My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For reasons of the season, and then inspired by this review by Adam Kirsch in The Nation, I decided finally to start on a large, intimidating oeuvre I’ve long been eyeing. I took up Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel, Satan in Goray, serialized and then published as a book in Yiddish in the mid-1930s and in Jacob Sloan’s English translation in 1955. The “season,” Matthew Schmitz reproves us in The American Conservative, is an ersatz and anodyne festival for the rootless urbanite, a microdose of Gothic Americana to console us in our pod life, as false and poisonous a confection as “pumpkin spice.” Though born and reared in a Hasidic Jewish community in Poland, Singer ended up an American conservative himself—also one who favored the salutary shock of tradition’s authentic horrors. Kirsch quotes from a new volume of his nonfiction his pithy rejection of the imaginative writer’s putative political duty:
As he put it in the essay “Who Needs Literature?,” writers “are entertainers in the highest sense of the word. They can only touch those truths which evoke interest, amusement, tension…. In art, a truth which is boring is not true.”
The worst kind of boring untruth, in fiction at least, was political ideology. “I believe that this generation is possessed by the worst devil the netherworld has ever sent to mislead us. The Satan of our time plays the part of a humanist and has one desire: to save the world,” he wrote…
Kirsch elaborates on Singer’s political delinquency as the eventually designated ambassador and custodian of Yiddish in the English-speaking world. Anarchically favoring Yiddish because it never was and never would be a language of state, unlike English or Hebrew, “Singer in his fiction intended to be a blasphemer…in his novels and stories he is drawn to the most dangerously combustible elements in Jewish tradition—to false messiahs, kabbalistic magic, and demonic possession.” Kirsch goes on to advertise Satan in Goray, written just before Singer’s emigration to America, as “culminating in a graphic scene of a woman possessed by a dybbuk that wouldn’t be out of place in The Exorcist.” Introducing the book, translator Sloan comments,
The atmosphere of this novel is medieval, the style classic, at times even archaic, the structure epic, the tone detached, the image remarkably concrete and evocative at the same time.
The novel begins in the titular Polish shtetl (“the town that lay in the midst of the hills at the end of the world”) about two decades after it was laid waste in a Cossack pogrom of 1648. The community begins to rebuild the once-thriving town, and the enlightened Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi returns to reassemble its religious life. It is not easy to live in or after the end of the world, however; as Damion Searls comments in an introduction to the writer, Singer’s “fiction set in the 1650s and 1660s…is already ‘poetry after Auschwitz.’”
Despite Rabbi Benish’s firm stance against “the sin of controversy,” his sturdy dismal of the occult and cabalist traditions, even his banishment of zealots and magicians from the town, Goray soon falls under the spell of apocalyptic longings. These longings centered at this period throughout the Jewish diaspora on the cult of the real-life Sabbatai Zevi, a Turkish rabbi who claimed to be the Messiah.
What does this cult promise? Nothing less than freedom from the prison of matter and the flesh—things of this world, including the scripture and ritual that bind the Jewish community, even if Singer never lets us forget the vulnerability and peril of a persecuted population that might motivate it to dream of such transcendence. As Reb Itche Mates, a wandering packman who settles in the town and preaches the new revelation, promises them of the end time,
[O]nly a few holy sparks still burned among the husks of being. The powers of darkness clung to these, knowing that their existence depended on them. Sabbatai Zevi, God’s ally, was battling these powers; it was he who was conducting the sacred sparks back to their primal source. The holy kingdom would be revealed when the last spark was returned whence it had come. Then the ritual ceremonies would no longer hold. Bodies would become pure spirit. From the World of Emanations and from under the Throne of Glory new souls would descend. There would be no more eating and drinking. Instead of being fruitful and multiplying, beings would unite in combinations of holy letters. The Talmud wouldn’t be studied. Of the Bible only the secret essence would remain. Each day would last a year, and the radiance of the holy spirit would fill all space.
Gradually, the town is inflamed by multiple wandering preachers and magi, haunted by supernatural occurrences, and inspired to moral chaos and ruination as its citizens throw off all restraint awaiting the end of the world. Singer, ostensibly warning against such frenzy, nonetheless plainly revels in the literary opportunity for what is after all over 200 pages of unrelieved nightmare phantasmagoria:
Mothers ran to the study house to implore God’s help, and lit candles in every candle holder. Groups of school boys went to the study house to recite psalms. Nevertheless, in house after house infants succumbed, coughing, eventually to be seized with spasms and turn blue. Joel the Sexton again made the rounds with his black basket. There were so many children for him to bury that he had to wrap the infants in linen and stuff them into the deep pockets of his overcoat. When the storm subsided, flocks of crows appeared, flying low, crookedly, and croaking, as though they hunted corpses. The swamp was oily yellow, and spirals of vapor rose from it, as from a subterranean fire. It suggested Sodom and Gomorrah, where the smoke rose as from a furnace….
