Memory, like everything else in the world, can be clumsily used, or unintelligently used, or used for false purposes or in bad faith.
June 1, 2003
Jun 1, 2003
30 Min read time
Memory, like everything else in the world, can be clumsily used, or unintelligently used, or used for false purposes or in bad faith.
The Ethics of Memory
Harvard University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
Harvard University Press, $24.95 (cloth)
On the Natural History of Destruction
W. G. Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell
Random House, $23.95 (cloth)
W. G. Sebald
Translated by Anthea Bell
Random House, $23.95 (cloth)
At the Mind’s Limits
Translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld
Indiana University Press, 1980 (out of print)
Jean Améry Edited and translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld
Indiana University Press, 1984 (out of print)
“. . . Yes, I will forget it all . . .
Everything that happened.
And everything that did not.”
—Vahan Tekeyan, “Forgetting” (1940)
It was the fourth day of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and unlike several of my friends, I was not in the streets demonstrating. Despite that, or because of it, two small items—details, really—in aNew York Times article about the antiwar protests stopped me short. The first: At a demonstration in Berlin, our German comrades (I do not use the word facetiously, only sadly) hoisted a placard reading, “Dresden 1945, Baghdad 2003: the same crime.” The second quoted a Spanish protester named Juan Antonio Diaz, who told the Times, “I feel even more anger than on the first day because of the images we have seen on television of Baghdad burning, the same thing that happened to Madrid, the city I live in, during the Spanish Civil War.”
Was Baghdad burning? According to the BBC website, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, from which I got most of the news, parts of it certainly were. But throughout the course of the war, the American bombing was clearly aimed almost exclusively at Saddam’s presidential palace compounds and other government-related buildings. The city was not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, razed, and great care was taken (whether for humanitarian or political motives) to avoid civilian casualties. Of course there were fatalities, and appalling mutilations, and fear and anguish among Baghdad’s citizens; this was a war. And like all wars, one could argue that it was wrong in principle, which is to say on political grounds. But one could not plausibly—that is, truthfully—argue that the American bombing campaign represented the desire to terrorize or decimate a civilian population. From a military, political, and moral standpoint, the U.S. attack on Baghdad resembled neither the Allied firebombing of Dresden nor the Fascist assault on Madrid. In fact, I can think of few worse analogies.
And yet that analogy and others like it remained, shouted (and, more alarmingly, written) with passionate intensity by reasonable, well-meaning, and well-educated people throughout the world. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that argument-by-historic-analogy has become a prime mode of political discourse, especially among those who consider themselves intellectuals and leftists. (Think of, say, Portuguese novelist José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, comparing the Israeli siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound to “a crime comparable to Auschwitz” in the pages of El Pais last year.) This is a problem not of exaggeration or laziness or stupidity, but of epistemology and understanding and intellectual courage.
The propagators of such analogies would say they are using historic knowledge to heighten moral awareness and thus prevent the commission of present and future horrors. But I fear that the opposite is true: The reliance on historic analogies is an evasion of the particular, indeed novel, political complexities that face us now, complexities that have emerged since (but are not solely the result of) September 11. Like photographs of starving children or grieving mothers or blasted buildings, such analogies create instant, Pavlovian moral equivalencies. They shut down critical thought and ultimately, therefore, stifle moral acuity.They simplify both the present and the past. They erase the specific in favor of the generic, and the sharp reality in favor of the fuzzy image. They create fear, confusion and especially guilt (and are designed to do so). Most dangerously, they seduce us into thinking that history is essentially a story of repetition—“the same crime” eternally played out. (The motto of the analogists might be: “Always again.”) And so the brave banner in Berlin and the angry demonstrator in Madrid lead me to a question I don’t usually ask: Is memory—historic memory—a good thing?
A large body of literature from the last decade argues yes. Looking especially at truth commissions and at efforts by ravaged societies to “come to terms” with the past, various writers—including human-rights activists, lawyers, political theorists, psychoanalysts, journalists, historians, and philosophers—have argued that forgetfulness equals impunity, and that impunity is both morally outrageous and politically dangerous. They are right. To argue that forgetfulness is bad, however, is different than proving that memory is good. For memory, like everything else in the world, can be clumsily used, or unintelligently used, or used for false purposes or in bad faith.
