Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (1)


Somewhere in the world it’s 3 o’clock

Time to get out of school and think

Somewhere in the world it’s 5pm

And quittin time means it’s time to drink

—Boots Riley, lyrics from “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight,” in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015)


Schools have failed our individual needs, supporting false and misleading notions of ‘progress’ and development fostered by the belief that ever-increasing production, consumption and profit are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of human life. Our universities have become recruiting centers for the personnel of the consumer society, certifying citizens for service, while at the same time disposing of those judged unfit for the competitive rat race.

—Back-cover blurb on a paperbound re-edition of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 2000)

By my own experience, Boots Riley’s lines about school and thinking are all too true. As I used to tell my own university students, I always learned far more despite school than because of it. Schools present themselves—and the people who work in them (most of whom are good enough, decent enough, caring enough people) typically have to buy the presentation—as places of learning. Schools also like to present themselves, above all to themselves, as devoted to teaching students to think, giving them “critical thinking” skills they can then use to go out and live rich lives of genuine self-awareness. Most schools and teachers would endorse Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life if not worth living,” and would claim that the purpose of good schooling is to give students what they need to live an examined, worthwhile life.

However, if we were to judge institutionalized schools and schooling in terms of what they do, rather than what they say, we would be driven to a very different conclusion, by my experience. We would be driven to the conclusion that the real purpose of institutionalized schools and schooling is to teach students not to think—not to dare to do so. In terms of the actual effect on students of being subjected to schooling for year after year from their early years to adulthood, we would have to say that schools do indeed “teach you to think,” but only in the same sense as that in which one might say to an unruly child, “I’ll teach you to sass me!” just before applying the rod the sparing of which the Bible tells us spoils that child. In saying such a thing, one is not promising to help the child acquire effective sassing skills. Rather, one is beginning to inflict punishment on the child for having just done some sassing, punishment designed to teach the child to refrain from doing any more sassing in the future. Judged by their deeds rather than their words, that’s precisely the sense in which schools “teach students to think.” All too many students learn the lesson all too well, though no fault of their own.

Insofar as that is the reality of schools and schooling, then the reality is also that in order to do any thinking, if one doesn’t want to get punished for it one is wise to wait till after the school-bell rings 3 o’clock, announcing the end of the school day. Only once the daily torture of school is finally over is it safe for students to think. Unfortunately, by then it’s unlikely many of them will have enough energy left to try very hard to think, even if despite school they have already somehow managed at least to begin to lean how to do so. About all they will be suited to do is drink—as many will learn soon enough just how to do.


I know that’s how school always was for me, at any rate. It was that way ever since my very first day in Kindergarten, which I hated with a passion. Kindergarten made me sick. At least that’s what I’d tell my Kindergarten teacher regularly—especially when she made the class play with some messy, oily clay, from which I recoiled as from excrement. For a while, when I’d leave the clay or other reeking pile of whatever we were made to foul ourselves with and go up to her desk to tell her I was sick to my stomach and needed to go home, she’d have the office call my mother, who’d come the mile from our suburban home to get me and deliver me from my bondage, at least for the rest of that day. Eventually, however, my Kindergarten teacher wised up to my ways. She scheduled a meeting with my mother, with me also to be present. At that meeting she told my mother, having made sure that I would be there to hear it too, that if I did not change my attitude toward school, I’d never even make it through first grade.

She was wrong. I knew that even when she said it, when I was only five. In fact, I never did change my attitude toward school. If anything, it just grew harder every year. Nevertheless, I not only made it through first grade, but through a whole bunch of other grades after that, long enough to get my Ph.D. degree. Then I even stayed in school forty-five years longer, having had to take on her role—a teacher in a school—myself, since it was the only way I could find to make a living doing what I found myself called to do. Thus, I ended up spending pretty much my whole life “making it” in school. I guess I showed her!

Anyway, reading Boots Riley’s lines above brought back for me all the memories of the years and years of dead and deadening boredom I used to experience in school when I was a child, and how I’d keep looking up at the clock on the wall, which never seemed to move. Each day, I had to endure such eternities till 3 o’clock finally set me free for a little while, so I could think. Yet even then I couldn’t really completely relax and think with full freedom, because the constant threat of having to go back the next day for further “schooling” (i.e., more torture) robbed even my after-school hours of truly free time—real time to think.

As a kid, I loved Saturdays. Saturdays were the closest I ever got to any of the carefree days that are so commonly and so falsely attributed to childhood. Saturday was the first of two whole days without school! Time I could use to read and think and do other things I wanted just because I wanted to!

But after Saturday came Sunday. No matter what thoughts I tried to milk on Sundays, the milk was always curdled by my underlying anxiety. I was never that fond of Sunday. Sunday was always poisoned by my knowing that the next day was Monday, and that then I would have to face five more endless days back in hell. Sundays were days ruined by that anxiety. It wasn’t till I learned to drink that I finally found a way to begin to appreciate Sundays.

To make all that abuse even more abusive, throughout all my schooldays nobody, of course, would ever even acknowledged the abuse that was being inflicting on me and all the other kids. That was not really the teachers’ and other immediate abusers’ fault, since it just went with them having been subjected to the same abuse themselves for so long, so unrelentingly, and so effectively over so many years. That long abuse had made them, regardless of their own desires and intentions, into the abuse-system’s unwitting accomplices. Their own histories of being abused had deadened them to all the abuse going on all around them, now being inflicted—often by their own unwitting hands—on all the new kids on the school-block (a block such as farmers use to cut the heads off chickens).

Thus, that schooling conditions students not to think has nothing essential to do with the conscious intentions of teachers as such. The intentions of those who get shanghaied for service as teachers in the schools of our consumer-production system are often tripped up and trapped by their own good qualities, such as a genuine desire to help children learn (teachers’ pay, after all, is hardly that great, so they’re not in it for the money). Rather, it has to do with the institution itself—which is anything but an institution where thought—or life, I will add—is sanctified.

My own long life in schools confirms what the Deschooling Society blurb above says: that “schooling” is really just pure conditioning, designed to turn out good little consumers—fodder for the market system. Boots Riley’s follow-up about quitting time meaning time to drink says the same thing, in high hip-hop style.

Deschooling Society first came out in the early 1970s, when I was already embarked on my own long career of university teaching, after having spent eighteen years of being schooled myself. I found my own way to it at a bookstore. It was a real gift to me. It showed me I was not alone—and not just some ungrateful whiner. It gave me just the sort of general diagnosis of my condition and its causes that reconfirmed for me just who—or, more precisely, what—I should hate.



            This means, above all, that our job is to think. As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fandom or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. We graze, we binge, we pick up and discard aesthetic experiences as if they were cheap toys. Which they frequently are—mass-produced widgets from the corporate assembly line.

—A. O. Scott, “Everybody’s a Critic,” NY Times op-ed section for 1/31/16, adapted from his book Better Living through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

A few years ago, the thought occurred to me that the next time someone asked me if I would mind a little helpful criticism, I would reply: “How would I know? I’ve never received any.” Unfortunately, nobody’s asked me that pseudo-question since then, so I have not yet had a chance to use that line—at least until now, in this post.

I can only hope that confessing to thinking such critical thoughts about criticism doesn’t expose me as having taken on the defensive group identity of fandom—or, even worse, put on full display my shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. I take pride in not being some mere consumer of culture, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, if not altogether lulled into pure passivity. I doubt that I could stand the humiliation if my criticism of criticism revealed me to be no better than one of those who graze among aesthetic experiences, bingeing on them, picking them up and then discarding them as though they were cheap toys. (If I have to binge, I’d rather just go back to bingeing on booze instead. That has its own honesty, and would at least allow me to preserve a modicum of self-respect.)

Be that as it may, I shudder to have to admit that from time to time I do indeed catch myself taking seriously some mass-produced widget from the corporate assembly line passing itself off as a work of art—just as I sometimes, to my shame, take seriously what is really no more than just such a widget passing itself off as a work of thought. Maybe not today, though.

But enough about me! (Or maybe not.)



To philosophize means to begin to think. We must always become beginners again. Those who hold themselves to be advanced easily fall prey to the danger of taking what they assume they already known to be no longer worthy of thought, and thus to hold themselves exempt from needing to begin. To begin means: every time to think every thought as though it were being thought for the first time.

—Martin Heidegger, Leitgedanken zur Enstehung der Metaphysik, der Neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und der Modernen Technik (Gesamtausgabe 76, 2009), p. 54 (freely translated)

When I was fifteen, I taught myself enough German to be my family’s interpreter when we spent most of a month in Germany. My parents had managed to pay off the mortgage on our family home in Colorado a few years before. But they had taken out a new one just to finance a trip to Europe for themselves and me, the youngest of their three children and the only one still at home—a trip to Europe to visit my brother, who is three years older than I am. My brother had enlisted in the U. S. Army the year before. After boot camp and some extra army training, he had ended up in the Army Security Agency, for God knows what reason, and was stationed at Frankfurt am Main. He managed to get himself a one-month leave, and we drove all over the place in Western Europe crammed into the VW Bug he’d bought for himself while stationed there.

My family on both sides is mainly of German origin, and I’d long had a fascination with Germany and things German. So I had talked my parents into buying me a set of German language vinyl records, and I’d used them to get a beginner’s sense of the language. When the four of us went driving around Germany that summer, I was the one who asked for rooms at inns, meals from waiters in Bierstuben and other places we ate (including angering my brother at one stop when I ordered him a Pilsner beer, rather than a Lager), asking directions, and the like.

But I never really got a good reading knowledge of German, or mastery of German vocabulary much past guide-book level, until I finally got to graduate school, where I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy that required a reading ability in two non-English languages, as demonstrated by results on the standardized Princeton ETS language exams of that age. Given my own interests in philosophy, the two languages that made the most sense were the two standard ones of German and French. I did the German first, then the French.

I went about both in the same way, starting with a vinyl record set for learning the language at issue, to get a sense of the grammar, basic vocabulary, and sound of the language. (For the German, I just had to brush up some, since I’d already done the record thing when I was fifteen.) Then I’d get myself a dictionary for translating the language into English, and start reading through some work of philosophy in that language, a work of my own selection. When I started my reading, going was very slow indeed. But by the time I’d finished my selected book, I was ready to take—and ace—the standardized language exam.

For French, I used a book containing Descartes’ Discourse on Method and his Meditations. After scoring well on the standardized language test, I promptly forgot my French, since my philosophical interests didn’t really give me any special reason back then for continuing to read philosophy written in French. What was available in English translations was sufficient for my purposes, and I never went back to French until our daughter did me the favor of marrying a Frenchman. That gave me incentive to teach myself French again, going about it my same old, proven way—only this time I used CDs, rather than vinyl records. Since then, I regularly read philosophy works in French, both to keep my language skills up, and so that I’m not at the mercy of the translation-industry and its market-driven widget-making decisions.

For German, I used Heidegger’s Holzwege, a collection of essays he’d published at the beginning of the 1950s. It contains his famous lecture “Vom Wesen des Kunstwerkes” (“On the Origin of the Work of Art”), which he originally delivered back in 1935. When I first read it in Holzwege, it was still a few years before that lecture was first published in an English translation by Albert Hofstadter. By the time I and my Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary were done with Holzwege, I could read German. At least I could read philosophical German, stuff like Heidegger’s Zur Sache des Denkens, which came out in the original German version just a couple of years later (it was eventually translated by Joan Stambaugh and published by Harper under the title On Time and Being), or Kant’s Grundlegung der Metaphysics der Sitten (Foundations–or Groundwork/s—of the Metaphysics of Morals). But when it came to reading the daily newspaper, I still had to use my Langenscheidt’s. I had far less trouble reading Kant in German on the transcendental unity of apperception in his Critique of Pure Reason than I did reading the appeal in the local paper for help finding the lost dog who’d jumped over the fence in some Frankfurt suburb, for example.

As I’ve already mentioned, because I had no ongoing use of my own for it at the time, I soon forgot the French that I taught myself in the first place only in order to jump over one of the hurdles the school I attended made me jump over to get my Ph.D. degree, so I could start to sell myself for money. But when my daughter married a Frenchman and I went back through the very same process to teach myself to read French again, I retained what I’d learned, and have been able to keep my reading knowledge of French current ever since. That is precisely because I want to retain it. I want to, in turn, because I have a French son-in-law, of course, but even more (he’s fluent in English) because I have interests that send me regularly to read stuff in French philosophy before it gets translated into English—if it ever does, since quite a bit of what I find most interesting doesn’t seem to fit the market needs of the current crop of translation publishers.

The German I taught myself by reading Heidegger has stayed with me ever since I first learned it. The timing of my thereby teaching myself to read German was in part dictated by the same need to jump a hurdle my school made me jump before it would finally let me get out of school after all the years I had to be in it. But that really only played a secondary role, even in terms of timing. That’s because by then I was already hooked on Heidegger, including knowing I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on his thought. At the time, not all that much of Heidegger had been translated into English. So I knew I’d need to learn to read him in German.

In fact, had I not had to jump over a number of other hurdles my school also put in the way of people like me getting out of school as quickly as possible, without being penalized for the rest of our lives because we left—the way that those who just can’t stand more abuse drop out of high school are made to pay the penalty for their sassing the school system by dropping out that way: the penalty of dead-end jobs for unconscionably low pay—I’d have probably taught myself to read Heidegger in German even earlier than I did. I’ve read (and reread) Heidegger in German ever since I taught myself to read German by reading him. I continue regularly to read him in German to this day, and plan to continue to do so till death or senility stops me.

I read Heidegger in German even when there are English translations of what I’m reading available. He’s better in German. That’s just another thing I learned despite all my schooling.

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To be continued.

Sanctifying Life (2)

This is the second of a two-post series under the same title. The first was my post before last, that is, the post before “Pimps and Pushers,” which I put up a few days ago—and which itself is not at all irrelevant with regard to the issues addressed below.

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            Tranquility toward things and openness toward the mystery give us the view of a new rootedness. That might even be suited one day to call back the old, now rapidly vanishing rootedness in a changed form. [. . . .]

