The merely individual, subjective claim to dignity is an empty academic game, or madness. Jean Améry

The NYT interview with Edward Baptist ends with a mention of how upsetting it could be to research the violence against enslaved people. There was the interview with the daughter of a woman “whose enslaved mother toiled in the fields of a small Kentucky farm in the 1850s, sometimes returning home to discover that another child of hers had been sold away.” In 1850, there was no end in sight for this mother. Baptist wondered how it was that enslaved people just did not give up.

Laura Hillenbrand argues that it was Louis Zamperini’s maintenance of his innate dignity that enabled him to survive unending torments in Japanese POW camps. Jean Améry says he doesn’t know what “dignity” means in such a situation, similar to his situation as “an inmate who went hungry, but did not starve to death, who was beaten, but not totally destroyed, who had wounds, but not deadly ones.” Yet, this inmate “objectively still possessed that substratum on which, in principle, the human spirit can stand and exist.” (9)

Améry does not explicitly or systematically pursue what he thinks this “substratum” is. Implicitly he examines how it works in his first chapter concerning the question: “did intellectual background and an intellectual disposition help a camp prisoner in the decisive moments?” (5) He quickly concludes:

In any event, it is clear that the entire question of the effectiveness of the intellect can no longer be raised where the subject, faced directly with death through hunger or exhaustion, is not only de-intellectualized, but in the actual sense of the word dehumanized. (8-9)

If a prisoner was not a Mussulman, as the walking dead were called in Auschwitz, there were definite differences in survival strategies between the intellectual and the non-intellectual. The intellectual who had “always and everywhere … been totally under the sway of power” struggles to acknowledge, much less accept, “unimaginable conditions as a given fact.” The intellectual’s “long practice in questioning the phenomena of everyday reality” interferes with “adjusting to the realities of the camp,” realities which do not include civil discourse or logical rules of behavior. The intellectual’s initial reaction that “what surely may not be, cannot be” gradually morphs into resignation and then “acceptance not only of the SS logic but also of the SS system of values.” (11)

The non-intellectual, for whom “there had never been a system of humane logic” understands the logic of self-preservation and stands “more stiffly at attention” before the SS and then fights “them more spontaneously and effectively through systematic skulking and cleverly executed thefts.” Part of the problem with Hillenbrand’s interpretation of how Zamperini survived is that dignity is an intellectual’s virtue and Zamperini was not an intellectual, however intelligent he was.

In his chapter on how he was tortured, Améry dismisses the concept of dignity, saying that he doesn’t know exactly what human dignity is. (27) On the other hand, he devotes the entire last chapter of At the Mind’s Limits to his efforts to maintain and restore his dignity, which he defines there as “the right to live granted by society.” (xiv) He even comments on this seeming contradiction in his Preface to the First Edition.

The quote I’m using as the caption for this post comes from that last chapter and expresses the core of Améry’s disagreement with the Kantian notion of dignity we have seen before in Laura Hillenbrand’s theorizing about Louis Zamperini and Bishop Kamphaus’ distinction between worth and dignity.  The key words for Améry are “merely individual, subjective.” This view of dignity finds illusory comfort in degrading situations in the thought that “I am what I am for myself and in myself, and nothing else.” (90)

Rather than existing prior to thinking or doing, dignity for Améry expresses how society treats us, how we treat ourselves, and specifically how we respond physically to threats to our life. He is consistent on these issues. When he says that he doesn’t know what “dignity” is, he is talking about the individual, subjective view of dignity.

He finds this view particularly unhelpful “when someone who has never been beaten makes the ethical and pathetic statement that upon the first blow the prisoner loses his human dignity.” The problem is that this individual, subjective “dignity” can mean all sorts of things, from not being able to take a bath everyday or other physical inconveniences, to not being able to use one’s native language for official business or restrictions on free speech, to restrictions on which sexual partners one can have (this last being a very progressive point for someone writing in the early 1960s).

In his contemplation on that first blow by the policeman, Améry explores what it is that the victim loses. Rather than something thought to be inherent in oneself, he posits that the victim loses “trust in the world.” When we trust in the world, we imagine and order how we live, where we begin and where others end, and how others will behave. Imagining this order can include belief in causality or in “the validity of inductive inference.”

But more important as an element of trust in the world, and in our context what is solely relevant, is the certainty that by reason of written or unwritten social contracts the other person will spare me. … The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of my self. My skin surface shields me against the external world. If I am to have trust, I must feel on it only what I want to feel. (28)

Beyond respect for our bodily boundaries, trust in the world also includes expecting that others will come to our aid. We learned this trust and expectation from our earliest days from the care of our mothers. The policeman’s blow and other forms of torture leave the victim completely alone and destroy this trust in the world. Améry doesn’t connect the dots here, but he’s really describing the intellectual’s trust in the world. The non-intellectual’s trust in the world includes the expectation of injustice, violence, an illogical social system that always leaves her at the bottom of the heap, and the understanding that in the end she can only place trust in herself, in her will and her wiles. This seeming focus on herself actually provides the non-intellectual with more social resources than the intellectual who “remains alone with his intellect, which was nothing other than pure content of consciousness … [with] … no social reality that could support or confirm it” in the camps. (6) (I’m using the feminine personal pronoun here because Améry’s definition of “intellectual” in on page 2 is explicitly what we would call today “old white men” and their canons of literature, art and philosophy.)

