15 July 2016

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Devil in Eastern Europe

Author: Leonidas Donskis / Source:
Was the God s on the side of the poor and innocent, or did he side with evil due to being totally neutral and impartial to all of his creations? This was the central theological and philosophical issue for the Nobel Prize winning Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) – a major Eastern/Central European author who passed away twenty-five years ago.
He revolted against religion in his young age, and seems to have had a good reason for this on the grounds of rather naïve perception of God’s role in human affairs. Yet his revolt was quite close to Voltaire’s revolt against Leibniz and his theodicy. How could the optimism in His goodness be justified after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, after so much suffering? asked Voltaire. The question of Gods infinite grace came under even more severe doubt after the sufferings of the Jews, even long before the Shoah.

The role of the Devil in history and politics is a characteristically Eastern and Central European theme, from Mikhail Bulgakov to Leszek Kołakowski, who had long intended to undertake a major work on the Devil in history and politics, and, I hasten to add, to Vladimir Tismaneanu, who has fairly recently accomplished such a work – by publishing his book The Devil in History.

Grigory Kanovich, an Israeli-Lithuanian writer, describes the loss of memory and sensitivity as unavoidable aspect of how the Devil affects humanity during social upheavals, disasters, wars, and calamities. In Kanovich’s novel, The Devil’s Spell (2009), he depicts, with an epic brushwork, the willful forgetting of crimes committed during the Holocaust in Lithuania as an aspect of the Devil’s work.

The emptiness of conscience, oblivion, and the will-to-forget are the final blow dealt to the victims, who are blamed for the crimes committed against them. This is the devilish act of the deprivation of human memory and sensitivity. Ultimately, undistorted historical memory remains the only reliable and promised fatherland for the European Jews after the Shoah.

Yet the question of the God and evil has never escaped from Singer’s attention. Not unlike Voltaire and David Hume who question the Divine Providence and Grace, Singer seems to have been preoccupied with the question of whether God can be evil.

In Singer’s short story, "The Miracles,” God as the ultimate source of good, justice and love is put into question. More than that, the protagonist of the story who tells his miraculous account of anguish, threat, love, death, pain and survival, exposes a strange amalgam of agnosticism, skepticism, religious feeling, mystery, superstition, and disbelief.

Singer’s religiosity strikes the reader as rather odd. In a way, it is postmodern. If we are to believe sociologists who suggest that anti-modernity is an inevitable and indispensable aspect of modernity, post-modernity should allow room to reconcile the moral abysses between the two.

This is exactly what Singer achieves fictionally, rather than philosophically or psychologically: he paves the way for a less pathological perception of diversity and uncertainty than that that was deeply embedded in the modern world, especially in the way it manifested itself in the first half of the twentieth century resulting in black-and-white social optic, hostility to nuances and undertones in our attempt to grasp the reality around us.

In "The Miracles,” Don Juan is mentioned as a failed saint. The main character of the story recalls Rabbi Joseph della Reina, who tried to bring the Messiah and failed as he granted Satan a sniff of tobacco, which led to his perdition; instead, he became a lecher able to make the wife of the Grand Vizier come to him.

The protagonist of "The Miracles” becomes a Joseph della Reina who relies on the powers of prayer only to get as many women as he wants and then to get away with this. The logic of Bildungsnovella does not fail Singer, since there is room here to justify the talented, albeit controversial, misogynist philosopher Otto Weininger quoting him as having said that "the hundred percent male has no patience for the female,” and that "the hundred percent male is a warrior, not a romantic.”

Most importantly, as Singer has it, "Providence does not like to reveal its techniques and wears the mask of causality. If one could see its work, free choice would cease... The brain is constructed so that a man can simultaneously be a believer and a non-believer.”

In fact, Singer’s prose reads as a theory of good and evil in the cloth of literature. For, as we learn from Jean Baudrillard’s dictum, "theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable.”
Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, historian of ideas, and writer. A former Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). Donskis has written and edited over forty books, seventeen of them in English. His works have been published in eighteen languages. He serves now as Professor of Politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Donskis holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, the UK (2011), and an Honorary Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Valahia University in Târgovişte, Romania (2014).

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