So, in a changed way for an altered age, must come true again what Johann Peter Hebel once said:

“We are plants that—whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not—must rise with our roots out of the earth, if we are to bloom in the ether and be able to bear fruits.”

—Heidegger, “Gelassenheit” (in Gesamtausgabe 16, Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000, pp. 528, 529)

At the very beginning of the passage above, I have translated Gelassenheit (the German word Heidegger uses) as “tranquility.” The passage comes from an address Heidegger delivered at his hometown of Messkirch in 1955, at a memorial celebration on the 175th anniversary of the birth of composer Conradin Kreutzer, a local boy made good. In the English translation of the address by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (in Discourse on Thinking, Harper, 1966), the same word, Gelassenheit, is translated as “releasement.” More recently—for example, in Peter Skafish’s English translation of philosopher Catherine Malabou’s French translation of the word in her book Le Change Heidegger (The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy, SUNY Press, 2011, page 196)—it has been rendered as “serenity.” German dictionaries inform us that it could also be translated as “calmness” or “composure.”

At any rate, the basic idea behind the word is an attitude of relaxed freedom that is able to take what comes its way and be comfortable with using it or not, as circumstances suggest, without getting involved with it any more deeply one way or another. Having Gelassenheit zu den Dingen—that is, tranquility, releasement, serenity, calmness, or composure toward “things”—is being what is colloquially called “laid-back” toward them. Gelassenheit is such “laid-back-ness.”

What, especially, are the “things” toward which Heidegger recommends we cultivate such “laid-back-ness”? Above all, they are the things that today most threaten to absorb all of our attention, thereby diverting us from ourselves and from our need to send down roots somewhere, if we are ever to bloom anywhere. They are the things that quietly go about robbing us of our lives even as we go about living them. They are those things that come to exercise dominant power over us by stealing our own power from us, most of the time without our ever even noticing: all the things that everywhere surround us and invite us to sell out to them, one way or another. It is toward such things above all that we need to cultivate tranquility, Gelassenheit.

If we are gelassen toward something, laid-back toward it, then we can, as we also say, “take it, or leave it alone” as circumstances dictate in any given case. When we are thus tranquil in the face of something, whatever it may be, then that thing no longer has any power over us any longer. Whatever power we might have given it over ourselves, had we been taken in by its blandishments, has been withheld.

Thus, what we most of all need to be laid-back, serene, or tranquil toward is precisely that which otherwise sucks out all our own power from us, so that it may claim that power for its own, to use in order to own us. We do not even need to defend ourselves against whatever is at issue.

In fact, by the very effort we put into defending ourselves, we fall prey to that against which we are banking our defensive investments. Despite ourselves, by our very investments we thereby give what we fear the power to rule us.

What we need is not any such mighty endeavor to defend ourselves, but only a healthy indifference.



Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.
—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate ((translated by Richard Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006, p. 409)


‘Auschwitz’ names what might be called the murderous dimension of identity in philosophy.

—Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner (Verso, 2010, p. 47, on Theodor Adorno’s thought in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics)

Near the beginning of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche contrasts two very different ways of affirming oneself. The first consists of just that: self-affirmation. It is the exuberance of vitality, of life, that simply affirms itself in and by its own spontaneous, joyous expression of itself, in all its vitality, its aliveness and liveliness. What affirms itself in that direct, active way is like the rose of Angelus Silesius, a 17th century German mystic poet. The rose, says Silesius, just blooms because it blooms. It doesn’t pay any attention to itself, nor ask if anyone sees it.

Just so does whatever is alive and lively naturally affirms itself in the very liveliness of its own unfettered behavior, conduct, and demeanor—free of worry about itself, or the compulsion to try to manage its image in the eyes of others. For example, a gentle heart affirms itself gently, in all of its acts of gentleness, with no need to call special attention to itself; and the truly kind are even embarrassed when they are caught out in doing the acts of kindness that flow naturally from them.

On the other hand, the second way of affirming oneself requires that, before and in order to affirm oneself, one first establish one’s identity by differentiating oneself from what one is not. In this sort of affirming of oneself, thus begins with the recognition of what one is not, what is other—in order then to be able to go on, after the fact as it were, to establish, by contrast, what one is in oneself. So the other to oneself must come to one first, and only after that can one come to oneself, by differentiating oneself from that other, “other-ing” oneself from that other, as it were. Then one affirms the result, which one takes to be one’s self.

Thus, this second sort of self-affirmation is no longer spontaneous. It is no longer the direct upsurge of life itself in its very liveliness, as occurs in the first sort of self-affirmation. In contrast to such active and primary affirmation of self, the second sort is reactive and derivative. It is the affirmation of self only as a result—namely, the result of a prior process of differentiation of that self from what is other than it. As such, it is an affirmation of oneself that can only be maintained by maintaining one’s difference from that primary, grounding other.

The second sort of self-affirmation, the reactive, derivative sort, is therefore an anxious sort of self-affirmation. It is anxious for itself, rather than for any other. A loving mother, for instance, is spontaneously anxious for the wellbeing of her child, or a loving child is spontaneously anxious to please its mother. In sharp contrast to such loving anxiety for the sake of the other—which is itself rooted in the first sort of self-affirmation, the direct, spontaneous sort—self-affirmation of the second sort is always anxious about itself. It is anxious to protect its derivative sense of its specialness by defending itself against that in contrast to which it has defined itself. It always perceives itself as under threat of being absorbed by that definitive other, a threat against which it must maintain constant surveillance in perpetual pursuit of its own security.

Since World War II, “Auschwitz” has been the most fitting name for what always inevitably results, sooner or later, from letting the mechanism of such secondary, derived, anxious self-identification run unchecked. Nietzsche, of course, did not live to see that particular place-name emerge as the name most appropriate for such a “murderous dimension of identity.” However, Adorno did—as Badiou says in the passage above.

To this day, so long “after” Auschwitz, that name still remains the proper name for such murderousness.



The notion of state power is a mirage: the seizure of the state is not the seizure of power.

—John Holloway, “The Concept of Power and the Zapatistas,” in Take the Power to Change the World, edited by Phil Hearse (London: IMG Publications, 2007, p. 131)


Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well then! Open your ears, for now I shall say my word about the death of peoples. State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. It tells lies coldly, too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” That’s a lie! [. . . .] State is what I call it where everyone drinks poison, the good and the vile alike: state, where all lose themselves, the good and the vile alike: state, where the slow suicide of all is called—“life.”

—Nietzsche, “On the New Idol,” Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part


It is there, at the start of the text, that one finds the formula that has become a commonplace of sorts: State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters, a formula General de Gaulle liked to cite, and many others, many other . . . men of state!

—Alain Badiou, Le Séminaire. Nietzsche: L’antiphilosophie I. 1992-1993 (France: Fayard, 2015, p. 127)

The power of the state is always derivative. Historically, there has always been and still continues to be debate among proponents of the state about just what the source of state power is—that is, what the state derives its power from. Does the state derive its power from God, thought of as some sort of “Czar of the Heavens,” for example? Some say so. Others say it derives only from “the people,” though just who is to be counted as “the people” continues to this day to be under dispute among the proponents of that position.

Either way, says Nietzsche, whether it says its power comes from God or from the people, the state is lying. Ultimately, he says, the state derives all its power only from those it can con with its lies—including lies about the sources of its power—con them, like some cheap magician, into believing in the state’s supposed power.

In his remarks about Nietzsche cited above, Alain Badiou reminds us that among the best liars, which is to say the most successful con-artists, are those statesmen—literally, those state’s-men—who can turn the truth itself into a lie. Such accomplished liars can turn even the truth about the state into no more than a tool to use as they choose, to serve themselves—and to honor the idol they have bowed down before, and sold themselves to.



While social movements, in general, tend to struggle for progressive or radical changes to national polity—think of the U.S. civil rights movement, or the suffragist movement—indigenous-led movements tend toward constructing power outside the framework of the state.

—Jeff Conant, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (Oakland: AK Press, 2010, p. 227)


[T]here is a struggle, but that struggle not only will make your life fulfilled once this inevitable revolution that may happen sometime in the future happens, but it will make your life better right now, and [. . .] engaging with other folks is a better way of living.

—Boots Riley, speaking during an interview conducted at the Socialism conference in Chicago in 2012, in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 13)

Boots Riley is an artist. He is a song-writer, rapper, and committed social activist who regards is best known as the front man for The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club, two fine, politically conscious, socially responsible hip-hop groups.* A little latter in the same interview from which I have taken the lines above, he goes on to tell a story that should be placed beside the story Emil Fackenheim tells about the Hasidim of Lublin during World War II—a story I quoted near the beginning of my preceding post, the first of this two-part series on “Sanctifying Life.”

The story Boots Riley recounts goes back to his early days as an activist, when he was involved in “canvassing this area of San Francisco called Double Rock.” Here is his telling (p. 14 of the collection of his lyrics and writings that make up Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb):

A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects. The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police. What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died—because they didn’t take him to the hospital. So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life. So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air. If you’ve ever been around a gun going off, you know that whatever you were thinking a second before is not what you’re thinking then. You’re thinking, Let me get the fuck out of here. And everybody ran away. But at a certain point everybody turned around. They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car. The car was turned over.

So two things. One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day. What I’ve told you so far is what dozens of people said. Other folks added other things. But this is what everyone agreed happened, everything that I’ve told you so far. And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this: It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. And somebody started chanting “Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.” And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.

What Boots Riley realized that day was the power of music—a power it shares will the other arts, I would add—to call those who truly hear it to honor the sanctity of life. Truly to hear music, and thus to let it truly be powerful, is to hear that call.

In turn, truly to hear the call to honor life in its sanctity is immediately to answer that call. It is no more possible truly to hear that call yet fail to answer it immediately in one’s actions, than it is to hear the cry of a baby in distress, and not get up and go to offer help. Just so, truly to hear the call to sanctify in one’s turn the life that itself sanctifies whatever it touches, is immediately to move to honor the holiness of life in one’s acts—or to slink away in shame, thereby dishonoring not only oneself but also, far more damningly, life in its holiness.

Here is another tale that says the same thing. This time, it is a fictional story, one embedded in the much larger fiction that is Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of Russia, World War II, and the Holocaust, centered around the battle of Stalingrad. The episode at issue (on pages 303-305 of the novel) concerns three Soviet soldiers—Ikonnikov, a non-political POW; Chernetsov, an old Menshevik; and Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik—and one French priest named Gardi. They have all been imprisoned together by the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and made to work in a Nazi camp. The first speaker is Ikonnikov:

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’
[. . . .]

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’ [“What should I do, Father? We are working in an extermination camp.”]

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’ [“Everybody works there. I work there too. We are slaves. God will pardon us.”]

C’est son métier,’ added Mostovskoy. [“That’s his job.”]

Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully. [“But it’s not your job.”]

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No”. There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre,

je dirai non!’ [“I shall say no, Father, I shall say no!”]

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head. ‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said. [“Give me your hand.”]

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But, rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

Gardi, who as a priest had a calling to honor the holy, realized it was Ikonnikov who had truly heard the music.

* I have blogged about Boots Riley and The Coup before, in the summer of 2104, after my wife and I attended a Coup concert in San Francisco at which our daughter, a professional cellist, played in one of the groups The Coup invited to share the spotlight with them—a practice central to the work of Boots Riley and The Coup.

Pimps and Pushers

I am interrupting my series on “Sanctifying Life” with this brief (for me) post, to get it off my chest and desk (or at least computer).

*     *     *     *     *     *


The campaign to defeat a proposal for a single-payer health insurance system in Colorado is kicking off Thursday with some high-profile leaders.

Walker Stapleton, the Republican state treasurer, and Bill Ritter, a Democrat, will co-chair what is being billed as a bipartisan campaign to oppose Amendment 69.

The opposition strategy will be outlined during a morning news conference at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which also is contributing campaign contributions.

One prominent target: the cost.

—David Olinger, “Single-payer opponents mobilze,” Denver Post 01/28/16

What we have here in the United States is not a health-care system, but a health-sale system. We have a system based on making profit out of the sale of goods and procedures we are led to believe are essential to procure for ourselves so we don’t get sick–which is how the health-sale system has conditioned us to regard “health” itself: as no more than the absence of illness.

The thought that what we have here in the United States is a system for health-sale rather than health-care came to me during my shower just this morning, Thursday, January 28, 2016. As usual, I took my shower after eating breakfast, drinking a few cups of coffee, and reading the morning newspaper to get my adrenalin flowing.

In this morning’s Denver Post I came across the news article from which I have taken the lines above. In my mind, that article connected up with recent reports I’ve seen both in the paper and on TV about Hilary Clinton’s recent attacks on Bernie Sanders’s proposal for a so called “single-payer” health insurance program at the national level—despite Clinton herself having proposed just such a system when she was First Lady, as she has made a point of reminding voters herself.

Where’s Ivan Illich, just when we need him most? In the grave, unfortunately. That’s where he ended up after putting not his money but his very life where his mouth had been—and his pen too, back in the 1970s, when he published Medical Nemesis.

Talk about cost! That was just what Illich did in that book. Only he talked about the overall social cost of the rampant medicalization, specialization, technologization, and scienticization of health care. Illich argued—with lots of data to back up his already persuasive basic argument—that the institutionalization of health care beyond a certain minimum point ended up becoming “specifically counterproductive.” That is, pursued past that break point, the overall cost to society as a whole of such high-tech medicalization of health care ended up becoming ever greater, the more the whole business was allowed to keep going. But Illich was not focused on the cost of health care reckoned in dollars and cents. His focus was not on how much money had to come out of the pockets of those who had some to keep the whole thing running, but instead on what the costs were in terms of health itself. Pursued past the break point he was talking about, so he argued, the medical pursuit of health ended up making people less rather than more healthy. The whole so-called “health-care” system ended up making the people as a whole sicker, not healthier. That’s what Illich meant by saying the whole system had become “specifically counterproductive.” He meant that something the supposed goal, purpose, or end of which was health ended up generating the opposite of health. So the more one invested in the system supposedly designed to produce health not only didn’t deliver that product, but actually produced the opposite. To put it one way, the “health-care” system “took care” of our health, all right—the same way Vito Corleone took care of those who crossed him.

