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1 July, 2016

Grotesque, God and miracles

Rethinking Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), a great Polish-born Jewish writer, a poet of the East European Jewish soul, the guardian angel of the Yiddish language in modern literature, and a Nobel Prize winner, died twenty-five years ago. This brings us closer to his immense legacy that covers Jewish tradition and modernity, especially his short stories on how modernity came into Jewish life.

Yet no short story among Singer’s masterpieces of this genre can match “The Conference” in terms of political grotesque and ideological folly by which nearly every single character of this story is overwhelmed. Every character but two – Flora, a delegate from Lublin, part-actress and singer of folk songs for whom the majority of male delegates fall, and a secret agent of Defensywa, the Polish political police.

Everything is grotesque here: old-fashioned Marxists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, Zionists with all their ideological rants and promises to hang one another on the posts of Warsaw for high treason of the saintly cause of world revolution; Flora with her petit bourgeois lover whose presence in her bedroom is something inconceivable for the late delegates of the conference who dream about spending the night with her; last but not least, the banality of the comic inadequacy of their lifestyle and rhetoric.

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Most importantly, Singer has a feeling that all those seemingly irreconcilable roles are merely a tip of the iceberg. What does lurk underneath, though, is the incredible ease and speed with which all these characters can change their appearances and shoes. They can easily transfer their loyalties and transpose identities moving, say, from Marxism to Zionism.

Singer, as we know, avoided all political ideologies nearly by intuition. There is something in his profound disbelief in political cleavages, artificial animosities and Manichaean divides that make him stand close to Milan Kundera with his distaste for the Manichaeism of the Left and the Right, which, in Kundera’s words, “is as stupid as it is insurmountable,” yet so deeply grounded in Western Europe.

Singer would have said that it was deeply grounded in Eastern Europe as well, whose modernization proved incredibly swift, as we can see in such movements as Yiddish literary and political movements accompanied by ideological and partisan divisions of all sorts and shades.

In his sort story, “The Miracles,” for instance, we find a note that the Jewish enlightenment, Haskalah, with all tardiness and late variations, had reached Poland a century later leaving traditional occupations and niches of local Jews empty and void. Young people left Tradition and emigrated to Modernity.

Yet the question of God and evil has never escaped from Singer’s attention. In his short story, “The Miracles,” God as the ultimate source of good, justice and love is put into question. More than that, the protagonist of the story who tells his miraculous account of anguish, threat, love, death, pain and survival, exposes a strange amalgam of agnosticism, skepticism, religious feeling, mystery, superstition, and disbelief.

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Miracles do happen to him as the most beautiful ladies fall in love with him in spite of the fact that he looks rather funny than handsome; he is not drafted to the Polish army on the last minute only due to very strange doubts of a medical doctor, an obvious antisemite himself; he is granted the French visa with no rational chances to get it otherwise than through a miracle; he becomes a star at the University of Warsaw among philosophy students and professors, although he is far from an erudite student – in fact, he is an ignoramus who walks in disguise of a motivated and original scholar; and so forth, and so on.

This brings him to the idea that there is a hidden logic here – most probably, it is something like a contract between the Almighty and him. The miracles last as long for him as he can address God asking for his intervention; yet he finds himself unable to keep doing this after his lover’s husband dies suddenly after the weeks of intense prayers and meditations asking God to eliminate his rival and threat.

In adopting such a direct stance, Singer stands quite close to Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou). The Hasidic background is hardly accidental here, as the intensity of the dialogue with God coupled with all kinds of miracles, dybbuks, and mystery tales could be counted in as one of the reasons behind this family resemblance that both writers and thinkers bear to one another. In Buber’s case, we have a German Jew, who spoke Ukrainian and Russian due to his experience in Lviv where he, as a young boy, used to spend his summer vacations with his grandparents, and who deliberately inflicts on himself all aspects of the fate of an Ostjude.

In Singer’s case, we have an original Ostjude who becomes a Jewish and American writer. Singer’s phenomenon might be described as a Buber minus faith or a Buber plus modern anxiety and fatalism.

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