The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Isaac Bashevis Singer emigrated to the United States in 1935, which was the year of his first novel Satan in Goray. Since then, he has written more or less exclusively about the Jewish world of pre-war Poland, or more exactly—it’s a relevant qualification—about the Hasidic world of pre-war Poland, into which he was born, the son of a rabbi, in 1904. So not only does he write in Yiddish, but his chosen subject is even further confined in place, and culture, and now to the past. Nevertheless, his work has been lucky with its translators, and he has to be considered among the really great living writers, on several counts.
He’s produced three more novels, that have been translated, and three volumes of short stories. Looking over his novels in their chronological order (the stories are written in and among, but they belong with the novels) the first apparent thing is the enormous and one might say successful development of his vision. Vision seems to be the right word for what Singer is conveying. The most important fact about him, that determines the basic strategy by which he deals with his subject, is that his imagination is poetic, and tends toward symbolic situations. Cool, analytical qualities are heavily present in everything he does, but organically subdued to a grasp that is finally visionary and redemptive. Without the genius, he might well have disintegrated as he evidently saw others disintegrate—between a nostalgic dream of ritual Hasidic piety on the one hand and cosmic dead-end despair on the other. But his creative demon (again, demon seems to be the right word) works deeper than either of these two extremes. It is what involves him so vehemently with both. It involves him with both because this demon is ultimately the voice of his nature, which requires at all costs satisfaction in life, full inheritance of its natural joy. It is what suffers the impossible problem and dreams up the supernormal solution. It is what in most men stares dumbly through the bars. At bottom it is amoral, as interested in destruction as in creation, but being in Singer’s case an intelligent spirit, it has gradually determined a calibration of degrees between good and evil, in discovering which activities embroil it in misery, pain, and emptiness, and conjure into itself cruel powers, and which ones concentrate it towards bliss, the fullest possession of its happiest energy. Singer’s writings are the account of this demon’s re-education through decades that have been—particularly for the Jews—a terrible school. They put the question: “How shall man live most truly as a human being?” from the center of gravity of human nature, not from any temporary civic center or speculative metaphysic or far-out neurotic bewilderment. And out of the pain and wisdom of Jewish history and tradition they answer it. His work is not discoursive, or even primarily documentary, but revelation—and we are forced to respect his findings because it so happens that he has the authority and power to force us to do so.
Up to 1945, this demon in Singer’s work shows itself overpowered. Satan in Goray and The Family Moskat give the story of its defeat. In some way these two books belong together, though they are ten years apart. Satan in Goray seems to me his weakest book—important, and with a stunning finish, but for the most part confusingly organized. Perhaps we wouldn’t notice this so much if we weren’t comparing it with his later works, where the inspired rightness of his technical inventions are a study in themselves. Satan in Goray recounts the effects of the Sabbatai Zevi Messianic hysteria on a small Hasidic community in seventeenth-century Poland. Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, who frequently appear in Singer’s stories, effectually apotheosized the Evil One. They proclaimed salvation through a sort of ecstasy of sinning, as if there were something purifying in the sheer intensity with which they surrendered to the forbidden, to the supercharged otherworld of disruptive powers and supernaturals which the Law, in its wandering history, had collided with and put under and thereafter had to hold under—a terrific population accumulating under the Cabala and on the Holy Fringes of everything, several entire religions and erstwhile creators screwed down under dots, letters, and ritual gestures. This isn’t altogether ancient history. Something of it has been dogmatized in modern psychology and avant-garde literature. One could argue that the whole of modern Western life is one vast scientifically programmed surrender to what was formerly unknown and forbidden, as if salvation lay that way. The Sabbatai Zevi psychic epidemic is an accurate metaphor for a cultural landslide that has destroyed all spiritual principles and dumped an entire age into a cynical materialism emptied of meaning. Which is why the sufferings of Netchele, the bride of the leader of the Sabbatai Zevi sect in Goray, in whose brain the general eruption of infernal license finally concentrates, belong to this century and not to the seventeenth. And why we can say her sufferings are perhaps an image of what Singer’s own muse, representative of the Polish Jews, has undergone.