If you’re interested, you should read Illich’s book. (Then read his others, which concern such matters as schooling, generating energy, and going places rapidly.)

At any rate, when Illich eventually came down with cancer, he declined the surgical intervention that might well have kept him above ground for a number of years longer. That’s what I meant when I said he put his very life where his mouth was—and had been for a long time, in fact.

I can’t imagine a healthier—as well as more socially conscious and responsible—thing for him to have done!



After Genocide and Juice came out, I had this interaction with him. Ice Cube and OutKast were doing a show at the Warfield and I think I was back there and I was saying what’s up to Cee Lo. Then Ice Cube saw me and said, “Hey Boots, come here, I’ve got to tell you something.” And so I walked over to him and he was like, “Your music is very impressive, your work is very impressive.” And then he turned his head as if he was looking to see who else was listening, “But let me tell you something. It’s all about making that money.” And then he walked away. So I don’t know what, maybe he thought he was looking out for me. If you look at what he did during that time, he definitely was following his own advice. But so that was a strange interaction and it didn’t necessarily feel good. But of course, I still hung on to him saying that my work was very impressive as being the highlight. I think that I definitely wouldn’t mind being able to make money from what I am doing, but my reason for getting involved in the first place was something more than that.

—Boots Riley, writing about how Ice Cube significantly influenced his own work, in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015, p. 59)

It’s so easy to sell out! We can do it without even knowing we are doing it. It’s hard not to. All the rewards of selling out are constantly and everywhere paraded before us, so that it’s hard to resist. The costs of selling out are carefully hidden from us, and all we can see are the shiny lures—all the money, reputation, power, or simply the sense of security—that the pimps hold out to us. We can have it all, they tell us, if we will just accept whatever they’re pushing.

Another book you should read if you’re interested is the collection of Boots Riley’s lyrics and writings that recently came out, the one the lines above come from. If you do, one thing you’ll find there is the following passage, which actually reminds me of Illich and his analyses of medical and other nemeses (as well as reminding me of various other people and things, including Heidegger and technology). Boots is writing about his song “The Gods of Science,” which The Coup performs on their 2012 album, Sorry to Bother You:

The song is about how the Gods of Science have spoken. The Gods of Science are the ruling class under this system and the last line is: “We’ll get science for the people when we run the economics.” So I think that there are probably a lot of really great areas that science could move to, but when it’s run by folks who have profit as their bottom line or making a more efficient system for profit as their bottom line, we aren’t going to explore other areas. I mean, look at everything that we have that we’re able to do. The things that we’ve invented are the things that were in science fiction books when we were kids, and the reason that they’ve been invented is because they were imagined first in those science fiction books. And why were those things the things that were imagined? It has to do with the way the world was at the time, so when, if there is something that’s imagined that could be of benefit . . . I don’t know, some people talk about scientific development that could help feed the world, we just need to have a system in which food doesn’t get thrown away, you know, and in which it doesn’t cost money to be able to survive. The “Gods of Science” is about the gods that scientific funders have to pray to, or people who need scientific funding have to pray to.

I’m not pimping for Boots Riley or The Coup. And I’m not pushing any music. Not that I’d mind getting a few bucks coming my way for my work, but that’s not why I do it. Especially not now that I’m retired from the profession, and no longer have to make my living by doing for money what should only be done for love.

Sanctifying Life (1)


In an Unwelt whose sole ultimate self-expression is a system of humiliation, torture, and murder, the maintenance by the victims of a shred of humanity is not merely the basis of resistance but already part of it. In such a world—this is the testimony of the mothers, the countless individuals who had a spokesman in Pelagia Lewinska, the fighters in the ghettoes and camps, and the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin—life does not need to be sanctified: it is already holy. Here is the definition of resistance, sought after for so long.                                    Many performed the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim by enhancing, defending, or even just barely clinging to life. Some could sanctify life only by choosing death.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 225)

Some things in that passage from Fackenheim need a few words of explanation.

(1) An Unwelt is a non-world, a world de-worlded. It is a world stripped of all of what Heidegger would call its “worldhood” (“Weltlichkeit”), all of what really makes it be a genuine world in the first place, and not just a pseudo-world disguising a void of any world truly to be lived in. An Unwelt is a nega- or counter-Utopia (from the negative prefix u- or un-, “not,” plus topos, Greek for “place”), we might say: a true anti-place that is the wiping out of any place at all, rather than an ideal place realized fully in no actual place, but everywhere to be aimed at. Such an Unwelt, a no-place no-place, was Auschwitz, to give the paradigmatic example, which has become a name standing for any and every such world-consuming non-world of a nowhere. An Unwelt, then, is Auschwitz—whether that be limited to a Nazi death-camp in Poland, or gone global to envelop the entire planet. Wherever there is an Unwelt, there is Auschwitz. And wherever Auschwitz is, there is “a system of humiliation, torture, and murder.

(2) The “mothers” whose “testimony” is at issue are those Fackenheim describes a bit earlier. “Nazi thought took a serious view of Jewish pregnancies,” he writes (page 216). “Pregnant women at Auschwitz were sent to the crematorium on arrival or, if they managed to conceal their condition then and until birth, immediately on discovery and together with their babies. Orthodox rabbis, considering the situation, permitted abortions despite the stern Halakhic opposition to the practice.” The mothers whose testimony is at issue are those who nevertheless found precisely the strength to “refuse an abortion, give birth to her baby, and show the energy and ingenuity to conceal it for a day, a week, a month, or even by good fortune until all was over”.

(3) Pelagia Lewinska was a Polish noblewoman, a non-Jew, who survived being sent to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. After the war, she wrote of her experience, including the following passage (which Fackenheim cites twice, first on page 25 and then, in a slightly more complete version, on page 217, which I will quote):

At the outset the living places, the ditches, the mud, the piles of excrement behind the blocks, had appalled me with their horrible filth. . . . And then I saw the light! I saw that it was not a question of disorder or lack of organization but that, on the contrary, a very thoroughly considered conscious idea was in the back of the camp’s existence. They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They wished to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity, to return us to the level of wild animals, to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows.

But from the instant that I grasped the motivating principle . . . it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. . . . I felt under orders to live. . . . And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be. . . . And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.

Such a struggle was itself not only on her own behalf, we can say today in looking back upon Lewinska’s testimony, a testimony to go only with that of the mothers already mentioned. It was also on behalf of those very ones of her “fellows” who did not survive Auschwitz, and above all on behalf of those who, before they died, were indeed stripped of any possibility any longer to resist at all: the Muselmänner, those who had been tortured and humiliated to such a point that, through no fault whatever of their own, they were stripped of the very capacity to hear, let alone obey, any orders, from whatever source, to continue any struggle to live.

(3) By “the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin,” Fackenheim is referring to a story he has told just before the lines quoted at the start of this post, about

an incident that occurred in a field outside Lublin, early in the war. A certain German officer named Glowoznik, having rounded up a group of Hasidim, ordered them to sing and dance. (He had heard about Hasidic songs. Also he shared Goebbels’s sense of humor.) The terrified victims began the kind of song the pious sing in the face of death—lomir zich iberbeten, Ovinu she-ba-Shomayim, “Let us be reconciled, Our Father in Heaven!” But their voices quavered, Glowoznik then shouted at them to sing louder, more heartily. [. . .] In the midst of this pandemonium suddenly “an anonymous voice broke through the turmoil with a . . . piercing cry: Mir welen sei iberleben, Ovinu sh-ba-Shomayim—‘We shall outlive them, Our Father in Heaven.’ ” A moment of silence. Then the song took hold of the whole camp in an instant, transporting it into a “stormy and feverish dance.” Glowoznik, now enraged, screamed at the Hasidim to stop.” Doubtless—though the chronicler [whom Fackenheim has been quoting] does not tell us—he succeeded in stopping them, in one way or another. But he could not destroy a moment of truth.

The truth at issue is that conveyed in Fackenheim’s lines cited above, about resistance in such an Unwelt.

(4) Mitzvah means “commandment,” and refers especially to any law, commandment, or order contained in the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible. As so grounded, every mitzvah is regarded as binding upon all practicing Jews.

(5) Kiddush ha-hayim means “sanctification of life.” Just the page before he tells the story of the singing and dancing Hasidim of Lublin, Fackenheim cites a remark attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, something he is supposed to have said in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation of Poland. That remark explains kiddush ha-hayim by contrasting it to kiddush ha-Shem. The latter literally means “sanctification of the Name,” in the sense of that word whereby the “name” proper to something is that which expresses its definitive essence, such as “Holy One” or “Lord” or, perhaps most appropriately in the case at hand, what Exodus 34:10 says God’s “name” (Shem) is, namely, “the Jealous One.” However, in the context of Fackenheim’s remarks, kiddush ha-Shem, “the sanctification of the Name,” effectively means the sanctification of the body—the body being sanctified by being offered it up in martyrdom, “to the glory of His Name,” as it is often put. Here, at any rate, is the remark Rabbi Nissenbaum is said to have made during the dark days of the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation:

This is the time for kiddush ha-hayim, the sanctification of life, and not for kiddush ha-Shem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously, the Jew’s enemy sought his soul and the Jew sanctified his body in martyrdom; now the oppressor demands the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obliged therefore to defend it, to preserve his life.

In the very name of God, as it were, the Jews forced together into the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis, were enjoined to sanctify life by continuing to live it as long as they could, every moment up to that one in which the Nazi’s succeeded in murdering them all, leaving only their corpses to honor God’s name—which they did, a point to which I will eventually return.



I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

—John 10:10 (NRSV)

To “preserve” one’s life in such a way as to sanctify that life itself is not necessarily to do whatever one can to go on living oneself, by any means necessary—including, perhaps, becoming a brutal capo in a death camp and helping the murderers murder one’s fellows, just to gain a temporary respite from dying oneself. Rather, as Fackenheim insists, in the lines that serve as the epigraph to the preceding section of today’s post, in Auschwitz “some could sanctify life,” and thereby succeed in performing “the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim” not by continuing to struggle to stay alive themselves, whatever the cost, but rather “only by choosing death.”

Not every staying alive is a sanctification of life. Rather, as the example of Pelagia Lewinska teaches us, only a life lived in such a way as not to succumb to the coercion whereby the Unwelt attempts “to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows,” is a sanctified, sanctifying life. When it is no longer possible to live such a life, then the sanctity of life requires, in fact, that one choose death. That is a mitzvah not only for Jews, practicing or not.

What is common to all those mentioned by Fackenheim in the passage I cited above? What is common to all the Jewish mothers who continued to refuse abortions even in the face of Auschwitz, and even though relieved of the religious duty so to refuse, as well as all those who, like Pelagia Lewinska, were able to continue the struggle to survive even in Auschwitz? What is common to them all, as well as those who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto or other ghettoes, or even in uprisings at Treblinka and other death camps, including Auschwitz itself? What is common to them all, and the Hasidim who sang with gusto in the field near Lublin? And, finally, what is common to all those resisters and, most especially, all those who, once sent to Auschwitz, could only choose death?

Above and before everything else, what is common to them all is this: They all sanctified life. They all—which means each and every one of them—sanctified that very life that, according to Fackenheim in another line of the cited above, does not even need to be sanctified, because it is already holy.



How slippery the paths on which you set them;

You make them slide to destruction.

How suddenly they come to their ruin,

wiped out, destroyed by terrors.

Like a dream one wakes from, O Lord,

when you wake you dismiss them as phantoms.

–Psalm 72: 18-20 (Grail translation)


“Sanctifying Life” is an ambiguous title. On the one hand, sanctifying can be used the same way the word throwing is used when we speak of throwing fastballs, for example. Taken that way, “Sanctifying Life” would refer to acts of marking, honoring, or acknowledging the sanctity of life, acts that “sanctify” it, making it holy, in that sense. On the other hand, the same title can be used such that the first word, sanctifying, functions as an adjective, so that it would be life itself that did the sanctifying. Then “Sanctifying Life” would mean life itself, considered insofar as life made other things holy by its touch.

Ultimately, if either sense is to be heard fully, the other sense must simultaneously be heard along with it. Thus, finally, the title means both at once, unconfused but inseparable—just as earth and heaven are unconfused but inseparable, or gods and mortals.

Life both is sanctified, and is to be sanctified, as a duty, because life itself sanctifies. Where life is, there is the holy. Life sets itself apart, which is what the word holy ultimately means: to be set apart. It therefore demands to be sanctified. That is, it calls out to be marked and honored in turn, in recurrent ritual and rite—thereby acknowledged and honored in its very own holiness, its own set-apart-ness. Sanctifying life in ritual and rite is sanctifying the sanctifying in turn, sanctifying it in its very being-sanctifying.

It is because life itself sanctifies that Fackenheim can write, in the lines I quote at the beginning of today’s post, that life itself “does not need to be sanctified.” Life itself does not need to be sanctified, which is to say first of all caused to be holy, after the fact of jus being, as it were. Life does not first need to become holy by being expressly set aside and apart in rite and ritual, precisely because “it is already holy,” as Fackenheim says—already set aside and apart.

However, it is not despite but because of life’s being already holy, already sanctified, that life of itself calls out, demands, and commands to be sanctified by us in turn, in ritual and rite—even if the ritual is performed in complete privacy and solitude, as it is by those who let go of their lives peacefully and willingly, to die, perhaps all alone and unattended, in a hospital bed, or on a battlefield. In the same way, those who are gravely ill are set apart by their very illness, made special by it. Just for that very reason, the anointing with oil of those so sick calls out to be performed by Christians who practice that particular sacrament.

