The Death of Methuselah, and Other Stories (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
This volume of short stories, the tenth since Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (1957), explores what Isaac Bashevis Singer calls in an author’s note “modern man and his disappointment with his own culture.” The stories are permeated with an irony that results from the clash between mystical explanations of life and rational ones. Ancient and modern views are juxtaposed. Many of the characters are wanderers, sojourners of some sort; many are advanced in age. A holy man, a recluse, an artist, criminals, Holocaust survivors, faithless husbands and wives, perverts, cynics, prodigies, businessmen, the poor, the simpleminded, demons, the dead, the legendary, all are witnesses to an experience of life at odds with itself. Sinners tell stories in which they complain of other sinners; convicts tell tales of bigamy and murder; a philanderer collects anecdotes of faithless women. Singer himself seems to be present in the persona of a Yiddish writer to whom many of these stories are told. The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories is an extraordinary collection, both in terms of its odd and mystifying subject matter and, especially, in terms of Singer’s gifts. A myth unmasked by Singer, for some strange reason, remains as alive as ever.
The best introduction to the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer is his volume of memoirs, Mayn Tatn’s Bes-din Shtub (1956; In My Father’s Court, 1966). There, in chapters that read like short stories, he describes the shaping influence of both his household and his father’s beth din, or rabbinical court, on his young mind. The two, the family and the court, were so intertwined, he writes, that it was not easy to tell where one ended and the other began. Both of his parents came from families of rabbis, but while his father’s family were Hasidic, or mystical in bent, his mother’s were rationalistic; while his mother advocated a rational approach to life’s puzzles, his father always saw God’s mysterious hand at work. The rabbinical court not only reinforced this dialectical and argumentative habit of mind but also brought strange people into the house daily, people with stories not unlike those in The Death of Methuselah. It is clear from his memoirs that Singer himself recognizes how this contest of outlooks was absorbed by him and developed into an ironic vision. Unlike his elder brother Israel Joshua, whose example in questioning the Jewish way of life, in moving out of the house, and in writing for Yiddish newspapers Isaac Bashevis did follow, the younger brother did not discard the old, mysterious explanations in favor of realistic ones. Instead, he kept them both, allowing the rational to call into question the irrational and showing the power of the mystical to silence reason.
The opening story from The Death of Methuselah establishes a traditional religious perspective, and yet it is a perspective marked by doubt. A tense and troubling story from some unspecified time in the dark and distant past, “The Jew from Babylon” pictures the last day and night of an aged miracle worker with a strange name, Kaddish ben Mazliach. Shunned by the rabbis and community leaders as a sorcerer and the subject of fearful stories told about him in and around Lublin, still he is called upon to drive out evil spirits, and he is answering such a call in the village of Tarnigrod. Even the horse that pulls the wagon seems to sense his passenger’s dangerous power. Faltering and absentminded as he has become, he thinks that this may be “his last and most decisive battle with the Evil Ones. If they didn’t surrender this time, how would they be driven away into the desert behind the black mountains forever?” Singer makes this first story an introduction to the imagination attuned to the demonic.
The magician, after a long day’s work in the tainted house, is cursed by the local rabbi, abandoned by his wagon driver, and forced to pass the night in the empty house where he worked his incantations all day. In his sleep he is attacked by “bearded images with horns and snouts,” and then he finds himself lifted by a wind, in flight, surrounded by demons in a wedding dance, himself the bridegroom of Lilith, the Queen of the Abyss: “They threw themselves at his throat, kissed him, fondled him, raped him. They gored him with their horns, licked him, drowned him in spit and foam.” The final sentence resonates with an ambiguity much like that of Young Goodman Brown’s dying hour, the same indefinite “they,” the same dubious “as if”: “In the morning they found him dead, face down on a bare spot, not far from the town. His head was buried in the sand, hands and feet spread out, as if he had fallen from a great height.”
The miracle worker’s vision of his world is a truly terrifying one, but it is not one common to the twentieth century—thus the irony. If the gleeful Black Wedding were not enough to suggest the author’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, the double entendre “his head was buried in the sand” should be too much to ignore. On the other hand (and in Singer’s world there is always another hand), are rational philosophies developed by modern man really more adequate explanations of reality? Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud, all are cited as authorities in the stories that follow, but the stories themselves...
(The entire section is 2255 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Booklist. LXXXIV, February 1, 1988, p. 889.
Chicago Tribune. April 10, 1988, XIV, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, March 1, 1988, p. 320.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 1, 1988, p. 1.
The New Leader. LXXI, June 27, 1988, p. 20.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, April 17, 1988, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, March 4, 1988, p. 98.
Time. CXXXI, May 2, 1988, p. 84.