been married twice and who may be a prostitute. In addition to a steady stream of lovers, Elka has a more permanent paramour whom she introduces as her ‘brother.’ She insists that the ‘brother’ not only live with them but also that Gimpel hire him as an apprentice in his bakery. Both Elka and her ‘brother’ are physically abusive to Gimpel, and though Gimpel and Elka may never have had sex, she has six children and assures Gimpel that they’re all his. Gimpel chooses to believe her. The town later decides that Gimpel must divorce Elka for the very reason they insisted he marry her. But Gimpel still chooses to believe his wife, and he refuses to divorce her. Gimpel and Elka live this way for another twenty years before Elka lies on her deathbed. Before passing, she makes a shocking confession: the children are not his. Sometime later, an evil spirit comes to Gimpel in his dreams, telling him to urinate into the bread he bakes. But Elka then comes to him and tells him that he shall lose his eternal life if he does not bury the bread. And so Gimpel buries the bread, and leaves his hometown of Frampol, forever. What follows is (to me) one of the most moving passages in any story ever written:

I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me. After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, "Now this is a thing that cannot happen." But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere.
Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns improbable things that could never have happened about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like. The children run after me, calling, "Grandfather, tell us a story." Sometimes they ask for particular stories, and I try to please them. A fat young boy once said to me, "Grandfather, it's the same story you told us before." The little rogue, he was right.
So it is with dreams too. It is many years since I left Frampol, but as soon as I shut my eyes I am there again. And whom do you think I see? Elka. She is standing by the washtub, as at our first encounter, but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint, and she speaks outlandish words to me, strange things. When I wake I have forgotten it all. But while the dream lasts I am comforted. She answers all my queries, and what comes out is that all is right. I weep and implore, "Let me be with you." And she consoles me and tells me to be patient. The time is nearer than it is far. Sometimes she strokes and kisses me and weeps upon my face. When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears.
No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once re-moved from the true world. At the door of the hovel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared, I carry them in my beggar's sack. Another shnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.

Contrary to this story’s conclusion, Judiasm is not a religion about the afterlife. There are two-thousand years of Rabbinical musings about what the afterlife entails, but there is no canonical text to detail it. There are, however, no less than six hundred-thirteen commandments in the Torah for how people must behave in this world of ours. Judaism is firstly a religion of laws and ethics, and secondly a religion of scholarship, so that its adherents might interpret their laws fairly.

Gimpel the Fool may dream about the afterlife, but questions of what happens after death only surface in the final quarter of the story. Gimpel is as much a man of the present as any character in literature. He cares not at all for how other people treat him, only for how he treats them. He is a man who lives his life in the service of his ethical code, and the world rewards his efforts with unsurpassable cruelty; cruelty devised and enacted by his fellow Jews - the very same people who should unceasingly praise his ethical conduct. Perhaps we are meant to entertain the notion that Gimpel not the Fool, perhaps he is wisely good-hearted in the face of foolish cruelty. By choosing to believe the best in others, perhaps Gimpel was putting into practice a tract from the Avot d’Rabbi Nathan - a 1300 year old book of maxims which, as a Rabbi’s son, Singer probably memorized as a child. The tract says: “A man should not say, 'I will love the learned and hate the unlearned'; he should say, 'I will love them all.'

Gimpel may live among his co-religionists, but he is a Jew among Jews; hounded and hectored for living by an ethical code that sets him apart from his neighbors. He becomes so tyrannized by those around him that he must leave his home and live a life of perpetual exile.

This is the miracle of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer uses Yiddish, a deceased language, to write of a deceased society. Yet he uses this dead, homeless langugage to document the memories, worldview and questions of its final generation of speakers. Yiddish is a portable language, utterly without roots - varying from region to region, and everywhere a patois of every place where Jews have lived. Yet Yiddish culture flourished for a thousand years - well into the twentieth century. And at the moment when Yiddish was poised to finally come out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of European cultural life, it vanished without a trace.

The universe of Singer’s imagination is the one in which he lived until he was thirty - the Poland of medieval Shtetls and Warsaw’s separate-but-equal Jewish community. It documents the life of Eastern European Jews after the enlightenment, torn at the crossroads between its medieval traditions and the lure of modernity. These are very much the questions which haunt Jews in our day as well as his. Yet it’s still difficult for those of us who did not experience the Yiddish world firsthand to ever believe that a Yiddish world was there. For those of us who never experienced the Yiddish world (aka, soon to be all of us), the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer is the best document we have to understand what being Yiddish meant.

It is still common in some literary circles, particularly Jewish ones, to dismiss Singer as a slick folk-storyteller who paints sentimental portraits of shtetl life completely at odds with the realities of what Jewish life once was. I wonder...have they read him?

Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of the least sentimental, most hard-boiled writers to pick up a pen. And the secret of his appeal was precisely that he refused to soften or prettify Jewish life. If anything, he darkened it for the sake of vitality. In the world of Singer, Jews are inveterate sinners who hold their own with the sleaziest of goyim. His stories are a non-stop parade of violence, sex and forbidden desire which are almost invariably punished in manners most foul; often at the hands of an all-powerful supernatural force, and sometimes at the hands of a totally indifferent universe. And those are just the stories in which people are allowed to experience happiness.

Yes, his stories have all sorts of pre-modern concepts like demons, imps, angels (and their Jewish equivalents: dybbuks, golems etc.). But those are all concepts which Jews believed in for hundreds of years. They are crucial to understanding what Yiddish culture was.

