The Demons Appear: A Conversation with Isaac Bashevis Singer

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902–1991) was a Polish-born Jewish-American author awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. He wrote and published only in Yiddish. Among his best-known works were the novels The Family Moskat, The Magician of Lublin, and Shadows on the Hudson, and the story collections Gimpel the Fool and A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories, awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974.

Parabola spoke with Singer in 1981, in the middle of a Manhattan heat wave.

—The Editors

Parabola: Do you think we need demons?
Isaac Bashevis Singer: Do you mean do we need them in life?

P: Yes
IBS: It’s a good question. I think it would be necessary. Because if people would never see anything of the supernatural, if we would never have contact with other entities, we would live out our life with the feeling that this is it: our so-called reality is the only thing which exists. And that would make the human spirit much smaller than it is.

P: Do you feel that the demons we deal with are, as you say in “Gimpel the Fool” like “shoulders and burdens” from God?

A&D Burton_Singer04

Belial and his followers, from Jacobus de Teramo’s (1473)

IBS: If they exist, they certainly are from God. There is nothing from the universe which is not from God. If a person believes in nature, everything is from nature, which is again everything. There is a unity in the creation. We cannot believe in anything else.

P: But does everything have a dark side, an “other” side?
IBS: I think that everything might have God knows how many sides! We don’t know ourselves how many. Because if you take a pebble, you can look at this pebble from a chemical point of view, from a gravitational point of view—from many other points of view. According to [the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher] Spinoza, the number of attributes of God are endless. And even if you believe in nature, you can say the same thing: that this pebble still can be seen from very many points of view.

P: One of the things that seems very strong in your work is an idea that the “demons” are put here to test us….
IBS: I would say that behind all my ideas, the strongest idea of mine which is conveyed in my thinking, even more than in my writing, is the freedom of choice. I feel that the freedom of choice is the very essence of life. Although the gifts which God has given us are small in comparison to the gifts which He has given maybe to the angels or to the stars, we have one great gift—and this is to choose. And we always indulge in choosing. If we pay attention to one thing, we have chosen to pay attention to it. If we love somebody, we have chosen this person for love. This is in every act of humanity. To me, God is freedom. And nature, to me, is necessity. Everything in nature is necessity. In God—who I think can overrule nature, is above nature—everything is free.

P: But what about a situation like the one situation you describe in [your 1935 debut novel] Satan in Goray? Would it make a difference if we acted differently? Or is it inevitable that we must encounter demons?
IBS: No, no … it makes all the difference. When people leave free choice, the demons appear. The demons are in a way the dark side of nature which we choose. If we stop completely believing in our power, then other powers can come upon us. In other words, the demon to me is a negative side of free choice. But we have free choice in every time of our life, in every minute of our day, so we can always choose. Even if we have a bad choice to make, there is always something which is better than the other.

Asmodeus, from Francis Barrett’s (1801)

Asmodeus, from Francis Barrett’s

P: Can we be easily possessed by demons?
IBS: I don’t think they can take us over so quickly. They only come when people resign almost from everything. When people say to themselves, “I’m not going to make any choices anymore.
I will just let the powers work for themselves.” It is then that the demon
is bound to appear.

P: Do you think we are in a time similar to the one you painted in Satan in Goray, when the Evil One is triumphing again?
IBS: I would say we are always in such a time. If not the whole of humanity … you look what’s going on, let’s say, in this country with crime: how really wherever you go—if you go to a court where there should be justice, there is the very opposite, people who you can buy for money…. I would say human life is one big crisis. The moment you have conquered one crisis, there is already another one lurking.

P: But is that a part of what “moves” us?
IBS: I think it is a part of being alive, of choosing. In other words, the danger is always there: the danger of turning love into hatred, of turning justice into injustice, of turning talent into non-talent, and so on and so on….

P: Do you think that your God would fight for us? Is God at war?
IBS: I will tell you: He doesn’t fight for us. Since He gave us free choice, He gave us a great gift, and we have to use it or misuse it. In other words, when it comes to choosing, we must rely mostly on ourselves…. We believe [that] the crisis is always there, the danger is always there—like a medical doctor who will tell you that the microbes are always there in your mouth and in your stomach, and if you become weak, they begin to multiply and become very strong.

P: And if we lose our control, the microbes, or the demons, can take over.
IBS: Of course….

P: And in your story, “The Mirror,” it seems that you are suggesting that everyone has a demon in the mirror.
IBS: Of course. Just as we are medically surrounded by dangerous microbes, so our spirit has always to fight melancholy and disbelief and viciousness and cruelty and all kinds of things.

P: But in some of your stories, even in “Cunegunde,” your demons have a kind of melancholy….
IBS: Oh, but the very essence of demons is melancholy. Because it’s the very opposite of hope.

P: So you have some sympathy….
IBS: Of course, I have sympathy for everyone who suffers and lives. Because we are all living in a great, great struggle, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we realize it. This is a very difficult thing—we very often say how difficult life is.

Dybbuk. Ephraim Moses Lilien

Dybbuk. Ephraim Moses Lilien

P: Do you think we learn from our encounters with the demons, from facing those demons?
IBS: We learn all the time, even if we don’t use all the time what we have learned—because just as you learn all the time, we also forget all the time. There is a permanent amnesia planted in us, which just as we keep on forgetting our dreams, we sometimes keep on forgetting our reality. You see a certain thing: you think you have learned. And then you make the same mistake again, which shows that you didn’t learn.

P: So, is there any hope for us?
IBS: I will tell you: we have to go through this kind of struggle. In a way, the hope is that life does not last forever, the crisis does not last forever, and behind all this crisis, behind all this darkness, there is a great light. We have to struggle, but we are not lost, because the powers which have created us are actually great and benign powers.

P: And you think we have the equipment to fight back?
IBS: We have the equipment. The only thing is we should not let it rust, we should not forget about it, we should not put it away, and say, “Where is it?” We must be very much aware all the time—on the watch. This is true in science, it’s true in literature…. If you don’t all the time watch what you are doing, you’re bound to make mistakes. In my own life, I feel it all the time. It’s true in love, it’s true in everything.

P: You don’t feel that “evil” is a separate power?
IBS: It’s a part of what we call life. I don’t think that the rocks have free choice, or the meteors. They live in the world of necessity—which is again a different kind of war. What can you call it? A higher war? But we are, so to say, soldiers. We have to fight.

Our life doesn’t last forever. The moment we leave this world, the great struggle is over—at least for a time. In a way, death is not such a curse, but it’s a time of resting. People are afraid of death because they were created so, to be afraid, because, if not, they would mishandle the body. Actually, death is in a way a great resting after the struggle.

All the powers work so that you should come to a bad ending, but our soul works for the opposite—that the ending should be good. Actually, the ending is always good.

From Parabola Volume 40, No. 2, “Angels & Demons,” Summer 2015. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing. Adapted from Parabola Vol. VI, No. 4.