Can We Mourn Yet?

5.

The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to acknowledge these mistakes.

—Dan Jianzhong, Beijing sociologist, concerning the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which began 50 years ago, in 1966 (quoted by journalist Chris Buckley in “High-Level Commentary Breaks Silence in China,” The New York Times , 5/17/16)

 

Mourning involves living in a world totally not of one’s choosing. It’s a world of paradoxes: a world that one doesn’t want to live in, but doesn’t want to die in either.

—Charles W. Brice, poet and retired psychoanalyst (personal communication)

 

One thing has been made very clear to me. Many people resent being confronted with information about how racism still shapes—and sometimes, ruins—life in this country.

—Jenée Desmond-Harris, “The Upside to Overt Racism” (The New York Times, 5/1/16)

 

Whoever, so as to simplify problems, denies the existence of certain obligations has, in his heart, made a compact with crime.

—Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (Routledge Classics, 2002; Fr. orig. 1949)

In general, it is no doubt right to say that the difficulty of acknowledging past mistakes increases with time. However, when those mistakes carry traumatic consequences, the more time passes the greater grows the urgency to do just that, to acknowledge them—and, even more, to set them right. Trauma, after all, has its own time, growing ever more insistent the longer it goes unaddressed, repeating its demands more and more loudly until they are finally heard, and elicit a proper response. Sooner or later, trauma’s time will come. Sooner or later, we will be able to mourn. We can only hope that the day for our mourning will come this side of Judgment Day, the eschatological end of days as such. However, there are reasons for pessimism on that matter.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle that stands between us as a nation and the dawning of our day of national mourning is precisely, as I put it in my preceding post, because we really are not “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” except in our national Pledge of Allegiance. What keeps us from uniting in acknowledging and mourning the crimes that some of us have perpetrated on others of us (not to mention other nations or peoples), is that we who are perpetrators or their descendants continue to derive so much benefit from those same crimes. Those of us who have the privilege of thinking ourselves “white,” for example, continue to derive great benefits from that very privilege, including the benefit of being able to drive our cars around our cities without being stopped and harassed by the police for no better reason than our not being among those so privileged.

Some time ago I wrote here, in a two-post series on “The Unforgiveable,” about Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry’s stipulation of the conditions under which he would be willing to let go of what he called his “resentments” against the Germans as a people or nation. In brief, Améry lays out a two-fold condition for such a settlement to occur at the level of what he calls “historical practice.” First, a true settlement would require “permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the victims of the crimes. Second, and simultaneously, “self-distrust” would need to be first enkindled and then kept carefully alive “in the other camp,” the camp of the perpetrators—the very self-distrust engendered by the perpetrators’ awareness and acceptance of their victims’ resentment. Genuine reconciliation could occur only by allowing the wounds of the victims to remain open and acknowledged, while simultaneously opening and keeping open an answering wound of deep self-mistrust in the perpetrators. Only if that were to happen would “the overpowered and those who overpowered them [. . .] be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral.”

In the case of Germany and what it did during World War II, for that nation to awaken such self-distrust would require it to become, as Améry says, “a national community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation [that is, during the Nazi years of 1933-1945], and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns.” Nor was Améry blind to the fact that the entire postwar German “economic miracle” that allowed West Germany to become the economic powerhouse of Europe was itself only possible on the basis of the devastation of Germany at the end of the war, which allowed for the sort of radical retooling that fed the postwar German economic machine. Truly to “reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished” through its own criminal acts of its Nazi period, Germany would have had to reject not only Cold War financial support through the Marshall Plan but also everything else that Germany’s own utter defeat made possible for subsequent German economic development. Of course, “nothing of the sort will ever happen,” as Améry already knew and insisted long ago.

Nor will the United States as a nation every truly mourn its own crimes. For one thing, it will never truly mourn the genocide of American Indians on which America is founded. For various reasons, it is even less likely ever truly to mourn the centuries of enslavement of African Americans on which the United States as a whole—not just the South, but the entire county—built its unparalleled global economic might.

It recently made the news that Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was largely built on funds it acquired from direct engagement in the slave trade. In one sense, at least, there’s really nothing new in such news. As has long been recognized, many foundational United States universities—Brown, Cornell, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and others—were themselves founded, either directly or indirectly, on the bodies of slaves. So were many other institutions, both North and South. Then, too, of course, the institution of slavery was built right into the Constitution of the United States itself.