Singer’s stories are neither the chivalry-meets-monster formula of so much Fantasy Literature, nor does his work have the tacked-on whimsy of so much Magical Realism. The supernatural is always an organic part of the story, and exists within it as a means to illustrate larger questions. Like Dostoevsky, there is an over-reliance on the God-question. As though the question of God’s existence could clear up all other questions of existence. And there is an equal reliance
on the Supernatural. Though widely read in philosophy: particularly in Spinoza and Schopenhauer, he was distrustful of it. He thought philosophy a grand failure, and his work exists on a type of mystical - more things in the heaven and the earth - level that is well beyond anything which philosophy can dream. In many ways, the best equivalent to his stories are not found in literature, but in the early Renaissance paintings of Bosch, Breughel and Holbein; in which the supernatural is used as a visceral way of illustrating the most important points about morality.

Furthermore, unlike Dostoevsky, there was nothing of the fanatic about him. Singer was very much a believer, but often God seems like a bitter enemy at whom he would he would howl furiously. For he had as much anger about the state of creation as awe; and seemed to treat God as though He were (to use an old quote about Tolstoy) another bear in the same den.

His stories can also rival Dostoevsky in their orgies of suffering. Take a story like A Crown of Feathers, in which a wife is brutally assaulted for years by her husband, and then must live alone after he dies; working in ditches while living in filth. A Crown of Feathers ends with the woman’s death. But just before she dies, she tears open a pillow bequeathed to her as a wedding gift (given to her by a woman who may or may not be supernatural) to find a heavenly crown with a holy inscription written in it. It signifies to her, and us, that God was watching her suffering and it was never in vain. Or was it? From one vantage point, this is a heartwarming morality tale about how we must all bear our sufferings because God will eventually reward them. From a different point of view, God has let this poor woman suffer only so that she could increase His glory. At the moment of her death, he shows her a priceless relic which she has no time to appreciate. Some God.

Isaac Bashevis Singer claimed, falsely, to be a man of very narrow reading. He openly detested other Yiddish writers, whose writings he claimed were corrupted by the twin sins of ‘sentimentality’ and ‘socialism.’ Indeed, much of the dismissivenes of so many Jewish critics can probably be traced to his open hostility to his fellow Yiddish writers. Instead, Singer saw himself as operating out of the traditions of medieval Jewish folklore, Rabbinical wisdom writing, and particularly from the Bible. To be sure, the shadows of all three may readily be found on every page. But Singer’s influences were hardly limited to the often-anonymous writings of medieval scribes.

No scribe, no rabbi, no native-born American writer could have written as Isaac Bashevis Singer did. He was a very rare thing in the 20th century - an unjaded writer whose personality scorched through the page. There is irony aplenty in Singer, but it is always with lower-case “i.” Singer had no truck with the formal experiments of modernism, nor was he much interested in ‘alienation.’

In most matters, Singer was a pessimistic conservative who believed in the supernatural, yet he doubted the goodness of higher beings as much as he doubted the greatness of men. He believed enough in secularism to leave orthodox religion, yet he doubted the world would ever find a place for Jews in assimilated society except an invidious one. He immersed himself in pre-Modern texts and his language is paved through like a highway with biblical allusion, yet his stories are populated by characters who yearn for the sexual liberation of modernity. He is doubtful of mankind’s goodness, yet he makes all sorts of exceptions for those people who act with kindness. He believes that all will eventually turn out badly for mankind whether they are ruled by authoritarians or liberal democrats, yet he reserves a soft-spot for those who care enough to try to make the world better. He believes in writing about the largest possible questions in the clearest possible prose. All this means can only mean one thing: Singer is neither a medieval nor a modern writer.

Rather, Isaac Bashevis Singer is a 19th century writer of Eastern Europe. He just arrived late to the party. The concerns and preoccupations of all the non-Yiddish writers whose work he knew intimately - Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Maupassant, Chekhov, Thomas Mann, Kafka - are to be found in Singer’s work. Most of the writers on this list are of the 19th century, and each of them is concerned predominantly with permanent questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How must we live? What is this world? Shall we live on after it?

These are questions which a vast majority of fiction writers have long since abandoned. Most modernist writers would despair in the face of the temerity it takes to tackle questions of existence with such earnestness. To modernism (though with plenty of exceptions), all a book can express is itself. Today, we see the ‘big questions’ asked more often in film and on television. To use the written word as a means of tackling problems larger than the written word has long since ceased to be fashionable.

Isaac Bashevis Singer arrived late to the party, but had he come any later he’d have never gotten there. Singer arrived in America in 1935, the younger brother of a much more famous Yiddish writer. He was thirty years old and confronted with a completely different world in which people did not speak his mother-tongue (American Yiddish, like all Yiddish, is a patois of wherever people have lived). For eight years, his creative gift froze. How was he supposed to write a living literature at a time when his language was dying?

The language died more quickly than he could have known. The entire culture from whence he sprung vanished, in a manner as mysterious as how it ever could have existed. Hitler may not have killed Judaism, but he most certainly killed Yiddish - the language of diaspora. For over five-hundred years, Jews existed at the periphery of Eastern-European society. It was only after the enlightenment that Jews were allowed into the mainstream of cultural life, and then only in severely limited numbers.

At the pace of a trickle, Yiddish became an emancipated language with its own secular literature, its own politics, and its own philosophy. And at the very moment when its secular culture became the equal of any in Europe, it was killed off. And so began the career of its greatest writer, whose career was the culmination of Yiddish literature, as well as its end.

No comments:

Post a Comment