A “sacrament,” to use the definition given in the catechism contained in the Anglican or Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

A sacrament is an “efficacious” sign of such grace, to use a term from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic definition, sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is ‘dispensed’ to us.” Thus, a sacrament is a mark or sign the bestowal of which does not just “stand for” or “represent” the grace that it “signifies.” Rather, the sacrament actually effects the grace that it “signifies.” It actually graces those on whom it is bestowed, “dispenses” it, as the Catholic definition says. In the Anglican or as Episcopal definition, the same point is at issue when it is said that sacraments are given to us “as a means whereby we receive the same”—that is, the same “inward and spiritual grace” that the sign signifies.

The action, the “effecting,” accomplished in and by the performance of a sacramental act such as the anointing of the sick—or baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, reconciliation (also known as penance, or confession), marriage, or ordination, to list all of the traditional seven sacraments practiced in Catholicism and some other Christian denominations—can, of course, be taken to be some sort of magic act, whereby occult powers are manipulated through incantations and the like. They can be taken that way, namely, as devices to force the hand of hidden powers. Fortunately, however, sacramental ceremonies and acts need not be taken that way at all. Rather, they are open to non-superstitious, non-idolatrous ways of understanding them.

In one such non-magical, non-superstitious interpretation, performing a sacrament—that is, bestowing a sacramental sign—is (to use the sort of Heideggerian way of putting it that I favor) a matter of letting be what already is. Indeed, the definition of sacraments in the Catholic Catechism captures this immediately after what I have already cited above by saying (my emphasis added): “The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.”

Put a bit differently (but still in my favored Heideggerian fashion), they are ways of building or erecting, of setting up and forth, of what already of itself calls out so to be set up and forth—just as Michelangelo is supposed to have said that in order to create his statue of David all he had to do was draw forth the figure of David from out of the block of marble in which it lay concealed, and whence it called out to him to carve it. It is not that the human act of performing a sacramental signing or marking somehow conjures up grace and forces it to appear. Rather, it is grace itself that commands being granted in and through being signed or marked—a gift that calls out to be dispensed and received.

Thus does life itself, as already sanctified, call out to be set forth in rituals and rites of recognition and celebration that sanctify it, precisely so that the sanctification life of itself gives may be dispensed and received. So giving of itself, life also already sanctifies whatever it touches and defines, giving it a sanctity that in turn calls out to be dispensed and received.

At its end, as its end, life even sanctifies the very death that ends it. As all life sanctifies, so is all death, life’s end, sanctified in turn. Every death is sacred, just as is every life—and even if the duty to dispense and receive that death as sacred goes utterly unfulfilled. That includes the deaths of those who die in utter humiliation, having been tortured until they are no longer anything more than bare life, and then murdered, as were the Muselmänner in Auschwitz. Even such death, like each and every death, calls out to be sanctified, precisely because the life such death ends has already sanctified that same death first.

Sanctified by the very life that it ends, death in turn is given the power to sanctify life. Death sanctifies life when it is a voluntary death, died for the sake of life itself, in affirmation of it. Jesus’s death on the cross was such a sanctifying death. So was the death of Socrates, or those Jews who died fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, or for that matter the death of Martin Luther King. But so, too, was Jean Améry’s death, which came at his own hand—a suicide. And so is the death of everyone who just quietly lives her or his given life to its end, then finally accepts permission to let it go, dying peacefully in a hospital, hospice, or at home, in bed, perhaps surrounded by loved and loving ones.

            But that is also why Robert Antelme, a Frenchman who survived imprisonment in a Nazi camp as a prisoner of war, could write afterward, in The Human Race, that the very corpses of the dead, piled up in and around the camps themselves, waiting to be burned up in the crematoria (and many of which were ultimately just left lying there, eventually to be bulldozed into mass graves by the Allied forces after the camps were liberated), themselves testified unanswerably to the ultimate failure of the whole Nazi death-machine. The dead themselves, wrote Antelme, the very corpses of those who had been humiliated, tortured, and murdered, continued to bear witness not only to what the Nazi state had done, but also—and far more importantly—to the ultimately illusory nature of all such unholy, life-denying power.

In the very corpses of the humiliated, tortured, and then murdered, life continued to sanctify itself, and to resist all the power that sought to deny it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz (2)

This is the last of two posts under the same general title.

*     *     *     *     *     *


Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is the African-American father of a teen-aged son, as well as a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The lines above come from his recent book Between the World and Me (Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2015, page 7), which is cast as a letter to his son. They address what Coates presents as the second “ideal” that has defined the United States of America in its historical reality. That “ideal,” Coates writes a few lines earlier (pages 6-7) is “one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” As his next lines make clear, what is at issue in that second “ideal” is American racism. He writes:

Americans believe in the reality of “race” as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism, the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

As I have already said, this rarely acknowledged ideal of race and racism is actually the second definitive American ideal Coates discusses at the very opening of his book, his long letter to his son. The first is the ideal of democracy itself, as paradigmatically articulated by Lincoln at Gettysburg, concerning which Coates writes (page 6):

Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune. In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their God. When Abraham Lincoln declared in, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world. The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.


“This,” he writes in his very next line, “leads us to another equally important ideal,” the second one—the racist one that, as I’ve already quoted, “Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim.” It is in pursuing that second ideal, however unacknowledged the pursuit, that so many people in America have been historically excluded from “the people” of, by, and for whom the United States was founded and preserved, according to the first, most deeply foundational ideal of America. In what I’ve also already quoted, Coates suggests that the presumed “reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” is itself used by the powers that be in America who take themselves to be to be white—precisely to justify racism as “the innocent daughter of Mother Nature.”

Against any such racist self-justification, however, Coates reminds his readers that “race is the child of racism, not the father,” and points out that “the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” He then adds the lines I quoted to begin this post, in which he speaks of needs to happen among the “new people” of America, if that same America is ever to fulfill its “national hopes.”

Exactly one hundred pages later, Coates writes to his son concerning these “new people” of America: “And I would not have you like them.” He writes that (on page 107) to his son, despite everything that would seem to speak against any such wish for someone he loves—that is, despite all the death, destruction, and misery inflicted on the black American community by the racism, rarely even acknowledged, of “those Americans who believe that they are white,” as Coates first puts it back at the very beginning of his book. “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heel,” he continues in his letter to his son. “And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” Coates’s son’s own true privilege, the one that gives Coates reason not to wish his son could have been born white, does not lie in the ignorance that grounds white privilege. Rather, Coates’s son’s genuine privilege lies in knowledge. That is a knowledge taught only by centuries of cruelty, but which nevertheless brings with it a genuine potential of liberation, as does all true knowledge, however painful to acquire.

The knowledge to Coates’s son is heir by right of being born black is precisely the knowledge we all need, in fact, if we Americans are ever to attain genuine peace among us all, and fulfill the true potential of America’s first ideal by creating a real democracy as the rule of, by, and for all the people of America.

The peace we really need in America today to fulfill that first ideal is not the peace of mutual respect between “blacks” and “whites.” What we really need is mutual respect between all the various peoples who make up the one American people, once we finally succeed in defining “the American people” in a way that excludes no one who lives here. For any such anxious peace to break out, however, “white” unity must first be destroyed. For America’s national hopes ever to find true fulfillment, the “white” community must first be fragmented into pieces. Or, rather, since “the ‘white’ community” does not actually succeed in naming any unified community at all in the first place, the illusion that there is any such thing must first be shattered.

There will never be any final peace between “whites” and “blacks.” There can only be an anxious peace between peoples, and for that, there must first be some peoples—more than just one—“divorced from the machinery of criminal power.”

That is itself one worthy ideal we can glean from reading Coates’s book, in fact. In turn, it leads us to another equally important ideal: of an America freed from the belief in magic.



Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and case out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers.’

—Matthew 7: 21-23 (New Revised Standard Version)


We live in a “goal oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. The rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live in this black body? It is a profound question because American understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men. [. . .] The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (page 12)


The magic from belief in which his grandparents’ gift freed Coates is magic in the sense of the endeavor to control events through the manipulation of supernatural or occult forces by way of charms, spells, incantations, rituals, or the like. To believe in magic in the sense at issue is to believe, for example, that one can assure oneself victory in contests such as are involved in war, love, or football by more properly invoking the name of God before the contest than do one’s opponents.

Such belief is a form of superstition, and as such is based in ignorance and fear—just such fear as love drives out, at least according to Christian scriptural tradition. According to 1 John 4:18 (NRSV): “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

A few centuries later, John Cassian relayed, from the early Christian desert solitaries, the teaching that there are three kinds of “obedience.” First, there is the obedience of the slave, who obeys out of fear of punishment for disobedience. Second, there is the obedience of the servant, who obeys in hopes of reward—of getting paid for obeying. Third, there is the obedience of the child, who obeys out of love.

It is only in that third and final form, where obedience and love become indistinguishable, that each at last comes into its own. Either to love or to obey—and most especially to obey the command to love, that most, if not only, divine command—either out of fear of punishment if one doesn’t, or out of hope for reward if one does, is neither to love nor to obey at all, really. It is to confuse love and obedience with acts of magic, or at least magic-acts: attempts to manipulate forces beyond one’s own, or at least to engender the illusion that one can do so. Both acts of magic and magic-acts engage superstition, not faith. They are among the childish things that St. Paul (to remain within the Christian tradition) advises us to leave behind with our childhoods when we grow up.

In the Jewish tradition from which the Christian one grows—that tradition to which Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, for example, belong—belief in magic is just a form of idolatry. It confuses God with what is not God, but just the work of human hands (Psalm 135:15).

By their gift, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s grandparents helped him grow up, and leave idolatry behind.



What confuses the most is that everyone everywhere more and more agrees on one way of thinking, which counts as giving the only standard.

—Martin Heidegger, “Confusion” (“Die Wirrnis”), in Gesamtausgabe 76 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2009, page 269)


Contradiction tends to be negatively viewed in an intellectual milieu dominated by positivistic empiricism. Thus the demonstration that there are contradictions in a body of theory is likely to be understood as a refutation of the validity of the theory. The reader should not conclude that this is the author’s view.

—A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, Inc., 1988, page 250)


Become who you are!

—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Only if we grow up can America ever become what The Pledge of Allegiance—which was not formally adopted by Congress until1942 and not formally given that name until three years later, in 1945—says that we are (or at least has so said since the last formal change was made to The Pledge in 1954, adding the invocation of God’s name). That is, only by finally growing up can America truly be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Until then, America will remain many nations and no nation, superstitious, conflicted, with privilege for some and justice for none. Properly understood, truly to pledge allegiance to what The Pledge says we are, is really to pledge to work to change who we really still all too much are. Truly pledged, The Pledge has to be taken as a promise still demanding to be kept, and not as a boast of past achievements that establish how exceptional we already are.

I don’t know if it is still fashionable in some right-wing circles, as it was a few years ago, to insist that America is a “republic,” and not a “democracy.” At any rate, at least the last part of that does hold: America is indeed not a democracy, if by “being” one means current actuality, stripped of any not yet actual but still definitive potential. American is not a democracy in the same sense that an acorn is not an oak. That means that America still is a democracy, in terms of the promise that in effect defines that name, and challenges what bears that name to become worthy of it, just as an acorn is, so to speak, an oak, only an oak to be.

The manipulative proliferation of ever more cheeply maintained and ever less deeply grounded “opinions” and “views” on everything under (and over) the sun, a proliferation so characteristic of our current American system of governing the diverse peoples of America, has made what America is as a pure actuality void of all promise into what might best be called, not demo-cracy, Lincoln’s “rule of, by, and for the people” (from Greek demos, people), but doxo-cracy, that is, rule of, by, and for opinion (from Greek doxa, opinion). And if America remains satisfied to be no more than such a doxocracy, it will only betray itself and what it most truly has always been—been as that “last, best hope” for humankind that Lincoln also famously said it was.

What is needed if America is to evade such self-betrayal is no politics of consensus. The solution does not lie in the promotion of dialogue in search of areas of agreement between the proponents of fundamentally different positions on divisive issues—for example, the search for some supposed “common ground” between so called “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates. The ever-growing confusion of “opinions” and “views” among the diverse population in the United States (and increasingly globe-wide) cannot be dispelled through any push to “come to an agreement” about the matters about which those opinions and view are maintained with ever-growing rancor and contentiousness. That just makes the confusion by which the doxocracy governs grow worse, and the governing all the easier.

The politics of consensus is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to borrow a useful popular way of putting the point. As opposed to the politics of consensus, what is really required is something such as the politics of dis-sensus for which contemporary French political philosopher Jacques Rancière, for one, has called. The politics of consensus has always ended up, regardless of the intentions of those who pursue it, keeping everything going along smoothly on an even keel. Politically considered, that means it always works to serve the already powerful, and to protect their special privileges, rather than to serve and protect everyone, equally and justly. In contrast, a politics of dissensus would strive to rock the boat. It would seek to disrupt “business as usual.” To use a different metaphor, it would seek to point out that the king has no clothes, and thereby to make of the king a laughingstock.

What is sorely needed for America to fulfill its own defining promise as America is not the formation of any consensus of opinion out of the swirling proliferation of them. What is needed is to replace the proliferation and protection of opinions with the proliferation and protection of all the peoples of America, whether they be Sioux or Navaho, Aleut or Afghan or African, Coptic, Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, or Zen, and including even all us uprooted, thoroughly assimilated, people-less folks who have been taught to think that we are nothing but white, and may not have one single clue among us all about how to find our way home again.

What we need in America, as all around the planet, is no peace in the sense of “the repose of a self within itself,” as Levinas puts it in In the Time of the Nations, that pseudo peace that lets us feel secure and safe in our supposed “autonomous self-sufficiency.” We need no such easy, self-satisfied simulation of real peace. We need, instead, “an anxious peace,” the sort of true peace that Levinas characterizes purely and simply as the peace of “love for one’s fellow man.” We need the peace of a love anxious for the wellbeing of others—and anxious not to betray itself.

If America is what The Plede of Allegiance says it is, then America can only be the place of such peace. If America is what The Pledge says it is, then America is not yet. It remains an open question whether America ever will be.

An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz

This is the first of a series of posts under the same general title.

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“On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.”

