Jean Améry: Discordant Echoes to Levi–#1

4/27/09

 

As last summer came to an end, my reading went on from Primo Levi’s writings, as addressed in my preceding four posts, to those of another Auschwitz survivor, Jean Améry.  The entry below is from my philosophical journal at that time, and is the first in a series I will post addressing Améry’s work.

 

 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

 

Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits:  Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, trans. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1980), Preface to the Reissue, 1977, pp. x-xi.  [After remarking that “the present reflections . . . stand in the service of an enlightenment,” but that “enlightenment is not the same as clarification,” he writes:] 

Clarification would also amount to disposal [cf. Lanzman], settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history.  My book is meant to aid in preventing precisely this.  For nothing is resolved, no conflict is settled, no remembering has become a mere memory.  What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted.  I rebel:  against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus falsifies it in a revolting way.  Nothing has healed . . .

 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

 

Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, p. 14: 

What I felt [sic.] to comprehend at that time [in Auschwitz] still appears to me a certainty:  whoever is, in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself.  He is not the captive of his individuality; rather is part of a spiritual continuity that is interrupted nowhere, not even in Auschwitz. . . . For the unbelieving person reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits. . . . For the believer reality is clay that he molds, a problem that he solves.

 

This stands as a sort of confirmation of Badiou on the “eternity” of the subject, who is always defined by a truth event and his “confidence” in it, as opposed to the mortality of the mere “human animal,” the “individual” as opposed to the “subject.”

 

 

 

P. 18:  “Occasionally, perhaps [for the “intellectual” in Auschwitz, such as Améry himself] that disquieting magus from Alemanic regions [Heidegger, of course] came to mind who said that beings appear to us only in the light of Being, but that man forgot Being by fixing on beings.  Well now, Being.  But in the camp it was more convincingly apparent than on the outside that beings and the light of Being get you nowhere.”  (Granted—and it must be faced, as I’ll return to—but might not the fixation on beings in the oblivion of the forgottenness of Being have been what made Auschwitz itself possible, in the first place?)  P. 19:  “Like the lyric stanza [from Hölderlin he’s earlier written about] . . . , the philosophic declarations also lost their transcendency and then and there became in part objective observations, in part dull chatter.  Where they still meant something they appeared trivial, and where they were not trivial they no longer meant anything.”  Later on the same page:  “We did not become wiser in Auschwitz. . .”  However, as he adds on p. 20: 

And yet, the time in the camps was not entirely without value for us (and when I way us I mean the nonreligious and politically independent intellectuals).  For we brought with us the certainty that remains ever unshakeable, that for the greatest part the intellect is a ludus and that we were nothing more—or, better said, before we entered the camp were nothing more—than hominess ludentes.  With that we lost a good deal of arrogance, of metaphysical conceit, but also quite a bit of our native joy in the intellect and what we falsely imagined was the sense of life.

Later, same page, last lines of his first chapter (“At the Mind’s Limits”):  “the word always dies where the claim of some reality is total. It died for us a long time ago.  And we were not even left with the feeling that we must regret its departure.”

 

Then, in his next chapter, “Torture,” he writes (p. 26):  “. . . even in direct experience everyday, reality is nothing but codified abstraction [which sound very like Heidegger, actually].  Only in rare moments of life [such as the torture he is about to describe and address] do we truly stand face to face with reality.  It does not have to be something as extreme as torture.  Arrest is enough and, if  need be, the first blow one receives.”  (So it is a matter of trauma, where the datable occurrence is the occasion and/or emblem of the “reality” that reveals itself through it.  It is not the datable occurrence itself that is traumatic, but the revelation of reality that takes place in that occurrence.)  Continuing the discussion (p. 27):  “The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come.”  And thus, already at that first blow (p. 28), “trust in the world breaks down.”

 

Life void of all such trust—that is what trauma gives us to understand.  Thus, the issue is to find out what it is, to “understand” that—to live continuously in the “knowledge that there is nowhere to go, no help to come, no room for such trust any longer.”

 

 

 

P.35, still on torture:  “A slight pressure by the tool-wielding hand is enough to turn the other—along with his head, in which are perhaps stored Kant and Hegel, and all nine [Beethoven] symphonies, and the World as Will and Representation—into a shrilly squealing piglet at slaughter.”

 

As he has already written, there is no return from the revelation the tortured are given of the face of reality.  P. 36, on his own torture:  “It is still not over.  Twenty-two years later I am still dangling over the ground by dislocated arms, panting, and accusing myself [in hopes of that stopping the torture—since he has no real information to divulge].  In such an instance, there is no ‘repression.’”

 

P. 40 (end of chapter):  “Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.  The shame of destruction cannot be erased.  Trust in the world . . . will not be regained. . . . It is fear that henceforth reigns over him.  Fear—and also what is called resentments.  They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.”

 

 

 

P. 70:  “. . . 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.”

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