I quote at length to suggest the novel’s tone, that of a skeptical and imperious chronicler of marvelous hearsay. Two years ago, Christine Smallwood, writing in Harper’s on a recent translation of Kleist’s Michael Kolhaas, contrasted this high style’s mingled affect—at once clear in its telling and ironic in the distance it takes on the events narrated—with the self-embarrassed and merely personal achievement of “voice” in contemporary fiction. Singer, like Kafka, is an heir to Kleist, and they pass their skeptical, fanatical chronicles on to the magical realists in the later 20th century. The authority of Singer’s narration is absolute, even when he gives it over in his final pages to the archaic and moralistic diction of an actual faux-chronicle:
And the moral of this tale is: LET NONE ATTEMPT TO FORCE THE LORD: TO END OUR PAIN WITHIN THE WORLD: THE MESSIAH WILL COME IN GODS OWN TIME: AND FREE MEN OF DESPAIR AND CRIME: THEN DEATH WILL PUT AWAY HIS SWORD: AND SATAN DIE ABJURED, ABHORRED: LILITH WILL VANISH WITH THE NIGHT: THE EXILE END AND ALL BE LIGHT: AMEN SELAH: CONCLUDED AND DONE
The anti-messianic, anti-magical moral is clear and overt, as is its obvious allegorical application to the period of totalitarian mass politics that spanned the novel’s composition in the mid-1930s and its translation in the mid-1950s. Fascism and communism, too, we imagine the avowed conservative Singer admonishing, were occultic and gnostic doctrines preached by opportunistic mountebanks, and they drove whole communities to destructive madness. Yet we also can’t deny that Singer as a writer finds himself drawn to the chaos, to images of the of the world’s end, to the dancing devils in his inner eye.
The fascination, in fact, is erotic. While Rabbi Benish seems at first to be this most impersonal novel’s hero, evil spirits drive him from the town at the story’s midpoint. Taking over as the center of our attention is Rechele, the daughter of the town’s most prominent citizen. Rechele was reared in exile after the 1648 pogrom by her uncle, a perpetually bloodstained and knife-wielding ritual slaughterer, and by the terrifying Granny, who sleeps with Rechele at night and “would lift the child’s shift and run her dead hands over the girl’s hot body, cackling with impure delight: ‘Fire! Fire! The girl’s burning up!’”
From childhood on, Rechele becomes the prey of spirits—one of whom leaves her mute and half lamed—and by the time she resettles as an adult in Goray, she becomes the bride of two of the Sabbatean preachers in succession until she is finally possessed by a dybbuk. While the town may be the novel’s collective hero, Rechele is the index of the town’s madness. Singer’s entranced, horrified chronicle of her body’s unruliness and decay—the dybbuk implicitly enters and exits through her vagina, euphemized as “that same place”—becomes the narration’s center of human interest, just as the presiding narrative consciousness seems to partake of Granny’s “impure delight” even in the final mock-medieval-chronicle style:
[S]he spread her legs to show her nakedness and to bring men into thoughts of transgression: And she passed water and befouled the holy place and her breasts became as hard as stones and her belly bulged so that ten men could not depress it: Her left leg she twisted around her neck and the right she stuck out stiff as a board and her tongue lolled like a hanged man’s (God preserve us): In this state she lay and her cries went up to very Heaven and the earth was split by her cries: And she vomited blood and filth and it dripped from her nostrils and from her eyes and she broke wind: And many of the congregation turned sick with revulsion: One time she laughed and one time she cried and she sobbed and ground her teeth: And many righteous women did testify that a stink issued from that same place for the spirit dwelt in there.
The author of such an unwholesome spectacle understandably recoiled from the idea of literature’s moral mission. He thought likewise that his “minor” language was the ideal repository for such symbolic existential anxieties and excesses, universal in the human race, yet universalized away into the major language’s authoritative abstractions.
When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, Singer, as a much older man than the author of Satan in Goray, conceded in his lecture his influence by “such pessimists and decadents as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, and Strindberg” but then defined a paradoxical mission-without-mission and mandate-without-mandate for the imaginative writer, a salvific theory of art that will save humanity when all the other messianisms have failed:
The pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty passion for the redemption of man. While the poet entertains he continues to search for eternal truths, for the essence of being. In his own fashion he tries to solve the riddle of time and change, to find an answer to suffering, to reveal love in the very abyss of cruelty and injustice. Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet—whom Plato banned from his Republic—may rise up to save us all.
Carve that in stone. Such a strange “conservatism”—skeptical of all newfangled and merely rational solutions, even as it presumably also looks askance on traditions qua traditions in its quest for the eternal—is easy to mistake for weightless artifice, for phony ritual, for a pump of pumpkin spice syrup at the bottom of the cup where the Sabbath ought to be. But in the ambiguous specificity of such fiction as Singer’s, in the universal-at-war-with-itself that shines through his warring particulars, we glimpse a new aesthetic ground for dispute and for comity: a village and cosmopolis worth living in.