Writers are famous for their demons, whether they battle alcoholism, depression or the savage pain of a rotten youth. Isaac Bashevis Singer was no exception, except that his demons were demons. Unlike many writers, he made no secret of them: “I am possessed by my demons,” he declared to Commentary. Later, he made a telling comment to NBC: “Whenever I sit down to write a story, sooner or later the supernatural will come up, almost against my will.”
That there are evil spirits from the Lord is a fact that Jews learn in the Bible, where such spirits fell cities and ruin kings — most notably Saul, who wasted his time banishing the necromancers. Saul’s servants told him exactly Who sent an evil spirit to darken his mind, but most Jews have preferred to forget that evil spirits can come from God. (Why else, for two millennia, have we founders of monotheism been hospitable to the demons of our neighbors?) The track of our demons runs jaggedly throughout Jewish history; we’ve played host to Canaanite, Babylonian and Persian devils, and later, to Spanish and German imps. We let the baroque elaborations of the kabbalists erode over time into the apotropaism of Singer’s chasidic forebears.
Singer well knew that to draw demons from chasidic traditions was to borrow freely from an ancient, richly syncretic culture of demonology. Thus, his demons do everything from hiding house keys to raping and slaughtering virgins. They cause sniffles and seizures, pimples and plagues; they wrangle and strangle.
Singer’s demons divided his readers. With his Yiddish readers, who knew him as Bashevis, they were unpopular, at best; at worst, they were an embarrassment to the progressive, humanistic values of the Yiddishists. To the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein, Bashevis’s themes of “horror and eroticism” were treyf, interlarded with “superstition and shoddy mysticism.” Glatstein declared Bashevis’s supernaturalism alien to “the kind of [Jewish] mystic literature that exuded exaltation and sanctity,” and charged that he was pandering to a non-Jewish audience. Bashevis himself recalled an editor for the Yiddish Press trying “to persuade me to be a social writer, to write about the situation of the tailors in New York, how badly they live and how they fight for their existence.” In Bashevis’s eyes, writing the story of the struggle to eke out a living was Sholem Aleichem’s job; his own vocation lay elsewhere.
American readers were more receptive to Singer’s demons, but only after trapping them in the elegiac amber of folklore. For readers unfamiliar with Eastern European Jews, Singer’s imps, devils and spirits became the fossils of quaint customs and lost ways. Meyer Levin’s 1955 review of “Satan in Goray” hailed the novel as “folk material transmuted into literature.”
But a decade later, in Orville Prescott’s review of “A Short Friday and Other Stories,” this transmutation seemed less assured: “[T]he chief interest of some of these stories is anthropological, information about the customs and ideas of a backward and isolated community.” Prescott’s reading of the supernatural stories as “parable and allegory” was endorsed by other American critics who caught an oniony whiff of modernist skepticism from Singer’s tales of piety. As Thomas Lask wrote of “The Seance and Other Stories,” “He is really a maker of parables. The most earthly story has a heavenly point.” More often, Singer’s parabolic “point” was taken to be not heavenly, but psychological, a reading that Singer was happy to endorse. Calling his own supernaturalism “spiritual stenography,” Singer noted, “Devils symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior.” In the 1970s, after the publication of “A Crown of Feathers,” Singer’s demons began to resist what Anatole Broyard referred to as their “subjugation” to the human psyche. “I tried to translate the demons into passions or obsessions, into more or less psychological terms,” wrote Broyard, “but they did not lend themselves to this.”
It took a scholar of American literature, Alfred Kazin, to find in Singer’s supernaturalism an affinity to the works of “those other children of devout families, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane.” For these writers, as for Singer, evil is metaphysical; in their hands, it expands to the cosmic instead of contracting to the psychological. Kazin shrewdly observed that Singer’s fixation was not the human mind, but rather “the mind of God… an endlessly suprising thinker….”
If Singer’s stories were parabolic, it was because he read the cosmos as God’s parable. As Milton Hindus wrote of “The Spinoza of Market Street” (1961), “In the lowliest characters and the most commonplace situations he is able somehow to decipher the message that this world is governed by mysterious powers, often divine, occasionally diabolical.” If evil was part of the Creation, and all the creation signified its Creator, then demons represented the Creator, too. For Singer, to explore “the mind of God” was to discover radical evil.
