The Spinoza of Market Street by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1944
THE SPINOZA OF MARKET STREET
by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1944
When Isaac Bashevis Singer first published "The Spinoza of Market Street" in Yiddish in 1944 under the title "Der Spinozist: Dertseylung," he signed it Yitskhok Bashevis, combining his masculine first name with his mother's name. The androgynous signature perfectly suits this tale of the union of opposites as represented by Dr. Nahum Fischelson, the Spinozist, and Black Dobbe.
Fischelson lives on the fifth floor of a Warsaw apartment house. Singer thus places him in a middle state between earth and heaven, flesh and spirit. Fischelson, however, rejects this status. For 30 years he has studied and annotated Spinoza's Ethics, until he has become almost a double of the Jewish philosopher. In the article "Spinoza in Singer's Shorter Fiction," Samuel I. Mintz examines the numerous similarities between Fischelson and his mentor. Fischelson cannot enjoy even a cool breeze without citing the authority of the Ethics. Despite the summer's heat Fischelson ignores physical discomfort and wears a long black coat, stiff collar, and bow tie. When he looks out his attic window at the stars, he feels himself one with them and experiences that "Amor dei Intellectualis," that love of the divine intelligence, that Spinoza deemed "the highest perfection of the mind."
For the mundane, on the other hand, he has only contempt. He scolds the moths flying too close to the candle flame, for he regards them as no wiser than people who seek only "the pleasure of the moment." Whereas his vision of the sky is serene and happy, he regards Market Street as an image of hell, filled with noise, smoke, fire, strife, and crime. On the street emotion reigns, and Fischelson shares Spinoza's contempt for passion. When a tomcat howls in front of Fischelson's window, the Spinozist chases him away as another representative of the irrational and the passionate. Similarly, he rejects Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and the writings of Kant's disciples, since pure reason is Fischelson's ideal.
Yet the sensate world insists on intruding. Fischelson feels the heat in his apartment, however much he may try to deny its existence. His stomach hurts, his knees shake, and his vision blurs. He knows that Spinoza condemned anger, but he becomes furious when he reads what he regards as distortions of Spinoza's views. His dreams do not yield to his efforts to devise rational explanations.
Next door to him lives Black Dobbe, his antithesis. Whereas Fischelson is a creature of the heavens, she belongs to the earth. He visits the marketplace once a week to buy necessities, but she sells cracked eggs there daily. He speaks and writes Hebrew, Russian, German, French, and Yiddish, and he reads Spinoza in Latin, while she is illiterate. His father was a rabbi, but her parents worked in a slaughterhouse. He enjoys the content of books while she admires their gold tooling. He talks to her about philosophy, but she shows him her trousseau.
While she is Fischelson's opposite, Black Dobbe is also his salvation. The story is set during World War I, and war, that epitome of chaos, intrudes to disturb his cosmos. His quarterly pension from Berlin is stopped, and when the stories are closed, he cannot buy food. Faint from heat, hunger, and contact with the jostling, irrational crowd, Fischelson returns to his apartment to die. Seeking someone to read a letter that she has received from her brother in America, Black Dobbe enters Fischelson's room and finds him in bed unconscious. She nurses him back to physical health, and, to the surprise of all who know them, they marry.
This union with Black Dobbe rejuvenates the philosopher. He had thought himself impotent but discovers that he is "again a man as in his youth." Instead of talking to Dobbe about the metaphysics of Spinoza as he had previously, he recites romantic poetry—Klopstock, Lessing, Goethe—to her. His perception of Market Street also changes. Looking out his window at dawn, he still sees the beauty of the heavens, but below the gas lamps flicker like stars, and the black shutters of the shops match the black arc of the sky.
Fischelson apologizes to Spinoza for being a fool by marrying—Spinoza remained a lifelong bachelor—and thus abandoning pure reason. Singer demonstrates, however, that real foolishness lies in disregarding passion. The very fact that initially Fischelson looked into the night sky and then, after his wedding, peers into the dawn suggests that here is a long night's journey into day, a movement from darkness into light. Singer would agree with Hamlet that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. As his stories about dybbukim and demons demonstrate, Singer believed in the existence and power of the inexplicable. Black Dobbe does not represent the ideal any more than Fischelson does, for she has been unhappy and as isolated as the philosopher. When he asks about her past, she is surprised since no one else had ever inquired. Therefore, she too gains from the marriage. Those who are partial to one party or the other believe that the marriage is a mistake, but what Singer shows of their life together belies that view. Their marriage saves them because each complements the other. Alone each is a half truth and therefore only half a person. "The Spinoza of Market Street" can be read as a retelling of Aristophanes' myth in the Symposium. There the playwright imagines that people once had four legs and four arms, but their attempt to assault the gods angered Zeus, who divided them. Each person therefore seeks his or her other half, love being the quest for wholeness. The author's duality—masculine and feminine, reason and mysticism—and the Jewish traditions of Haskalah (rational enlightenment) and Hasidism (passionate religion) find their expression and reconciliation in this, one of Singer's finest stories.