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.

Still on the Bridge: Locating Hiroshima Today

Sixty-seven years ago today—on August 6, 1945–the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima.

In 1958 German philosopher Günther Anders, who was also Jewish and as such had had to leave Germany under the Nazis, spending most of the years from then until the end of the Second World War in the United States, flew to Japan to take part in the Fourth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs and for Disarmament taking place in Tokyo that year.  While in Japan he visited, along with fellow delegates to the Conference, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cities so far ever subjected to nuclear bombing.  On August the 6th that year, the thirteenth anniversary of the bombing, he was in Hiroshima.

Anders kept a journal of his visit to Japan that year.  In 1963 he published that journal under the title Der Mensch auf der BrückeThe Man on the Bridge—a title he took from his own closing remarks at the Conference, delivered in Tokyo on August 20, 1958, two weeks after the anniversary at Hiroshima.  Here is my translation of those remarks, by the citation of which Anders begins his published book of 1963:

On one of the bridges of Hiroshima stands a man who strikes a tune and sings.  Look at him.  Where you would expect to see his face, you find no face, rather a veil:  Because he no longer has any face.  And where you expect a hand, you would find no hand, rather an iron hook:  Because he no longer has any hand.

So long as it not granted for us to accomplish what we have come together here [namely, in Tokyo at the Conference he is attending] to accomplish:  the exorcising of the danger that took two-hundred-thousand with it when broke out for the first time [at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945], just so long will that robotic figure stand on the bridge and sing.  And so long as he continues to stand on that bridge, just so long will he continue to stand on all the bridges that might lead into our common future.  As a sign of our disgrace.  As a messenger.

Let us release that man from his office.  Let us do what’s necessary, so that we can say to him:

“You have become unnecessary.  You may be go.”

Later yet, in 1982, twenty-four years after first delivering those remarks and nineteen after first publishing them, Anders reissued The Man on the Bridge, along with two related other works of his, under the title Hiroshima ist überallHiroshima Is Everywhere.  That is certainly a fitting title, since so long as that man remains on that bridge, then, to be sure, wherever we are, there is Hiroshima.

As Elie Wiesel once observed, after “Auschwitz,” after the occurrence of all that that name has come to stand for, “we are all Jews”—all of us, regardless of who else we may be, Israeli or Arab or German or American or Yemeni or Zulu or Zuni or whatever, it just doesn’t matter which.  Similarly, as Anders in effect said back in 1958, after “Hiroshima,” which means after the dropping of the atom bomb over that city on August 6, 1945, we all—all of us Jews, whether Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Buddhist or Shinto or Wiccan or atheist or all or none of the above–live in Hiroshima.

In fact, in far more ways than one Auschwitz and Hiroshima are inseparable.  That is, the going-universal of being a Jew and the going-ubiquitous of Hiroshima are forever yoked to one another, and that yoke cannot be thrown off.  That both occurred during World War II–a war in which Germany, which perpetrated “Auschwitz” (that is, the extermination of the Jews of Europe), and Japan, upon which America perpetrated “Hiroshima” (that is, the nuking of human beings), were allied, on the losing side—is only a relatively superficial dimension of a far deeper connection.  To formulate that connection in short:  After Auschwitz, which made all of us Jews, the dropping of the atomic bomb in August, 1945, made Hiroshima into the only place available any longer for human habitation.  When the bomb dropped, Hiroshima became the universal human habitat, the single, singular place where we human beings, who by then had all been made Jews, can–and must–live.  From now on, Hiroshima is where all human being have to live.

The only question is:  When, if ever, will we start living there?  Since that’s the only place we have left where we can live after August 6, 1945, that question could also be asked this way:  When will we start to live at all?  To live, and not just hang on till our lives are over, letting them run on beside us, as it were, while we sit there next to them, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for it all to end?  When will we begin to set up at last a human habitation, now that our old haunts are no longer haunt-able?

Early on in The Man on the Bridge,Anders remarks that after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima anyone of conscience had to be ashamed to be a member of the same race that could do such a thing.  Anders is very careful to explain that the “race” he means in that remark is the human race, the one and only race to which we all–all human beings whatsoever, whoever we are, with no exceptions—truly belong, the only truly “natural” race, as opposed to such arbitrary, fictive entities as “the Jewish race” or ‘the German race,” “the white race” or “the black race.”  The race Anders is talking about is, then, the same one that gave Robert Antelme, who survived the Nazi camps as a French prisoner of war, the title for his memoirs of life in those camps—The Human Race, a resounding document of enduring resistance.

Finally to inhabit Hiroshima, the only humanly habitable place left anywhere on earth (or “off-planet,” for that matter), is the only way we human beings, universal Jews that Auschwitz has made us be, will ever again, after “Hiroshima,” be able to stop being ashamed of ourselves for simply being human.  It is no less true to say that only by such real inhabitation, such actual dwelling and home-making, can we at last truly join the human race—the truly human race—instead of just hanging out around its fringes while we wait to be buried.

Anders is wonderfully clear, at least in the essentials, about what it would take, really to join that race—what it would take to at last be able to dismiss the man on the bridge from his station, with our thanks for doing his duty so faithfully for so long.  He is especially clear that to “exorcize the danger” that was unleashed and set lose to roam the earth on August 6, 1945, involves something far more and altogether different from just enacting and then enforcing, however widely, stringently, and effectively, treaties or pacts or vows or laws or rules or regulations or intentions or resolutions for everyone everywhere never ever forever anywhere at all to drop “the bomb” again.  As Anders puts it, even if we were to succeed in altogether dismantling the global nuclear arsenal, we would still not be able to address the real danger, which lies in this, that we still know how to make those bombs again.  In effect Anders points out that, try as we might, we cannot lobotomize ourselves into forgetting that knowledge, that know-how or techo-logy.

