The Genius of Isaac Bashevis Singer
by Ted Hughes
by Ted Hughes
April 22, 1965
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.
The key to Singer’s works seems to be an experience of the collapse of the Hasidic way of life under the pressure of all that it had been developed to keep out. Something like this is a usual moral position among poets who come at some revolutionary moment, but who need to respect order. Singer comes at the moment when the profound, rich, intense Hasidic tradition, with the whole Jewish tradition behind it, debouches into the ideological chaos of the mid-twentieth century. Visited with all that the old Law excluded, such poets are burdened with the job of finding new Law. But when the hosts of liberated instinct and passion and intellectual adventure and powers of the air and revelations of physical truth are symbolized by Satan, as they must be for a Hasidic Jew, and the old, obsolete order is symbolized by the devotion and ritual that are a people’s unique spiritual strength and sole means of survival, the position must be a perilous one to manage. We can trace the workings of the whole conflict much more definitely—though without the symbolic impact of Satan in Goray—in Singer’s next book, The Family Moskat.
Coming ten years later, The Family Moskat is radically different in style from the earlier book, cast in panoramic Tolstoyan mould, 600 pages long, covering the fates of the rich, patriarchal Moskat’s large family and—in suggested parallel—of a whole people, from the beginning of this century up to the first Nazi bombs on Warsaw. The protagonist is one Asa Heshel, a young, precociously freethinking but, to begin with, outwardly orthodox Hasidic Jew, the son of a provincial rabbi, who arrives in Warsaw seeking life and the divine truths. He becomes entangled with Moskat’s family. Thereafter, it is the story of the moral disintegration of the Polish Jews.
It is a monumental, seethingly real picture of Warsaw Jewish life, without a mistimed paragraph. In this city, the Jews are under the millstone of the west, and their inner coherence is breaking up. In the process, typical mutations appear. But the main current of the book flows through two men, Asa Heshel and Abram. Abram is a volcanic enjoyer of life. The gentile pressures have stripped him of all but the last nods towards orthodoxy, but they haven’t frightened his energy: he keeps his Hasidic wholeness and joy. Though he lives more or less entirely in sin in every direction, collapsing finally on a tart’s bed and dying in his mistress’s, he remains “a true Hasid” and “biologically a Jew.” But it is all at a last gasp, it is all headlong into the new gentile age, into death, on the precarious foundations of a damaged, over-passionate heart. He is full-pressure Jewishness, making the leap, naively. He calls Asa Heshel, his protegé, a coward, and by superficial contrast Asa Heshel’s behavior is cowardly all right. But Asa Heshel has recoiled. He has made the leap early, without dying bodily, into the wilderness of Darwin and the physicists, the ceaseless covert battleground of Western civilization, and he has recoiled. He has no illusion that life lies that way. Yet he has allowed the wind off it to deprive him of his traditional faith. the meaning of his life. And that first treachery to God spreads a faithlessness, a heartlessness, into all his actions and thoughts. His two marriages founder and struggle on in torture. His grand intellectual ambitions fritter out in sterility and cynicism. He regards all the possibilities of life with frozen distrust. For him, God has died, yet he can’t love anything else. The creation is a heap of atoms, a sterile promontory battered by blind appetites. His deep suspicion and perhaps hatred of women is equalled by his cold, desperate lust for their bodies. The great projected work of his youth, “The Laboratory of Happiness,” accompanies his pointless wanderings, decaying, finally lost. All the moral and intellectual consequences of his people’s loss of faith, and their pursuit of the new, chaotic world, seem to have concentrated in his brain. Behind his coldness, he is suffering the death Netchele suffered, in Satan in Goray, possessed and out of her mind, and perhaps this is the connection between the two books.
Adele, his second wife, on the point of leaving him to escape to Israel from the first rumors of Hitler, finds the words for Asa Heshel: “He was one of those who must serve God or die. He had forsaken God and because of that he was dead—a living body with a dead soul.” It is from this situation of Asa Heshel’s that the general moral implications of Singer’s vision radiate. Asa Heshel, after all, is not only a Hasidic Jew. He is a typical modern hero. Remembering that Singer writes in Yiddish, for a primarily Jewish public, we can still see that he writes out of such essential imagination that he raises Jewishness to a symbolic quality, and is no longer writing specifically about Jews but about man in relationship to God. And his various novels and stories—with a few exceptions among the stories—describe the various phases and episodes of this relationship, though in concrete Jewish terms. This is pretty near to saying that, in Singer, the Jew becomes the representative modern man of suffering, and understanding, and exile from his Divine inheritance, which of course isn’t altogether Singer’s own invention.
Asa Heshel ends up, hurrying under the Nazi bombers with his latest woman, Jewish also, but a set Communist. He knows he has fallen the whole way. Communism is the ideological antithesis to the Holy Life, created by Jews living in defiance or denial of God, as Lucifer, fallen from praising in heaven, organized the abyss. In her company, Asa Heshel meets the philosopher, the bewildered genius, onetime hope of the gentilized Jewish intellectuals, who closes the book, among the falling bombs, with “The Messiah will come soon…Death is the Messiah. That’s the real truth.” This is the final logical point in Asa Heshel’s progress, as death was the final point of Netchele’s. The forsaking of God, the rejection of the life of Holy Disciplines, is a crime, as it turns out, without redemption, and, as history in this book seems to demonstrate, draws on itself the inevitable penalty: anonymous death—whether symbolic or actual hardly matters—in a meaningless wasteland of destruction and anguish.
