Resenting someone means trying to do two things you can’t do: return to the past and undo what happened.

Jean Améry describes these conflicts as logically inconsistent, but they seem more like practical obstacles.  In any case, he still maintains that his refusal to forgive is “a form of the human condition that morally as well as historically is of a higher order than that of healthy straightness.” (At the Mind’s Limits 68)

Born Hans Mayer, Améry grew up in an assimilated Austrian Jewish family, fled to Belgium when the Nazis annexed Austria into the Grossdeutsches Reich, was thrown out of Belgium as a German alien, interned at the infamous Gurs camp in southern France, and escaped back to Belgium where he joined the Resistance. After he was arrested for these activities, he was tortured by strappado and whip, then sent to Auschwitz as a Jew when his captors could not get any useful information from him.

(In his memoir At the Mind’s Limits, Améry makes it quite clear that he “talked” under torture, but that his group was so well organized he could give no useful information.   It is significant to me that Elaine Scarry does not mention Améry or his description of his torture in her book The Body in Pain. I don’t believe that this omission was an oversight in an author who is otherwise so thorough. Although Améry writes much that supports Scarry’s views on the torturer’s questions and the ineffability of pain, he also complicates her task by putting his pain into words and by analyzing the torturer’s consciousness of the pain he’s inflicting. In fact, Améry’s distinction between the how of pain (which can only be inflicted) and the what of pain (which can be said) (33) cuts through all of Scarry’s hyperverbalizing. His description and analysis of the “first blow” by his tormentor goes deeper than Scarry in many fewer words. (27-29) I’m still working on the critique of Scarry that will wrap up the series of posts From the pain of aphasia to the aphsia of pain.)

Mayer survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. After the war, he felt so alienated from his former homeland that he wrote under a more French-sounding name. Hans became Jean, and the letters of the name “Mayer” were switched around to make Améry. At the Mind’s Limits presents Améry’s efforts to “describe the state of someone who was overcome,” (xiv) both in the moments of his ordeal and in the years after.

Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected. The permanence of torture gives the one who underwent it the right to speculative flights, which need not be lofty ones and may still claim a certain validity. (34)

In his search for enlightenment, Améry begins these “speculative flights” with “the concrete event, but never become[s] lost in it.” Rather, he goes beyond “logical deduction and empirical verification” in order to “speculate phenomenologically, to empathize” and to reflect on “areas of thought that that lie in an uncertain twilight and will remain therein, no matter how much I strive to attain the clarity necessary in order to lend them contour.” (xi)

Améry may strive for clarity, but he finds it troubling, as he explains in the 1977 “Preface to the Reissue,” ten plus years after the book’s publication.

I had no clarity when I was writing this little book. I do not have it today, and I hope that I never will. Clarification would amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history. My book is meant to aid in preventing precisely this. For nothing is resolved, no conflict is settled, no remembering has become mere memory. What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted. I rebel: against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus falsifies it in a revolting way. Nothing has healed, and what perhaps was already on the point of healing in 1964 is bursting open again as an infected wound. (xi)

Améry questions any effort to clarify what happened to him if it means trying to get him to accept what happened. He doesn’t accept what happened. In fact, he says, “I preserved my resentments. … I neither can nor want to get rid of them ….”  Yet, “I must live with them and am obliged to clarify them for those against whom they are directed.” (67) Like Améry, his readers have to live with his ambiguity and inconsistency. His insights may not be as clear as Descartes, but as he asks:

Where is it decreed that enlightenment must be free of emotion? To me the opposite seems to be true. Enlightenment can properly fulfill its task only if it sets to work with passion. (xi)

Ultimately, Améry defends his refusal to forgive on the basis of more than his emotions. His “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.” (70)

In his chapter “Resentments,” Améry challenges the commonly accepted views that resentment is a stain on our character and a psychological illness. He makes his points through the image of the wound (which we have just seen him use in his Preface to the Reissue) and the (dis)ordering of time. He challenges the common saying that combines these two tropes: “Time heals all wounds.” That saying is in the indicative mood. As for the exhortation to forgive and forget, if we are just complying with “social pressure,” forgiving and forgetting are downright “immoral.” (72)

The problem with using a bodily wound as the image for the wrong we resent is that the image takes the event out of the moral sphere. Bodily wounds are “facts within a physical system, not deeds within a moral system.” (70) “The physiological process of wound-healing” is the basis for the “natural consciousness of time” and “the social conception of reality.” These “natural” views of time and reality are not only outside the sphere of morality, for Améry they are “antimoral.”

Améry’s distinction between the natural and the moral has two consequences, epistemological and practical. Only the victim possessed at the moment of the crime, and only the victim continues to possess “the moral truth of the blows.” Therefore, only the victim is “more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence.”

Here, Améry broadens the victim’s entitlement to judge to “the right and privilege” of all people to disagree “with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about.”

What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect. 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. (72)

This last statement confirms that Améry’s refusal to forgive is not mere desire for revenge, nor is it self-pity. He just won’t forgive. In the same way that he presents the “logical inconsistency” of his own resentment, he gives us insights into the conditions that might make forgiveness possible. In order forgive one must:

  • Submerge one’s individuality into society’s.
  • Understand oneself “only as a function of the social.”
  • Allow what happened to remain what was, not what is.
  • Let the passage of time serve as an excuse for what happened. (71)

Not forgiving, on the other hand, “nails every one of us onto the cross of his ruined past,” such that resenting gets in the way of escaping into “the genuine human dimension, the future.” (68) If resentment means the inconsistent impossibilities of turning back time and undoing what has been done, the “natural feeling for time” gives value to the future, “what will be tomorrow is more valuable than what was yesterday.” (76) That is what Améry finds immoral about forgiving and forgetting—moving on as if what happened doesn’t matter any more, or at least not as much as what will happen.

Refusing to forgive does not mean looking for revenge or atonement or an eye-for-an-eye “settlement by force.” Améry means what he says when he says that he wants to reverse time. In the case of the individual who tortured him, SS-man Wajs, Améry wants that in the moment that Wajs was standing before the firing squad, he would have felt the loneliness and abandonment that Améry felt when Wajs was beating him over the head with the handle of a shovel. He wants that Wajs would have felt “the moral truth of his crimes” and “wanted exactly as much as I to turn back time, to undo what had been done.” (70)

SS-man Wajs is, however, just the tip of the “entire inverted pyramid of SS men, SS helpers, officials, Kapos, and medel-bedecked generals.” Even if Wajs were to be with Améry in the moment and that moment reversed time such that Améry “was no longer alone with the shovel handle,” the “inverted pyramid” of tormentors would still be “driving me with its point into the ground.”

Where does that leave the German nation and future generations of Germans? With regards to them, Améry offers the “raised finger” of resentment as a “goad” to “remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history to be neutralized by time, but must integrate it.” If

Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations … 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 … [then] on the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described the limited, individual circle [Améry and Wajs]: 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. (78)

Améry may not forgive. He may not forget. He may say, “If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation.” (80) But he offers that grudge as a means of salvation for the nation and the descendants of his tormentors.

At first glance Améry’s chapter on “Resentments” may seem to lack compassion. Instead of letting go of his anger and his hurt, Améry may appear to cling to the past and hold on to his injured self. On careful reading, however, Améry offers a helpful meditation for victims of historical crimes. He resists the easy comforts of “forgive and forget” and draws attention to how he really feels about what really happened and by looking carefully, not diverting his attention, he opens up how he feels about what happened to him, finding a way to salvation, not only for himself but also for the whole “inverted pyramid” that was nailing him onto “the cross of his ruined past.”

One Comment

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published