1. The Wool Sweater Problem
In the spring of 1968, Cyrena Pondrom, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin, held a series of conversations with the novelist and story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. The questions were wide-ranging, and so were the answers. At one point Professor Pondrom expresses puzzlement at a line in Singer’s novel The Slave: “He had been driven, he knew, by powers stronger than himself.” What, she asks, are these powers? “I really mean powers,” Singer says. “It’s not for me just a phrase or a literary way of saying things. I believe that powers which we don’t know take a great part in our life.” But surely there is a difference, she suggests, between natural powers and demonic powers. Singer isn’t so sure. “They may be divine powers or other kinds of powers The supernatural for me is not really supernatural; it’s powers which we don’t know.”
“For example,” he says, “a man who took off his wool jacket five hundred years ago at night and saw sparks might have thought that these sparks are supernatural, because there was no reason for him to think that a wool sweater should produce sparks. But we now know what they are The things we know we call nature and what we don’t know we call supernatural.”
Singer considers the possible explanations that people of former times could have had for startling physical events as unknown but natural (static electricity) or unknowable and supernatural. But this doesn’t exhaust the possibilities. Indeed most of the people of the past whom Singer imagines pondering the phenomenon of sparks would have placed it in an intermediate category between natural and supernatural. Those sparks—like the sparks that rise when a cat’s fur is brushed back, spectacular in the dark—were caused by imps, small devils of everyday life, invisible but apparent, who were connected by occult chains of causality both to fire and to cats, and who also fooled around in the human realm, stealing things and playing tricks. They were related, in one direction, to potent demons and the Devil; along another direction, to fairies, brownies, and an array of similar beings. These thought worlds of our forebears, and the beings who inhabited those worlds, underlie our own, even as those ancestors themselves lie under our feet. For better or for worse they have long accompanied people in their daily and nightly doings, undergoing shifts of characterization that depended on how the universe and its inhabitants were understood, shrinking or growing in size, losing or gaining status and fearsomeness, down to the present. If certain of the beings who once shared our world seem to have disappeared or died, it may only be because they have been renamed not once but many times.
2. Melancholy Dizzards
Back in what has come to be called the early-modern period in Europe (roughly what used to be the Renaissance and the Reformation up through the Enlightenment) it wasn’t just peasants and the unlearned who lived in a world of largely unseen but busy spirit creatures. In fact if you were a student of old books, you learned from Greek Neoplatonists and Latin poets about a vast array of beings, igneous spirits of the remote heavens, souls of the great dead, minor gods of field and forest, naiads in the water, dryads in the trees, black chthonian dogs from beneath the earth. Many were evil, or at least dangerous. “Aerial spirits or devils are such as keep quarter most part in the air, cause many tempests, thunder, and lightnings, tear oaks, fire steeples, houses, strike men and beasts, make it rain stones wool, frogs, etc. They cause whirlwinds on a sudden, and tempestuous storms; which though our meteorologists generally refer to natural causes, yet I am of [the] mind they are more often caused by those aerial devils, in their several quarters.”
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