• • •
Two new books approach the question of political memory from different perspectives and with vastly different amounts of success. In The Ethics of Memory, the Israeli philosopher and political commentator Avishai Margalit asks, “Is there an ethics of memory?” He answers yes and no: “While there is an ethics of memory, there is very little morality of memory.” This conclusion rests on the distinction Margalit makes between “thick” relations—families, friends, communities, nations—and “thin” relations, which are more abstract and may encompass all humanity. For Margalit, thick relations are the purview of ethics, while morality governs (or should) thin relations. And morality, he posits, is an expression not of our human solidarity but of our resistance to it: “We need morality precisely because we do not care . . . for the well-being of most members of the human race.”
This is true, and it’s refreshing to hear someone admit it. But Margalit fails to adequately, or interestingly, develop the larger distinction he makes between ethics and morality, thick and thin. What does it mean, in the non-abstract world of real human affairs and real human history? Margalit disputes the Utopian (and Christian) idea that all humanity can, or should, constitute a community—much less a community of remembrance. At the same time, he argues that humanity as a whole should remember “striking examples of radical evil and crimes against humanity, such as enslavement, deportations of civilian populations, and mass exterminations.” Yet this seems to pose more questions than it answers. Why, and how, should a victim of the Rwandan genocide remember those of the Gulag? And why should a comfortable 25-year-old citizen of, say, Amsterdam—or Cairo or Beijing—remember either? What, in such cases, would “remembrance” mean, and how would it manifest itself?
Margalit offers few useful clues. The Ethics of Memory is well-intentioned and humane (the book jacket quotes Hilary Putnam calling Margalit “a mensch,” which I have no reason to doubt), and Margalit is particularly strong when he writes against the sentimentalization of memory and the “paradigmatic kitsch” into which it can be transformed. But the book, which is based on various lectures, is undermined by a maddening vagueness. This is especially ironic given that Margalit defines himself as an “e.g. philosopher,” that is, one who “trust[s], first and foremost, striking examples.”
I found strikingly few such examples in The Ethics of Memory.Indeed, the book is written in an odd vacuum, as if in the course of the last two decades so many crucial political and philosophical debates had not been entered into, and so much good journalistic and historic work had not been done. It has been 17 years, for instance, since the “historians’ dispute” over the Holocaust erupted in Germany (in which Jürgen Habermas was so central), and a decade since the fierce debates over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) emerged. The problem isn’t that Margalit, who is one of Israel’s leading intellectuals, largely ignores these events, but that he writes as if his thinking is largelyuninfluenced by them, which I don’t think is possible. (He does mention the TRC twice, but both references are glancing, and he gets the title wrong, though in different ways each time.) Similarly, Margalit seems oblivious to the dense, challenging specificity of the work of a panoply of thinkers who have added so much insight, and raised so many important questions, about the connections between memory, history and ethics. I think especially—though there are many others—of the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet inAssassins of Memory; of the American journalists Jane Kramer (inThe Politics of Memory) and Lawrence Weschler (A Miracle, A Universe); of Canadian human-rights theorist Michael Ignatieff inThe Warrior’s Honor; and of a slew of journalists from a variety of countries who emerged, changed and enraged, from the war in Bosnia. These writers have explored such questions as the destruction of memory, the obsession with memory, nationalism and memory, false memory, bad memory, opportunistic memory, lost memory, “too much” memory, memory versus reconciliation and, yes, the ethics of memory.
Margalit ignores much of this. And when he does approach these questions, it is often to dismiss them with sweeping generalities. “There is no mystery,” he writes, as to why the Serbs are still obsessed with their ancestors’ defeat in 1389. None at all? He dismisses, too, the idea that powerful elites “supposedly manipulate the masses by inventing communal stories to promote their own selfish interests,” arguing that these elites “are willing to send their own sons to get killed in national wars.” But it is not the sons of Slobodan Milosevic, or of Saddam Hussein, or even of George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, who fight in their wars, national or otherwise. (Israel may be one of the few countries where the sons of the eliteare sent into battle, but Margalit must know that this is the democratic exception to the rule.)
