Old Truths and New Cliches

Old Truths and New Cliches

Essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Edited by David Stromberg

Princeton University Press – £20.00

When I went to heder as a boy and studied Akdamut, the poem for Pentecost, I was amazed by the verses which said that if all the skies were parchment, all people writers, all blades of grass pens, and all the oceans ink, these would still be insufficient to describe the mysteries of the Torah. That parable became my credo: the skies were indeed parchment, the grasses pens, and all people in fact writers. Everything that existed wrote, painted, sculpted, and sought creative achievement.

God is the sum of all possibility.

(‘Why I Write As I Do: The Philosophy and Definition of a Jewish Writer’)

Divided into three prime sections (The Literary Arts, Yiddish and Jewish Life and Personal Writings and Philosophy), this is a book which delves deep unto the ever meandering thought process of a most complex, and altogether endearingly restless mind.

Edited by the writer, translator and scholar David Stromberg, Old Truths and New Cliches traverses an array of occasionally dense subject matter. Ranging from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Jewish background in Warsaw, Poland, to philosophy and censorship, to literature and indeed, art itself: ‘’Artists, like plants, must have roots, and the deeper the soil, the deeper the roots. Art is the opposite of analysis. Sometime, five-year-old ‘’wunderkinds’’ show great powers in mathematics. But there is no prodigy in literature or painting – not even in composition. At the moment when art tears itself away from its soil, it becomes technical, difficult, pretentious, and tedious’’ (‘Old Truths and New Cliches’).

How exceedingly spot on and accurate.

Like George Orwell, Singer always spoke and shot straight from the hip of potentially, inflammatory telling it, as it so desperately needs to be told. The former from a more politically induced premise, with Singer from that of more literary persuasion.

Both writers heavily endowed with the ability to bequeath a menagerie of wonderful one-liners. The top four herein being:

Real art touches the thing in itself, the very essence of being and creation.

The Hitlers, the Mussolinis, and the Stalins turn to dust, but the works of the spirit are ever imbued with new life.

Intellectual prodigies are rare, but when it comes to feelings, we are all prodigies.

The wicked sit day and night in a theatre, eat pork, and sin with loose women.

There’s enough material amid these 205 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) to provide the likes of Woody Allen with a further trilogy of scripts. Even The Ten Commandments isn’t free of critique: ‘’But Mr. Moses is naive if he expects the world to take his commandments seriously. They will be read and forgotten, unless Holywood decides to make them into a movie… (‘The Ten Commandments and Modern Critics’).

Spontaneous, to the point and witty, simultaneously complex and multi-varied, Old Truths and New Cliches doesn’t make for yer every day reading. There again, Isaac Bashevis Singer doesn’t make for yer every day writer.

David Marx

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