To Dara Horn, Isaac Bashevis Singer lost most of his literary luster when he began to cultivate “a public persona as a wide-eyed innocent from a lost world” and his work fell into “self-derivative patterns in which the recipe involved combining shtetls, demons, and sex in a small bowl, mixed well.” Horn does not, however, deny Singer’s artistic and imaginative talents, or that substantive ideas lie behind his work:
Over the years, I managed to get past my problem with Singer, mostly by focusing on some of his finest works: his first novel and also a curated handful of his stories, including his debut in English, “Gimpel the Fool” (translated by Saul Bellow), and his 1960s story “The Cafeteria,” each of which deals brilliantly with the question of how one processes or even accepts reality in the presence of radical evil. This, I think, was Singer’s great theme. In a correlation less obvious to his non-Yiddish audience, his literary fascination with doubt and evil was directly related to his rejection of both humanism and Communism. To Singer, they were related ideologies, the benign and malign ends of a spectrum of idolatry that worshiped selfish and limited humanity as though it were the ineffable divine, and thereby both gave rise to the radical evil that made it possible to erase human differences.
This is an important argument but a tough sell to those whose nostalgic attachment to their parents’ Yiddish was bound up with an adamantly secular and sometimes fellow-traveling branch of Yiddish-speaking culture. The greatest achievement of Old Truths and New Clichés, a new collection of Singer’s essays compiled by the writer, scholar, and translator David Stromberg, is that it lays bare Singer’s motivating ideas for all to see.
Singer did have an artistic vision that reaches beyond the bogeymen of his era. That vision is of storytelling as the necessary foundation for creative art, and even more than that, the foundation for living a life of openness and purpose. His best polemical work here comes when he lays out this idea from his own experiences as a writer, as he does in “Storytelling and Literature.” . . . Singer predictably complains about how contemporary writers promote their politics instead of telling stories, but he also unearths the real structural problem with this approach.
Real art, Singer argues here, is driven by the relentless pursuit of such questions without the expectation of answers. This is the reason why agenda-driven art must fail: it starts with the answers.