FOR AMERICAN JEWS, one legacy of the Holocaust is a sense of nostalgia, tinged sometimes with a feeling of guilt, toward the life of our ancestors in Eastern Europe. The nostalgia is natural enough—it is the idealization of an unknown past that is common among American immigrant groups, as Irish or Italian as it is Jewish. What makes the Jewish American experience different is the fact that our "old country" did not continue to evolve and develop after we left it, because it was violently destroyed. We treat our past reverentially, sentimentally, with kid gloves, because we are afraid that if we handle it too roughly it will be shattered beyond repair.
Issac Bashevis Singer had a darker, less-pious view of this overwhelming sense of fragility in "The Last Demon," a very short tale that can be found in The Collected Stories—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. This manifestation of human evil has made supernatural evil irrelevant, obsolete: "Why demons, when man himself is a demon?" the demon-narrator asks. "Why persuade to evil someone who is already convinced?" He himself has no one left to prey on, and no source of sustenance except an old Yiddish storybook left behind in an abandoned house: "But nevertheless the letters are Jewish. The alphabet they could not squander. I suck on the letters and feed myself. … 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. But the story also constitutes a complaint about the incongruity of a demon, or a writer, having to take up the task of commemoration and preservation. For Singer, this was a particularly ironic fate, because the whole energy of his fiction is negative—mocking, disputatious, despairing, perverse. These are the characteristic traits of so much modern fiction that it should not be surprising to find them in Singer, a younger contemporary of Mann, Proust, and Kafka. Yet even now, two decades and more 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.
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