If the United States were ever really to mourn slavery and its hundreds of millions of victims, then at least at a bare minimum those of us who still continue to benefit from the consequences of slavery would need to let go of our resentment toward African Americans for their own ongoing resentment for those very consequences. We who are privileged to think ourselves “white” would have to grant those not so privileged the right to hold on to their resentment of us, and we would need simultaneously to match their resentment with deep, abiding self-distrust of ourselves, to borrow Améry’s way of putting the point.

Of course, nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know.

*     *     *     *     *     *

So where do we go from here?

Well, that question really calls for thinking.

Published in: on May 23, 2016 at 5:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (concluded)

In my second post of this current series on “Faith in Trauma,” I cited Jean Améry’s observation that the very denial of reality that is present in what he calls “Finalistic” religious or political faith gave believers imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz a certain distance from the horrifying reality around them—a distance that actually increased such believers’ odds of survival. In contrast, non-believers, lacking such denial-based protection, were more nearly certain to be overcome and crushed by the horrific reality they so clearly saw surrounding them.

Améry’s observation can fruitfully be juxtaposed to a remark that at first glance appears to oppose it, a remark Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich make in the 1970 afterword to the classic analysis of “the inability to mourn” they give in their 1967 book of that title (Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Munich: Piper). In that book the Mitscherlichs are addressing specifically the inability of the Germans as a nation to mourn the misdeeds of their own Nazi past, a past wherein they created such death-camps as Auschwitz—and above all their concomitant incapacity to mourn the millions of innocent victims they murdered there and throughout Europe. What the Mitscherlichs observe at one point in their 1970 afterword applies not just to Germans, however. It applies to everyone. “To endure reality as it is,” they write, “is the presupposition that first makes it possible to alter it into something more bearable; denial unwillingly preserves the status quo.”

Despite the appearance of opposition between the two remarks—Améry’s on the one hand and the Mitscherlichs’ on the other—they can and should be combined as follows:

When reality permits no hope for a better outcome beyond sheer survival, the denial of reality is necessary simply to preserve bare life itself—and with it the possibility of some day returning to true, full, and abundant living, rather than just surviving. As I already argued when first discussing Améry’s observation, that is really just an instance of the numbing against traumatic shock that allows those it strikes to live through it at all (the literal meaning of survive). However, if the survivor is not to be locked forever after into a pattern of compulsive repetition of the traumatic situation itself, at some point that survivor must grow strong enough at last to endure the very reality that has been thus denied. It is only then that any genuine recovery of real life, that is, life in its full sense and not just some endless survival, becomes possible, precisely as the Mitscherlichs observe.

Such faith to live a recovered life face to face with trauma can only be the sort of pure and purified faith Walter J. Ong attributes to Gerard Manley Hopkins, as discussed in my post before last. It is, as well, the simple but difficult faith of a woman freely consenting to bear a child, with no illusions about what that child itself may have to bear once born.

Such faith purified by trauma is true faith, not merely some defense mechanism.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma (Cont.)

2.

Concerning Auschwitz inmates who were sustained by a faith either religious or political, Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz with no such faith, observes that the believer “is both more estranged from reality and closer to it than his unbelieving comrade” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 14). By Améry’s analysis the two, estrangement from reality and yet a certain sort of closeness to it, go together.

What removes the believer “further from reality” than the unbeliever is what Améry calls the former’s “Finalistic attitude,” an attitude whereby the believer “ignores the given contents of material phenomena and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future,” whether that future is believed to lie at the end of time itself, in some religious eternity, or to lie at the end of a long historical process, in some political utopia.

However, it is precisely such reality-estranging conviction that also allows the believer in a certain important sense to be “closer to reality” than the unbeliever. For the very reason that the believer’s faith distances him from his horrifying reality, “he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him.” In his very distance from reality, he is given the freedom to act in ways that more “strongly influence” his very surroundings than can the non-believer who is crushed by them: “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.”

However, despite how much he and other “nonbelieving intellectuals were impressed by this bearing” among their believing comrades at Auschwitz, Améry writes (p. 15) that he is “aware of only extremely few instances of conversion” among such non-believers. “Only in exceptional cases,” he adds, “did the magnificent example of his comrades make a Christian or a Marxist engagé of the skeptic intellectual. Mostly he turned away and said to himself: an admirable and redeeming illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.”

Two different factors are in play in such turning away from the sort of “Finalistic” faith at issue in Améry’s remarks, despite how much survival value might lie in having such faith. The first is that such faith is not something one can just choose to have, as one might choose a product off the shelves. Actually to have such faith one must receive it, one way or another. It comes as a gift—if not from some supernatural power, then at least from one’s upbringing within such a Finalistic religious or political tradition as orthodox Christianity or orthodox Marxism.

