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A Staring Contest in the Hall of Mirrors: Isaac Bashevis Singer

Eitan Kensky

Though published only four years after his first collection of short stories in English translation, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second collection, The Spinoza of Market Street (1961), presented its reader with a new Bashevis. His first collection, Gimpl the Fool & Other Stories (1957), was rooted in the shtetl and folklore; Bashevis Singer seemed on his way to becoming a Yiddish Faulkner with Frampol and Bilgoraj his Yoknapatwpha. But the second collection traded Frampol for Warsaw and introduced a new set of characters, preoccupations, and themes.

Notably, The Spinoza of Market Street features two stories with a struggling intellectual as the protagonist; in Bashevis Singer stories, motifs repeat and turn on themselves. 1 1 I will hereafter refer to him as “Bashevis.” Plot and characters cycle from story to story and the riff played on the standard is one of the unquestioned joys of reading him. Bashevis loves the cosmically mismatched pair. In one story it’s big and little (“Big and Little”); in others the earthly and the demonic. Perhaps most famously, the innocent and willfully ignorant is forced to collide with the evil and the knowing (“Gimpl the Fool”).

Yet it’s rare to see the repetitions and inversions appear in such close proximity as “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “Caricature.” In both, the hero (and I use the term loosely) is a philosopher struggling to realize his magnum opus, the book that would tie together all the threads of the system he has been developing for decades. Later works by Bashevis are filled with authors, lousy intellectuals, ghostwriters, and Singer-maqués. But the juxtaposition of these two stories, coming at the moment Bashevis inflected his narrative and thematic focus for the English reader, is striking. As I’ll describe shortly, the hero of “Caricature” is the photonegative of the Spinozist of Market Street. Together the two stories and the opposite attitudes toward writing embodied in their leads hint at an answer to a puzzle that has long preoccupied scholars of Singer: what to make of the years of artistic struggle that followed his arrival in America, his supposed period of literary silence.

The opening page of “The Spinoza of Market Street” establishes the story’s protagonist, Dr. Fischelson, as a hybrid of man and animal, Jew and Christian, sacred and profane. Permanently hunched, he lives in isolation in a garret with eyes like “some huge bird.” His clothing—a black coat with a stiff collar—recalls a monk’s, while his fluidity with Spinoza’s Ethics resembles the traditional ‘test’ used to gauge knowledge of the Talmud: “When he wanted to find a particular passage, he generally opened to the place immediately without having to search for it.” That the book is Spinoza’s Ethics, the crowning work of the excommunicated philosopher, only adds to the convergence of dualities. Singer presents us with syncretism of a kind: monasticism, traditional Judaism, scholarship, secular humanism, and heresy.

None of this crystallizes in Fischelson’s writing. As a writer, Fischelson is a failure: “Fischelson was writing a commentary on the Ethics. He had drawers full of notes and drafts, but it didn’t seem that he would ever be able to complete his work.”

The early parts of the story seem to acclaim this vision of intellectual idealism and purity. Fischelson rejects the chance to contribute to a Jewish Polish journal and he continues to pursue his scholarship long after the material support of his community faded and he was abandoned by Warsaw’s intellectual circle. Left behind as a “forgotten man,” Fishelson turns caustic: “He still read a Hebrew magazine occasionally, but he felt contempt for modern Hebrew.” Instead he continues his isolated path, his scholarly vision playing out out as an idyl against the outbreak of the First World War. Only at the end of the story, after Fischelson’s unlikely marriage to a woman who nurses him back to health does the reader—prompted by Fischelson’s cryptic, final words, “‘Divine Spinoza, forgive me. I have become a fool.’”—pause to consider whether Fischelson’s attitude toward the outside world was justified, even admirable, and whether he was right to pursue his monastic study of Spinoza.

“Caricature,” on the other hand, starts with and never quite relinquishes a feeling of mockery. It turns what in “The Spinoza of Market Street” was weighty and existential into the petty and trivial. The intellectual struggle ceases to seem a tussle with the divine and instead appears a farce over esteem.