—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Faith, Part One: 4 (trans. Robert Chandler, Great Britain: The Harvill Press, 1985)


Sometimes what happened at Auschwitz seems to mean to me that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part. Thought can stretch that far. The meaning of Auschwitz would be a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.

—Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism and Christianity,” from In the Time of the Nations (Continuum, 2007), p. 150


God has been very good to us. That we won the Revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.

—Supreme Court Justin Antonin Scalia, speaking at a Catholic high school in Metairie, Louisiana, on January 2, 2016 (AP report)




Everything is wrong with that.

To borrow a way of speaking from Kierkegaard, if the word ‘God’ is to name anything at all truly worthy of any belief today, a day that comes well after Auschwitz, then ‘God’ must simply mean a love that entails no promises. And today, this day well after Auschwitz, any believing in God—God as God, and not as some bloody idol—any believing in God that does not deserve scorn must consist of just this: loving, without any promises.

Today, after Auschwitz, the only command that can even be imagined to command universally—the only command that might truly command all human beings without exception, regardless of whether they were Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Germans, Muslims, Hindus, Americans, Confucians, Zimbabweans, Buddhists, Slovaks, Wiccans, Aleuts, pagans, African-Americans, people who think themselves “white,” or whatever—would be the command to love. Just to love. To love neither in answer to any promises kept or even any promise just given, nor in expectation of any promises to be made in answer to love, and without love itself promising anything in turn, beyond just loving.

Against the idea of any other sort of God than one whose love entailed no promises, every moral person (to use one of Jean Améry’s ways of speaking) after Auschwitz is duty bound to rebel. After Auschwitz, anyone who should not be ashamed to call herself or himself “moral” must rebel against any theodicy that would try to justify any other sort of God. One must rebel against any such theodicy, just as Levinas says that he does, right after uttering the lines above in a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Bishop Hans Hermann Hemmerle of Aachen at a conference in 1986 addressing the significance of the work of Franz Rosenzweig.

Levinas proclaims his own continuing rebellion against any idea that God could have intervened in order not to let such horror as Auschwitz happen, yet chose not to do so. Every moral being is duty-bound to join Levinas in rebelling against any such idea of God, “thinking it too costly—not just to God, but to humanity,” as Levinas says—a divine “kenosis of powerlessness,” which is to say a self-humbling, self-emptying renunciation of the exercise of coercive power, that “costs man [sic!] too much.”

Any God in whom any moral being has any right to believe any longer after Auschwitz must be a God who was no less powerless to stop what happened there than were the millions who died in Auschwitz and all the other Nazi camps. Any God who could have intervened at Auschwitz should have intervened—and would have done so, had any such God ever existed. The right to believe in any God who could have stopped it all, but chose not to, surely died in Auschwitz, along with all those murdered there. After Auschwitz, to believe in any such God is actually blasphemous.

Today, more than seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, nothing has changed any of that.



Though theodicy died at Auschwitz, along with the God who needed it, love itself did not. Nor did the command to love—surely a divine command, if any command is divine. What is more, if ‘God’ today, after Auschwitz, just means an ongoing love void of all promises, then to have faith in God today just means to love in turn the same way, with no promises. Faith is just loving as God loves, without any eye to the merits of those who are loved or any expectations of a return from them, but also without making any promises to those who are loved, promises that go beyond love itself, the promise simply to love, to cherish.

To promise to cherish is not to promise to protect from all harm. Nor is it to expect such protection from those one cherishes. It is just to promise to cherish: Therein lies all its promise.



In the “Author’s Foreword” to In the Time of the Nations, the same book that contains his dialogue with Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas writes of those who, like himself, are animated by “the desire for a peace that is no longer the repose of a self within itself, no longer autonomous self-sufficiency,” but is, instead, “an anxious peace, or love for one’s fellow man.” It is just such a peace that is at issue in Levinas’s dialogue with Hemmerle toward the end of the same book, under the title “Judaism and Christianity.” In that dialogue, Levinas speaks first, ending his opening remarks by saying that he had “a very positive reaction to Nostra Aetate, the decree of the Second Vatican Council,” which Council took place from 1962 to 1965. In Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church officially rescinded the old and common Christian doctrine that held Jews as such and as a whole responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, a doctrine used to justify all the centuries of violent Christian anti-Semitism that laid fertile soil for the eventual growth of Nazism and the Holocaust.

With regard to just that all too Christian heritage, Levinas says that for him Nostra Aetate “is a logical consequence and proof of the fact that an attempt has been made to overcome certain things from the past”—in effect, an act of Christian repentance for its own long and bloody anti-Semitic past. “I am pleased,” he adds, “to accept the parallelism [with his own Judaic heritage and thought] in the [Christian] theory of kenosis, and in the idea of an omni-human universality and a ‘for all men’,” that is, the Christian commitment “‘to live and die for all men.’” He then goes on to address how “Christians attach great importance to what they call faith, mystery, sacrament,” and offers the following “anecdote on that subject,” one which greatly illuminates the nature of any faith worthy of the name—especially after Auschwitz.

“Hannah Arendt,” says Levinas, “not long before she died, told the following story on French radio. When she was a child in her native Königsberg, one day she said to the rabbi who was teaching her religion: ‘You know I have lost my faith.’ And the rabbi responded: ‘Who’s asking you for it?’”

Auschwitz had not yet happened when Hannah Arendt was still a child, and had that exchange with her rabbi. But if even before Auschwitz God did not ask for any such “faith” as Arendt had already lost as a child, then certainly no God who remained after Auschwitz would ask for it. Indeed, such a request would itself be blasphemous—after Auschwitz! If any legitimate request for faith in God is possible at all after Auschwitz, it would have to be a request for that sort of faith that Levinas himself goes on to suggest in his own gloss on the anecdote from Arendt.

“The response [of the rabbi] was typical,” says Levinas—typical of the kind of response worth making to any profession of the loss of faith. “What matters,” he says, “is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’” What matters, most especially after Auschwitz, is not “faith,” if by that word all one means is no more than some sort of verbal or notional assent to some formula, the sort of thing one might check off in some opinion poll. What counts is no such merely propositional affirmation, but rather “doing.” What counts is action, not mere words.*

“Moreover,” as Levinas himself then asks, “are believing and doing different things?” After all: “What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions?” Is belief or faith just a matter of what we “think,” of our personal “opinion,” what we give assent to merely “mentally”? As Levinas asks pertinently: “What do we believe with?” Is it just with our “minds” that we believe? Rather, says Levinas in answer to his own question: “With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)!” He then concludes: What the rabbi meant was ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion.”

The faith for which God asks—most especially any God who retains any right to ask for faith at all today, this day more than seventy years after Auschwitz—just is loving: loving everyone in their “omni-human universality” with no promises. Today, only such love is love “in God’s name.”

Whoever does not love in God’s name can go to hell—and will, no matter how often he invokes God’s name “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.”

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To be continued.

* Such action can and should also include ritual action, as Levinas clearly notes by going on to say: “Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of ritual.” That aspect of the matter is itself deserving of the most serious attention, as I want to note here, although I will address it no further in today’s post.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Unforgiveable (2)

This post is the second of two on the same topic.

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He [the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 C.E.] had defeated the Bar Kochba rebellion; the Jewish state was destroyed once more. Now he meant to destroy also the inspiration, the Jewish religion: he passed an edict that made the practice of Judaism punishable by death.                                                                         Akiba defied Hadrian and went on living and teaching his Judaism, undeterred by Hardian’s edict. He was discovered, arrested, and tortured through a long night until, eventually, he died; but he kept on ignoring the torture and the torturer, singing the praise of his God, eventually to die with the divine Name on his lips.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, “Auschwitz as Challenge to Philosophy and Theology,” in To Mend the World (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. xli)


There are worse things than torture and murder. Torture and murder are not beyond guilt and atonement. They can be forgiven. Only what places itself beyond all guilt and atonement is unforgiveable. The unforgiveable is immeasurably worse than torture or murder—or, rather, it is literally incommensurable with them: there is no common standard in terms of which the offenses of torture and murder on one hand, horrible as they undeniably are, and a truly unforgiveable offense on the other can be measured.

That does not at all mean that torture and murder are permissible under some circumstances. They are not ever permissible, under any circumstances, for anyone, regardless of what the world may say. Those who commit them are obligated to confess their crimes, demonstrate their contrition, and ask for forgiveness, especially and first of all from their victims, living or dead—with no expectation, and certainly no right to expect, that such forgiveness will ever be offered. Nevertheless, precisely because they demand such confession, contrition, and request, murder and torture are not beyond all assumption of guilt and possibility of atonement, not beyond all request and hope for forgiveness. By whatever degree they may exceed other possible offenses for which forgiveness should be asked and might be given, they are still not beyond all reach of possible pardon.

In contrast, what is truly unforgiveable is not just worse in degree from what can be forgiven. It is worse in kind. We might say that the kind of evil that can be forgiven is only relatively evil, whereas the kind of evil that truly can never be forgiven is absolutely so. It is absolute evil, evil set loose (Latin solvere, “to loosen, detach”) from (Latin ab-) all limits whereby it might be delimited. Evil that can be resisted is not absolute evil. Absolute evil is evil that precludes the possibility of any resistance, just as it also precludes all possibility of being forgiven or atoned for. No pardon can reach it.

Accordingly, what is truly, fully unforgiveable—what places itself beyond all possibility of being forgiven by anyone or atoned for by anything—can only be that which deprives those it wrongs of any place to stand to affirm themselves in resisting what overpowers them, refusing to acquiesce to being overpowered. In the face of such truly and fully unforgiveable wrong, all one can do is stand firm in one’s resentment, and in one’s refusal to forgive, stand firm against all enticements to pretend to “forgive and forget” what is unforgiveable and therefore never to be forgotten.

To make such a stand, however, is no easy matter.


Strictly speaking, I do not and cannot know what I would be today if I had not been in the Camp. [. . .] I can, however, formulate a certain assertion and it is this: if I had not lived the Auschwitz experience, I probably would never have written anything. I would not have had the motivation, the incentive, to write. [. . .] It was the experience of the Camp and the long journey home that forced me to write.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce (p. 397)


In this cell, meditative hours spent in solitary writing and reading broke old molds, leaving me distraught and empty and forcing me further out on the edge for answers to my questions and pain. Psychic wounds don’t come in the form of knives, blades, guns, clubs; they arrive in the form of boxes—boxes in trucks, under beds, in my apartment when I could no longer pay the rent and had to move. Still, I was comforted by the thought that I was bigger than my box. I was what mattered, not the box. I lived out of a box, not in one. I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the “it” of their lives, to celebrate those who don’t have a place in this world to stand and call home. For those people, my journals, poems, and writings are home. My pen and heart chronicle their hopes, doubts, regrets, loves, despairs, and dreams. I do this partly out of selfishness, because it helps to heal my own impermanence, my own despair. My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (p. 244)


Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca both found their own freedom from the coercive power that overpowered them. They found it in the very depths of their imprisonment by that same power. One reclaimed his own dignity, and the power inseparable from it, as an inmate in a Nazi death-camp. The other did so as an inmate under solitary confinement in an American prison. Both reclaimed their own power from the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by overpowering that power turn, but by freely and fully abandoning all effort to overpower it—effort that is doomed always and only to give more power to that already overpowering power. They both triumphed over the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by coercion of their own, but by refusing any longer to be coerced. In that refusal, each bore witness not only to his having been abused but also to his own final victory over his abuser. They bore witness that coercive power could not defeat them, even though it might kill them, as, of course, it continued to have the power to do. They bore witness to the illusory nature of coercive power, even when that power proves fatal—as illusions, after all, can often prove to be.

The victory of their resistance over the power that overpowered them had nothing to do with that resistance being “successful” in ordinary terms. That is, to repeat something I have already said, Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca did not triumph over the power that had overpowered them by overpowering that power in turn. In that sense of victory, it was the Allied Powers who gained victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers in World War II, and not Primo Levi, who had no armies to send against Hitler’s. Nor did Jimmy Santiago Baca manage somehow to storm the Bastille of the American prison system and close it down; indeed, it is still very much in full, unfortunate operation.

Rather, the resistance that Levi and Baca put up to coercive power triumphed solely by the mere fact of it, the sheer fact of such resistance itself. It triumphed as the affirmation of the underlying dignity that expressed itself in and as such resistance. It triumphed in the same way that Jean Améry triumphed when he hit back against a fellow Auschwitz inmate, a Kapo, who hit him first. Améry triumphed even though he suffered a severe beating as a result of his resistance—a beating he survived, although in Auschwitz such a beating might well have cost Améry his very life, as it did so many others.

Interested readers may find Améry’s account of that incident in the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series, “Making Room for Community.” There they will also find further discussion of both Primo Levi’s and Jimmy Santiago Baca’s acts of resistance, which hit back against coercive power no less triumphantly than did Améry’s act of resistance, though neither Levi nor Baca answered one blow with another, as Améry did. What matters, however, as I discuss in that post, is not whether blows were exchanged, but whether resistance occurred as the sheer affirmation of human dignity, as it did occur in all three cases.

What I say in that previous post is far from all that needs to be said about the nature of resistance, and the universal obligation to nurture it. I will try to say a tiny bit more of what needs saying below, and I will probably devote a later post to saying yet more of it (a post I am currently thinking of calling “Sanctifying Life”). To prepare the way for that, however, I fist need to say a bit more about just what it is to which Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Jimmy Santiago Baca all three bear witness in their own diverse acts of resistance.


The world has forgotten. The world always forgets.

— Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World (p. 167)


Above everything else, in their three different acts of resistance, Améry, Levi, and Baca bore witness to, and for, those who had been stripped of all capacity to bear witness for themselves any longer. This observation is not new, but needs always to be made anew: It is for the sake of those unable to resist, that resistance is given to the rest of us; it is for the sake of those denied all further capacity to refuse, that we who retain that capacity are required to use it; and it is for the sake of those who have been deprived of every place of their own to stand that we who can still find such places are morally obligated to lay claim to them, and take our own stand.