And sometimes Margalit is simultaneously ignorant of politics and psychology. He writes that “the ideal end-result of forgiveness is the restoration of the original relationship between the offender and the forgiver.” Yet in the case of the TRC, for instance, the opposite was true: Those (such as the commission’s chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu) who stressed the value of forgiveness were not attempting to restore previous relationships, which would have meant restoring apartheid, but to forge fundamentally new ones. In private life, too, people frequently strive to forgive those who have wounded them not in order to restore a relationship but, conversely, to make leaving (or forgetting) it possible. Margalit concludes that forgiveness is a duty only to oneself, and “stems from not wanting to live with feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge,” which he describes as “poisonous.” Yet poisons, I would argue, are not always unpleasant—they can sometimes be rather seductive—and a quick look around the world suggests that many, many people fervently desire to live with precisely such feelings as acute resentment. For a combination of political and psychoanalytic reasons, they are energetically, and perhaps in some weird sense even happily, committed to their rage. They dwell quite adeptly, and not necessarily with discomfort, in what Michael Ignatieff has aptly termed “the dream time of vengeance.”
• • •
If Margalit’s book is like an inoffensive but forgettable bath of warm water, W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destructionis dry ice.1 In prose as precise and astringent as a surgeon’s knife—Sebald writes in clear revulsion against what he sees as the kitschy grandiosity of too much German literature—he examines a great hole of cultural memory: the German amnesia surrounding the Allied carpet bombings of 131 German cities and towns during the Second World War. The aerial campaigns turned many German cities into vast necropolises, resulting in an estimated 600,000 (primarily civilian) deaths and millions of internal refugees.
Though Sebald resists the pornography of violence—indeed, he practices the “scrupulous restraint” for which he praises the post-Holocaust essayist Jean Améry—he does not stint on details. Here, drawing on rare contemporary accounts, is his description of the July 1943 destruction of Hamburg (dubbed “Operation Gomorrah” by the Allies):
Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed. . . . Elsewhere, clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.
Then came the ecology of devastation (Sebald quotes the writer Hans Erich Nossack):
Rats and flies ruled the city. The rats, bold and fat, frolicked in the streets, but even more disgusting were the flies, huge and iridescent green, flies such as had never been seen before. They swarmed in great clusters on the roads, settled in heaps to copulate on ruined walls, and basked, weary and satiated, on the splinters of the windowpanes.
Such grotesque descriptions are offset—nicely, I might add—by Sebald’s sly observation, “The Germans, who had proposed to cleanse and sanitize all Europe, now had to contend with a rising fear that they themselves were the rat people.”
The response by German novelists of the postwar era to this vast wreckage was, for the most part, resounding silence; they failed to breach what Sebald calls “the cordon sanitaire cast by society around the death zones.” And he is merciless towards those few novelists who did address the bombings, castigating them for sickly-sweet fraudulence, moral evasion and plain bad writing.2(Not atypical is Peter de Mendelssohn’s creepy description of his fictional character Aphrodite Homeriades, a Jewish camp survivor from Salonika: “‘a dirty, grubby girl, beaten black and blue, with tangled black hair, but in her slender and supple youth she was lovely as a goddess from the groves of antiquity.’”) For Sebald, this dismal literary history is not a minor failure but a major one; more important, it is a failure that cannot be consigned (only) to aesthetics, but is profoundly moral too. Thus, his prosecutorial tone: “The construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.”
But the reasons for this German amnesia—“an almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression,” Sebald writes—are not difficult to fathom, and so Sebald’s puzzlement is puzzling. If explanations are needed, one can simply revert to the shorthand of geography: Guernica, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Coventry—and then: Treblinka, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Majdanek. Sebald understands that the various circles of hell the Germans created are forever intertwined; that “the real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare”—he means the mass murder of civilians—“were the work of the Germans”; and that his country’s crimes can not be separated from his country’s punishment. Indeed, without such understanding, his book would collapse into moral idiocy: “A nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities,” he simply, correctly explains. He believes his compatriots understand this, too: “The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.”
Yet even Sebald sometimes misses the deeper ironies, which is to say the irrevocably untenable position of Germans-as-victims. He writes, for instance, that the disgusting Hamburg rubble—rat-infested, fly-infested, corpse- infested—was cleared by “punishment labor gangs and camp inmates.” This is a rare falling into euphemism on Sebald’s part, for “slaves” would clearly be a more apt description. More important, and less excusable, is his failure to connect the moral impairment of pre- and postwar Germans.
