Cultural Scars: The Poetics of Trauma and Disability in 20th Century Jewish Literature
Amidst the emergence of modern European nation states and the racialized logic of global modernity, Jewish people began to be considered “sick,” first by official discourses of knowledge—such as government, medicine, and psychoanalysis—then by themselves. In turn-of-the-century psychoanalysis and racial science, hallmarks of global modernity, for example, hysteria was a disease associated with the immutable and inferior natures of women and Jewish men. Approaching Jewish literatures comparatively and transnationally, spanning medical and cultural archives from the modernist period to today, my project examines a cultural genealogy that tropes the modern Jew’s body as “sick”—a locus of sexual and racial difference. I bring scholarship on the modern Jewish body—by Sander Gilman, Todd Presner, Daniel Boyarin, and others—together with critical theories of modernity and their postcolonial revisions. By tracing trauma and disability as expressions of how racially gendered capitalism is embodied and survived, my project contributes to recent efforts to bridge trauma with disability studies, as well as bring both fields into conversation with categories of race, gender, and sexuality.
The archive of Jewish hysteria offers an example of a literary mode that I am calling the “cultural scar.” This is a mode in which overlapping metaphors of illness, disability, and trauma express a multiplicity of global modernity’s violence, implicitly articulating relatedness between different and uneven histories of loss. Imbricated in turn-of-the-century ideologies like nationalism, race, heterosexuality, and eugenics, inventions of modern Jewish culture and politics often rejected the effeminate, “queer”, racialized, diasporic, and sickly Jewish body. This body—the Jewish hysteric—haunts and unsettles canonical works of Jewish literature from the modernist period to today. Through close readings—from the grotesque figure of the mentshele (or little person) in transnational Jewish modernism, to guilt in post-Holocaust poetry, to contemporary “hysterical” women in American Jewish and Israeli literature—I show that hysteria is a mode of Jewish cultural production and critical memory that offers unsettled forms of identity and politics through a poetics of mourning. Embodying the mode of the cultural scar, these figures express transnational histories of violence and loss that work against celebratory national and diasporic forms.