Why does evil exist? That is the question Isaac Bashevis Singer could not stop asking. The first Yiddish author to win a Nobel Prize and the only established American writer who wrote in Yiddish, I. B. Singer created historical sagas about the Jews in Poland, from premodern times through the Holocaust. He also published memoirs and children’s books. He concentrated his special genius, however, in a plenitude of short stories. With an ironic voice of protest, his earthy, poetic style portrays characters seeking love and truth—in spite of the grand and petty injustices of the world. Haunted by his own sense of survivor’s guilt, the author wrote out of a personal argument with God. As a Protean and prolific writer, with shifting identities, he effectively named himself. Early on, he was Itche Zinger. He published his first novel, Satan in Goray, in 1935, in Yiddish, under the pen name of “Yitzchok Bashevis,” a nom de plume derived from his mother’s first name. Meanwhile, under the by-line Warshawsky, or son of Warsaw, he provided journalism and humorous articles in Yiddish newspapers, thus distancing the pseudonymous scribe from higher literary aspirations. Occasionally, he became D. Segal. In large measure, his wider success depended on having his work translated from Yiddish, a marginalized language of traumatic memory, into English, a living language with hegemonic influence. He supervised his translators closely and reached a wider audience with stories published in The New Yorker, Playboy, Commentary, and other magazines. As his work reached a global readership, he became Isaac Bashevis Singer, a composite name that allowed the author to maintain his roots while differentiating himself from his older brother, Israel Joshua (aka I. J.) Singer, also a best-selling Yiddish writer. Yet, in marked contrast to his welcome reception from the English-reading public, I. B. Singer has faced rebukes and even denunciation from Yiddish critics who felt uncomfortable with his provocative representations of Jewish life. For devoted fans and relentless critics alike, however, he remains known simply as “Bashevis.” His litigation with heaven followed the model of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Job. He refused to suffer without questioning his mortal condition. He would not disavow an invisible higher power, and even referred to himself as religious, yet he rejected conventional faith or belief in cosmic compassion. Throughout his career, I. B. Singer wrestled with that twist in the psyche that allows perpetrators of atrocities to lack remorse, while victims of inhumanity may be plagued with self-reproach. He exorcised his demons by arguing with the Almighty through his writing, transforming survivor’s guilt into a protest against the injustice of life. Protest against the cosmic silence extended the artistic bridge between his psychological realism and his fascination with the occult. The author glances back at a lost innocence of traditional values and gazes forward into a world of expanding moral chaos. He satirizes society as a grotesque underworld. He condemns the cruelties of history and refuses to accept easy answers to haunting questions. Although he affirms the existence of an Absolute and portrays atheism as the greatest human failing, by the act of writing, he challenges the ethical standards of the inscrutable universe. While affirming the life of the soul, through his storytelling, he inscribes a compelling protest against the seeming indifference of heaven and earth.
A focus on trauma’s institutional trajectory in literary and cultural theory serves to narrow the transnational and multidirectional scope of memory studies. While Sigmund Freud’s attempt in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to define trauma in order to account for World War I veterans’ symptoms might serve as a provisional departure point, the psychological afflictions that haunted American soldiers returning from the Vietnam War reinforced the explanatory value of what came to be called “posttraumatic stress disorder,” which the American Psychiatric Association added to the DSM-III (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980. Multiple dramatic films released in the 1980s about Vietnam conveyed images of the American soldier’s two-fold traumatization by the violence he not only witnessed but also perpetrated along with the ambivalent treatment he received upon his return to a protest-riven nation waking up to the demoralizing realization that US military prowess was neither absolute nor inherently just. Proliferating research and writing about trauma in the late 1980s reflected this juncture as well as the transformative impact of the new social movements whose consciousness-raising efforts inspired a generation of academics to revise secondary and post-secondary literary canons. The publication in 1992 of both Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery as well as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s Testimony: Crises of Witnessing; In Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, along with Cathy Caruth’s editorial compilation entitled Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995) and collected essays in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996), crystallized a moment when trauma was manifestly coming into vogue as an object of inquiry. This trend was reinforced by simultaneous developments in Holocaust studies that included critical acclaim for Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hour documentary Shoah (released in 1985), the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 1993, and, that same year, the international success of Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Other key events that propelled the popularity of trauma studies in the 1990s included the fall of the Berlin wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and South African apartheid governments, and Toni Morrison receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved. The latter additionally bolstered specialization in African American studies as a platform for investigating representations of slavery and its violent afterlives. While some critics fault the 1990s confluence of Holocaust and trauma studies for its Eurocentrism, the research pursued by feminist, multiculturalist, and postcolonial scholars in the same period laid the foundation for increasingly diverse lines of inquiry. Postcolonial criticism in particular has inspired scholarship about the intergenerational aftereffects of civil war, partition, forced migration, and genocide as well as the damage that accrues as settler states continue to marginalize and constrain the indigenous groups they displaced. More recent trauma research has also moved beyond a focus on finite events to examine the compounding strain of the everyday denigrations and aggressions faced by subordinated groups in tandem with long-term persecution and systemically induced precarity. Ultimately, then, the scale of trauma and memory studies has become not only global but also planetary in response to intensifying public anxiety about extinction events and climate change.