Isaac Bashevis Singer: Criticism

Not everyone admired Singer's fiction.

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Progress is natural, assumed; our potential is boundless. From such a perspective, there is no such thing as intractable, radical, or irrational evil. Evil acts are simply the result of misunderstandings, or of tragic circumstances whose root causes must be addressed and remedied. People are rationally motivated--or at worst, rationally motivated toward irrational acts--and their motives can be changed. Humanism teaches that we hold in our hands the great gift of hope in one another, the natural power to redeem the world.
This is exactly the belief that Singer's work rejects. In this sense, he is what we might call a Holocaust writer: not someone who writes about experiences under Nazism (he fled Poland a few years before the war), but someone who in the wake of calamity has refused to let hope triumph over experience--that is, someone who knows, in the most profound sense, about the existence of a force of horror that has no root cause other than radical, irrational, seductive, and astoundingly imaginative evil. (Writing in English, Hannah Arendt saw only evil's "banality" at Eichmann's trial, but survivors writing in Yiddish knew the vast powers of creativity required to produce murderous propaganda, the inventiveness of reviving medieval concepts like badges and ghettoes, the imaginative reworkings of language used to camouflage genocide, the expensive and unnecessary artistry of creating imaginary "showers" and other illusions of ongoing life.) And it is true that the vast majority of Singer's works, even those that take place in an almost mythic pre-Holocaust world, can be read in this shadow.

Tragedy After Tragedy

But for Singer, the rise of Nazism only confirmed what he already believed, a lesson that dated back to every other calamity that befell the Jews before it: the tens of thousands massacred in World War One and its aftermath and in the pogroms of 1905, 1903, 1881, and 1873, to cite just a few links in a chain of horror dating back over a hundred generations. Singer's first novel, published in 1935, deals with precisely this reality, but with a twist.

Set in the 17th century in the wake of the Chmielnicki massacres in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in Ukraine, Satan in Goray opens with scenes of brutality taken straight from historical records. Yet the novel's subject isn't the massacres, but their aftermath. In the wake of devastation, a Jewish messianic movement sweeps the region (based on the historical false messiah Sabbatai Zevi), and the book's Jewish community is seduced by demagogues who preach that sin and violence will hasten the redemption. In Singer's portrayal, the destruction wrought by this false belief is even worse than that of the massacres themselves. The real source of catastrophe, the novel implies, isn't evil, but hope. The most horrifying ideas can only succeed by building on people's willingness to succumb to evil as a means to an end, out of hope for a better world.

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Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning In the Image and The World to Come.