Published in Guernica, July 2010 (thx Majid)
No one has described the victims’ experience more astutely or intransigently than Jean Améry—writer, résistant, Jew—who was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and survived (or, as he insisted, did not really survive) Auschwitz and other camps. Améry’s relative anonymity is a shame, for he wrote some of the most original, incisive, and discomfiting essays on torture and genocide ever penned—essays that are, sad to say, still strikingly relevant, and that challenge current ideas about what reconstruction after genocide might look like. Despite the restrained irony of Améry’s voice, his writings accumulate into an accusatory howl.
As he hung from a hook in a Gestapo prison, Améry learned some quick lessons. “The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come,” he would later write. This helplessness is social more than physical, and bespeaks isolation and abandonment more than pain. The prisoner knows that the world has forsaken him—rescue, aid, solace are impossible—and that he is, therefore, no longer part of the world, even if he is not yet dead. Améry learned, too, that all those aspects of his character that he had considered central and unique would quickly vanish, leaving only one irrefutable reality: the body in pain. “The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may… call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints… Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed so thoroughly into flesh.” The destruction of the autonomous self—a destruction that, if he survives, will continue to haunt the victim—makes torture “the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”
The tortured person loses what Améry called “trust in the world”: a belief in the social contract, a belief that the boundaries of the body will be respected, a belief that the world wants to share itself with you. Trust in the world means that you, too, are entitled to a minimal safety and a minimal life: though the world might not shower you with happiness, it will at least defend your right to exist. The loss of that trust, Améry argued, is a kind of mutilation. That is why “whoever was tortured, stays tortured… It was over for a while. It still is not over. Twenty-two years later I am still dangling.”
In a startling piece called “Resentments,” written in the mid-1960s and addressed to a German audience, Améry wrote of the exultation he felt after the war, when the corroding loneliness of the torture-and-concentration-camp victim was eased. Améry was returned not only to life but to the family of man: he was in sync, intellectually and morally, with the world around him. This was, for him, “a totally unprecedented social and moral status, and it elated me,” he recalled. “There was mutual understanding between me and the rest of the world. Those who had tortured me and turned me into a bug… were themselves an abomination… Not only National Socialism, Germany was the object of a general feeling that before our eyes crystallized from hate into contempt.
Full article here.