The second factor barring the non-believer’s way into belief is even more crucial. It lies in the very thing that gives such faith its survival value in the first place, namely, in the very denial or distancing from reality that defines the “Finalistic” faith at issue, the faith the cause in which one believes will inevitably triumph in the end (whether that end be eschatological or historical), despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In such works as The Road Less Travelled, his longtime bestselling book from the late nineteen-seventies, popular psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined mental health itself as the insistence on facing reality as it is, whatever the cost to one’s emotions and one’s sense of security. Whoever has a sound mind, by that criterion, must reject whatever denies reality, including any such faith as that from which Améry and others like him turned away. For them, such faith has to be rejected as just another childish security blanket, no matter how beautifully woven. No matter how “admirable and redeeming” the illusion of such security might be, it nevertheless remains, as Améry says, just that—an illusion.

Hence, not only did he or other non-believers “turn away” from such faith, but also sometimes even “rebelled ferociously against his believing comrades’ exclusive claim to the truth.” Especially in its religious variant, such faith even became offensive to the non-believer: “To speak of God’s boundless mercy appeared outrageous to him, given the presence of a so-called senior camp inmate, a powerfully built German professional criminal who was known to have literally trampled a number of prisoners to death.” At any rate, even aside from such outrage: “One could respect one’s believing comrades and still more than once mutter to oneself with a shake of the head: madness, what madness!”

 

3.

Actually, such mad faith resembles—if it is not actually just one form of—the numbing that Freud long ago defined as one side of what constitutes the primary effect of traumatic shock, which is to say a shock that exceeds the organism’s capacity to process it. Faced by such traumatic shock, the organism itself “goes into shock,” as our expression has it, damping down its sensitivity. Otherwise, the organism simply would not be able to survive the impact. However, Freud also taught that the other side of the same trauma-effect, the one side of which is such numbing against a shock, is the compulsive need to keep on repeating the shocking experience in one form or another, until eventually the shock wears off, and one finally has to face the reality against which one has numbed oneself until then.

Insofar as faith takes the form of the denial or weakening of the impact of reality, then it too is subject to the same process. That in the face of which faith numbs the believer keeps on repeating itself in one form or another. What such faith denies will not go away. It keeps on coming back, ever more insistently demanding to be addressed. The reality such faith represses keeps on returning, until faith is finally brought to face that reality, however horrible. Then even faith itself is put in crisis and traumatized—a topic I will take up in my next post.

Published in: on March 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

My title—“Faith in Trauma”—is ambiguous. It can suggest four different but, as will eventually emerge, tightly interrelated things.

(1) The title can suggest reflection on what part faith plays in surviving a traumatizing situation: the role of faith in withstanding trauma.

(2) “Faith in trauma” can also suggest reflection on trauma befalling faith itself, so to speak—a sort of “crisis of faith” in the face of trauma, in effect: traumatized faith.

(3) Then again, the same phrase can suggest reflection on what remains of faith once it has undergone severe challenge by trauma—what faith as such finally proves to be, once it is reduced or distilled down to its essence by having to confront trauma. Here, we could speak, perhaps, of faith purified by trauma.

(4) Finally, the title can suggest an unusual sort of reflection on what it would be like to place one’s faith “in” trauma itself, as one can speak of placing faith “in” a friend, for example. In that sense “faith in trauma” would means something such as giving oneself over into the trust of trauma itself, actively trusting trauma as one might trust a friend, or “the power of love,” or the like. Accordingly, just as we might call faith in salvation (the faith-filled certainty of being saved) “salvation-faith,” so we might speak here of trauma-faith.

I will say some things about each of those four in turn, in this and succeeding posts.

 

The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma

1.

All other things being equal, the more faith one has, the better are one’s chances of surviving life-threatening situations. It doesn’t really matter that much what one has faith in, just so long as one has it. Regardless of whether the faith is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shintoist, Hindu, or of any other religious or spiritual stripe, what really counts for survival is simply that: to have it. For that matter, faith in the ultimate triumph of communism, capitalism, or the American Way will work just as well as any faith grounded in some religious or spiritual tradition. So long as one really firmly believes that, when all is said and done and whatever is happening is finally over, what one believes in, whatever it may be, will come out on top, then the benefit of believing remains the same.