Singer’s vision arrived there, in despair in the absurd Universe, at a point where most comparable modern writers have remained, emotionally, despite their notable attempts to get beyond it. The Existential Choice, taken to its absolute limit of wholeheartedness, becomes inevitably a religion—because man is deeper and more complicated than merely rational controls can keep hold of. Then his beliefs, disciplines, and prohibitions have to be cultivated against the odds as in a world of poisons one chooses—sensibly after all—food that nourishes. Singer is at a point there, that is to say, where he has every sane and human reason to rebuild an appreciation of the Faith it was death for him to lose. So here again the Jewish Hasidic tradition takes on a Universal significance, as a paradigm of the truly effective Existential discipline, which perhaps it always has been. The core of the Jewish faith, unlike most larger persuasions, is one long perpetually-renewed back-to-the-wall Choice, one might say in this context, to affirm a mode of survival against tremendous odds. It has kept the Jewish heart in one piece through three thousand years of such oppressions and temptations as dissolved other peoples in a few decades. So it is not surprising if Singer, in his books, gravitates back towards it as a way out of the modern impasse, salvaging at the same time the life of spirit and all the great human virtues.
The Family Moskat is the matrix from which Singer’s subsequent work grows. His next two novels, The Magician of Lublin and The Slave are like dreams out of Asa Heshel’s remorse. The Magician, Yasha Mazur, fallen from the Faith, is a kind of Satan, the opportunist of his own inspired ingenuity. But, unlike Asa Heshel’s, his belief has not wholly died, it has (merely) been buried. It recovers him from the pit, and in a bricked-up cell in his yard he becomes an ascetic, a famous Holy man. In this, he has not rejected the world. He has accepted the only life that does not lead to misery for himself and for everybody he knows. The Slave goes a great step further in the same direction. Jacob—a slave of Polish peasants in the seventeenth century—is brutishly treated. He is stalled among the beasts. He is threatened with constant death. Yet he keeps his faith. He falls in love with the peasant daughter of his master, converts her, and returns with her to live in a Jewish settlement. It is a story of heroic dedication: no disappointment or persecution or obstacle can shake him—as Asa Heshel was so easily shaken—from the chosen way, and he becomes, again, a kind of Saint.
In this book, one of Singer’s deep themes comes right to the surface. Singer implies—and seems to build his novels instinctively around the fact—that there is an occult equivalence between a man’s relationship to the women in his life and his relationship to his own soul—and so to God. Netchele, in Satan in Goray, seems to bear a relationship to Singer himself. Hadassah, Adele, Barbara, and Asa Heshel’s mother, precisely define the stages of Asa Heshel’s fall. Esther, Masha and Emilia define the three Yasha Mazurs, in The Magician. Wanda and Sarah, two names of one woman, correspond to Jacob creating his soul out of chaos, and Jacob and the Saint. These correspondences are subtle and revealing. On the mythical or symbolic plane, these women are always at the core of everything Singer is saying about his hero. And it’s on this plane that we can best see what an achievement The Slave is, and perhaps why it comes to be such a burningly radiant, intensely beautiful book. Singer is answering his age like a prophet, though what he is saying may seem perverse and untimely. If the world is Gehenna, it is also the only “Laboratory of Happiness,” and in The Slave Jacob and Sarah achieve a kind of Alchemical Marriage, a costly, precarious condition, but the only truly happy one. So what are we to understand? The dynamics of man’s resistance to demoralization and confusion, the techniques of “creating” God and Holy Joy where there seemed to be only emptiness, never change, but they demand a man’s whole devotion. And they can be abandoned in a day, whereon the world becomes, once more, Gehenna.
His stories fill out these guiding themes, or exploit situations suggested by them, in dozens of different ways, but they give freer play to his invention than the novels. At their best, they must be among the most entertaining pieces extant. Each is a unique exercise in tone, focus, style, form, as well as an unforgettable re-creation of characters and life. A comic note, a sort of savage enjoyment that scarcely appears in the novels, more or less prevails, though it is weirdly blended with pathos, simplicity, idyllic piety, horror. There is some connection here, in the actual intensity of the performance, and the impartial joy in the face of everything, with traditional Hasidic fervor. In substance, these stories recapitulate the ideas and materials of Jewish tradition. Intellectually their roots run into the high, conservative wisdom of the old Jewish sages. Yet it is only a slight thing that prevents many of them from being folk-tales, or even old wives’ tales, narrated by a virtuoso. They all have the swift, living voice of the oral style. Some of them are very near a bare, point-blank, life-size poetry that hardly exists in English. “The Black Wedding,” in the volume titled The Spinoza of Market Street, is a more alive, more ferocious piece of poetic imagination than any living poet I can think of would be likely to get near. Likewise “The Fast,” and “Blood,” in Short Friday. The stories often turn on almost occult insights—as the connection between blood-lust and sexual lust, in “Blood.” It is his intimacy with this dimension of things that carry Singer beyond any easy comparison. Stories that are deadpan jokes, like “Jachid and Jechidah,” or fantasies, like Shiddah and Kuziba, are not only brilliantly done, but are also moral/ theological fables of great force, and direct outriders of Singer’s main preoccupations. No psychological terminology or current literary method has succeeded in rendering such a profound, unified and fully apprehended account of the Divine, the infernal, and the suffering space of self-determination between, all so convincingly interconnected, and fascinatingly peopled. But it is in the plain, realistic tales, like “Under The Knife” in Short Friday, that we can isolate his decisive virtue: whatever region his writing inhabits, it is blazing with life and actuality. His powerful, wise, deep, full-face paragraphs make almost every other modern fiction seem by comparison labored, shallow, overloaded with alien and undigested junk, too fancy, fuddled, not quite squared up to life.
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS