Jean Améry: Discordant Echoes to Levi–#2


I continue with entries from my philosophical journal addressing the work of Auschwitz survivor–and later suicide–Jean Améry.  In the entry below, under the date I originally wrote it, I begin with some reflections occasioned by my ongoing reading, last spring and summer, parallel to my reading of Améry and others concerning trauma, of 20th century French phenomenologist’s Michel Henry’s massive L’essence de la manifestation. 


Friday, September 19, 2008

Henry, L’essence:  Insofar as suffering and joy are [according to Henry] tied together in an identity as the very life of the absolute, then (pp. 845-846):  “In Christianity it is no longer a question of combating suffering, whether it be in trying to eliminate its exterior causes, as in the Western world of technology, or in abolishing all interior resistance against it, as in Buddhism, or yet in  progressively blunting sensibility in the manner of winning through to a heroic sensibility, as in stoicism.”

In reading such remarks this morning I can’t help thinking back to reading Améry yesterday on the vacuity of philosophy (in a diatribe directed especially to Heidegger as example) in the face of the reality laid bare at Auschwitz.  Certainly it would be nothing but a sadistic joke to burden Auschwitz victims further by telling them their “suffering” is really joy.  [Nor, certainly, would Henry, who was himself active in the French  Resistance, ever do such a thing.]

In fact, the issue of “Auschwitz”/trauma as  such might well be joined as that between what Henry espouses–the identity of suffering and joy–and what Améry represents–the irreducibility of the suffering of the torture victim/Auschwitz inmate/other equivalent–how to “adjudicate” this issue is the issue.

Alternatively, the issue is to “adjudicate” between what, for example, [Dori] Laub reveals as the truth of the uprising at Auschwitz, which, as I read that in the relevant entry above [and posted earlier, in my series of posts on the work of Laub and Shoshana Felman], can be taken as the Biblical recognition, in the Psalms, of the ultimate transitoriness of the powerful and wealthy (“I passed by again, they were not there”), on the one hand, and Améry/the reality of Auschwitz as such, on the other:  Which is the real reality, in effect?

How “adjudicate” that?  Especially when it is clear to me that in one sense it cannot be adjudicated:  One cannot find in favor of one side over the other.  Both “testimonies” carry equal weight here–an absolute weight.  They are not theses or claims being advanced such that only one of the two can be true.  Rather, both are true, yet it also seems that they contradict each other.

The task, perhaps, is to explore the exact nature of  their “contradiction.”


Soon after his remak above, Henry (pp. 851 ff.) discusses Kierkegaard, in particular the latter’s definition of despair as always despair of/over one’s self, and most especially in the form of despair over being unable to escape one’s self, as requiring the relinquishment of one’s definitive passivity of being, passivity as the very essence of selfhood, of givenness to oneself.  There may be something there to explore with regard to torture/Auschwitz.  Certainly the tortured would like to get rid of the passivity manifest in torture and [the] suffering [it brings], and “despair” of ever being able to escape that passivity.  [Yet it would be blasphemous in any fashion to “accuse” torture victims or Auschwitz inmates of “despair” conceived as some sort of moral failing or “sin.”]


I need to continue to think about all this.


Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, p. 89:  “It is certainly true that dignity can be bestowed only by society. . . . Still, the degraded person, threatened by death, is able to convince society of his dignity by taking his fate upon himself and at the same time rising in revolt against it”–i.e., as he goes on to make clear, by striking back (p. 90):  “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.”  P. 91:  “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.”

Compares directly to Laub and, in the last remark, even to Badiou.

Also, however, raises again “the issue,” only now in terms of resisting/not resisting evil.


Améry, Limits, last chapter, “On the Necessity and Impossibility [especially for a Jew like him, with no religious or cultural background in Judaism] of Being a Jew,” p. 94: 

But since being a Jew not only means that I bear within me a catastrophe that occurred yesterday and cannot be ruled out for tomorrow, it is–beyond a duty–also fear.  Every morning when I get up I can read the Auschwitz number on my forearm, something that touches the deepest and most closely intertwined roots of my existence; indeed I cannot even be sure if this is not my entire existence.  Then I feel approximately as I did back then when I got a taste of my first blow from the policeman’s fist.  Every day anew I lose my trust in the world.

 P. 95:  “Without trust in the world I face my surroundings as a Jew who is alien and alone,  and all that I can manage is to get along with my foreignness.  I must accept being foreign as an essential element of my personality, insist upon it as if  upon an inalienable possession.  Still and each day anew I find myself alone.”


 P. 99:  “I . . . am not ‘traumatized,’ but rather my spiritual and psychic condition corresponds completely to reality.”

 His point is unassailable (it would be arrogance and presumption to call it into question), but how he puts it reveals a certain understanding of trauma that I do question–or perhaps it would be better to say that I would relativize.

 (He continues interestingly:  “The consciousness of my being a Holocaust Jew is not an ideology.  It may be compared to  the class consciousness that Marx tried to reveal to the proletarians of the nineteenth century.”  If so, then “Marxism” is also not an ideology, and it is also unassailable.)

 P. 100 (next to last page [of the book]):  ” ‘Hear, oh Israel’ is not my concern.  Only a ‘hear, oh world’ wants angrily to break out from within me.  The six-digit number on my forearm demands it.  This is what the awareness of catastrophe, the dominant force of my existence, requires of me.”

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