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02-Jun-2016 00:24

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Issac Bashevis Singer had a darker, less-pious take on this overwhelming sense of fragility in “The Last Demon,” a very short tale that can be found in —his single greatest book, and the one by which he is known to most readers.It takes the form of a monologue by a demon who is the last survivor of the town of Tishevitz, now that the human inhabitants have been killed in the Holocaust. Yes, as long as a single volume remains, I have something to sustain me.” The parallel between demon and writer could hardly be clearer: Both are living on language, after the people who spoke the language are gone.The genius of the story lies in the way Shloimele and Lise unsettle us, not by their violation of Jewish custom, but by their excessively passionate fulfillment of it.Just as Lise honors the Torah, but more than a woman should, so she loves and submits to her husband much too much: They were always whispering together, telling each other secrets, consulting books together, and calling each other odd nicknames.In a more conventional kind of story, Lise would resent her marriage to this unworldly and awkward man; here, on the contrary, she falls deeply in love with Shloimele, because she has always longed for the kind of intellectual pursuits forbidden to women.She becomes obsessed with her new husband and falls under his spell to a degree that seems unwholesome.Lise had cooperated in this game by simulating the whinny and gait of a mare.Another game the maid had seen them play was one in which the winner pulls the earlobes of the loser, and she swore that they had continued this nonsense until the ears of both of them had been a blood red.

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Yet even now, 21 years after his death, there remains something odd, even transgressive, about thinking of Singer as a modernist.

Modernism rebels, disrupts, and tears down; but the civilization against which Singer’s rebellion was directed was itself disrupted and torn down, rendering any kind of modernist impiety not just unnecessary but almost blasphemous.