As we have seen Jean Améry wants to move beyond talk of guilt and demanding atonement. Despite his refusal to forgive his tormentors, Améry really works hard to find a way for them to join with their victims, both wanting to reverse time to undo the crime.
We’ve also seen that Améry lives with contradiction. He looks openly at the impossibilities of his resentment; yet he expounds on why and how he won’t forgive the Germans for what they did to him and others.
I am not so comfortable with dwelling in contradiction. In the past few posts about forgiving, I have quoted both Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Améry. Yet, Levinas says that forgiving reverses time. Améry says that refusing to forgive seeks to reverse time, even though reversing time is not possible. Levinas says that forgiving is about fault. Améry says that refusing to forgive is not about fault; it goes beyond guilt and atonement.
In the first post of this series, I said that forgiving changes who we think we are by changing how we relate to time, i.e., our relation to who we thought we were and will be. If, like Améry, we don’t forgive, does that mean that we don’t change who-we-think-we-are? By changing who-we-think-we-are, I meant letting go of our various selves: the “me” who was hurt in the past, the “me” who continues to feel injured, the “me” who will stay suffering.
If to forgive means to let go, does refusing to forgive mean clinging to the past? I do not think that’s what Améry wants to do. He wants both victim and perpetrator to let go of the past. Not by forgetting about what happened. Rather by focusing on the crime as it is present now in the victim and in the perpetrator, by attending to what the Buddha calls the dinner left on the table.
The story is that the Buddha really pissed off two brahmans from the Bharadvaja clan. The first one got fed up with his wife telling him all the time what a great guy this Gotama was. He went to the Buddha to chew him out, but when he finished yelling and insulting the Buddha, the Buddha’s calm replies touched his heart and he became a follower of the Buddha. When the second one heard about the conversion of the first, he went charging up to the Buddha and let into him with even harsher verbal abuse. After he stopped to catch his breath, the Buddha asked him if he ever had people over to visit. Of course, he replied. The Buddha asked if he offered his visitors refreshments and a meal. Of course, the brahman replied. So, the Buddha asked, if your visitors don’t eat your food, to whom does the food belong? To me, said the brahman. Well, the Buddha said, I’m not eating your meal either.
In the same way, brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who is not insulting; that with which you have taunted me, who is not taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating: that I don’t accept from you. It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.
Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one who is taunting, returns a berating to one who is berating, is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person. But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.
The brahman is so worked up that he claims that the Buddha’s response shows that the Buddha gets angry. To describe his lack of anger, the Buddha recites a short verse which ends:
You live for the good of both
— your own, the other’s —
when, knowing the other’s provoked,
you mindfully grow calm.
In neither case does the Buddha forgive the brahman for insulting him. The insults still lie there like the food left on the table. They’re all the brahman’s. The Buddha does not pretend that this abuse did not happen. He is aware of the abuse, but even more aware of the turmoil inside his abuser. He lives for “the good of both,” his own and the other’s.
Almost more than his tormentors, Améry wants to challenge those who would sweep past crimes under the rug, who would tell the injured to forget about their old wounds because they’ve healed physically, and who would give the perpetrators a pass in order to get on with business. In some ways his language is full of more anger at them than at his Nazi torturers.
To me Améry’s refusal to forgive sounds like the Buddha’s “It’s all yours.” Améry does not want to cling to past pain and suffering. But he does want us to recognize that the best way to let go of the past is to pay attention to how we really feel about what happened to us (as victims) and to how we continue to benefit from past crimes (as perpetrators and as all who were not victims), to really be aware that the poisoned food is still on the table. If we can do that, we can really change.
We will return to what these thoughts say about “me” and about time in subsequent posts.