Sebald writes that after the war the “quasi-natural reflex” of the Germans “was to keep quiet and look the other way”; he describes what he calls the Germans’ “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia”; he speaks of the Germans’ “ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes”; and he reports how, even during the bombings, one native observer noted “a lack of moral sensitivity bordering on inhumanity” among Hamburg residents. Yet Sebald never connects this silence, this looking away, this numbness, this forgetfulness, and this inhumanity to the more general moral collapse of Germany as it sunk into barbarism in the 1930s. Sebald’s vision can be admirably unstinting, but ultimately he fails to realize, or at least to articulate, that the “perfectly functioning mechanism of repression” he describes had been polished and honed by the Germans years before the bombs finally fell on them. It is precisely what allowed the Holocaust to occur. Silence and denial enabled the process at every hideous step of the way: the hysterical propaganda, the rise of the death squads, the Nuremberg laws, the torture centers, the deportations, the camps, and finally the gas chambers.
Other, more morally acute writers have understood this fatal continuity. In fact, it was the marked propensity to look away—an activity simultaneously individual and collective, easy and difficult, unconscious and determined—for which Primo Levi condemned the Germans. And Levi was adamant that it was not just the top guns, the party officials or SS goons who must be judged, but
also those others, those who had . . . kept silent, who did not have the frail courage to look into our eyes, throw us a piece of bread, whisper a human word. . . . I believe I can judge those Germans without prejudice or anger. Almost all, but not all, had been deaf, blind, and dumb: a mass of ‘invalids’ surrounding a core of ferocious beasts. Almost all, though not all, had been cowardly. . . . I know ‘that it is impossible to rebel in a totalitarian state’; but I know that there exist a thousand ways, much less dangerous, to manifest one’s solidarity with the oppressed.
Levi thought about how many Germans could not not have known, including “the railroad personnel of the convoys, the warehouse workers, the thousands of German workers in the factories and mines where the slave-workers were worked to death, in short, anyone who did not hold his hand over his eyes.”
The ability to cover one’s eyes quite successfully (and make sure the neighbors do, too)—not in one moment of panic, but for decades as a way of life and at the cost of incalculable suffering to others—is the real yet inadequately explored subject of Sebald’s book. In the case of the bombings, this “perfectly functioning” talent for repression was finally used by the Germans to squash, at least publicly, the memory of their own pain.
• • •
This might not be such a bad thing. It’s true that perpetrators and their collaborators suffer, and they have the right and the duty to confront their suffering. But to do so well they need to understand that they were perpetrators, and exactly what their crimes consisted of, and who was responsible for them, and the obscenity of excuses. (This does not change the nature of their offenses, but it does open up the option of future identities other than that of perpetrators.) Without all this, the memory of their suffering becomes a hopelessly corrupted undertaking.
There is no evidence, in the years directly following the war, that the Germans were capable of honorably engaging the destruction of their cities. For this would have led to an engagement with their guilt, and in this they showed little interest. There were a few public figures, such as the philosopher Karl Jaspers, who attempted to guide the Germans toward an understanding of the catastrophe they had abetted; but Jaspers was as rare (and as welcome) as a Marxist-Leninist in the U.S. Senate. Sebald describes the German mindset in 1945 as one in which “self-pity, groveling self-justification, a sense of injured innocence, and defiance were curiously intermingled.” It is a description confirmed by foreign observers on the scene at the time of the German defeat.
Indeed, such observers were shocked and repelled by the moral obtuseness that surrounded them; think, for instance, of Martha Gellhorn’s furious April 1945 dispatch from a small town on the Rhine, with its damning opening litany: “I hid a Jew, he hid a Jew, all God’s chillun hid Jews. . . . Ah, how we have suffered.” Reporters at the Nuremberg trials and in the immediate postwar years were similarly struck by the widespread denial that blanketed Germany. Janet Flanner of the New Yorker wrote in 1947, “The new Germany is bitter against everyone else on earth, and curiously self-satisfied. . . . The Nuremberg Trials put the spotlight on the brilliant, foul complexities of the big Nazis’ master plans, but the average German can truthfully state that such remarkable ideas certainly never occurred to him. . . . The people feel no responsibility for the war, which they regard as an act of history.” Rebecca West also covered Nuremberg and, when she revisited Germany almost a decade later, noted that the Germans (still) regarded the trials—not the deeds they had revealed—as “an ugly focus of infection” that “revolted” them. Under such conditions, forgetfulness may be the lesser sin.