That even works if one does not believe one will live long enough oneself to see the final triumph of that in which one believes. Indeed, if one is really convinced of the ultimate victory of one’s cause, one may even volunteer to die for that cause oneself, climbing joyfully up to get nailed to the nearest available cross or the equivalent. Such voluntary dying for what one believes in does not in any way diminish the survival-value of one’s faith itself. It bears witness to it: Martyrdom is precisely such witnessing–from martyr, Greek for a “witness.”

No less an authority than Jean Améry, who was no such martyr and who by his own account managed to survive Auschwitz without any faith, bears witness to the utility of faith for survival. In At the Mind’s Limits (translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1980) Améry notes (page 12), that he “entered the [Nazi German] prisons and the concentration camps as an agnostic,” and left them the same way, once he was finally liberated. “At no time,” he writes, “could I discover within me the possibility for belief, not even when I lay bound in solitary confinement, knowing that my file was stamped ‘Troop Demoralization,’ and for that reason constantly expecting to be hauled off for execution. Also, I was never bound by a particular political ideology, nor was I ever indebted to one.” Nevertheless, he goes on (pages 12-14):

I must confess that I felt, and still feel, great admiration for both my religiously and politically committed comrades. [. . .] One way or the other, in the decisive moments their political or religious belief was an inestimable help to them [. . .] . Whether they were militant Marxists, sectarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, or practicing Catholics [. . .] their belief or their ideology gave them that firm foothold in the world from which they spiritually unhinged the SS state. [. . .] Both the Christians and the Marxists, who already on the outside had taken a very subjective view of concrete reality, detached themselves from it here too in a way that was both impressive and dismaying. Their kingdom, in any event, was not the Here and Now, but the Tomorrow and Someplace, the very distant Tomorrow of the Christian, glowing in chiliastic light, or the utopian Tomorrow of the Marxists. The grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or of capitalistic decay. A beating or death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom. The early Christians had suffered that way, and so had the plagued peasants during the German Peasants’ Revolt [in the 16th century]. Every Christian was a Saint Sebastian and every Marxist a Thomas Münzer.

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Unforgiveable (2)

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

*     *     *     *     *     *

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

3.

            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.

4.

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)

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

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.

5.

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back

or,

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)

1.

. . . 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?

2.

            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.

3.

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.*

4.

     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.

Killing to Heal: Robert J. Lifton on the Nazi Doctors, #1

6/5/09

Last fall, while reading Jean-Luc Nancy’s three works on the “deconstruction of Christianity”–Corpus, Noli me tangere, and Dis-Enclosure, which have been the topics of my three immediately preceding posts–I was also reading psychaitrist Robert J. Lifton’s important study The Nazi Doctors:  Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York:  Basic Books, 1986; with new introduction by the author, 2000).  Today is the first of a series–one of my most lengthy series–of posts on Lifton.  The entries below from my philosophical journal were first written on the dates indicated.

 

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, p. 3 (opening of the book’s introduction):

I gained an important perspective on Auschwitz from an Israeli dentist who had spent three years in that camp.  We were completing a long interview. . . . He looked about the comfortable  room in his house with its beautiful view of  Haifa, sighed deeply, and said, “This world is not this world” [which Lifton takes as the title of this introductory chapter].  What I think he meant was that, after Auschwitz, the ordinary rythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or  pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence.  Underneath those rythms and appearances lay darkness and menace. . . . [We resist this truth:] For to permit one’s imagination to enter into the Nazi killing machine–to begin to experience that killing machine–is to alter one’s relationship to the entire human project.  One does not want to learn about such things.

That again raises the crucial question I tried to raise in this journal a month or so ago, in conjunction with reading Jean Améry.  That is this question:

What is the truth of Auschwitz?

Not:  “What is the truth about Auschwitz.”  Rather:  What “truth of human existence,” as Lifton calls it, flashes forth at and as “Auschwitz”?

As I also noted when writing about Améry:  Is the truth that Améry sees the same as this Jewish survivor dentist in Haifa [as Lifton reads his words]–“darkness and menace”?  Or is it the truth of resistance, as Améry himself also suggests at places.

Alternatively worded, from Lifton:  Precisely what “alteration” in “one’s relationship to the entire human project” does encounter with Auschwitz call forth and call for?