Let nuclear disarmament be global and enduring as it could conceivably be.  Let all the bombs be defused and beaten into plowshares.  Let all the resulting radioactive garbage be miraculously disappeared.  What Anders calls the danger would still grow no less.  If anything, it would become even greater, since that absence of all the toys of the nuclear warriors would just spawn a deep and deeply betraying sense of complacency and safety, calling out “peace! peace!” where there is no peace and where, as Nietzsche taught more than a century ago, the devastation just keeps on growing.

Anders took an active role, alongside such more famous colleagues as Bertrand Russell, in the burgeoning anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as he tried forcefully to call attention to what he saw as the very real danger that then and still faces the whole human race.  Around the same time, Heidegger, a very different figure who would never have joined such a movement and even made various remarks that might be taken by the unthinking to speak against what Anders says, actually pointed in the same direction.  The real risk, according to Heidegger, was not that another atomic bomb might be dropped over another city and citizenship, or even over scores of them.  The real danger emerged, he consistently argued, even if “that day” never came.  The real danger manifested when the bombs did not fall, and had even been neutralized.  The real danger was that then the monstrous distortion of human being and habitation that the bomb only symbolized would cease even to be visible at all to anyone any longer.  In effect, we might say, Anders’ man would still be on the bridge, but no one would any longer be able to see him there—or even that there was a bridge.  Then, to use the way of putting it I’ve been using above, all prospects for our race, the human race, would truly be eradicated once and for all, beyond hope of all resurrection, however miraculous.

To paraphrase a famous line from Alcoholics Anonymous, “the bomb” is not the problem.  The bomb is just a symbol of the problem.  The problem, as usual, lies not in our stars, but in us.  The problem is ourselves, the human race itself—or, rather, that so far that race remains without members, since the solution to the problem the scandal of which the man is sent to stand on the bridge to keep us all mindful is joining that race.  To put the same point just a bit differently, as I also suggested above, the solution, if there is one, is truly to inhabit Hiroshima, our henceforth only universal habitat, home for all us Jews.

Anders gives us the hint and continuing guide that we need to begin doing just that.  I will end this post after citing it.

He writes early on in his Hiroshima-Nagasaki journal, that the solution is to insist on maintaining, not our cherished security, but our in-security.  “What faces us,” he writes, is “the endlessness of insecurity.  And our never-ending task consists of this, that we be careful that this very insecurity never ends.”

Today, sixty-seven years to the day after Hiroshima went global, thanks to America’s gifting it with “the bomb,” Anders’ man is still standing sentinel on his bridge.  Hiroshima is still everywhere.  We should all still be ashamed of ourselves for belonging to the human race.  We are all still far too secure.

Published in: on August 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lyotard, Heidegger, the Jews, and “the jews”–#3


Below is the third and final entry from my philosophical journal addressing Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews”. After beginning to reread Lyotard’s book in January of this year, other things intervened, such that I did not return to it for two months–hence the date below, slightly more than two months after the entry I posted here just two days ago.

After concluding my remarks on my rereading of Lyotard’s book, in the entry below I go on to consider a critique of his thought about trauma and representation by fellow French philosopher Jacques Rancière.  What I say below is by no means my final word on Jacques Rancière’s critique, but it shows the extent to which, at the date of the entry, I had been able to think through some of the important issues he raises.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

For the last day or two I’ve gone back to Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews”, which I started reading back in January, reading through the first of the two parts of the book, “the jews,” before putting  it down to go on to other things that needed my attention.  Well, now I’ve gone back and reread “the jews” yet again, then went on to “Heidegger,” the second part of the book.

In going again through the first half of the book called “the jews,” I hit upon a couple of additional passages worth noting down in this journal–additional to what I put down back in January.  Here they are:

P. 10:  “Here [in the case of the Holocaust] to fight against forgetting means to fight to remember that  one  forgets as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for  certain.  It means to fight against forgetting the precariousness of what has been established, of the reestablished past; it is a fight for the sickness whose recovery is simulated.”  Thus, for trauma as for addiction, genuine recovery is the refusal of any pretense of recovery, which is to say the refusal of any claim to be cured.  In terms of the injunction “never forget,” it is precisely to refuse to countenance the idea that it is possible to remember, in the sense of “remembering” being equated with keeping a memento or memorial, in general a representation, present before one.

Then, from section 6, two passages, the first on p.19:

Whatever the invoked sense [of primal trauma, as it were–e.g., Freud’s “primal scene”] might be, in the night of  time, of the individual or of the species, this scene that has not taken place, that has not had a stage, that has not even been, because it is not representable [Note how, here, he clearly qualifies what he is saying:  If to be = to be represented, vorgestellt, then trauma cannot “be”] but which is, and is ex-, and will remain it whatever representations, qualifications one might make of it, with which one might endow it; this event ek-sists inside, in-sisting, as what exceeds every imaginative, conceptual, rational sequence.

Then, next page (20):

It follows that psychoanalysis, the search for lost time, can only be interminable, like literature and like true history (i.e., the one that is not historicism but anamnesis):  the kind of  history that does not forget that forgetting is not a breakdown of memory but the immemorial always “present” but never here-now, always torn apart in the time of consciousness, of chronology, between a too early and a too late–the too early of a first blow to the apparatus that it does not feel, and the too late of a second blow where something intolerable is felt.  A soul struck without striking a blow.

Now, on to the second part of the book, “Heidegger.”

P, 51-52 (first two pages of 2nd part), invoking “another urgency,” namely, one other than that manufactured by “the politics of publishing” [at play in “the Heidegger affair”–the agitation over Heidegger’s Nazi connections that was especially disruptive in French intellectual circles in the 1980s]:

Thought can be “urgent”; indeed, this urgency is essential to its being.  One is urged or pressured to think because something, an event, happens before one is able to think it. This event is not the “sensational.”  Under the guise of the sensational, it is forgotten [as 9/11 was forgotten precisely in and under the immediate, even simultaneous, sensationalization of it].  In any case, the event does not “present” itself, it will have happened:  thought finds itself seized and dispossessed by it according to its possibility as regards the indeterminate; it realizes its lack of preparedness for what will have come about, it understands its state of infancy.  The Heidegger affair will have come to our thought in such a way; it will have found it unprepared despite denials on both sides.  The urgency to investigate it when it is prescribed by the publishing powers is a way of precipitating its closure or classification.  In claiming that thought is unprepared for the affair I am eager to maintain its urgency and its pressure, to leave it open to the most patient questioning.

In effect, then, “the Heidegger affair” is a trauma for thought/philosophy.  What is more, isn’t that “historical” trauma traumatic for thought precisely because it crystallizes–becomes a site [for the striking of]–the “structural” trauma that births thought itself in the first place, thought itself as always traumatically structured?  And, ultimately, isn’t the urge and urgency that first calls thought forth–isn’t that the urge and urgency to think trauma?

For Lyotard, “the jews” is just the name of that trauma, the trauma that calls forth thought, to be thought.  And what of the thought of such thought?  P. 84:

This thought has never told anything but stories of unpayable debt, transmitted little narratives, droll and disastrous, telling of the insolvency of the indebted soul.  Where the Other has given credence without the command to believe, who promised without anyone ever asking anything, the Other who awaits its due.  There is no need to wait for or believe in this Other.  The Other waits and extends credit.  One is not acquitted of its patience or its impatience by counteroffereings, sacrifices, representations, and philosophical elaborations.  It is enough to tell and retell that you believe you are acquitting yourself and that you are not.  Thus one remembers (and this  must suffice) that one never stops forgeting what must not be forgotten, and that one is not quit either just because one does not forget the debt. . . . It is this, then, . . . that Nazism has tried to definitively forget:  the debt, the difference between good and evil.  It had tried to unchain the soul from this  obligation, to tear up the note of credit, to render debt-free forever.  And this unchaining is evil itself.

Like the debt we owe to the dead (if it is not the very same debt), the debt to God/the Other is in principle unpayable; and it is  the very endeavor to pay off this debt that compunds it most.

Pp. 93-94 (last page of the book):

[T]he debt that is our only lot–the lot of forgetting neither that there is the Forgotten nor what horrors the spirit is capable of in its headlong madness to make us forget the fact.  “Our” lot?  Whose lot?  It is the lot of this nonpeople of survivors, Jews and non-Jews, called here “the jews,” whose Being-together depends not on the  authenticity of any primary roots but on that singular debt of interminable anamnesis.

The (non-)people or (non-)community of all those who have nothing in common save that each is alone in his/her own unpayable debt.

Also, I just recently read Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott (London and New York:  Verso, 2007–Fr. orig. 2003).  The last chapter (#5), “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” is, in large part, a critique of Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews”.  I’ll begin with the summary with which he [Rancière] ends his essay, and therewith the whole book.  Pp. 136-137:

I shall conclude briefly with my opening question.  Some things are unrepresentable as a function of the conditions to which a subject of representation must submit if it is to be part of a determinate regime of art, a specific regime of the relations between exhibition and signification. . . . This set of conditions exclusively defines the representative regime in art. . . . If there are things which are unrepresentable, they can be located in this regime.  In our regime–the aesthetic [as opposed to the representative] regime in art–this notion has no determinable content,  other than the pure notion of discrepancy with  the representative regime.  It expresses the absence of a stable relationship between exhibition and signification.  But this maladjustment tends towards more representation, not less. . . .

Anti-representative art is constitutively an art without unrepresentable things.  There are no longer any inherent limits to representation, to its possibilities.  This boundlessness also means that there is no longer a language form which is appropriate to a subject, whatever it might be.  This lack of appropriateness runs counter both to credence in a language peculiar to art and to the affirmation of the irreducible singularity of certain events. . . . I have tried to show that this exaggeration itself merely perfects the system of rationalization it claims to denounce. . . . In order to assert an unrepresentability in art that is commensurate with an unthinkability of the event, the latter must itself have been rendered entirely thinkable, entirely neccary according to thought.  The logic of unrepresentability can only be sustained by a hyperbole that ends up destroying it.

With that general summary laying out what he is arguing overall, I’ll now go back to flesh it out a bit at a few places.

P. 126:  “There is no appropriate language for wintessing.  Where testimony has to express the experience of the inhuman, it naturally finds an already constituted language of becoming-inhuman, of an identity between human sentiments and non-human movements.”  He then gives a (very good) analysis of Lanzmann’s Shoah in terms of just how it makes use of such already available cinematic language to accomplish its tasks.  On the basis of that analysis of a prime example, he  then concludes (p. 129):  “Nothing is unrepresentable as a property of the event.”  I’m not sure whoever said it was, really.  And, anyway, it all depends on what one means by “the event” here.  If one means simple “datable occurrence,” then “event” itself is cut down to representational size, in effect, before one even begins.  At any rate, he continues:

There are simply choices.  The choice for the present as against historicization; the  decision to represent an accounting of the means, the materiality of the process, as opposed to the representation of causes.  The causes that render the event resistant to any explanation by a principle of sufficient reason, be it fictional or documentary, must be left on hold.