That forgetfulness has now been banished, or at least vastly diminished. Spurred in part by Sebald’s book, in the past few years Germany has flooded itself with books, articles, and documentary films (some widely aired on television) on the Allied bombings and other war-related topics, such as the hardships German soldiers endured during the siege of Stalingrad. Historian J<0x00F6>rg Friedrich’s book Der Brand (The Fire), a gruesomely detailed account of the bombings, is a huge bestseller. So is is Guünter Grass’s latest novel, Crabwalk, based in part on the Russian torpedoing of a German civilian ship in 1945, which killed an estimated nine thousand passengers. There is now talk in Germany of (Allied) atrocities and (Allied) war criminals and even (Allied) “death by gassing,” which refers to the bombing campaigns. It is safe to say that German victims, if not quite German victimization, are “in.”
Have the Germans developed the right prism, and the rigorous habit of self-awareness, through which to view this history? Can they prevent this revisionism from mutating into something ugly and perverse? How sturdy is the scaffolding—psychological, political, institutional—that supports this process? The German novelist and journalist Peter Schneider, a member of the ’68 generation, recently lauded the revisionists, confidently asserting that
the belated recollection of suffering both endured and culpably inflicted in no sense arouses desires for revenge and revanchism in the children and grandchildren of the generation of perpetrators. Rather it opens their eyes to and enhances their understanding of the destruction that the Nazi Germans brought upon other nations.
Perhaps. But reporter Nina Bernstein of the New York Times found something different when she recently visited the Charles Darwin High School in Berlin. Rather than opened eyes and increased empathy, she observed twelfth-grade students blithely if not triumphantly stirring disparate histories (and etiologies) into a strange brew. And so these young, safe, prosperous German “grandchildren” simultaneously compared George Bush to Adolf Hitler, spoke resentfully of the bombing of Dresden and, most bizarrely, suggested that the September 11th attacks were the work of the United States itself: “the equivalent,” one girl said, “of the Reichstag fire.”
It is easy to favor the breaking of taboos, the reclamation of memory, and the opening of history—and I do, I do; but it is dangerous to forget that such processes can never be controlled. The moral-historic conflations, and the self-righteousness, emerging now from Germany cannot be what Sebald envisioned. History repeats itself, but it does not only or inevitably repeat itself, which is why the world continues to surprise us; and so a knowledge of history should help illuminate the distinctions of the present rather than lull us into assuming that it is merely a Xerox of the past. “The retrospective learning process,” Sebald writes, “is the only way of deflecting human wishful thinking towards the anticipation of a future that would not already be preempted by the anxieties arising from the suppression of experience. . . . A proper understanding of the catastrophes we are always setting off is the first prerequisite for the social organization of happiness.”
The knowledge of a repressed event, such as the bombing of Germany’s cities, is perhaps not something that needs to be “learned” or “uncovered” so much as absorbed and understood. History does have use-values, but not all of them are good; it is possible to know something while being utterly unable to use that knowledge well. “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” T. S. Eliot mourned; in the same vein, but more bluntly, Sebald observes, “Our species is unable to learn from its mistakes.” And such learning, he insists, is the only possible justification for writing about cruelty.
• • •
I know of no author whose ideas about memory, time and justice are more disturbing and challenging than those of Jean Améry. Margalit and Sebald each discuss him in their new books (Margalit in passing, Sebald in an essay called “Against the Irreversible”). For Margalit, Améry represents the ultimate moral witness; for Sebald, he remains “the only” postwar German writer “who denounced the obscenity of a psychologically and socially deformed society, and the outrage of supposing that history could proceed on its way afterwards almost undisturbed.” At a time when forgiveness, reconciliation, and “closure” trip off many lips with alacrity, it is especially useful to look back at Améry. I do not think any society attempting to recover from mass violence could put his ideas, much less his characterological stance toward the world, into practice; nor can it be said that these things exactly “worked” for him, at least in the usual sense of the word. I am not sure that matters. Améry was interested not in healing wounds, which is exceedingly difficult, but in remaking history, which is (close to) impossible. And his voice is so subtly ironic, and so pitiless—toward himself among others—that he makes Sebald look almost soft.
