I admit it, I’ve been obsessed in recent months with questions of epistemology (e.g. here and here and here) — that is, how we know, or think we know, what is true, and whether or not we have any doubts about what is true. I suppose the fact of changing my mind on gay marriage, and the reactions of others (especially people of religious faith) to that change, has helped to prompt this obsession.
So yesterday I read “A Crown of Feathers,” a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I’m still in awe. Singer, too, is interested and then some in questions of epistemology. I urge you to read this story. (As far as I can tell it’s not available online; the book that it’s in, also called “A Crown of Feathers,” was published in 1973.)
I’m reluctant to say more, lest it prevent you from rushing out to get the book and read the story in its entirety, but in a in 1973 book review in the New York Times the great literary critic Alfred Kazin says this about the story:
In the title story, a beautiful and gifted young orphan, Akhsa, brought up by her wealthy, pious and indulgent grandfather, hears the voice of her dead grandmother scorning the harshly pious suitor her grandfather has picked out for her. Akhsa refuses him, the grandfather is disgraced and dies. Akhsa, alone in the world, now hears her grandmother telling her that Christ is the son of God and to look inside her pillow for the sign. It is a crown of feathers, topped by a cross. Akhsa is so impressed by this communication from the spiritual world that she becomes a Catholic, marries a Polish squire. Eventually she discovers that her ”grandmother” is being impersonated by the devil. In the last and most remarkable section of this story, she returns to the Jewish community, searches out and marries her old suitor, a religious fanatic who has never forgiven her and who forces her to undergo a series of wild penances that finally kill her. Before her death she still longs for a sign, ”the pure truth revealed.” But though she guesses that there is another crown of feathers in her pillow and this one bears the four Hebrew letters that stand for the unsayable name of God, Akhsa dies without the assurance that this crown is more a revelation of the truth than the other. The townspeople who find bits of down between the dead woman’s fingers can never figure out what she has been searching for, and ”no matter how much the townspeople wondered and how many explanations they tried to find, they never discovered the truth.”
The story ends with this sentence: “Because if there is such a thing as truth it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers.” I’m going to be thinking about that sentence for a long time.