I.B. Singer's Cruel Choice

By Mark Kuzmack

Fate and freedom for his characters, for himself.

Singer, the witty, charming old Yiddish writer loved by his American admirers, was the self-sired offspring of a self-inflicted program of hardness. In his youth he participated in a common European preoccupation with will and self-mastery in the face of antithetical forces, a preoccupation now associated above all with Nietzsche, but really a broad phenomenon of his day. As his memoir Love and Exile recounts, he fought bitterly with himself as recalcitrant human material to which nothing would come cheaply. The struggle never ended; in the sometimes sad, sometimes enervated late stories, where the transformations are rarely momentous and insight is wounded—“The Cafeteria” and “A Wedding in Brownsville” are probably the best of these stories—his getting-along protagonists struggle with a puzzling life and with puzzling, unmastered selves. They are unhappy observers of their own failings, and stunned observers, not transformed visionaries, of complex and paradoxical truth. Explicitly autobiographical, unlike his early and middle work, with an aging Yiddish writer protagonist, these stories suggest Singer turned out much the same himself. Earlier stories, however, tell the tale of a younger author who followed his own golden rule. He bestowed upon his characters what he bestowed upon himself: the cruelty of free choice and its mysteries. Autobiographical in their own way, at once unsparing (they are free of getting along) and hopeful, they bear the mark of the powerful strivings of his youth in Warsaw, when he starved in cold rooms, carried around a Yiddish translation of Jules Payot’s Education of the Will (his “second Bible”), and wrote dozens of poems addressed exclusively to himself (never for publication)—“whips” as he called them—to drive himself forward.

Payot’s curious book was a natural find for the timid young writer seeking his own strength. An early self-help guide for the modern “intellectual worker,” it is something like an intellectual version of J.P. Muller’s My System, the book of exercises for physical and mental health to which Kafka was so devoted. (And which probably killed him. It was no “communication between brain and lungs” that did him in, as he speculated, but rather Muller’s belief in leaving windows open year-round, which Kafka followed through the long Prague winters.) Payot describes what the neurasthenic young worker of the intellect must do to attain the desired self-mastery: Conduct an “education of the will” that will enable him to handle the diffusing tendencies of the modern swarm of ideas and influences. Meditative reflection, consciousness of the “enemies to combat,” engaged dwelling within chosen associations of ideas instead of fanciful fantasizing, and a relentless concretizing of abstraction are the program’s main components.

It is tempting to speculate on the influence Payot really had on Singer. In any case, an “education of the will” is a pretty good formula for Singer’s “whips” and what they were meant to do. These “whips” of his, and Singer’s own account of their importance to his development as a young writer, are in Dvorah Telushkin’s memoir. They are the remarkable little non-lyrical lyrics, quasi-Nietzschean in tone, of someone in a mood of total earnestness who wants to hold himself to himself.
In full power
Postpone the battle
And full of confidence
Prepare for conquest.

Architect of the word
Your building can be perfect.

The greatest might, the greatest profit
Is to decide and do according to one’s decision.16
Here are none of the mournful plaints or feverish praise often unfairly associated with Yiddish poetry. These are the words of a young writer who will go on to eschew the lyrical for his building project, with German echoes which befit the German translator the young Singer was. Singer, translator into Yiddish of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and the German version of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s lengthy novel Pan, was, in fact, an acolyte more of Mann and Hamsun and Dostoyevsky than his fellow Yiddish writers, including his own worldly brother. He thus became neither an avant-garde Yiddish or Hebrew poet, a writer-as-thinker, nor a naturalist fictioneer of the shtetl or the new Jewish world—more obvious and well-trod paths. Nor was he mainly an explorer of older Jewish folkways, or even a “modernist” transformer of folk materials. Singer was an entirely European writer of the era of the mastery of the will. Influenced most of all by Hamsun, he eschewed cultivation, sentiment, the certainties and consolations of ideology. Instead, he took to Hamsun’s contrary taste for freely chosen extremity, the blow-by-blow of a consciousness under extremity’s pressures, and those counterintuitive movements when that consciousness gives in to impulse instead of fighting it and some thing unexpected happens.

