From deadly serious meditations on the nature of evil, to the comedy of neurosis and sexual perversion, Jewish literature confronts a world no longer comprehensible in terms of the Jewish tradition. Although focused primarily around the social, psychological, and philosophical implications... [more]
From deadly serious meditations on the nature of evil, to the comedy of neurosis and sexual perversion, Jewish literature confronts a world no longer comprehensible in terms of the Jewish tradition. Although focused primarily around the social, psychological, and philosophical implications of the Holocaust, post-war Jewish literature also documents, often with relentless irony and quirky black humor, the travails of contemporary Jewish-American life.
The desire for spiritual and intellectual understanding in a post-Holocaust world suddenly reveals itself in a new light: meaning is no longer easily wrested from history and tradition. The present appears as a contradiction, and the pinnacle of civilization betrays a deeper barbarism. While Jewish traditions continue to exert a profound influence - cultural, if not explicitly religious -- the discontinuity of history can no longer allow an easy integration of these traditions into modern life. It is the difficulty of this integration with which Jewish literature often deals.
Humor and irony are two responses to the difficulty. The novels of Philip Roth, for example, portray the Jewish-American family with relentless irony. His celebrated "Portnoy's Complaint" details the life of Alexander Portnoy, a young man rendered so neurotic and insecure by his overbearing mother that incessant masturbation and sex with forbidden shiksas provide his only escape. Kurt Vonnegut's novels, equal parts irony and black humor, meet an absurd contemporary world with and absurdity of their own. In "Slaughterhouse Five," his protagonist, who has survived the brutal fire-bombings of Dresden, becomes "unstuck in time" and flips in a discontinuous, erratic manner through the events of his life, including his abduction by extra-terrestrials.
The novels of Saul Bellow tackle a similar theme but more seriously. "Herzog", for example, chronicles the life of Moses Herzog, a professor who tries to relate his traditional Jewish concerns to a contemporary world that refuses to be organized in traditional ways.
European authors, closer to the horror of the Holocaust, focus their attention on the ethical, philosophical, and psychological implications of the concentration camps. Primo Levi's haunting "Survival in Auschwitz,' for example, documents with microscopic precision his experience in the camps, detailing the nature of life in the midst of essentially unlivable conditions. And the work of Elie Weisel, also a survivor of Auschwitz, is devoted to improving the conditions of the lives of Jews who suffered the trauma of the Holocaust. [show less]