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I.B. Singer's Cruel Choice

By Mark Kuzmack

Fate and freedom for his characters, for himself.




At least where it concerns his favored protagonists, Singer’s cruelty is not for cruelty’s sake, but for the sake of bringing them to the moment of truth. But what is the truth? “If there is such a thing as the truth, it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers,” Singer concludes the story of that name.10 It is as close to a credo as this believer in the other world ever gets. Singer, though he believed in the other world, did not believe in the earthly utopias, what he called “isms,” particularly Communism. In his memoirs he relates the disdain he felt for those many around him in Warsaw who were consumed by ideas. That he wrote stories that punctured Améry’s “codified abstraction, ”that crutch of every day life that lets human beings coast right through it, was, as the Communists used to say, no accident. The Singer who inflicts cruelty and cleaves to concreteness is the same Singer who believes truth is “intricate and hidden.” More unwanted than wanted, truth waits to be found, as the people of his stories find out, but is never really encompassed or grasped; it emerges from the intricacy of life and is not captured by any system of ideas. That makes life difficult for authors as well as characters, Singer knows, for they are especially liable to coast on codified abstraction. When they do, their ready ideas make world-making seem to go easier; but they issue in kitsch, that “translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling,” as Milan Kundera puts it.11 So Singer’s stories are truth-embodying, not idea-expounding, creations. They approach intricate and hidden truth by way of the concrete, with structures of unexpected plot developments, and the suddenly changed viewpoints that go with these reversals that enact the very intricacy and hiddenness of the truth his protagonists seek.

Singer certainly did not lack for ideas, as he revealed in innumerable interviews and lectures in the last decades of his life. He was even known for bludgeoning audiences with his attacks on “absurdist literature,” an enemy he saw everywhere. But like one of his masters, Chekhov, who observed that his ideas about life changed from week to week with no appreciable effect on his writing, Singer protected himself against himself with an astonishingly firm grasp of the concrete, soften commented upon by his admirers.12 In Pirkei Avot, R. Akiva says, “Tithes are a fence to wealth.” And: “A fence to wisdom is silence.”13 Singer might say: Concreteness is a fence to abstraction. Abstraction seems to be real riches, but as with wealth, human beings may lose themselves in its possibilities, grow vain as they throw it around, mistake it for the world from which it arises, and finally look with puzzlement upon their own foreign creations. Singer’s concreteness functions as a fence which keeps him from the dangers of tendentiousness and kitsch and roots him in the difficult labor of actually willing something into existence.

Those are real and present dangers. Singer’s detractors used to compare him unfavorably with Chaim Grade on “moral seriousness.” Certainly Grade had a more humane worldview, and he grappled more consciously with Jewish tragedy. Yet where the challenge of realistic fiction is concerned, the bringing into being of indubitable people, things, and impulses, Singer could be compared favorably. Take this passage from Grade’s Rabbis and Wives:
Asna, tall and supple like a young sapling in spring, felt her entire body tremble quietly and her large eyes become twice their size. She did not realize that she had drawn her hands away from her father’s, just as she was unaware of the huge teardrops rolling slowly down her cheeks.14
Inevitably there is some slippage in a translated passage. Still, teardrops are no larger on particularly momentous occasions than on more ordinary ones, so they are never “huge.” Nor do they ever roll slowly, however much sadness slow-rolling teardrops might evoke; they hesitate on the upper cheek before falling quickly. Eyes, even widened ones, do not really grow to twice their size. Though it sounds dramatic to say so, entire bodies do not tremble in emotion; only extremities and parts of the face do. Young Asna is meant to be seen as so involved in her grief (she faces her dying father) that she loses awareness of herself. But it is odd that she would feel her body trembling, yet not notice the movement of her hand, and feel her eyes growing to twice their size, but not notice her tears. And a young girl may be tall and even supple, but not by a kitsch comparison to a young sapling in spring. That resembles Soviet propaganda comparing steadfast Russian soldiers to a silent stand of Russian birches in autumn.

