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  • Russian Dogs and Jewish Russians:Reading Israel Joshua Singer's "Liuk" in a Russian Literary Context
  • Joseph Sherman and Henrietta Mondry

This paper offers a close critical reading of I. J. Singer's little-noted short story "Liuk." This story is read in a Russian rather than Yiddish literary context to show the way in which Singer, writing as a Jew disillusioned with the false messianic promise of the Russian Revolution, engages in a polemic with the established equation of dogs with Jews in nineteenth-century Russian literature. Tracing the development of this typology through a range of Russian fiction and poetry from Pushkin to Blok, this analysis seeks to demonstrate that Russian folk proverbs, as much as literary typologies developed from folk attitudes, equated dogs with Jews in the Russian popular consciousness. This attitude, while undergoing significant changes through the course of the nineteenth century in regard to Russian attitudes towards dogs, remained fundamentally unchanged in regard to Jews, even after the Revolution. By drawing on the Russian literary tradition in relation to Singer's treatment of a typological pairing of "general" and "dog" in this story, this paper seeks to illustrate Singer's hardening conviction that the world as he saw it was irredeemably animalistic, and that, however unconsciously, his work as a whole remained rooted in a determination to prove, through fiction, the truth of the biblical teaching that "the pre-eminence of man over beast is as naught."

Among those Eastern European Jewish intellectuals for whom the euphoria of the Russian Revolution evaporated almost immediately was the Yiddish writer Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944). After rushing to Kiev in 1918 to participate in what promised to be the social salvation of humankind, he witnessed, at the age of twenty-four and from his perspective as a Jew, the same bloodlettings by successive waves of "liberators" of the Ukraine that traumatized his Russian contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov.1 Desperate to find some manifestation of the ideals in which he had trusted, Singer moved to Moscow in 1920, only to return, bitterly disillusioned, to his native Warsaw in 1921.

Convinced of humankind's impotence in a world of brute force, blighted in every hope that people in general, and Jews in particular, might reconstruct redemption for themselves, Singer came to accept as valid only the harsh determinism of the material world. The resentment of frustrated idealism brought Singer, however unconsciously, to share Hobbes's view that all knowledge derived only from sensory experience and that human life was indeed as Hobbes had described it:

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.2 [End Page 290]

Uncompromisingly antiromantic, Singer's fiction sought to lay bare the defects of human beings and the concomitant deficiencies of their social formations. He expressed this negative view of human capability in austere prose that rigidly excluded metaphorical, lyrical, or narrative interpolation in favor of precise description of the physical. The inner life of individuals, as Singer's writing presents it, is accessible only in fragments through appearance, dress, modes of behavior, or mannerisms of speech and gesture. Hence he concentrated his sharp observation upon such externals, organizing their details to direct the reader's judgment.

Such fiction, in its union of style and subject matter, might usefully be described as "materialist," since it examines human life exclusively in terms of material existence. People are identified simply as one group of objects among other objects that compose the physical world, undistinguished by either individuality, integrity, or independence.3 This emphasis on the dominance of behaviorism and heredity places Singer's fiction within the field of Yiddish naturalism, all exponents of which uncompromisingly set human beings and their social formations in a dog-eat-dog world. During the interwar years, this "school" seemed to dominate Polish Yiddish prose fiction, especially the works of I. M. Weissenberg and those of his admirer Oyzer Varshavski. Weissenberg in A shtetl (1906) and Varshavski in Shmuglars (1920) insisted on portraying shtetl life in full bleakness and misery, emphasizing how revolutionary doctrines undermined traditional Jewish values. Naturalism...


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pp. 290-317
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