. . . And Lanzmann’s investigation is part of a cinemtaic tradition that has established its pedigree.  This is the tradition that counter-poses to the light thrown on the blinding of Oedipus the simultaneously solved and unresolved mystery of Rosebud, which is the “reason” for Kane’s madness, the revelation at the end of the investigation, beyond investigation, of the nullity of the “cause”. . . . A form of investigation that reconstructs the materiality of an event while  leaving its cause on hold, proves suitable to the extraordinary character of the Holocaust without being specific to  it.  Here again the  appropriate form is also an inappropriate form.  In and of itself the event neither prescribes nor proscribes any artistic means.  And it does not impose any duty on art to represent, or not to represent, in some particular way.

I’m not quite sure what to make of his critique.  On its own terms, his analysis is illuminating, I think.  But as a critique of views such as Lyotard’s,  it seems to me basically to fail.  It passes Lyotard by, as it were.  What it attacks is not what Lyotard is saying, so far as I can see.  For instance, Lyotard himself says that something such as the Holocaust can be more effectively erased by being represented than by being simply denied.  Well, that makes sense only insofar as one can represent the Holocaust.  But his point is that trauma disrupts and disconnects the very business of “representation,” undercutting its claim to any sort of mastery, as it were.

As I say, I’m just not yet sure what to do with Rancière’s discussion here.

Lyotard, Heidegger, the Jews, and “the jews”–#2


This is the second of a series of three posts on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews”.  I first wrote the entry below in my philosophical journal on the date indicated.

Satruday, January 10, 2009

Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, p. 27, just after writing what I cited yesterday [see my preceding post], that ends with “Finally, one has appeal to human rights, one cries out ‘never again’ and that’s it!  It is taken care of,” he continues:  “Humanism takes care of this adjustment because it is of the order of secondary repression.  One cannot form an idea of the human being as value unless one projects one’s misery to the outside as caused by causes that one only needs to get down to transforming.”

This is also essentially what Paul Eisenstein says, when he argues that trauma is effectively denied its traumatization by the identification of trauma, which is finally always “structural,” with some one actual “historical” occurrence–or figure (such as “the Jew”) made to represent trauma–in precisely the negative sense of “represent” that Lyotard critiques in the passage I cited yesterday [see the preceding post].

He picks up that critique again a few lines later on p. 27:

If one represents the extermination, it is also necessary to represent the exterminated.  One represents men,  women, children treated like “dogs,” “pigs,” “rats,” “vermin,” subjected to humiliation, constrained to abjection, driven to despair, thrown like filth into the ovens.  But this is not enough, this representation forgets something.  For it is not as men, women, and children that they are exterminated but as the name of what is evil–“jews”–that the  Occident has given to the unconscious anxiety.  Compare [Robert] Antelme and [Elie] Wiesel, L’Espèce humaine [The Human Race] and Night. Two representations, certainly.  But Antelme resists, he is somebody who resists.

Then he makes a point similar to one Chrétien makes in The Ark of Speech (see my journal  entry above, for 12/28/08 [in my post before last]):

All resistance is ambiguous, as its name indicates.  Political resistance, but resistance in the Freudian sense.  It is a compromise formation that involves learning to negotiate with the Nazi terror, to manipulate it, even if only for a little; trying to understand it [cf. Claude Lanzman saying that it is obscene and blasphemous to try to give “meaning” or “explanation” to the Holocaust], so as to outsmart it; putting one’s life on the line for this; reaching the limits of the human species, for that.  It is war.  Deportation is a part of the war.  Antelme saves honor.

These remarks, especially in echoing relation with those of Chrétien, perhaps point to a way to resolve the issue of reconciling the liberation attested by the rebellion at Auschwitz with that equally–if not even more so–attested by the experience of the ultimately transitory, ephemeral, and illusionary character of the assertion of power in “Auswchwitz”–the problem that has surfaced more than once in my journals on trauma.  Maybe these echoing passages from Lyotard and Chrétien are the way-markers to  the way out of that apparent impasse.  That may well be a suggestion reinforced by how Lyotard goes on with his discussion.

Still on page 27 [and extending over to page 28], Lyotard goes on to say:

One can represent the Nazi madness–make of  it what it also is–an effect of “secondary” repression, a symptom; a way of transcribing anxiety, the terror in regard to the undetermined (which Germany knew well, especially then), into will, into political hatred, organized, administered, turned against the unconscious affect. . . . But on the side of “the jews,” absence of representability, absence of experience, absence of accumulation of experience (however multimillenial), interrior innocence, smiling and hard, even arrogant, which neglects the world except with regard to its pain–these are the traits of a tradition where the forgotten remembers that it is forgotten; knows itself to be unforgettable, has no need of inscription, of looking after itself, a tradition where the soul’s only concern is with the terror without origin, where it tries desperately, humorously to originate itself by narrating itself.

The SS does not wage war against the Jews. . . . The war merely creates the din that is necessary to cover the silent crime. . . . –a second terror, a horror rather, practiced on the involuntary witness of the “first” terror, which is not even felt, not even lodged, but which is diffuse and remains in it like an interminably deferred debt.  In representing the second terror one ineluctably perpetuates it [!!!].  It is itself only representation. . . . One betrays misery, infamy by representing them.  All memory, in the traditional sense of representation, because it involves decision, includes and spreads the  forgetting of the terror without origin that motivates it.

Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Truth of Trauma


Today’s post contains three brief entries I wrote last winter in my philosophical journal, and all of which pertain to an issue I have raised more than once before at this website.  That is the issue of just what response trauma elicits from those whom it strikes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Susan Cheever, Desire:  Where Sex Meets Addiction (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 35, on trauma:

The human balance that enables most people to live without mind-altering substances [with which she’d include sex as the sex addict relates to it] every day is fragile. It can be upset by trauma or by witnessing trauma.  Once you see what people can do to each other, it’s hard to go back to the level of trust in strangers and the human community that makes life bearable.

How true–especially and paradigmatically for Holocaust survivors.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, translated by Andrew Brown (London and  New York:  Routledge, 2004), p. 146:

Affirmation forms the sole place of struggle against evil.  To say no to the no means to say no again, leading back one way or another to what one is opposing and making one dependent on it.  To resist evil is to carry with one, permanently, the Trojan  horse that contains it.  To struggle against it can only mean attacking it, and only the diamond of the yes can really attack all negation, at its heart, without having to deny it.

It would be necessary to think that through in relation to [(among other similar things)] Jean Améry’s defense of suicide, as well as the resistance that surfaced in the uprising that destroyed the crematorium stack at Auschwitz.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reading Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century.  Late in the book, discussing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written and first performed in Stalag VII, when Messiaen was imprisoned there by the Germans [during World War II], Ross writes:

Messiaen expects paradise not just in a single awesome hereafter but also in the scattered ecstasies of daily life.  In the end, his apocalypse–“There shall be time no longer”–may have nothing to do with the catastrophic circumstances under which it was conceived.  Instead, it may describe the death and rebirth of a single soul in the grip of exceptional emotion.

That links up not only with Franz Rosenzweig’s earlier [i.e., before World War II] emphasis on the  quotidian character of redemption  in the Star of Redemption, but also with the issue I’ve been raising in various earlier journal entries about the “truth” of Auschwitz being found in the affirmation expressed in, for example, the  “unsuccessful” rebellion that blew up  one of the crematoria smoke stacks there:  the issue joined in the Psalms that sing of the transitoriness of worldly power.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #6


Below is my final journal entry, first written on the date indicated, dealing with Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  Before leaving Lifton, in my next two posts I will ,share some reflections on a later work of his on September11, 2001, and its aftermath.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lifton (p 467) on developing “the paradigm of death and the continuity of life–or the  symbolization of life and death–that [based on Otto Rank’s work] I have been employing in this book and in other works over several decades” to apply to genocide.  To that end, to “the central  tenet of that model” in accordance with which, a propos genocide at least, “human beings kill in order to assert their own life power,” he now adds “the image of curing a deadly disease, so that genocide may become an absolute form of killing in the name of  healing.”

It is worth noting that the “model” or “paradigm” he is using also applies, at least in its “central tenet” to addiction [which entails, however, no sort of moral equivalent between the two:  as I will later discuss, the moral difference between genocide and addiction is huge].   That is, both genocide and addiction would be rooted in the need “to assert [the  addict’s and/or the killer’s] own life power” (the “control” of  “my control  disease” of addiction [as therapist J. Keith Miller describes his own alcoholism].

What is more, as Lifton explicitly argues a bit earlier in the book (pp. 447-451), the “omnipotence” that genocidal killers such as, emblematically (because of “killing to heal”), the Nazi Auschwitz doctors experience when killing–that (p. 447) “sense of omnipotent control over the live and deaths” of its victims–wavers with “the seemingly opposite sense of impotence, of being a powerless cog in a vast machine controlled by unseen others.”  Indeed,  it is clear that, in general, any killing in order to heal must, in my language, disappropriate itself of (or dis-own) its own inner sense (direct intentionality, as it  were) as killing.  That is why the exercise of power in such a way is wracked internally by its “opposite,” the sense of powerlessness.  That would occur whenever a split of the direct, inner intentionality of means and ends occurs.

And just such a split also occurs in addiction, in that the very way the addict experiences as the only available avenue for asserting her own “life power” is by subjecting herself (note:  not just “being subjected to,” but, exactly, “subjecting oneself to,” since otherwise it would be no means of exercising power or control at all) to undergoing the activity of the drug or drug-equivalent upon her.  Thus, in addiction, too, there is this same central wavering between power and powerlessness.

Also common to  genocide and addiction is insatiability:  No amount of killing for the one who kills in the name of healing will ever be enough–enough to eliminate all “infection” and “disease” and risk thereof–any more than any amount of alcohol is ever enough for what, following Lipton’s talk of the Nazi doctor’s “Auschwitz self,” we might call an alcoholic’s alcoholic-self. 

But perhaps the key to a crucial differentiation lies here, in the “insatiability” of both genocidal killer and addict.  That is, why the one is insatiable may be significantly different from why the other is “insatiable.”  The  difference may, indeed, be there, along the axis of the active/reactive distinction that Deleuze makes central in his reading of Nietzsche.