The crucial model for Singer seems to have been Hamsun’s novel Hunger, which he read in his teens and for which he wrote an introduction in 1967, describing the sensation it created in all of Europe and acknowledging his debt to Hamsun. In Hunger these movements are continuously depicted in a manner that bowled over Hamsun’s contemporaries, already primed by Nietzsche for a hero of unassailable willfulness and loyalty to his most obscure impulses. Its hero mercilessly observes himself as he forces himself to live a threadbare existence. This existence is tied deeply and enigmatically to his efforts to write. He is the model not for any of Singer’s characters in particular, but for the way so many of them think and go through the world. At once more thoughtful and more alone than the people around him, he is beset by passions and impulses he does not understand. He nonetheless recognizes that they are more valuable than any money or success he might acquire. He punishes himself, then watches for his own reaction, wondering what it might mean, pleased with the game he plays with the universe. It is so much more worthwhile than the proper existence of a proper burgher of the city of Christiania.
I began running so as to punish myself... “Not so fast!” I said. And to torture myself right, I stood up again and forced myself to stand there, laughing at myself, and gloating over my own fatigue.
Finally I put my forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free in there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moment’s hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.
I started once more to punish my flesh, ran my forehead deliberately against lampposts, drove my fingernails deep into the backs of my hands, bit my tongue madly every time it failed to pronounce clearly and then laughed wildly whenever I caused a fairly good pain.17
Hunger’s self-torture is the dialogue a human being of “extraordinary sincerity” holds with himself, which makes him a “spiritual aristocrat” instead of a burgher, in Singer’s description of the “truly original” artist in his essay on Hamsun.18 From that self-torture Singer takes out chaotic brokenness and the “pantheistic exultation” he saw in Hamsun’s work, but crucially adds the question of free will, so beloved of the Jews. It hovers over Singer’s protagonists like a protective shield (though it may deprive them of certain experiences, of the most radical uncertainty, for example, that Hamsun’s hero’s chaos brings him). Singer’s hero-consciousness moves through the world in uneasy relation with a mysterious, invisible God, much the same as that of Hamsun, of whom Singer writes, “His God, nature, is indifferent, neutral toward good and evil, and frequently cruel. One speaks to it, but it remains silent.”19 He is describing his own God as well: cruelly indifferent, silent, seemingly neutral toward good and evil; yet Singer’s God paradoxically requires him to choose freely.

It was a requirement Singer held himself to “every minute,” as he put it in one of his whips, which recalls Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life”:
And thou shalt choose life
Free choice is here
Free choice is necessary
Every minute.
Free choice be my strength and success
Mastery my blessed fortune.20
This Singer of his whips chooses free choice; he must hold himself to it continually, its paradoxical reward the strength and mastery it depends upon. Likewise, his favored protagonists come to sense within themselves their own agency, their capacity for free choice. They are helped in that by their sense that a seemingly indifferent God does offer them something, a meaning which, however elusive, really is available. A Singer protagonist will endure or inflict upon himself a similar sort of physical cruelty as that of a Hamsun lone wolf, with a similarly ironic, jesting relation to existence, and a bitter determination to get to the bottom of it. Yet Singer’s people are not really attacking themselves to the psychotic core like Hamsun’s, and they tend to find something in the end.
The water was cold, but it made no difference to him. “Who is cold? And if one is cold, what of it?” The coldness cut his breath, and he clung to the railing. Then he plunged and stayed for along while under the water. Something within him was laughing. “As long as you breathe, you must breathe.”21
This passage from Singer’s story “Joy” could almost come from Hamsun. “Something within him was laughing” rings of Hunger. The indifference to painful sensation, and the self-prodding into the pain, is the same, too. But the laughter has none of the splintered exaltation of Hamsun’s protagonists, and the grieving, self-torturing Rabbi Bainish of this story (he is mourning his dead daughter) would not think of actually harming himself, even in his worst moments.


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