Améry, whose original name was Hans Mayer, described his life as “an ordinary fate in the most extraordinary of times.” He was born in 1912, in Vienna, to a Catholic mother and Jewish father; the latter died fighting for the Kaiser in the First World War. The Mayers were fully assimilated or, as Améry would put it, fully Austrian—he had no religious, linguistic, or even cultural connection to Judaism. It was only the Nuremberg Laws, he wrote, that made him a Jew. (And kept him one: He would later describe this conflicted identity as “being Jewish . . . without a Judaism.”)
Améry studied literature and philosophy in Vienna (after the war, his greatest influence would be Jean-Paul Sartre), and became increasingly radicalized as fascism blossomed in the thirties. He fled Austria when Hitler invaded, and in the early 1940s he joined a small, not particularly successful communist-led resistance group in Belgium. In 1943 he was captured and tortured for months by the Gestapo, an experience from which he not only never recovered but would always scorn the idea of recovering from. His torturers, upon realizing that he was not merely a résistant but also a Jew, promptly sent him to a series of concentration camps, starting with Auschwitz (there he met Primo Levi, whom he would later accuse of being too forgiving).3
After the Liberation, Améry returned to Brussels and became a journalist for Swiss publications, taking a French pen name to symbolize his rejection of Germany. In 1964, already in middle age, he began writing for the first time—and, for the first time, for a German audience—about the subjects that would make his reputation, including torture, exile, vengeance,4 and what he called “radical humanism.” (Anyone who considers herself a rationalist should read Améry’s essay “At the Mind’s Limits”; anyone who considers herself Jewish should read “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”; anyone who considers herself human should read “Enlightenment as Philosophia Perennis.”) In 1978, just shy of his 66th birthday, Améry killed himself. He is buried in Vienna, where his tombstone bears the number an Auschwitz guard engraved on his arm.
For Améry, forced explusion from his country and his language was not a loss but an erasure. This is a radical and terrifying concept: Améry posits that the trauma of betrayal, statelessness, exile, and attempted extermination blot out the past in the victim, and the victim must collaborate in that blotting out. No repression is required (or possible). Nor can memories ever be rediscovered or previous identities ever be reclaimed. These things are not lost and, therefore, possibly retrievable; instead, they never existed. Thus Améry wrote that the German-Jewish poet who found himself in a camp had not lost his audience or even his language; rather, his deportation had literally “undone his verses,” and he would die not just homeless but “without a past.” Cruelty wipes the slate clean, but nothing new can be written on it.
In the same vein, of his own experience of pre-Auschwitz exile, Améry writes,
We . . . had not lost our country, but had to realize that it had never been ours. . . . The nature of our homesickness . . . was totally new and not determined by any conventional emotions recorded in literature. . . . Traditional homesickness was . . . comforting self-pity. . . . Genuine homesickness was not self-pity, but rather self-destruction. It consisted in dismantling our past piece by piece. . . . The hostile home was destroyed by us, and at the same time we obliterated the part of our life that was associated with it.
Such explusion is less like a wound from which one can recover than “an insidious disease” that grows “worse with the years.” From such desolation—from such abandonment by the world—recovery is impossible: “There is no psychoanalytic remedy. The only therapy could have been history in practice.”
And history in practice—or the possibility of a new history and a new practice—is to be found in an staunch refusal of reconciliation. Améry does not dispute that, as so many have pointed out, obsessive fury, resentment, and the inability to forgive keep the victim rooted in the past. For him, this is their great virtue; the dream time of vengeance is the best place to be. But this is not, as Michael Ignatieff has written, because revenge is “a desire to keep faith with the dead . . . a ritual form of respect.” Améry was not interested in ritual or respect. What he wanted was to force victim and perpetrator back into time, where they would revisit the catastrophe they had lived together (albeit from radically different perspectives)—but revisit it in a different way and with a different outcome.