Only in that way—in standing by our own resistance and refusal—do we heed the injunction never to forget. If the world always forgets, as Fackenheim says, then in order to remember we must place ourselves outside the world, in order to remind that world of what it has forgotten. Since the world always forgets, we can never let up on reminding it, which means that with Levi we must maintain our refusal to “forgive and forget,” with Améry we must keep faith with our resentment, and with Baca we must stay in our cells—which, as the desert anchorites of the early centuries of Christianity said, will teach us everything.

Each of us must find his or her own place to stand. No single place will hold us all.


Today, December 7, the day I am posting this, is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. My uncle was a pilot stationed in Pearl Harbor at Hickam Field Air Force Base on December 7, 1941. He actually piloted the first American fighter plane to rise in the air to answer the Japanese attack that day. I still have an old copy of the front page of the local Denver paper carrying his picture the next morning. He was not physically harmed that day, and did not die till many years later, but he carried the memory-scars of that day with him for the rest of his life.

In putting up this post today I would like it to serve as a remembrance of my uncle and of all those scarred by that day, December 7, 1941—“a day that will live in infamy,” as Franklin Roosevelt soon proclaimed. My hope is that my post may serve as a reminder, at least to myself, than genuine remembrance is much more than, because completely different in kind from, merely visiting graves or hanging out flags or the like. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. In doing such things, however, we should always remember that remembering itself is no easy thing. Visiting graves is a worthy remembrance only when it insists on leaving those graves open.

The Unforgivable


Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil [. . .].

—Primo Levi, The Truce (pages 188-189 of 1987 Abacus dual edition with If This Is a Man)


Neither Primo Levi nor Jean Améry, both of whom survived Auschwitz, ever forgave those responsible for Auschwitz, and all that that name has come to represent. Améry clung to his “resentments,” as he called them himself. He repeatedly insisted upon them publicly, including in an essay in At the Mind’s Limits bearing that title. Being of a different temperament and having a different writing style, Levi did not speak of “resenting” what had been done to him. Nevertheless, he was no more willing to forgive than was Améry.

Yet both Levi and Améry expressed a conditional willingness to come to a sort of peace with those responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, the very crime to the finally unforgiveable nature of which both always insisted on bearing witness. Améry and Levi each stipulated conditions under which he would be able to offer such peace to those responsible for that unforgiveable crime.

Levi even spoke of “forgiving” the perpetrators if the conditions he articulated were ever met, but only then. In the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series on “Making Room for Community,” I already cited a passage from Levi’s “Afterword” to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce—his chronicles of his days in the Nazi death camps and his odyssey of eventual return to Italy after being liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops—in which he lays all that out. The passage is worth citing again here (from page 382 of that Abacus dual edition):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

As for Améry, early in his essay “Resentments” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 70):

Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

SS man Wajs from Antwerp, a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer, paid with his life. What more can my foul thirst for revenge demand? But if I have searched my mind [or “spirit”: in German, Geist] properly, it is not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement. The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness [the collapse of all trust, all sense of security, a collapse that comes with “the first blow” of the fist of coercive power against which one can offer no effective defense, as Améry discusses in “Torture,” an earlier essay in the same volume]. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today.


What Améry’s resentment demands is not revenge. The resentment to which he insists on clinging is not a desire to strike back at those who struck him, causing them harm in return for the harm they caused him. The justice he seeks is not that of “an eye for an eye.” His resentment is not the harboring of “bad memories,” that is, of the desire to make “bad use” of the memory of what was done to him by doing the same back to his persecutors.* Indeed, if such harboring of bad memories is what one means by “resentments” (as is not uncommon), then Améry is actually free of resentments. To understand what he is saying, in fact, we must put out of play that common way of taking the term. What is at issue for him is something very different from resentment understood as the harboring of such “bad memories.”

“The moral person,” such as Améry himself, does not demand revenge for wrongs he has suffered. Rather, as Améry writes two pages later (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.”

It is important to note the similarity between what Améry says here about how the criminal who has been “nailed to his deed” can then rejoin the human race, and what Levi says above, when he remarks that the enemy who, not just in words but above all in deeds, has become conscious of his crimes thereby ceases to be an enemy. Far from seeking revenge, harboring bad memories, or desiring retribution, it turns out that what both Levi and Améry want is something very different. In truth, they want full reconciliation. Neither will settle for anything less than that the enemy cease to be an enemy and become a neighbor (as Levi puts it), or that the criminal be cleansed of his crime and thereby rejoined to the community (Améry). What both want, lies “beyond guilt and atonement,” to use Améry’s original German title of At the Mind’s Limits. It lies, therefore, beyond all possibility of “forgiving and forgetting,” at least in any usual understanding of those terms. It belongs to what is finally unforgiveable, and can never be forgotten.


The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 75)


Not long after making that remark about the world and its ways, Améry repeats what he has already said about wanting something beyond guilt and atonement. “It can be a matter,” he writes (page 77), “neither of revenge on the one side nor of a problematic atonement, which has only theological meaning and therefore is not relevant for me, on the other.” On the reader’s behalf, he then asks: “What then is it a matter of—since I have spoken expressly of a settlement in the field of historical practice?”

Améry tells us he is not seeking revenge through abusing in turn those who have first abused him. What is more, he tells us that he came out of Auschwitz no more of a “believer” than he was when he went in—which is to say that throughout it all he remained void of any religious faith—and therefore has no concern with such purely religious questions as atonement is typically taken to be, namely, a question of somehow “getting right with God” after one has “sinned.” Yet he still speaks of seeking a “settlement,” as one might speak about a legal issue, a matter in which one seeks “justice”—justice not as meted out by some Father in some Heaven, but as can be sought and found at the level of concrete “historical practice.” Accordingly, the question to be asked is just what would constitute the grounds for such a “settlement” at the level of such “historical practice” itself.

“Well then,” writes Améry in answer, “the problem could be settled” by conjoining two things, one on the side of the plaintiff, as it were, the accusing party, and the other on the side of the defendant, the accused. Settlement at the level of historical practice could be found “by permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the aggrieved, accusing plaintiff, while simultaneously keeping alive the “self-distrust in the other camp,” the camp of the accused—the very self-distrust that is itself “aroused by” awareness and acceptance of the plaintiff’s resentment.

Thus, the settlement of the case of such an unforgiveable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. It would be no such thing. Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur —beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting.


Just what might such a reconciliation actually look like, a reconciliation in which the resentment of one party is honored by the other, in whom the resentment of the first has at last awakened a self-distrust that must equally be honored? A reconciliation effected by allowing the wound of resentment to remain open in those who had been wounded, while opening and keeping open an answering wound of self-mistrust in those who had done the wounding? Granted that honoring the resentment of the wounded—rather than compounding their wounds in the rush to “forgive and forget,” so that everything can “get back to normal” for everybody else—requires opening in turn, and keeping open, a wound of self-distrust in those who wounded them. But just what would it actually be, to do that: to open and keep open such a wound of lack of self-trust in the perpetrators of the initial offense?

With regard to the particular offense at issue for Améry, that of Auschwitz and all that went with it, here is the answer he gives right after raising the question (At the Mind’s Limits, pages 77-79), an answer worth quoting at length:

Goaded solely by the spurs of our [that is, the survivors’] resentment—and not in the least by [any supposed] conciliatoriness [on the part of the perpetrators] that, subjectively, is almost always dubious and, objectively, hostile to history—the German people would remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history [namely, their shameful Nazi past] to be neutralized by time [or by monetary reparations paid to Israel or others, we might add]. If I remember rightly, it was Hans Magnus Enzenberger [an important German author and cultural figure who was born in 1929 and grew up in Nazi Germany] who once wrote that Auschwitz is Germany’s past, present, and future. But unfortunately he is not what counts, for he and his moral peers are not the people. But if, in the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised, then Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations, would retain the knowledge that it was not Germans who did away with the dominion of baseness. It [the German people] would then, as I sometimes hope, learn to comprehend its past acquiescence in the Third Reich as the total negation not only of the world that it plagued with war and death but also of its own better origins; it would no longer repress or hush up the twelve years [of Nazi rule] that for us others really were a thousand [which is how long Hitler promised the Third Reich would last], but claim them as its realized negation of the world and its self, as its own negative possession. On the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.

How this shall come about in actual practice, every German may picture for himself. This writer is not a German and it is not for him to give advice to this people. At best, he is able to imagine vaguely a national [German] community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns. Remaining within his exclusively literary frame of reference, Thomas Mann once expressed this in a letter: “It may be superstition,” he wrote to Walter von Molo, “but in my eyes the books that could be printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless and one ought not to touch them. An odor of blood and disgrace clings to them; they should all be reduced to pulp.” The spiritual reduction to pulp by the German people, not only of the books, but of everything that was carried out in those twelve years, would be the negation of the negation: a highly positive, a redeeming act. Only through it would our resentment be subjectively pacified and have become objectively unnecessary.


In responding to what Améry says in that passage, we want to be cautious. We need always to remember that those are the words of a bitterly resentful man, one who clung to his resentment throughout his entire life after Auschwitz. We would be remiss ever to forget that.


            I travel through the thriving land, and I feel less and less comfortable as I do. I cannot say that I am not received everywhere in a friendly and understanding manner. What more can people like me ask than that German newspapers and radio stations grant us the possibility to address grossly tactless remarks to German men and women, and on top of this be remunerated for it? I know: even the most benevolent will finally have to become as impatient with us as that young correspondent cited earlier who is “sick and tired of it.” There I am with my resentments, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Munich. If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation. Certainly. On the other hand, however, it is also for the good of the German people. But no one wants to relieve me of it, except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it. What dehumanized me has become a commodity, which I offer for sale.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, page 80)


Primo Levi did not speak of “resentments” the way Jean Améry did. Nor did the former tend toward such expressions of bitterness as the latter shows in passages such as the one above. Yet when we put aside differences of temperament and expression, it is often the case that what the two have to say really comes down to the same thing. So it is with what the two of them set out as the conditions that would have to be met, if they were to be reconciled with those who committed, or by failing to act permitted to be committed, what Levi calls “the offense,” and Améry calls “the ignominy”—namely, the unforgiveable crime of “Auschwitz,” in all that that name has come to represent.

As a condition for such reconciliation, Améry proposes that the German people—past, present, and still to come—embrace the equivalent of a self-imposed Morgenthau Plan. That was the plan for postwar Germany named for Henry Morgenthau, the United States Secretary of the Treasury who first proposed it in a memorandum entitled “Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany,” written sometime during 1944, the last full year of World War II. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be reduced to the status of a “pastoral state,” one no longer able to wage any sort of serious modern warfare, by destroying entirely the German armaments industry and the whole industrial might of the nation, most especially the industrial plants and equipment in the Ruhr, the very heart of Germany’s industrial power. Once the Cold War heated up, which happened within a few months after the Allied victory and the end of WW II, political expediency quickly induced the Western Powers—now locked in a new enmity, this time with their recent ally, the Soviet Union—to abandon any such plan as Morgenthau’s. Motivated by the pursuit of their own security in the face of the newly discovered threat of what Ronald Reagan would eventually label “that evil empire,” those to whom fell the victory in the west at the end of World War II were quick to abandon the project of reducing to pastureland the now vanquished German nation, and in the process were just as quick to cease giving any real priority to continuing the “de-Nazification” of Germany.

What Améry proposes, if he is to be reconciled with the Germans, the very people who brutalized him and so many others, is not that a new Morgenthau Plan be developed and imposed upon Germany from the outside. That would not satisfy him. It would not pacify his resentment. Rather, only if the German people imposed such a plan upon themselves, as an act of contrition and penance for their ignominious offense, would the resentment of Améry and the others whom the Germans overpowered be stilled.


That, of course, is not in the least likely to happen. Améry himself was perfectly well aware of that. “Nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know,” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 79), just after articulating his conditions for reconciliation in the passage above.

But what about Levi? What about Levi’s requirements for forgiveness, laid down in his “Afterword” to the dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce, where he says he will not forgive “any of the culprits”—which includes, he argues elsewhere in the same source, the entire Germans people as a whole, who, if they did not know about “the offense,” were accomplices anyway, since their very ignorance was willful, a not wanting to know—until those culprits themselves first show, not only with their words, but above all in their deeds, that they have “become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and [are] determined to condemn them, uproot them, from [their] conscience and from that of others”? Are those conditions really any less stringent than Améry’s? Are they any more likely ever to be met?

Most surely, the answer is no. As Améry says, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” Nothing of the sort happened in the past. Nothing of the sort is happening now. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

Accordingly, whoever aspires to be what Améry calls a “moral person” must honor both Améry’s resentment and Levi’s refusal to forgive. To honor them, on one’s own one must actively resist the whole world’s silence, while simultaneously maintaining suspicion toward one’s self for possible complicity, intentional or not, in keeping that silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* See the discussion of amnesty—especially with regard to Gorgio Agamben’s treatment of it in his recent book Stasis—in my post, “Making Room for Community (2).”

Making Room for Community (5)

This is the final post in a consecutive series under the same general title.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Choosing Community

I have twenty-seven years of exile behind me, and my spiritual compatriots are Proust, Sartre, Beckett. Only I am still convinced that one must have compatriots in village and city streets if the spiritual ones are to be fully enjoyed, and that a cultural internationalism thrives well only in the soil of national security. [. . .] One must have a home in order not to need it [. . .].

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits: Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 46)


We are all members of communities prior to and apart from any choices of our own. Each of us is native to at least one community—born into it—by no choice on our part. In my own personal case, I did not choose to be a white, straight, American male, but nevertheless am all those things anyway. I was born into membership in all four communities: the communities of whites, straights, Americans, and males. As born into membership in those four communities, I was also born and into yet a fifth one, namely, the community of the privileged.

