Isaac Bashevis Singer

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Happiness consumes itself like a flame. It cannot burn for ever, it must go out, and the presentiment of its end destroys it at its very peak.
J. August Strindberg
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A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise… Because that is how life is — full of surprises.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (Hebrew: יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער or יצחק בת־שבֿעס זינגער) (born 1902-11-21 as Icek-Hersz Zynger, died 1991-07-24) was a Polish-American writer of short stories and novels in Yiddish; he used his mother's name in devising his penname "Bashevis" (son of Bathsheba). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.

Sourced

  • We must believe in free will — we have no choice.
    • An ironic statement which Singer made in many interviews over many years; here quoted in "Isaac Singer’s Promised City" City Journal ( Summer 1997)
      Variants or variant translations: We must believe in free will — we have no other choice.
      You must believe in free will; there is no choice.
      We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.
  • Life is God's novel. Let him write it.
    • Quoted in Voices for Life (1975) edited by Dom Moraes
  • I am thankful, of course, for the prize and thankful to God for each story, each idea, each word, each day.
    • On winning the Nobel Prize, TIME magazine (16 October 1978)
  • When you betray somebody else, you also betray yourself.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • I don't invent characters because the Almightly has already invented millions… Just like experts at fingerprints do not create fingerprints but learn how to read them.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • The analysis of character is the highest human entertainment.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise… Because that is how life is — full of surprises.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • The Jewish people have been in exile for 2,000 years; they have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds of languages and still they kept their old language, Hebrew. They kept their Aramaic, later their Yiddish; they kept their books; they kept their faith.
    • The New York Times (26 November 1978)
  • Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters.
    • The New York Times (3 December 1978)
  • Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.
    • The New York Times (3 December 1978)
  • Children don't read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology... They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff... When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don't expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.
    • Nobel lecture as quoted in The Observer (17 December 1978) Variant: "They still believe in God, the family, angels, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other obsolete stuff."
  • When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am grown up, they call me a writer.
    • TIME (18 July 1983)
  • We write not only for children but also for their parents. They, too, are serious children.
    • Stories for Children (1984)
  • Take three quarts of duck's milk...
    • First words of a "recipe for high-priced cookies" in Stories for Children (1984)
  • If Moses had been paid newspaper rates for the Ten Commandments, he might have written the Two Thousand Commandments.
    • The New York Times (30 June 1985)
  • I started to "write" even before I knew the alphabet. I would dip a pen in ink and scribble. I also liked to draw — horses, houses, dogs. The Sabbath was an ordeal for me, because it is forbidden to write on that day.
    • "A Day of Pleasure" (1996)

Nobel lecture (1978)

Nobel Lecture (8 December 1978)

  • The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation.
  • Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him. In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against hope that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all.
  • I have many times resigned myself to never finding a true way out. But a new hope always emerges telling me that it is not yet too late for all of us to take stock and make a decision. I was brought up to believe in free will.
  • Although I came to doubt all revelation, I can never accept the idea that the Universe is a physical or chemical accident, a result of blind evolution. Even though I learned to recognize the lies, the clichés and the idolatries of the human mind, I still cling to some truths which I think all of us might accept some day. There must be a way for man to attain all possible pleasures, all the powers and knowledge that nature can grant him, and still serve God — a God who speaks in deeds, not in words, and whose vocabulary is the Cosmos.
  • I am not ashamed to admit that I belong to those who fantasize that literature is capable of bringing new horizons and new perspectives - philosophical, religious, aesthetical and even social. In the history of old Jewish literature there was never any basic difference between the poet and the prophet. Our ancient poetry often became law and a way of life.
  • Strange as these words may sound I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet — whom Plato banned from his Republic — may rise up to save us all.
  • One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God's plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.
  • There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value.
  • Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists — rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

Unsourced

  • A good writer is basically a story-teller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.
  • A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is-full of surprises.
  • Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.
  • For those who are willing to make an effort, great miracles and wonderful treasures are in store.
  • God sends burdens, and shoulders, too.
  • How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood? How can we pray to God for mercy if we ourselves have no mercy?
  • I am thankful, of course, for the prize and thankful to God for each story, each idea, each word, each day.
  • I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.
  • If you keep saying things are going to be bad, you have a good chance of being a prophet.
    • If you keep on saying things are going to be bad, you have a good chance of being a prophet.
  • It seems that the analysis of character is the highest human entertainment. And literature does it, unlike gossip, without mentioning real names.
  • Kindness, I've discovered, is everything in life.
  • Man cannot live without self-control
  • Originality is not seen in single words or even in sentences. Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing.
    • Variant: Originality is not seen in single words or even sentences. Originality is the sum total of a man's thinking or his writing.
  • People often say that humans have always eaten animals, as if this is a justification for continuing the practice. According to this logic, we should not try to prevent people from murdering other people, since this has also been done since the earliest of times.
  • Sometimes love is stronger than a man's convictions.
  • The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.
  • The New England conscience doesn't keep you from doing what you shouldn't — it just keeps you from enjoying it.
  • The second half of the twentieth century is a complete flop.
  • The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual - when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions — it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance.
  • The wastebasket is a writer's best friend.
  • There is great treasure there behind our skull and this is true about all of us. This little treasure has great, great powers, and I would say we only have learnt a very, very small part of what it can do.
  • There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is.
  • We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.
  • What nature delivers to us is never stale. Because what nature creates has eternity in it.
  • Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year.

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