Like Fischelson, the protagonist of “Caricature,” Dr. Margolis, is surrounded by intellectual detritus. Letters, books, manuscripts, scraps of food, and cigar ash fill his study. He, too, seems incapable of letting go and publishing his major work. His apartment has wastebaskets “crammed with papers which the doctor had forbidden anyone to discard until he took one more look at them,” and he refuses to allow the window to be opened lest the wind blow his papers away.

Margolis is in every other way Fischelson’s opposite. Fischelson retreated from the intellectual circles; Margolis takes on too many obligations. Fischelson rejected the chance to contribute to a journal, Margolis aggressively publishes criticism in academic journals. The new generation of scholars adopted Margolis and he embraces—if not endorses—Hebrew projects; the story’s second half starts with Margolis’s involvement with a new Hebrew encyclopedia.

The story, likewise, stages a similar, bizarre convergence of man and animal. Though the reader may understand the title as a reference to Margolis’s caricature of scholarship or of Bashevis’s caricature of the scholar, there are two textual explanations for the title. The narrator thinks to himself, “Old age was merely a parody of one’s youth.” The word Bashevis used in Yiddish for ‘parody’ was קאַריקאַטור karikatur, yet Bashevis and his translators chose not to use the word ‘caricature’ here. Doing so would have moved the story too far away from the Yiddish original, and from the convergence of man and animal.

Fishelson started his story birdlike; Margolis’s story ends with him pondering why creatures come to resemble other things. Margolis comes home from the meeting about the Hebrew encyclopedia to find his wife has aged years. She has suddenly grown a beard, gone bald and come to resemble him. “This was a biological imitation [nokhkrimenish], like those creatures that simulate being trees.” “Imitation,” nokhkrimenish, is the story’s title in Yiddish. The narrator continues:

אָבער װאָס איז דער צװעק פֿון דער אַלט־װײַבערישער נאָכמאַלפּעניש? מיט װאָס קאָן דאָס העלפֿן דעם מין?

But what was the goal of this old-womanly aping? How could it help the sex? 2 2 Emphasis added, translation mine. All previous quotes are from the official translations. The published version simplifies this line and I have accordingly retranslated it.

The title, nokhkrimenish, points us to the significance of this section. Soon after making that observation, Margolis wakes his wife. She has read his manuscript and pronounces it a work of “genius.” But the whole section, the whole flow of the story, is too riddled with mockery for us to accept the pronunciation of genius at face value. The resemblance of man and animal—and man and woman—is somehow the key to moving forward. If Margolis’s work of “genius” is to be published, it is only because he, on some level, comes to accept imperfection and ugliness as consequences of writing—and perhaps accept the fact that his genius is layered with imitations.

Fischelson and Margolis embody two approaches to writing: the silent, steadfast aim for perfection and the routine publication of compromises. The pursuit of perfection and purity appears noble—until it it disintegrates into nothingness. Margolis, on the other hand, suffers from the need to be recognized in the present, the desire for acceptance today that may mean future obsolescence. One always hides and conceals his work while the other reveals only the superficial. Meanwhile, the real work, the life-affirming work, is preserved in their studies long enough to be choked to death.

It’s impossible not to wonder how these attitudes toward writing reflect on Bashevis’s own practice/approach to writing. As Faith Jones wrote in her story on the first translation of Bashevis into English, there is a long-standing idea that Bashevis Singer suffered from an existential writer’s block after his arrival in America.

He had witnessed his older brother’s enormous success and it is possible that he too was eager to be translated. He was 36 and had produced one novel and a few dozen stories, as well as manifestos and essays; but he was mired in a longstanding case of writer’s block that had gradually robbed him of his ability to write fiction. He wrote the occasional book review and essay under his pseudonyms. After he married Alma in 1940, he emerged bit by bit from his cocoon. In 1943 his new writing life began. After I.J. Singer’s death in 1944, Bashevis’ creativity welled up again in greatness with 1945’s Di familye mushkat, but translation eluded him until 1950.

Given the ending of “Caricature,” Faith’s description of Bashevis Singer’s marriage to Alma is striking. Only by merging with the woman is the male writer able to publish.