In turn, born into privilege, I was born as well into prejudice. I have always resented that fact. Many times during the course of my life, I have been startled to realize how prejudiced I really still was, despite all my efforts to ferret out and rid myself of my prejudices. I never signed on to be a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe. I never wanted to be any of those things, and I have even tried consciously to rid myself of such inclinations, as well as act against them when concrete opportunities to do so arose in my own ongoing life. Nevertheless, as I already said, I’ve often been startled to have to realize that—not just without any prior choice on my part, but even in spite of my own choices—I did indeed have racist, sexist, and homophobic tendencies. Above all, I found that to be so, in my own non-voluntary affective reactions to events in my life. What I’m referring to are such things as feeling anxiety, mild as it might have been and contrary to my own ideational and intellectual commitments (my own “ideas” and “opinions”: what I was willing to give what John Henry Newman long ago called “notional” assent, the sort of assent one gives to statements on an opinion poll), when walking through predominantly African American neighborhoods. Or feeling awkward around gays or lesbians. Or more critical of women than men for what and how they thought and, especially, looked.

Thus, being born into the privilege that goes with being born white, male, and straight, I was also born racist, sexist, and homophobic. After all, we who are privileged naturally defend our privileges, don’t we? As Primo Levi said in a passage cited in an earlier post of this current series, that just goes with privilege—unfortunately so, for such as me.

Even more unfortunately, it is not only prejudice that goes with privilege. So does guilt.


I was a person who could no longer say “we” and who therefore said “I” merely out of habit, but not with the feeling of full possession of my self. [. . .] I was no longer an I and did not live within a We.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 44)

It has often been observed that it is easy to love “humanity” in the abstract, while despising the actual instances of humanity I happen to know. I can loudly proclaim my principled commitment to “universal human rights,” while equally vociferously supporting politicians who want to build walls to keep out all the “illegal aliens” who want to enter my country in search of a human life. I can applaud Primo Levi’s insistence, discussed in my preceding post, that all decent people have a duty to go to war against undeserved privilege, but gladly hide behind “make my day” laws to blow away any of the undeservedly de-privileged who happen to tramp on my turf. As a good, upstanding Christian, I may grow teary-eyed at the thought of loving my neighbor, yet feel nothing but contempt for the people who actually live next door. Love for humanity in the abstract thus proves to be no more than an abstraction itself: A love for everyone in general that is fully compatible with love for no one in particular. However, a love for no one in particular is no love at all.

Something similar applies to having a home, in the sense of a homeland, a “native” land or country—that is, belonging to some “nation,” in the original sense of that term. Such a homeland or native land is what is meant by the German term Heimat, the term Jean Améry uses in the original version of the citation at the beginning of this post, from a book originally entitled (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts of this series already) Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which means “beyond guilt and atonement” (or “redemption”). In the passage cited at the beginning of this post, before its first section, Améry suggests—a suggestion that, taken in the full context of his essay, has the force of a strong assertion—that one can take full part in world culture, and find one’s true homeland or native land there, only if one first has a firmly rooted homeland already in the nation of one’s birth. That is what he means when he says that “cultural internationalism” can really only grow well in the solid soil of “national security.”

By that Améry does not mean that we must first protect our own country’s borders (maybe by building walls along them) and secure the country against attack by outsiders (such as today’s “terrorists,” who may even be home-grown: outsiders in our very midst). What he means is that only those already solidly anchored in their own “national” culture, already thoroughly “at home” in it, can then grow “beyond” it in the sense of opening up to, and coming to feel at home in, other cultures. Only an already solidly anchored Roman could really find nothing human foreign to him, as the Roman poet Terrence once famously said. Nor is that because of anything special about Romans and Roman culture. Rather, it is common to all. That is what Améry is pointing to in the lines cited above.


While no one is guaranteed absolute safety, and everyone knows suffering, there are dangers members of certain populations will never know. There is a degree of safety members of certain populations will never know. White people will never know the dangers of being black in America, systemic, unequal opportunity, racial profiling, the constant threat of police violence. Men will never know the dangers of being a woman in America, harassment, sexual violence, legislated bodies. Heterosexuals will never know what it means to experience homophobia.

—Roxane Gay, “The Seduction of Safety” (NY Times op-ed section 11/15/15)

            But it is time to explain what I actually mean by this home that seems so essential to me. [. . .] Reduced to the positive psychological basic content of the idea, home is security.

—Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 46)

Améry did not just lose his native land, his native culture, and even his native language; he was robbed of them. He was robbed of all three, which were German, and made to be a Jew instead—forced out of his home and into exile by the very Germans with whom he had always culturally identified himself and whose language had been his mothertongue. He was in effect defined into being a Jew despite never having identified himself as one. He was thereby robbed of his very identity, as he always insisted on putting it himself— that very identity he was born with and into.

In that process he was also robbed of his very name. “Hans Mayer,” the name he was given at birth—his native name, as it were—was inseparable from the identity that was taken from him when he was forcibly, “legally” alienated from his native land, culture, and language. Stripped of his original identity, the name that went with that identity no longer fit him either. He no longer knew who he was, but he knew that he was no longer that one who had borne, and been born to, that very German name.

Eventually, he chose to be known as “Jean Améry,” from the French equivalent for the German Hans plus an anagram of the German Mayer (Frenched up a bit over the e). However, that never became a true name for him, in the full and proper sense. Rather, by its very distortion of what used to be his name, the pseudonym—literally the “false name”—“Jean Améry” served to mark the very theft of his name from him, along with the theft of the identity that name suited. The pseudonym effectively marked the very trauma to which he had been subjected, memorializing it.

Robbed of all that he had been born into, all that from which he had later been involuntarily and brutally exiled, the radically destitute man who remained after being thus robbed of everything proper to him was reduced to utter homelessness. That condition was soon brought fully to his own explicit attention when he was struck by what he accurately describes as “the first blow,” a literal, physical blow delivered by the Belgian police officer who arrested him, in service to the Germans who had by then occupied Belgium, where the man who had once been known as Hans Mayer had fled after the Anschluss of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938. With that first blow, all false sense of trust, of security, that he may still have clung to up till then was completely shattered. It collapsed, demonstrating irrefutably to him that he no longer had any home left—since home, after all, is really nothing but security, once we boil the concept down to its basic psychological content.

How much home does a person need? In his essay of that name (in a book the English edition of which robs of its own original name, in what can be seen as an all too compulsive repetition of the original robbery of that book’s author’s very identity), “Jean Améry”—that is, the anonymous, utterly homeless writer who once had been Hans Mayer—replies to that question. His reply is that how much home a person needs varies inversely with how much home the person has in the first place: the more home one has, the less home one needs; and the less home one has, the more home one needs. Thus, it is the most homeless, those most without a home, who need a home the most.

That, once written, should come as no surprise to anyone who reads it: Of course it is the homeless who most need a home. What is more, although the man who used to be known as Hans Mayer never explicitly says so, we can surely extend his insight—that insight that becomes obvious as soon as it is once seen (no easy thing, since once seen it is also obvious that the more obvious something is, the harder it is to see it)—to cover names as well as homes. In answer to the question of who most needs a name we can answer with confidence that it is the most a-nonymous people, those most “without-name,” who have the most need for one.


Kierkegaard says that the very deepest, most despairing form of despair is precisely that despair in which one no longer even knows one is in despair. In fact, those who are lost that utterly in despair may even think themselves happy. Never having tasted any true happiness, they can easily confuse being happy with the dull and deadened lack of affect that goes with despair. In contrast, the knowledge that one is in despair is the indispensible first glimmering of a possibility of journeying out of despair, into hope.

In the same way, the uttermost form of homelessness is that in which the homeless no longer even recognize their homelessness, and even confuse it with being at home. Such absolutely homeless ones may tell themselves as well as others—and tell it in full honesty—that they are equally at home wherever they go. They may say, and even truly believe, that they are equally at home everywhere, when in reality they have no home at all anywhere.

In a strange way, they are telling the truth, since it is indeed true that, having no home anywhere, everywhere they find themselves they will always have the same amount of home—namely, none at all. Zero still equals zero, however many times one multiplies it, or wherever one performs the calculation.

As homeless as he was after the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made him a Jew, and thereby robbed him of the German culture, language, name and identity with and into which he had been born, even Jean Améry was never that utterly homeless. His very longing for home, a longing he knew could never be fulfilled, still left him at least some home, in that very recognition of his own homelessness. It still left him enough home to avoid such absolute homelessness as to think one is equally at home everywhere, even though one has no home at all anywhere in particular. It left him secure enough to diagnose the reality of just such utter lack of home, the total lack of home that thinks itself at home everywhere, in the world of his day.

What about us today, however? That is, what about us customers of the global market economy, us consumers of all the education and information and opportunities to learn that our ever more global culture has to offer, including all the holidays in all the exotic places among all the exotic peoples just waiting for us “explore in comfort,” as the slogan for Viking Cruises has it? How much home do we still have, and how much do we therefore need?

“Modern man exchanges his home for the world,” writes Améry (on page 56) in At the Mind’s Limits, the English translation of Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. In the original German, there is no “his” in Améry’s sentence. It just reads: “Modern man [the German is Mensch, which can also be translated by a non-gendering English term such as “people,” or the more cumbrous “human beings”] exchanges home [Heimat, “homeland or native land”] for the world.” What need have we modern people any longer for any special place to be at home, when we are equally at home anywhere we go in the whole wide world?

We have exchanged home for the world, as Améry says. “What a brilliant transaction!” he immediately adds. “Superficial knowledge of the world and languages, gained through tourism and business trips,” he writes a few lines later, “is no compensation for home. The barter proves to be a dubious one.”

Just a few more lines after that (on pages 56-57), he asks just how, “in such a world” as is acquired through such a brilliantly dubious transaction, one will

still be able to form the concept of home at all? The cities, highways, service stations, the furniture, the electric household appliances, the plates, and the spoons will be the same everywhere. It is conceivable that the language of the future world will also be the purely functional means of communication that for the natural scientist it already is today. The physicists communicate in the language of mathematics; for the cocktail party in the evening Basic English suffices. The developing world of tomorrow will certainly expel the homeland and possibly the mother tongue and will let them exist peripherally as a subject of specialized historical research only.

To dispel some of the gloom of such a globally illuminated picture, Améry gives us a glimmer of hope in his next line, where he writes: “However, we have not reached that point yet.” But then that hope dims, when we remember that the book containing that remark was first published way back in 1966.

A lot has changed since then.


In 2012, when the Arab Spring and other uprisings of popular resistance in Spain, Greece, the United States, and elsewhere were still fresh in public memory, seeming to open upon new possibilities for genuinely democratic changes of richly diverse sorts, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri brought out a short book called Declaration (distributed by Argo Novis Author Services). At one point in the book, they write of how, in our contemporary life as consumers in the global market system, we are increasingly subjected to what they call “mediatization,” one major aspect of which is putting all of us “on call” everywhere and an all times—“24/7,” as the expression has it. “With your smart phones and wireless connections, you can go anywhere and still be on the job,” they write (on page 16), “which you realize quickly means that anywhere you go you are still working! Mediatization is a major factor in the increasingly blurred division between work and life.”

Hardt and Negri then add:

            It thus seems more appropriate to think of such workers as not so much alienated [as Marx said of the workers of the world in the old days of heavy industrialization] as mediatized. Whereas the consciousness of the alienated worker is separated or divided, the consciousness of the mediatized is subsumed or absorbed in the web. The consciousness of the mediatized is not really split but fragmented and dispersed. The media, furthermore, don’t really make you passive. In fact, they constantly call on you to participate, to choose what you like, to contribute your opinions, to narrate your life. The media are constantly responsive to your likes and dislikes, and in return you are constantly attentive. The mediatized is thus a subjectivity that is paradoxically neither active nor passive bur rather constantly absorbed in attention.

By that analysis, the whole point of mediatization is to keep our attention fixed on the screens of our ubiquitous, ever more attention-demanding electronic devices— Tweating, Facebooking, streaming TV and movies, playing digital games, catching up on the breaking news, or whatever. The purpose is to keep our attention riveted on such things, and therefore diverted from doing anything that might opt us out of the 24/7 global consumerist work-a-day world. The point or purpose is to secure the global market system against any risk that we, the people, might join any such thing as the Occupy movement. It subverts in advance any chance we might have to join any community that might disrupt the ongoing uprooting from home of us all, an uprooting essential to the continued smooth operation of the global market system. The point is to keep us all literally preoccupied, that is, “seized in advance.” That way, we may never notice just how radically we are in need of a home—so much in need of one, that we don’t even know how utterly homeless we have become.

What hope, if any, remains, can only grow there, precisely where the greatest danger is, as Hölderlin said long ago. Appropriately, for their part Hardt and Negri find just such hope in the very media that so effectively “mediatize” us. They see hope in the potential that Facebook and Twitter and all the other twisted tweaks of contemporary digital technology offer to a populace, a people, who want to reclaim for themselves a place to stand—a place such as Tahrir Square in Cairo in the Arab Spring of 2011 became, to give one instance of where that digital potential for resistance and liberation has already been realized.

May Hardt and Negri be right!

At any rate, if there is any hope to be found at all anywhere any longer, whether in the media that preoccupy us or anywhere else, it can be realized only when we begin at last to feel how utterly in need of a home we have all become. Our only hope lies in becoming aware of our very homelessness—whoever “we” are, all of us anonymous ones, from the millions who are trying to broach Europe’s borders today, to the bloggers sitting comfortably in their overlarge houses, as I am while I type this blog-post. Only in the dawning awareness of our own universally shared homelessness can the hope of every finding our way home begin really to shine for us. The community of the homeless is the only community left for us, all us anonymous ones, to choose today.

“I don’t know my way home!” says David Warner’s mentally challenged character at the end of the bloodbath of Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah’s old movie. “It’s okay,” replies Dustin Hoffman’s character, speaking for us all, “I don’t either.”

Published in: on November 16, 2015 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (4)

This is the fourth in a consecutive series of posts under the same general title.