How can this be? Améry argues that once moral reason has been turned on its head—as happened at Auschwitz where, as Primo Levi wrote, “there are no criminals nor madmen”—reality loses its claim to our acceptance; once the natural has been radically transgressed, the unnatural becomes an imperative. The Holocaust ruptures our connection to (rational, natural) linear time. Améry explains:
Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time-sense, which is also called the ‘natural’ one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character. Man has the right and the privilege to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about. . . . The moral power to resist contains the protest, the revolt against reality, which is rational only as long as it is moral. 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.
One good way criminal and victim can join together is in death—of the perpetrator. Of the execution of one “especially adroit” SS torturer, Améry writes, “I would like to believe that at the instant of his execution he wanted exactly as much as I to turn back time, to undo what had been done. When they led him to the place of execution, the antiman had once again become a fellow man.” What Améry offered the Germans—and a thornier, less desired gift cannot be imagined—was the possibility of their re-engaging, and remaking, the past on a mass scale and of thereby transcending their existence as “antimen”:
Germany . . . would . . . 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 that for us others really were a thousand, 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 . . . two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, . . . joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral.
This would require not just individual imprisonments and individual executions (though Améry approved of both), but national transformation on an unprecedented scale: the creation, that is, of “a national community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation.” This is—or more precisely, would have been—the exact mirror image of the “perfectly functioning mechanism of repression” that Sebald describes.
The travelling back into time and subsequent joining together of hunter and hunted that Améry advocated had nothing in common with reconciliation; it was, rather, a shared recoiling from history. Améry knew that this kind of mutuality would never be attempted; that it was only the victims whom the ruined past trapped; that the burdens of shame and self-loathing haunted the tortured and not the torturer; that nations often destroy others but never negate themselves. He knew that neither time nor power was on his side; he proudly acknowledged that his was “a morality for the losers.”
There is something undeniably Utopian, and mad, in what Améry sought. And something noble too: He wielded the terrible swift sword of clarity and rage, and a kind of bitter moral rigor that is never pretty but that can be beautiful. He insisted—it is his most hopeless and most quoted phrase: “Whoever was tortured, stays tortured.” And yet his irreconciliability never mutated into cynicism. Thus he also wrote—and this at the end of his anguished life: “The benevolent optimism of the Enlightenment, with its constant values of freedom, reason, justice, and truth is our sole hope of making history and in so doing of carrying on the one truly humane business: lending meaning to the meaningless. . . . The light of the classical Enlightenment was no optical illusion, no hallucination.”
Améry struggled to maintain both truths. Yet there is no doubt that it was his knowledge of a particular (but not rare) kind of suffering that suffused his work, and makes it unbearable. “Whichever word you speak— / you owe to / destruction,” Paul Celan, another survivor and non-survivor, wrote; and this was true of Améry too. It was this knowledge that made him who he was, and crushed him.
It is the kind of knowledge that is too pessimistic for our time, and that resists facile analogies and clever metaphors. There is no way to cherish it. And yet we forget it at our peril, and so we must somehow learn to make it ours, or at least to not push it away.
1. Sebald’s book began as a series of controversial lectures he gave in Zurich in 1997 that were published in Germany two years later. Sebald was killed in a car crash in December 2001 at age 57. Born in a small German town in 1944, he spent most of his adult life in England.
2. For Sebald, the notable exception to this equivocation is Heinrich Böll’s The Angel Was Silent, written in the 1940s. But that novel presented “more than readers of the time could be expected to take,” Sebald wrote, and it could not find a German publisher for almost 50 years.
3. Levi replied: “I consider this neither insult nor praise but imprecision. I am not inclined to forgive, I never forgave our enemies of that time, nor do I feel I can forgive their imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, or South Africa, because I know no human act that can erase a crime; I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return blows.”
4. Responding to critics of the ethics of vengeance, Améry wrote:
“I already hear protests: . . . An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, jus talionis; for God’s sake, that is by no means what the Jews wanted who were rousing themselves to resistance!
“Yes, it is! I believe that is what they wanted. I myself . . . wanted just that; and countless comrades along with me. That they and I did not rise in revolt remains our very painful, constantly reopening wound.”
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June 01, 2003
30 Min read time