Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Vision of Radical Evil, and of Art That Transcends Politics

April 12 2022

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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature


Israel’s Covert War on Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Impressive. But Is It Successful?

Sept. 26 2023

The Mossad’s heist of a vast Iranian nuclear archive in 2018 provided abundant evidence that Tehran was not adhering to its commitments; it also provided an enormous amount of actionable intelligence. Two years later, Israel responded to international inspectors’ condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s violations by using this intelligence to launch a spectacular campaign of sabotage—a campaign that is the subject of Target Tehran, by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar. David Adesnik writes:

The question that remains open at the conclusion of Target Tehran is whether the Mossad’s tactical wizardry adds up to strategic success in the shadow war with Iran. The authors give a very respectful hearing to skeptics—such as the former Mossad director Tamir Pardo—who believe the country should have embraced the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Bob and Evyatar reject that position, arguing that covert action has proven itself the best way to slow down the nuclear program. They acknowledge, however, that the clerical regime remains fully determined to reach the nuclear threshold. “The Mossad’s secret war, in other words, is not over. Indeed, it may never end,” they write.

Which brings us back to Joe Biden. The clerical regime was headed over a financial cliff when Biden took office, thanks to the reimposition of sanctions after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal. The billions flowing into Iran on Biden’s watch have made it that much easier for the regime to rebuild whatever Mossad destroys in addition to weathering nationwide protests on behalf of women, life, and freedom. Until Washington and Jerusalem get on the same page—and stay there—Tehran’s nuclear ambitions will remain an affordable luxury for a dictatorship at war with its citizens.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, Mossad, U.S. Foreign policy