Yasha, the main character of I.B. Singer’s, The Magician of Lublin, lives in two worlds. When he is in front of people and in a social context he is – literally – a great performer. He is a magician, an acrobat, and a lover. Through all of these characters, he makes his audience happy. But Singer introduces him to the reader in midlife. What he feels inside of himself or when alone conflicts with the face he shows to the world. His dual character shows us that beneath all of his public appearances he is actually very anxious and worried about his life and future.
There are two very interesting parts of the novel that come one-after-another. One – so to speak – hides the other. Through this literary device, the reader gets an acute sense that comedy hides a darker face. Singer suggests that this darkness prompts the main character to not only face death but to reflect on the meaning of faith. His aging and the falling away of one world and the beginning of another prompt him to find what is ordinarily a farce or a happy scene as grotesque. Yasha doesn’t want to be trapped by a world that only cares about him because he is entertaining.
Why does he need to be chained to an audience that feeds off of him like a parasite? Maybe he should put his life on pause and change direction. But what can he do if he can’t do what he did…before? Maybe its better not to become famous, which, as I noted in my last post, is a major impetus for him to leave Lublin for Warsaw and Warsaw for Central Europe and America and become a star performer? Maybe, the large world, the fame, the expansion outward is a trap, an illusion?
These reflections come to the surface when he is alone in a café in Warsaw:
Often during the day, when Yasha sat in the Café Lars, sipping black coffee and leafing through a magazine, he was seized by an odd premonition – a feeling that he would not perform that season. He feared this portent and tried to banish it from his mind, to mollify it, erase it – but it kept returning. Would he grow sick? Was he, God forbid, due to die? Or was it something else altogether? He placed his hands on his forehead, rubbed his scalp, his cheekbones, enveloped himself in a blind darkness. He would himself into too many entanglements. He had driven himself into a dilemma. He loved and desired Emilia (who, as I pointed out in my last entry, wants him to convert to Catholicism and marry her in Warsaw)…But how could he inflict such an outrage against Esther (his wife in Lublin)? For so many years she had shown him a rare devotion. She had stood beside him through all his difficulties, helped in every crisis; her tolerance was the kind that the pious attribute only to God. (407)
His dilemma is not simply the question of the betrayal of one woman for another; it also involves the possible betrayal of his faith. Leaving Esther for Emilia has deep implications. He also realizes that he will hurt Magda – his magical assistant who takes along with him in his tour – when he leaves her for Emilia: “Each time he returned for Emilia, Magda looked at him with mute reproach. She almost ceased speaking to him altogether and had become withdrawn like a clam into her shell”(407). Yasha fears that in leaving either Esther or Magda, he may cause their death. Instead of thinking about himself and his pleasure or suffering – which has led him to this very juncture – he thinks about the suffering of the other. And this makes him think about the world he entertains. Is he like them? They don’t seem to care about death or suffering. Their love of life seems to be cruel.
All of these reflections emerge in the midst of the Café he is sitting in. The more he thinks, the more bitter he becomes. The people around him start to look grotesque and strange. The hip café becomes a horrible place. He becomes dark:
He sucked on the tip of a cigarette, sipped black coffee from a saucer, and scanned a magazine. The smoke stung his palate; the magazine article made no sense…He threw aside the magazine…Yasha extinguished the cigarette in the coffee dregs. All his reflections and speculations inevitably led to the one conclusion: he must get his hands on a large sum of money, if not legally, then by theft. (408)
The more he thinks about it, the more he falls apart. He can’t be a thief. Yasha comes from a family of very honest people. In the midst of his thoughts, he becomes more alienated from the world. Yasha realizes that he is surrounded by people who sat in groups while he was the only one who is alone. He despises them and sees them as fake. Their joy makes him sick:
They talked, shouted, joked, and laughed. The women fell giggling into each other’s arms. Outside, a hearse rolled by, but those within ignored it as if death did not concern them. What were they jabbering about with such fervor? Yasha wondered. Why did their eyes gleam so? (409)
Yasha knows the “odd one out.” But he can’t put his finger on it. Is it because he is Jewish? Or for some other reason? The more he thinks, the more he sounds like the author of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet):
He, Yasha, was to all appearances, their equal, yet a barrier separated them. But what was it? He never found a clear explanation. Together with his ambition and lust for life, dwelt a sadness, a sense of the vanity of everything, a guilt that could never be repaid nor forgotten. What was life’s purpose if one did not know why one was born nor why one died? What sense did all the fine words about positivism, industrial reform, and progress make when it was all cancelled out in the grave? For all his drive, he, Yasha, was constantly on the brink of melancholy. (410)
This brings him to the realization that his whole life as a magician, as an entertainer, may be waste. And this turns him to religion:
Had he been brought into the world simply to turn a few somersaults and deceive a number of females? On the other hand, could he, Yasha, revere a God who someone had invented? Could he, Yasha, sit like that Jew with ashes on his head and bewail the temple which had been destroyed two thousand years ago? (410)
The waiter interrupts his melancholic reflections and asks him what “he wishes.” Yasha responds by saying – in Joblike allusion – that he wants to pay: “His words seemed ambiguous – as if he had intended saying: To pay for my deceitful life”(410).
Following this Singer includes a play within a play which he sees with Emilia (410-415). The play is a farce which has a lover, a wife, and a cuckold. While the play is going on, Yasha has an internal crisis. He realizes that he could “neither desert Esther, convert, nor suddenly turn theif on account of Emilia”(411). While he laughs, he feels great pain:
No, no! he cried within himself. I won’t let myself be trapped. Tomorrow, I’ll run away. I’ll leave everything behind…I”ve been a magician long enough! I’ve walked the tightrope too often….What if he fell and smashed his body? They would put him out on the threshold to beg and not one of his admirers would stoop to fling a groschen into his hat. (412-413)
All of these thoughts drive him back to an imperative to repent (414). He decides – inside himself – that he must follow through. But when, at the end of the comedy, Emilia noticed he is gaunt and asks him what is wrong he tells her that it is nothing. And then he goes back to making her think as if he will convert and marry her. This division discloses him as a schlemiel character. The right decision would be to speak his mind and leave. But because he doesn’t, he gets more and more entangled in a situation that is eating up his soul.
After this rumination, the reader can see that he is two people: the entertainer and his double. To wit, this schlemiel character doesn’t like comedy. He wants to act, but is trapped. He is afraid. But because he doesn’t decide he will end up living a life he no longer wants to live and, more importantly, he will hurt Esther and Magda. He has made too many commitments. Yasha must return to Lublin or he must leave and start a new life – this time, however, not as an entertainer. But he doesn’t know where to start.
Yasha’s conflict makes him see the world as a cruel joke, but who can help him? If he returns to God, can God help? Does this mean he should return to Esther? Regardless, if he is to do the right thing, he must walk the tightrope and risk falling. However, he is not sure who is at the end of it. It leaves one question open which, to be sure, is a matter of faith and commitment: Who or what must the schlemiel dedicate his life to and why?