 

Lifton is close to [Zygmunt] Bauman, whose book [Modernity and the Holocaust, which has been the subject of some of my earlier posts] appeared three years later [than Lifton’s on the Nazi doctors].  For one thing, Bauman would agree with this, from p. 14 in Lifton:

In Nazi mass murder, we can say that a barrier was removed, a boundary crossed:  that boundary between violent imagery and periodic killing of victims (as of Jews in pogroms) on the one hand, and systematic genocide in Auschwitz and elsewhere on the other.  My argument in this study is that the medicalization of killing–the  imagery of killing in the name of healing–was crucial to that terrible step.  At the heart of the Nazi enterprise, then, is the destruction of the boundary between healing and killing.

 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lifton, on the early stages of the Nazi “euthanasia” program, when children were subjected to “medical killing,” as Lifton correctly names it, p. 55:

Th[e] structure served to diffuse individual responsibility.  In the entire sequence–from the reporting of cases by midwives or doctors, to the supervision of such reporting by institutional heads, to expert opinions rendered by central consultants, to coordination of the  market forms by Health Ministry officials, to the appearance of the child at the Reich Committee institution for killing–there was at no point a sense of personal responsibility for, or even involvement in, the murder of another human being.  Each participant could feel like no more than a small cog in a vast, officially santioned, medical machine.

As I’ve long maintained, here lies the whole key and secret to contemporary organization/statehood/sovereignty/government/ administration.  The telephone company again!  Why, as I wrote [the chair of my department] a few days ago, the worst conceivable form of government/administration is one by committee.

In contrast, there is AA, [for example,] in which [the principle of] responsibility for the “whole” is brought home to each and every individual member at every step, everywhere.

Jean Améry: Discordant Echoes to Levi–#4

5/4/09

Today’s post contains the final entry, originally written last fall on the date indicated below, in the series of entries from my philosophical journal reflecting on the works of Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry.  Not long after publishing the book on suicide I address in the following entry, Améry succeeded in committing suicide himself. 

In his writing on suicide, as earlier in his writing on aging, and first of all in his writing on Auschwitz and all that name stands for, Améry demonstrates an adamantine fidelity to the truth as he has been given to experience it and, above all, to the truth of resistance, even and especially against that against which no resistance can ever hope to succeed, at least if success is measured by the standards of that very “reality” to which, in resiting it, one refuses to submit.

 

Monday, September 22, 2008

Jean Améry, On Suicide:  A Discourse on Voluntary Death, trans. John D. Barlow (Bloomington and  Indianapolis:  University of Indiana Press, 1999).

Pp. 25-26:

[Otto] Weininger [the Jewish but anti-Semitic, misogynistic author of Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character), who killed himself in 1903 at 23] could not bear to be a Jew:  he was one.  My housemaid [i.e., one Améry read about in the paper, who killed herself because she could not  become the beloved or a popular singer she’d become fixated upon] could not bear to be an anonymous woman upon whom  the singer’s attention was never bestowed:  she was one.

By suicide, they did not become what they were not (a non-Jew or the singer’s lover, respectively).  Nevertheless, in a certain sense, (p. 27) “at least in a foolish way in the moment before the leap,” each “was” (his emphasis) what he/she “could not be because reality would not allow it to [him/her]:  Weininger as a non-Jew, the girl with the  broom as the sweetheart of the singer.”  Each rose up against reality and became, in that foolish instant, what reality would not let each be, in effect, to use a line from a couple of pages later (p. 29), “by de-selfing their self themselves”  (his emphasis).

Compare the “resistance”and “revolt” of “striking back” at Auschwitz, and of remaining faithful to the  truth of aging:  In all three cases–Auschwitz, aging, dying –in the act (or event) of such  resistance there is the only possible victory here, that of the revelation of the truth–a truth against Auschwitz, age, and death, one showing that those tree are the illusion:  “I passed by again, they were not  there.”

 

Or it is no doubt better to say the suicide revolts not against death as such, but against the failure (he prefers and uses the French échecas more expressive–even as sound–of what he means) of  one’s life.  Such failure is one of the two common conditions back of the decision to kill oneself [according to him], the other being “disgust with life,” [such as] one experiences life in (p. 47) “[l‘]naussée, one of the basic constituents of a human being,” and wherein life [in the biological sense:  the living as opposed to the “inorganic”] is experienced as I [myself] perceived it could be on my way to Mazatlan by train years ago, namely (as he puts it in parentheses a few lines before the remark on “nausea”), “a malignant tumor.” 

Thus, p. 60:  “What is suicide as natural death?  A resounding no to the crushing, shattering échec of existence.”  A refusal to live the life of “a failure.”

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