In effect, it may come down to  the insatiability of the genocidal killer being reactive, whereas that of the addict is active.  Genocide, insofar as it requires the attribution of generative power–power generative of the very efforts of healing that come to consist in killing–to what is other than itself.  The point to extract from that is not just that genocidal action is only called forth by the irruption of “infection” or “disease,” which really becomes the tautology that healing efforts are only called forth in response or “reaction” to illness.  The point is, rather, that at the very heart of genocide lies coiled the fundamental experience of powerlessness–better:  the experience of fundamental powerlessness:  the experience of oneself as not powerful, but as, instead, the mere pawn of what does have power.  Genocide would be reactive, then, because it would emerge, not directly from and/or as the assertion of one’s own power or “vitality” (to use a language closer to the Nazis’ own) but as avoidance of the recognition of one’s own powerlessness.  But since the very endeavor to deny, disavow, or avoid something that is experienced as definitive of one’s very selfhood–here, the radical experiential impotence of the killer in the face of  what he must kill, because it has power over him–the very powerlessness one is trying to avoid by genocide is incorporated or institutionalized within genocidal action itself:  Hence the more one kills, the less power one feels, which means the more one has to go on killing.

In contrast, addiction is at root an assertion of one’s power or vitality as such. It involves the direct experience of such power, the exercise of it in the only way experientially open to one, under addictionogenic circumstances.  That would be why one could bottom out in addiction, whereas genocide is bottomless.

Hence, too, there would be a corresponding differentiation of what could constitute “recovery.”  In the case of addiction, as active, what ultimately needs to be recovered, in the sense of regained, is the authentic power that has been covered over or concealed by external circumstances, experienced (falsely) as somehow depriving one of power.  Paradoxically, here it is precisely by the full acknowledgement of one’s powerlessness that one finds oneself re-invested with power–though now genuine power, no longer distorted as having anything to do with externalities at all.

In contrast, “recovery” for a genocidal healer-killer (and, as a side note, Lifton’s noteworthy insight that genocide as such involves killing to heal is also worth reversing, insofar as it ponts to a necessarily genocide-engendeging capacity that lies essentially in modern medicine as such–to which much of Lifton’s own work, as well as [Pat] Barker’s Regeneration-trilogy attests [the subject of an earlier series of posts at this blogsite]) involves full acknowledgement or recognition, not of powerlessness as such, but of one’s anxiety-driven avoidance or disavowal of responsibility.

That’s why giving up the illusion of control  starts the addict toward recovery, whereas it is precisely the genocidal killer’s illusion of lack of control–and, hence, blaming others and demonizing them–that must first be abandoned, if any recovery is even to become possible.  That recovery as such, in fact, would only begin at the bottom of whatever processes one might then, after the confession of guilt connected with one’s own actions as a killer (actual or potential), fall into, in now trying to exert control over oneself in some addictive practice.

It may even be that recovery from healer-killing is actually not possible at all!  Here may be, at last, “absolute evil,” now seen to be reaction as such.

After his characterization, above, of his life-continuity model, Lifton writes(p. 467):  “The model I propose [for genocide] includes a perception of collective illness, a vision of cure, and a series of motivations, experiences, and requirements of  perpetrators in this quest  for that cure.”  A couple of pages later (468-470), he presents Germany after WW I and Turkey before the genocide against the Armenians as sharing just such a perception/interpretation of the “national” situation as such an “illness,” which must then be “cured” by atacking the supposed external “causes”–the Jews for the Nazis and the Armenians for the Turkish nationalists in 1915.

It is noteworthy that here, in these genocide-engendering situations, the  perpetrators of the coming genocide begin by inerpreting the situation as an “illness,” and by then projecting the source of that illness onto the selected “other” who has “invaded” the body of the Volk or nation.  In contrast, the addict does not at all begin by seeing her situaion as an illness.  Rather, the addiction seems to be the “solution” to whatever problem is at issue.  And only once the addict can be given the idea that the addiction is some “malady” or “illness,” as Bill Wilson always called alcoholism, does recovery begin.  In the case of the genocidal killer, actual or  potential, it is all but the reverse:  Only by giving up the interpretation that the  problem lies in some illness–e.g., the “stab in the back” purportedly involved in German  defeat in WW Iand acknowledging, instead, that the purported problem is self-engendered, does the genocide have any chance at “recovery.”  That is, so to speak, the genocide must begin at the fourth column of the 4th step [of AA’s twelve steps, where one must examine one’s own “fault” in the situation being analyzed], whereas the addict must first get there by taking the first three steps.

Lifton, p. 470:

The stage of sickness [with which genocide begins], then, includes the experience of collective loss and death immersion; the promise of redemptive revitalization, including total merging of self with a mystical collectivity; the absolute failure of that promise, followed by newly intensified experience of collective death imagery and death equivalents; leading in turn to a hunger for a “cure” commensurate in its totality [it is what he then calls “the vision of a total cure” that comes into play] with the “sickness.”


P. 473:  “Totalism in a nation state, then, is most likely to emerge as a cure for a death-haunted illness; and victimization, violence, and genocide are potential aspects of that cure.”


Also pointing to the reactive nature of genocide is what Liftgon writes on p. 479:  “Hence, the parallel imagery in genocide:  the bearer of deathly disease threatens one’s own people with extinction so one must absolutely extinguish him first.”  Thus, the genocidal killer begins with the perception of himself as a victim.

So, for example, did and does the Republican conservative such as Bush or McCain paint the US as a victim of “Islamic terrorists.”

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #5


Below is another entry from my philosophical journal–first written on the date indicated–on Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. 


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lifton’s analysis in The Nazi Doctors is excellent and important.  That is especially true of one of his closing chapters–the one he calls “Doubling:  The Faustian Bargain” (the first of three chapters in his third and final part, “The Psychology of Genocide”).  The whole chapter is well worth reflection.  Here are just some of my initial responses.