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


The same anxiety is visible everywhere, the same deep panic, provoking the same upwellings of dignity, and not indignation.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated by Robert Hurley (Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 14)


. . . an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

[I]n spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to If This Is a Man and The Truce, dual edition (London: Abacus, 1987, pages 382, 386)

When one part of a community has harmed another part, reconciliation between the two parts is impossible without forgiveness, taken as the resolution on the part of those harmed not to make “bad use” of their memories of the harm done them—use of those memories for feeding the desire to harm in turn. Such forgiveness, neither forced nor feigned but freely given, is itself only possible for those who have managed to free themselves from the constraints against giving it.

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

In cases such as civil war, such victory belongs first to those who are on the winning side, as Arsinius and his fellow democrats were in the Athenian civil war against “the Thirty” in 403 BCE. The resolution of amnesty then declared by the victors for the vanquished was the “invention of amnesty,” according to Giorgio Agamben in Stasis, as discussed in my second post of this same series. That resolution on the part of those who won the war did not of itself effect full reconciliation between them and those they had just vanquished, but it made such reconciliation possible. Full actualization of that possibility had to wait for a response—perhaps never forthcoming—of genuine contrition on the part of the losing side. Some of the vanquished no doubt experienced such contrition, and were fully reconciled with the community of the city as a whole. However, some no doubt were not, and continued to plot for a return to power. At any rate, as Agamben observes, civil war remained as a permanent possibility within the reestablished peace, a possibility the leaving open of which was foundational for that very peace.

What about very different sorts of cases, however? How does victory come then?

To take one prime example, what about cases such as Primo Levi’s after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II? That liberation from the Nazi death camp system was not by itself sufficient to bring about Primo Levi’s liberation from his own constraints against offering forgiveness to his German tormentors. After the camp was liberated and Levi returned home to Turin, and continuing on until the time of his death (which many think was a suicide) in 1987, Levi remained unwilling and unable to forgive those who had brutalized him and his fellow survivors, and killed millions of others. To the end of his life, he refused—with entire, convincing justice—to forgive those who had brutalized and killed so many in the camps. He refused to forgive not only the individual Germans directly responsible, from Hitler to the lowliest Auschwitz guard subjecting inmates to routine degradation. He refused, as well, to forgive the German people as whole, that people who—as Levi writes in the afterword to the 1987 Abacus reissue of the joint publication of If This Is a Man and The Truce (his chronicles respectively of his internment at Auschwitz and of his eventual return trip home to Turin)—if they did not know what was happening in the camps, did not know because they did not want to know: they were willfully ignorant.

The first line cited above as an epigraph to this first section of today’s post comes at the very end of a paragraph that begins by remarking that, despite the absence throughout his writings of any judgments containing “expressions of hate for the Germans” or of a “desire for revenge” against them, Levi would not want his “abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” The full paragraph then continues (page 382):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive as single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

So what about Primo Levi? That is, what about cases such as the victims of the Holocaust, or those who bear witness for them, as Primo Levi did? Where does forgiveness, and with it the reconciliation for which it opens the way, belong in those cases?

Or what about cases such as that of Jimmy Santiago Baca?


            To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards.

. . . as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It had been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act. Despite the guilt of letting a lot of solid convicts down, not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (Grove Press, 2001, pages 166, 169)

The forgiveness towards the whole world, himself included, that Jimmy Santiago Baca eventually experienced in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, as he describes it in the passage with which I ended my preceding post of this series, could only come to him once he had found a place to stand in order concretely and effectively to resist his oppression, and thereby emerge victorious over it. Forgiveness issues only from dignity, not from abjectness; and before one can forgive offenses against one’s dignity—truly forgive them, and not just be forced to feign forgiveness—one must reclaim that dignity itself, reclaim it from those who have tried to take it away and claim it solely for themselves.

In a system such as that within which Jimmy Santiago Baca had always been forced to live, it took a truly unusual combination of circumstances for him ever to recover his own dignity, and with it the power to forgive. Initially subjected to such deprivation by the facts of his birth, and then abandoned by his parents when he was ten, he lived first with his grandmother, then in an orphanage, before ending living on the streets. When he was only twenty-one he was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to prison, where he spent six and one-half years, three of them in isolation.

It was not until he finally found his way to a place to stand where he could refuse any longer to take part in the system that brutalized him, that he was at last able to reclaim what was always rightfully his to begin with: his own dignity. In turn, it was only then that he was able to begin the journey in freedom that eventually led to his experience of forgiveness—toward his parents, himself, the whole world—in the cathedral in Santa Fe.

To carve out for himself that place to stand, the most crucial lesson he had to learn was how not to keep giving power to his own oppressors, continually enabling them, precisely by lashing out reactively against their blows. He says in the passage cited above that “as a kid” he at first responded to strikes against him as all kids do at first, when they do not yet have any option beyond “taking the hurt that [comes their] way.” But after a time he learned, as all kids given time do, another option, one that appeared better than just “taking” whatever harm comes one’s way. That was the option, as he puts it, “to strike back.”

The next sentence—and, even more, the entire context of the story of his life up to that point, as he has been telling it in A Place to Stand—makes it clear that what he means here by “striking back” is lashing out, as a cornered animal might. However, far from such lashing out allowing him to reclaim his dignity from those who have claimed it all for themselves, it merely gave them what they expected—and needed, to cement their dominance. Prison guards and administrators, most especially including prison wardens, expect exactly that. In fact, whether deliberately or not (since many such things are a matter of just drifting in the direction of the institution within which one works, rather than of deliberate, individual planning and decision), those who exercise authority over the likes of Jimmy Santiago Baca and other actual or potential “criminals” and convicts actually encourage such reactions, since it plays right into their hands. By lashing out, the oppressed do not opt out of the system of oppression, effectively resisting it. Instead, they reinforce it. Just ask all the “repeat offenders” who are kept constantly moving in and out through the swinging doors of our prison system, a system which if not deliberately designed for the very purpose of engendering repeat offenses may as well be.

Jimmy Santiago Baca soon learned just the lesson that the repressive system into which he was born wanted him to learn: He learned, “as [he] grew a little older,” to lash out whenever he was struck by the blows that continued to be delivered against him. After all, that seemed to be “the quickest way to get rid of the pain.” Given his circumstances, that was the only option he was allowed to become aware of, so it was the only one he really had, to avoid his own hurt: by diverting himself from it, to focus instead on hurting back in turn. Intelligent and quick to learn as he was, he learned that lesson well. That is precisely how and why he ended up in prison in the first place, then was kept there for so many years.

“Until now”: until one time when he finally found a place to stand. That one time at last he stopped giving power to those by whom he had so long been overpowered. “This time [he] didn’t lash out,” as everyone—everyone: those being conditioned no less than those doing the conditioning—expected. By not lashing out reactively “this time,” he “short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con in supposed to act.” Instead of lashing out again, “this time” Jimmy Santiago Baca just opted out of the whole system, simply by staying in his cell and refusing to go out and do the work assigned him.

Sometimes, the most powerful act of resistance is the refusal to act. Sometimes, it is precisely by not striking back that we in fact strike back most effectively.


Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense. [. . .] Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight [. . .].

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback by it, for he trembled in every limb. “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” said he. To which, I returned a polite “Yes sir”.

—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, pages 186-187)


I finally relearned what I and my kind often had forgotten and what was more crucial than the moral power to resist: to hit back.

Before me I see the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor. In Auschwitz he once hit me in the face because of a trifle; that is how he was used to dealing with all the Jews under his command. At his moment—I felt it with piercing clarity—it was up to me to go a step further in my prolonged appeals case against society. In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that in the end it was I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. [. . .] I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face. [. . .] I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, translated by Stuart Rosenthal (University of Indiana Press, 1977), pp. 90-91

The “roots” which Frederick Douglass “forgot,” precisely in order to remember something even more fundamental and important—the pledge he’d made himself while ill, not long before the confrontation he describes above, with the doltish and brutal slave overseer Covey—were his Christian roots. Specifically, at issue are the same roots as those to which Primo Levi refers, in the epigraph to the first section of this post, when he writes of a certain “Jewish and Christian precept,” namely that of “forgiving my enemy.” Douglass says that he had to “forget” that precept, which was part of his own rich heritage as a member of the African American slave-community, in order to honor his pledge to himself to resist the next time he was actively abused. He had to “forget,” which here means to suspend, to put out of play, one part of his inheritance, precisely in order to remember another part of that same inheritance—an older, even more deeply rooted part, one that actually made the other, newer part possible in the first place: his own human dignity, that very dignity he had now resolved to defend.

It is that very same dignity that will not permit Primo Levy to forgive the Germans, either as individuals or collectively, for what they did to him and millions of others in the Nazi concentration camp system. The inner logic of that system itself drove inexorably toward the elimination all possibility of resistance, and in the process drove that system and all who were responsible for it “beyond guilt and atonement” (as Jean Améry puts it, to translate the original German title of what appears in English as At the Mind’s Limits), and therefore beyond all possibility of being forgiven—at least by any human judge to borrow a way of speaking from Levi himself.

The point of resistance, in the sense at issue for Douglass, for Levi, and for Améry—and most certainly for Jimmy Santiago Baca as well—is not to succeed in overpowering in turn those who have once overpowered us. The point of resisting oppression is not to get a chance to oppress others in turn, either those who have oppressed us or innocent bystanders. The point is, rather, to reclaim one’s dignity.*


     Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”

Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”

The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground.  “I will not.”

—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribners,2014, p. 264)

Jimmy Santiago Baca had to learn to refrain from “lashing out” against his oppression in order to find a place to stand and truly resist. Frederick Douglass found his own place to stand and resist only in striking back against his immediate oppressor. The fictional Frederick of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel of guilt and redemption in World War II Germany, finds it in refusing an order to strike out against a defenseless prisoner in a German military prep-school run by an good Nazi headmaster, Bastian. The commandant has ordered each boy in turn to throw a bucket of freezing water on an already frozen and dying prisoner who has been chained to a stake on the school’s parade-ground. When his turn comes, Frederick refuses to follow the commandant’s orders. He resists by refusing to be an accomplice to the brutality.

What matters in all these and similar cases is to find the way no longer just to react but rather truly to resist. To resist is what counts, regardless of whether that resistance takes the form of striking or of refusing to strike, as circumstances require. Either way, in resistance oppression itself is struck, and subordination is refused.

Frederick’s fictional resistance took the same form Jimmy Santiago Baca’s real one did: a refusal to follow coercive authority’s orders. Both refusals led to painful consequences, however. Never does that invalidate the resistance, however. To repeat something already said above, the point of resistance is not to overpower what has overpowered one, but to find one’s way to the reclamation of one’s own freedom and dignity. The free can still be made to suffer and die as the price for that reclamation. Indeed, it is always in the interests of coercive power to make them do so. That helps to maintain order.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, is made to suffer isolation and repeated postponements of release from prison even despite his having “rehabilitated” himself completely—not only with no help from the prison system, but with that system actively working against him—teaching himself to read and write and becoming a regionally and nationally recognized poet while still incarcerated. If the warden of the prison where he was entombed had had his way, Jimmy Santiago Baca would still be there. From all the evidence, that warden still resents it that his erstwhile prisoner is no longer imprisoned. It is indeed hard to overestimate the resentment of the privileged toward the unprivileged.

Frederick, the character in Doerr’s novel, suffers even more severe consequences for his refusal. He is subjected to the prep-school equivalent of what the Nazis came to call “special treatment” in the camps. In swift reaction against Frederick for his refusal to obey orders, Bastian, the school commandant, singles him out and makes an example of him by repeatedly unleashing all the other, “good” German students to chase him for invented offenses against school discipline. Finally, at the end of one such chase Frederick is no longer able to outrun them, and they manage to catch him. They then beat him so severely that he becomes permanently cognitively impaired, reduced to little more than a vegetable.

Primo Levi tells yet another story of another resister, another real one to go with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is simply killed for resisting. The story, which occurs at one point in The Drowned and the Saved (Indiana University Press, 1980, pages 41-42), is that of a “newcomer” to Auschwitz, that is, a newly arrived inmate who has not yet learned the lessons that one must learn very quickly at Auschwitz to have any chance for surviving even for a while. The newcomer at issue had arrived at the camp “when he still had his full strength,” and with it the power to assert his own dignity. He soon did just that, in an act of resistance. “He had been beaten when the soup was being distributed,” such beatings being everyday occurrences at Auschwitz. But they were not everyday yet for the newcomer, who “dared to shove the distributor-functionary” in turn. In reaction to such hauteur, “the latter’s colleagues rushed to his aid, and the culprit was made an example of by being drowned, his head held down in the soup tub.”

As Levi himself observes here and in a number of other places in his writings, it is hardly any wonder that, under such circumstances as existed in the Nazi camps, the telos of which was to eliminate the very possibility of resistance, there was so little rebellion in the Nazi camps. The wonder is rather that there was any at all, which there was.

Just before telling the story of the newcomer drowned in the soup tub, Levi observes (page 41) that in the camps it was “an unwritten and iron law” that Zurückschlagen, which literally means “striking back,” will not be tolerated: “answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression, and anyone who commits it must be made an example. Other functionaries rush to the aid of the threatened order, and the culprit is beaten with rage and method until he’s tamed or dead. Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

Picking up the same thread again after telling the story of the soup-drowned newcomer, Levi goes on a bit later to write (page 42): “ It is a duty of righteous men to make war on all underserved privilege.” That duty is owed by all, to all, but most especially to those who have been deprived of the very possibility of participating in such a “war”—deprived of the very possibility of affirming their own dignity by striking back at all. Ernst Bloch said, famously, that it is for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us. So, too, is it for the sake those who have been stripped of their dignity and denied all power to resist oppression that we must affirm our own dignity by striking back against oppression.

Of course, the easier, softer way is just not to let oneself know about the oppression in the first place, remaining willfully ignorant. Then one can avoid all responsibility—at least, as Levi would put it, before any human tribunal.

*     *     *     *     *     *

This series on “Making Room for Community” will continue with my next post.

* On the other hand, power that goes beyond all possibility of resistance, and thus beyond all possibility of those subjected to it ever reclaiming their own dignity, goes beyond all guilt open to forgiveness and redemption, and becomes truly unforgiveable—a topic to which I plan to return eventually, in a subsequent post.


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