In a 1973 interview with Irving Howe, Singer comes closest to revealing the reason that demons possessed him. Citing “Satan in Goray,” Howe ventured that Singer wrote from within “a kind of underground tradition in the Jewish experience… the tradition of false Messianism… which leads people to fanaticism, to hysteria, to disintegration, to explosion.” Singer’s oblique response, comparing Sabbatai Zevi to Stalin, underlies Ruth Wisse’s trenchant reading of the novel as a parable of “the fatal triumph of the revolutionary impulse that can never be stopped in time.” But Wisse’s reading shows what’s wrong with Singer’s, for the Sabbataian Reb Gedaliya the Slaughterer is hardly, as Singer says of Stalin, “the man who tries to do good and comes out bad.” Reb Gedaliya’s success in Goray hinges on the Jews’ readiness to believe that God endorses the very desires that they know to be evil:
That Reb Gedaliya plays fast and loose with kabbalistic symbols, that he trumps both Torah and Talmud with the blessing in the garden — these facts are only partly the point. More important, Reb Gedaliya knows that the irresistible appeal of Sabbataian Messianism lies in the notion that all one’s evil urges — including lascivious, perverse, sadistic sexuality — are “from the Lord.” Singer’s Sabbataians may have been evil and self-deceived, but they were Jews who believed that the Satan who came to Goray was “from the Lord.”
Singer wrestled his demons for their vision and their stories, for their truth was part of God’s truth. Two stories in “The Spinoza of Market Street” — “Black Wedding” and “Shiddah and Kuziba” — show us the world as demons see it. In “Black Wedding,” the demonic perspective belongs to a young bride who tries to resist possession by her demon groom. In her nuptial phantasmagoria, Hindele reveals “the way the evil ones imitate the humans in all manners.” In their “good-luck dance,” she sees a “bad-luck dance”; in her festooned wedding bed, a dank cave; in the morning sun, a sphere of blood. But her resistance is futile, for to possess a demon’s eyes is already to be possessed.
In “Shiddah and Kuziba,” Singer offers a myth of origins, an account of the fall — that is, the first ascent — of the demons into the world of humans. In this nimble, Swiftian satire, the demons we meet “nine yards inside the earth,” mother and son, are innocent, uncorrupted by contact with the evil humans. Through the eyes of the maternal demon Shiddah, Singer reviles the human yahoos, whose “ideas come from a slimy matter which they carry in a bony skull on their necks. They can’t even run the way animals can: Their legs are too feeble. But one thing they do possess in great measure: insolence.” As Shiddah murmurs to her frightened son, “Man is the mistake of God,… an evil mixture of flesh, love, dung, and lust.”
If Singer’s demons are Houyhnhnms, they are Jewish Houyhnhnms; their lives are familiar, humble, gentle, devout. Shiddah daydreams about Kuziba growing up, marrying, giving her grandchildren: “[S]he would braid the girls’ hair, clean the boys’ noses, take them to Cheder, feed them, put them to sleep. Then the grandchildren themselves would grow up and be led under black canopies to marry the sons and daughters of the most reputable and well-established demons.” She imagines her husband, Hurmizah, off studying at his yeshiva, becoming a great, esteemed rabbi of the underworld — perhaps eventually even “King of the Demons.”
What makes Singer more stinging than Swift is his glimpse into the demonic yeshiva: “There [Hurmizah] studied the secret of silence. Because silence has many degrees…. There is a final silence, a last point so small that it is nothing, yet so mighty that worlds can be created from it. This last point is the essence of all essences…. This last silence is God.”
Up in the human world, that God is silent in the face of suffering is the perennial rant of the blasphemer. As the young Chazkele asks in “The Blasphemer,” “If God is merciful, why do small children die? If He loves the Jews, why do the gentiles beat them? If he is the Father of all creatures, why does He allow the cat to kill the mouse?” We hear the strident voice of blasphemy again in “The Briefcase,” from the lips of Reizl, an alcoholic survivor of the camps: “He’s no God. He’s a devil. He’s a Hitler too, and that’s the bitter truth…. He sat in his seventh heaven, watching children being dragged off to gas chambers.” But in the demons’ yeshiva, Singer takes us beyond blasphemy; all we hear is the sublime, deafening silence of God.
Howe was right that the Jewish tradition in which Singer’s ferocious imagination flourished was “underground.” In fact, it’s the tradition of the demons’ yeshiva, and not only Jews study there. Augustine, Milton and Swift learned there; so did Hawthorne and Melville; Dostoevsky, too. In “The Last Demon,” a Jewish demon speaks for himself, out of the ashes of the khurbn. Sucking the merest sustenance out of “Jewish letters,” he laments: “There are no more Jews, no more demons… I am the last, a refugee.” The infernal humans may have outdone the demons, but in Singer’s work, the demons’ story is still told, in Jewish letters.
No wonder Singer retired to Florida — for as all Talmudists know, no demon can resist a palm tree.
Esther Schor, professor of English at Princeton University, is writing a biography of Emma Lazarus for Schocken.