Lifton writes (p. 418):  “One is always ethically responsible for Faustian bargains–a responsibility in no way abrogated by the fact that much doubling takes place outside of awareness. . . . For the individual  Nazi doctor in Auschwitz, doubling was likely to  mask a choice for evil.”  This remark, with its insistence that responsibility extends even into what lies outside awareness (i.e., even to what is “unconscious”) opens upon a whole  new way of beginning to think through the notion of responsibility.  As the analysis he goes on to provide suggests, what needs to be brought into play in such a rethinking is a matter of the personal, egoistic “pay-off, in effect, of acting in a certain way and [that is already in play], most crucially, in the very structuring of awareness–of what will and will not come into awareness in the first place.  Along those lines he remarks,  for example (p. 419), “a major function of doubling, as in Auschwitz, is likely to be the avoidance of guilt:  the second self seems to be the one performing the ‘dirty work.’ ”

He goes on to differentiate “doubling” from “splitting,” but how he does so does not seem fully clear to  me.  I wonder if the key to the difference between the two  might not well be that “doubling,” as the last line I quoted just above suggests, would involve self-justifying, self-interested (in the proper sense:  a matter of “looking out for number one,” in effect) motives such as avoiding the sense of guilt, whereas “splitting”–the sort of thing abuse victims do when they “dissociate” (which term he mentions himself)–is a matter of self-preservation, to put it in short.  (Self-preservation as such entails no special  investment in “selfish interests.”)

Thus, on the very next page (420) he goes on himself to write: 

In general psychological terms the adaptive  potential for doubling [here clearly being used to name what is structurally common to “doubling” in the narrower sense I’m suggesting, where it’s coupled to self-interested justification, and “splitting”] is integral to the human psyche and can, at times,  be life saving:  for a soldier in combat, for instance; or for a victim of brutality such as an Auschwitz inmate, who must also undergo a form of doubling [i.e., what I’d suggest be called, not “doubling” at all, but “splitting,” following his  own distinction on the preceding page] in order to survive.  Clearly, the “opposing self” can be life enhancing [i.e., life preserving,  I’d say].  But under certain conditions it can embrace evil with an extreme lack of restraint.”

In the latter case–to which I’d confine the term “doubling”–what he writes two pages later (422) applies:  “In doubling, one part of the self ‘disavows’ another part.  What is repudiated is not reality itself–the individual  Nazi doctor was aware of  what  he was doing via the Auschwitz self–but the meaning of that reality.”  Later on the same page he goes on to  note that Auschwitz Nazi doctors “welcomed” doubling “as the only means of psychological function [short of  genuine resistance, that is–I’d add that crucial qualification].  If an environment is sufficiently extreme, and one chooses [note:  none of the victims had any choice] to remain in it, one may be able to do so only by means of doubling.”

On pp. 423-424 he writes: 

In sum, doubling is the psychological means by which one evokes the evil potential of the self.  That evil is neither inherent in the self nor foreign to it.  To live out the doubling and call forth the evil is a moral choice for which one is responsible, whatever the level of consciousness involved.  By means of doubling, Nazi doctors made a Faustian choice for evil:  in the process of doubling, in fact, lies an overall key to human evil.

I think he’s right about that.  And perhaps reflecting on how to avoid such evil should start with considering how, if what is at issue is guilt and responsibility for something occurring at the unconscious level, one can guard against the sort of motivated avoidance of knowing (or “willful ignorance” [to use the definition of stupidity John Hawkes gives in his novel Adventures in the Skin Trade in Alaska]) at issue in those [unconscious] processes:  How, that is, one can learn to recognize when one is (pre-)choosing to unleash and exploit just such unconscious processes.

Perhaps part of the answer to that question lies in the practice on a regular basis, until habituation occurs, of such things as the [AA] 10th step [of continuing to take “personal inventory” of oneself], or Ignatian examen of conscience, daily.


P. 458:  “The doctor’s [special, or especially frequent and intense] danger, we now see, lies in his capacity to double in a way that brings special power to his killing self even as he continues to anoint himself with medical purity.”  Thus, the Nazi doctor presents an emblematic instance of “a universal human proclivity toward constructing good motives [for oneself] while participating in evil behavior.”  And thus, too (p. 459):  “[E]ven as he killed,  every doctor’s Auschwitz self could retain some sense of mediating between man and nature and thereby saving life.”

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #4


This is the fourth in my series of posts of philosophical journal entries I wrote last fall concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  As was true for the journal entry in my immediately previous post, the first entry below begins with a remark about Alain Badiou, before shifting to Lifton.  The two entries below were written at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert, near Abiquiu, New Mexico, where I have been making personal retreats for years.


Thursday, October 28, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

During Vespers here yesterday, it struck me that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ could  be taken in the sense I’ve been exploring a bit in recent entries on the “reality” of what is experienced–or, better, on “reality,” period.  That is, the resurrection could be taken to be the revelation to the apostles and then generations of the faithful that suffering, destitution, and pain are not “ultimate reality,” any more than, for Badiou [see my immediately preceding post], “the sad passions” such as “death and depression” are “loyal feelings,” or “licit passion” (so they are il-licit!).  The resurrection–which, for Badiou’s own account, is the sole truth [which Badiou, however, insists did not “really” happen] that makes of the human animal Saul, the subject Paul, with claim to universality–would then be the event of just that truth, at the very heart of the crucifixion itself, dispelling the later as “a dream one wakes from,” to borrow [again] from the Psalms.


Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, on Dr. Ernst B., the Auschwitz doctor who was able to help and rescue many, to become, in the words of one survivor, used as the title for this chapter in Lifton’s book, “a human being in an SS uniform”–p. 333: 

An important part of B.’s post-Auschwitz self and worldview is his unfinished business with Auschwitz.  His conflicting needs are both to continue to explore his Auschwitz experience and to avoid coming to grips with its moral significance.  His insistence that Auschwitz was not understandable serves the psychological function of rejecting any coherent explanation or narrative for the events in which he was involved.  He thus remains stuck in an odd post-traumatic pattern:  unable either to absorb (by finding narrative and meaning) or to free himself from Auschwitz images.

But isn’t that, indeed, how it is with all trauma, finally?  One cannot get past it!  One cannot “free” oneself from its “images” (and note how the ability of “finding narrative and meaning” for any trauma is just a way to “free”oneself from it–or, more accurately, to bury and avoid it).  (Lifton himself knows this, as his comments on p. 13, which I site in an [earlier] entry, shows, to give one good example.)  Isn’t that what [Eric] Santner [in his Psychotheology of Everyday Life], for example, distilled from his reading of Freud with Rosenzweig?  And doesn’t Santner’s analysis point to a “recovery” from trauma which respects it, so to speak, by neither explaining nor otherwise avoiding it, in its very inexplicibility and one’s own “stuckness” on it?

Related:  Lifton’s book came out before, a few years later, [Claude] Lantzman’s [film] Shoah, and Lantzman’s argument that any attempt to make Auschwitz “understandable” is a blasphemy, tantamount to compounding the brutality of the camps and the “Final Solution.”  That would complicate Lifton’s picture here,  and I’m curious what he thought of  Lantzman’s film and assertion.

There may be some advantage in distinguishing two different places from and in which one can get traumatically “stuck.”  One such place would be that of the perpetrators, to which in some sense Ernst B. continues to belong despite his attempts at (relative) “humanity” in his role there (as Lifton correctly insists).  From that place, as Lifton suggests in the quote I began with, there is a definite self-serving (by way of self-exculpating) dimension of “payoff” that comes from denying the explicability of Auschwitz.  But precisely for that reason, the specific nature of the stuckness at/from this locus is basically an exploitation of the very inexplicability at issue. 

In contrast, there is the place of the victim, where no such  exploitation occurs in the acknowledgement–here, genuine; when exploitative, disingenuous–of the inexplicability.  And it is here, in this place, if anywhere, that any “resurrection” must occur. (As, perhaps, it does in D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel?  I’m not sure:  Need to look at that novel again, maybe.)


Wednesday, October 29, 2008–at Christ in the Desert

Yesterday, a propos Lifton, I forgot to note this thought that came to me when reading the passage I cited yesterday:

It is as if Auschwitz mirrors an event of truth, most especially in its “excessiveness,” its irreducibility to any explanation.  Because it (Auschwitz–and other [pseudo-?]events like it) mimics truth in that way, the illusion of it–specifically, it’s being “how things really are“–can only be dispelled by the event of a genuine truth, one that dismisses the illusion as a phantom.

There is also, perhaps, a sense in which such points of the mocking mimicry of a truth-event opens, despite its mimicking intentions, a site for the striking of truth.

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #3


This is the third in my series of posts with journal entries I wrote last fall, on the dates indicated, concerning Robert J. Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors.  Today’s entry begins with some reflections on a work by Alain Badiou, which I soon connect up with my continued reflections on Lifton’s study of “medicalized killing and the psychology of genocide,” the subtitle of his book.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Badiou, Petit panthéon portratif [Little Portrait Galley] (Paris:  La Fabrique editions, 2008), “Ouverture,” pp. 7-8 [my translation]: 

If philosophy serves for something, it is to remove the chalice of sad passions [in the preceding sentence he has said that he holds “that death should not interest us, nor depression”], to teach us that pity is not a loyal feeling, nor complaint a reason to have reason, nor the victim that from which we should start to think.   On one hand, as the Platonic gesture establishes once and  for all, it is of truth, declined as necessary as beauty or the good, from which every licit passion originates and every creation of universal  aim.  On the other hand, as Rousseau knew, the human animal is essentially good, and when he is not, it is by some exterior cause that constrains him, a cause that must be detected, combatted, and destroyed as possible, without the least hesitation.

It seems to me that Badiou could be used here as a commentary on the following, from Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, p. 238, concerning the “prisoner doctors” at Auschwitz: 

As Henri Q. explained, “We suffered and [acted] within the limits of the possible. . . . Doctors did provide some comfort, I believe.  There was the comfort for the patient, the fact that he was not alone, that someone understood and was trying to help to do something for him–and that was already a lot. . . . We were a group, not just the [individual] doctors of our block.”  He could then conclude . . . that he and his friends “remained doctors . . . in spite of everything.”

Helping children could greatly contribute to the prisoner doctors’ struggle to maintain a healing identity.  Dr. Henri Q., for instance, told of the impact of a nine-year-old boy from a Jewish ghetto in Poland, who [was helped to survive the war and Auschwitz]. . . . He spoke  even more intensely of a still younger, Russian child (“a rare think in the camp”) whom he once took to the infirmary:  “I walked in front of all the blocks, and you could feel all the men, ten thousand men, who  were looking at this child.  I was very proud to walk with him. . . . as if I were walking with the president of the Republic.  There is only one president and there was only one child.”

Viewed through the lens of Badiou’s comment, such prisoner doctors at Auschwitz proved themselves to be philosophers.  And the philosophical reality was revealed to them–in and as their own form,  described by Dr. Henri Q., of “resistance.”  Philosophically, that reality was the presidency of that simple child.