Historical Memory
August 15, 2003 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Debating the Moral Obligations of Memory. Jean Améry inspired Avishai Margalit and the late W.G. Sebald to likewise wrestle with questions of torture, revenge, and memory; 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. In the Boston Review, Susie Linfield observes that for Améry, "the dream time of vengeance is the best place to be." (via the Cultural News Digest, nextbook.org)
posted by semmi (11 comments total)
This is a great article, semmi, but damn! it's esoteric. The heady links, no matter how good they are, don't get a lot of comment. But this is good. It's interestig. Thought-provoking. Thanks.
posted by jdroth at 9:57 PM on August 15, 2003

Thanks from me too. An excellent link.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2003

I googled around trying to find more about Améry, and after several pages of nothing but German and French links (he seems to be almost unknown to the Anglophone world) I came across this gem, a biographical essay by D. G. Myers (with pictures, including one of the gravestone with his camp number). A couple of excerpts:
Améry endured a year in Auschwitz III, the Buna-Monowitz labor camp. Lacking a manual skill, he was assigned to a labor detail at the I-G Farben site, digging dirt, laying cables, lugging sacks of cement and iron crossbeams. He survived—somehow. Unlike his fellow Auschwitz inmate Viktor E. Frankl, Améry refused to derive theory from his survival. Many years later he agreed that the "religiously or politically committed" (Orthodox Jews, orthodox Marxists) had a better chance of surviving, or at least of dying with more dignity. They were able to look beyond the basic reality of Auschwitz. For them the horrors were weakened by being reinterpreted as a renewal of creation when evil was released into the world or as natural political martyrdom. They had, in other words, a mode of transcendence that was anchored to a reality that the Nazis could not reach, because it existed in faith. "Whoever is, in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself," Améry says. "He is not the captive of his individuality; rather he is part of a spiritual continuity that is interrupted nowhere, not even in Auschwitz." But Améry was an unbeliever from first to last. He had nothing but himself to fall back upon. He was an intellectual, but confronted by a reality that could not be interpreted as anything other than horror, he found that intellect had lost its fundamental quality of transcendence. There was no other reality to which a mere intellectual could appeal. The claim of Auschwitz was total....

Although not halakhically a Jew [his mother was Catholic -LH], Améry insists nevertheless that being Jewish is a necessity for him. But it is also an impossibility, precisely because he is not halakhically Jewish; not, that is, a Jew as a member of a community. "With Jews as Jews I share practically nothing," he writes: "no language, no cultural tradition, no childhood memories." Perhaps then a "catastrophe Jew" rather than a halakhic Jew, or a "non-non-Jew": lacking faith in the God of Israel, lacking Yiddish or Hebrew, lacking the Jewish tradition, he is a Jew because he learned under the Nazis that he is not permitted to be anything else. To be a Jew and a victim—to be a Jewish victim—is to live without "positive determinants." But unlike most men and women, Améry was willing to live this way, because he was willing to see his thought through to the end.
The essay ends:
Améry declines to offer "cheap consolation" or to find a redemptive message in suffering. His approach instead is unsparing, relentlessly bleak; "disconsoling," to use his word. And indeed it’s difficult to know why anyone at all reads these books—except perhaps to face the truth.
posted by languagehat at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2003

thanks - that link just brightened a saturday spent otherwise working. i will certainly search out amery in the future.

if anyone else is thinking of reading the article - don't be discouraged by the introductory waffle. after reading the whole piece you can see what the author is aiming towards; at the beginning just push through the muddled thinking (which confuses stupid comparisons with what is being compared).
posted by andrew cooke at 1:22 PM on August 16, 2003

Améry thus stands as a challenge to the increasingly common view, of which the historian Peter Novick is merely one representative, that the Holocaust encourages contemporary Jews to adopt a "victim identity based on the Holocaust," a "fashionable victimhood" which is exploitative and phony.

[from the link found by languagehat]

not sure i agree here. it seems to me that amery offers an alternative response to the holocaust, which differs from what novick is discussing, but that doesn't challenge novick's thesis which is based on current attitudes and not alternative possibilities. for me, amery is interesting precisely because the contrast with what novick describes is refreshing - that would hardly be the case if amery was the norm.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:38 PM on August 16, 2003

Andrew: I'm confused. In what way do you disagree with the quote? I don't think by "challenge" is meant "disproof" or anything of the sort, rather the image is of a single bitter man defying (rightly or wrongly) the consensus. The link certainly isn't claiming he's the norm.
posted by languagehat at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2003

novick describes current attitudes. amery isn't questioning that (as far i can gather from the article). instead, amery provides a different route that individuals can take. novick's view is only challenged if (many) individuals then do take that route.

as you say, it's the word "challenge" that is difficult. what do you take it to mean? to me it seems to imply some kind of opposition - yet it's difficult to see how two things can oppose each other if they're only vaguely related. it's like saying that one person giving away free soup challenges the view that inflation is rising - the two are vaguely connected via the idea of prices, but "challenge" is either being used in a very odd way, or the writer is wrong.

maybe i'm being too pedantic. i've spent a large part of today reading a document that claims to be a conceptual design, trying to separate requirements, assumptions and implementation details. hmmm. i guess it's one of those things you have to have done to understand... :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:00 PM on August 16, 2003

There is an interesting synchronicity worthy of comparison between Amery and Nobel winner Imre Kertesz's preoccupations, conclusions, and writing style.
posted by semmi at 4:00 PM on August 16, 2003

reading some more, i think i've just misread it. "stands as a challenge" doesn't mean "challenge" does it? sorry!
posted by andrew cooke at 4:02 PM on August 16, 2003

...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...

Vietnam comes to mind
posted by y2karl at 9:37 PM on August 16, 2003

OT: Don't forget the persistence of memory.
posted by schlaager at 2:43 PM on August 17, 2003

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