As I’ve discussed before, we have to question whether or not the “Writer’s Block” narrative makes sense. 3 3 This portion of the post is adapted from my paper, “Unsilent Period: Re-Reading Bashevis Singer’s Early Years in America,” presented at the AJS conference in 2012. [2012! What have I been doing with my life?] Is “Writer’s Block” the inability to write or the inability to publish? Writing is a process that takes place over time. Struggle and development are in no way the same as inability. Novels—and sometimes stories—take years to grow and form. Was Bashevis really that prodigious in Poland? He wrote a few stories, one novel of literary fiction, some reviews, and shund, though it’s unclear how much shund. His American output in the 1930s and early 40s was slighter than his Polish output, though only by degrees: a few stories, a few sketches, and a novel about a Messianic pretender. While Bashevis eventually became a prolific writer, we can’t accept this as “normal.”

Second, Bashevis was writing frequently. If we think beyond fiction and include other types of texts into our story (essays, newspaper articles, and reminiscences), the only real “gap” in Bashevis’s publication came between mid-1937 and mid-1938. 4 4 David Neal Miller, Fear of Fiction: Narrative Strategies in the Works of Isaac Bashevis Singer (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985), 153. Indeed, David Neal Miller long ago pointed out that this narrative of writer’s block was a constructed narrative, a part of Bashevis’s overwhelming desire to blur the line between reality and fiction and to make the two indistinguishable. 5 5 Ibid., 119. In fact, the greatest support for the writer’s block thesis comes from Singer’s own memoir, Lost in America (1981). Nearly fifty years later, Bashevis describes the loneliness he felt during his first night in Brooklyn after his brother treated him with indifference—a description that unsurprisingly becomes a commentary on writing. “In my room I lit the ceiling lamp, took a Yiddish book out of the cabinet, and tried to read, but I quickly became bored. I glanced into my notebooks, where I had jotted down various themes for short stories. None of them appealed to me at the moment. A deep gloom came over me.”

Bashevis’s memoir, however, is a consciously constructed work of literary art. It’s a story of struggle that at times borrows and takes inspiration from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, a novel Bashevis translated as a young man. Whatever the truth of the sibling rivalry, the version in Love and Exile is myth, the belletristic creation of a writer well-versed in psychological literature. Miller’s correction, however, seems not to have stuck. We know the “truth:” that Bashevis was writing journalism. But we dismiss this writing as not-fiction, as not-novels, as not-stories. It doesn’t change the overall narrative of a novelist existentially blocked.

The content of Bashevis’s journalism and criticism is fascinating. He wrote programmatic essays, reviews of major Yiddish authors, and articles about anything on his mind. He wrote about the Rothschilds, major Jewish thinkers, philosophers, and slice of life stories. Some of the stories are serious and worth salvaging; others are sensationalist, tabloid journalism at its finest. The newspaper was a proving ground for Bashevis to try on plots and approaches and to decide whether they were right for him to use in his fiction.

If Love and Exile told the story of a writer overwhelmed by America, riven by failure, and stifled by his brother’s reputation and influence, then the two stories “The Spinoza of Market Street” and “Caricature” tell a different, though no less compelling story of writers learning how to find their place in the world. Fischelson’s manuscript stays locked in the hermetic garrett. Margolis, however, learns that the art of writing is the art of being willing to send out imperfection, the art of letting go.

“Caricature” feels like the slighter of the two stories, but its protagonist takes us closer to the Bashevis of the 1940s. Like Bashevis, the hero of “Caricature” is a writer overwhelmed by the meager—deadlines for articles and reviews—struggling to pursue and publish the weighty. Perhaps, like the hero of “Caricature,” Bashevis was struggling with the fact that his next, serious work, Di familye mushkat, found its genius within imitation: the family saga, a genre in which his brother (among others) excelled. Bashevis’s real transformation as a writer came when he opened the window to the stifled room and revealed what he was hiding.
MLA STYLE
Kensky, Eitan. “A Staring Contest in the Hall of Mirrors: Isaac Bashevis Singer.” In geveb, October 2015: https://ingeveb.org/blog/a-staring-contest-in-the-hall-of-mirrors-isaac-bashevis-singer-and-the-spinoza-of-market-street.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kensky, Eitan. “A Staring Contest in the Hall of Mirrors: Isaac Bashevis Singer.” In geveb (October 2015): Accessed Nov 12, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eitan Kensky

Eitan Kensky is the former President of the Board of Directors In geveb and one of the site's Founding Editors.