Améry does describe two other groups of people whose “trust in the world,” based on different expectations and experiences, based on living in worlds different from the intellectuals’ world, does not immediately shatter with the first blow. The first group consists of workers and poor people for whom “camp logic was merely the step-by-step intensification of economic logic.” They can, therefore, oppose “this intensification with a useful mixture of resignation and the readiness to defend oneself.” The second group are the believers, whether they be theist Jews and Christians or atheist Marxists, who “survived better or died with more dignity than their irreligious or unpolitical intellectual comrades.”

Our religiously or politically committed comrades were not at all, or only a little, astonished that in the camp the unimaginable became reality. … [A]lready on the outside [they] had taken a very subjective view of concrete reality, detached themselves from it here too in a way that was both impressive and dismaying. … The grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or of capitalistic decay. A beating or a death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom. (13)

Améry entered and exited Auschwitz as a committed agnostic. He never could bring himself to believe in God’s grace. He continued to see through “the errors and false conclusions” of Marxism. As much as he wanted to be like his “believing comrades … unshakable, calm, strong,” he never wanted to join them in their faith. His “believing comrades” had two other attributes that helped them survive. First, their fixation on a future salvation both distanced them from the reality they were living and at the same time enabled them to see this reality up close. Because of this “Finalistic attitude,” they did not let reality overwhelm them and could actually strongly affect the conditions under which they lived.  Secondly, his believing comrades did not merely survive the horror, they resisted. Améry quotes a practicing Jew as saying “I have the certainty that our God will avenge us.” And a radical leftist who had been in the camps for ten years already:   “We still know that after we’re gone our comrades are going to line the whole pack of them up against the wall.”

Améry’s admiration for this trust that they will be revenged is somewhat at odds with his disavowal of revenge and eye-for-an-eye punishment.   What Améry really admires is resistance against all odds. His own definition of dignity as “the right to live,” which “can be bestowed only by society,” creates a dilemma for him when that society wants to deprive him of his life because he is a Jew. Should he just roll over because it’s “senseless to argue against the social body that deprives us of our dignity” so defined as the right to live? No, Améry asserts that “the degraded person, threatened with death, is able” to rise in revolt against society and, thereby, to convince “society of his dignity.” (89)

To illustrate what he means by his dignity, Améry tells about the time he took it upon himself “to be a Jew.” In Auschwitz “the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor” hit Améry in the face over something insignificant. So Améry punched Juszek in the jaw. Even though Améry was then “woefully thrashed,” he was satisfied with himself, not for displaying “courage and honor,” but because he had understood

that there are situations in life in which our body is our entire self and our entire fate. I was my body and nothing else: in hunger, in the blow that I suffered, in the blow that I dealt. My body, debilitated and crusted with filth, was my calamity. My body, when it tensed to strike was my physical and metaphysical dignity. In situations like mine, physical violence is the sole means for restoring a disjointed personality. In the punch, I was myself—for myself and for my opponent. (90-91)

Améry is writing after the war when by all rights his dignity, by any definition, should have been seen to be restored. Antisemitism before the war had threatened his life, his dignity. Antisemitism continued after the war. So, in his continuing struggle to assert his dignity, his right to life, Améry felt the necessity to be a Jew. This was an impossibility since he had been raised as a Catholic. In Améry’s view “one acquires one’s self” in one’s youth when one learns a language, shares cultural traditions, and develops “childhood memories.” In his case, none of these had Jewish associations so he did not have a Jewish self in that sense. Instead he had to find “solidarity with every Jew whose freedom, equal rights, or perhaps even physical existence is threatened” and make this solidarity “part of my person and a weapon in the battle to regain my dignity.” (98)

There are at least two interesting aspects of Améry’s pursuit of his dignity through “the necessity and impossibility of being a Jew.” First, the question of how ethnic identity affects who-we-think-we-are, our “selfhood.” Améry’s identity as a Jew caused the Nazis to threaten his right to live, his dignity. There are other ways to link the two. Second, the relation between memory and who-we-think-we are.

We will return to these issues in subsequent posts under the category of “Whoever you are, I love you.” Here I just want to close by noting that we have circled back to the strong connections between the concept of dignity and the concept of a self, which I noted in the post on Sophie’s Fallacy.

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