The author is closer here to his ideas than to his character and her actions. As a consequence he loses track of the physical world, which follows not its own logic but one connected to his ideas and the reaction he wants to elicit. In trying to provoke sympathy for a young girl facing her dying father and identification with her, he so buries us with spring saplings, trembling, large eyes, huge teardrops, and other sentimentalia that we are unable to engage in a reader’s act of the imagination. His ideas, codified abstractions of grief and youth, press forward foggily toward the real, failing to meet it, with the result that we do not see a young girl facing her dying father but register the idea of a young girl facing her dying father. Our imaginative resources having been prevented from doing their work, we are left to run our eyes over the words, unable to quite focus; perhaps, in our distraction, we flash to some other scene of dying fathers or sincere girls from fiction or from life and do the work of making Asna real for ourselves. If not, we will tuck away the ideas for the reading labor we are being asked to perform. We may even feel like doing a bit of Singer-like torturing ourselves and snap her out of this unreal world, making her face her dying father as a real young girl. She serves her author’s abstractions; perhaps her passivity is a natural result.

Here is a characteristic passage by Singer, also about a young girl, from The Slave:
Wanda was twenty-five and taller than most of the other women. She had blond hair, blue eyes, a fair skin, and well-modeled features. She braided her hair and twisted it around her head like a wreath of wheat. When she smiled, her cheeks dimpled, and her teeth were so strong she could crush the toughest of pits.15
Wanda is also said to be tall, but the comparison here is quite concretely to other women—not a poetic spring sapling. Straightforwardly strong rather than dreamily supple, her nature is conveyed through what she is capable of and what she does, crush pits with her strong teeth. We are certainly able to imagine this unsentimental act, and so we are led to believe in it, and in her. Her hair is not merely braided, but braided through her own activity—she twists it around her head—and so we are able to see her taking an active relation to her own body, too. She is alive, subject to her objects, and we can hardly imagine her ethereally unaware that she is weeping or trembling. A girl’s blond braid really does look like a wreath of wheat, a perfect, unforced simile; yet unlike a sapling forced into service as a symbol of vigor, however unlike a girl it may be, this wreath of wheat so like a blond woman’s braid actually evokes the fruitfulness of nature, and we imagine Wanda, too, fruitful in her strength and youth. We may even associate the wreath with a stalk, and without being told to, see Wanda herself as a stalk upon which sits a healthy wreath, uniting her even more profoundly with the nature to which she has been unobtrusively likened.

This is a real girl in a world of carefully accurate perception and metaphor, a successful creation of authorial omniscience, whose truth is existence, patent and elusive. She is not an entity half concretized from abstractions, driving us unwillingly into our own confused ethereality. She has truly been willed into existence, furthermore as a character Singer approves of, an agent in the world, not the ghostly object of forces that overwhelm her, not even, or especially not, her author’s ideas.

Grade’s sentimentally constructed Asna would fare badly in a Singer story. A demon would come along, provoked by her teardrops and her lack of awareness of them. There is Singer’s cruelty at its least benevolent: ruthless to the unaware, the sentimental, the ethereal, the pleading, the needy. Wanda, one of Singer’s favored, has agency; she perceives reality and she can make a free decision. Unreal Asna cannot, because she is not pulling her own strings. This agency of Wanda’s is the natural analogue of Singer’s successful act of omniscience. It makes for a kind of fellowship between character and author. They both pass from moment to moment, attending to concrete detail, actively making, perceiving accurately, and choosing freely. They are kindred spirits.



It is a cruel regime—but the author Singer is one of its subjects. Like his people, he cannot be sentimental or befogged by notions. Like Wanda, he must be a continual free agent, at every moment in contact with the movements of the real, freely deciding at every moment, even in the face of what he felt to be a terrible indifference. That required a kind of hardness with himself, which he worked to develop—unlike Gimpel and the Spinozist, he lacked an omniscient narrator to torture him—even as his respect for piety and goodness pulled him powerfully toward haplessness. What Singer did have was his touchstone, free will, and a European culture of mastery.

 


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