- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Indiana University Press (March 23, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0253211735
- ISBN-13: 978-0253211736
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.4 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #233,387 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities
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Because Auschwitz was among the most brutal of the concentration camps, ruled by capricious, pure force and not by any discernable political or social structure, the intellectual there "was alone with his intellect ... and there was no social reality that could support and confirm it." In other words, there was no place for the intellect to act, outside of the confines of a person's own skull. Jean Amery's At The Mind's Limits is a focused meditation on the position of the intellectual placed in "a borderline situation, where he has to confirm the reality and effectiveness of his intellect, or to declare its impotence: in Auschwitz." In the camp, Amery writes, "The intellect very abruptly lost its basic quality: its transcendence." Considering this loss, Amery describes his own experience of torture, his reactions of resentment, anger, and bitterness, his loss of any vital sense of metaphysical questions, and his search for some way to maintain moral character and Jewish identity in the absence of such consciousness. --Michael Joseph Gross
Text: English, German (translation) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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society. His text is a forceful plea for a total condemnation of all kinds of torture and its devastating effects.
Torture, human beings, the world
Faced with unlimited evil power in the hands of a torturer man becomes pure flesh. A tortured man broken by violence, who cannot expect any help and who has lost all rights of self-defense, is nothing more than a body.
From the first lash he receives, man is deprived of what is called his `confidence in the world'. This confidence constitutes the certainty that the other will spare him according to social contracts, that he will respect his physical existence. Torture as a physical rape becomes an act of existential annihilation, since there is no hope to be helped. A tortured person becomes a stranger in the world.
What overwhelmed Jean Améry really was the society of man. For him, it is the society of men and it alone which robbed him of his confidence in the world.
A specific society was the Third Reich: Germany killed Jews and political opponents, because it believed that this was the only way to realize itself. Torture was its essence. But, for Jean Améry, one should not forget that the Greek civilization was built on slavery and that an Athenian army butchered the population of the island of Melos as the SS did in Ukraine.
For Jean Améry, every society thinks only about its own safety and has nothing to do with damaged lives; it only looks forward and, in the best case, it tries to prevent that the same things will happen again.
The spirit, religion, the intellectuals
Jean Améry came to understand that the whole question of the activity of the pure spirit doesn't arise when a human being is dying from hunger or exhaustion. He didn't only loose his mind in a concentration camp, but he simply stopped to be a human being. In there, rational and analytical thinking led simply and directly to self-destruction.
As for religion, at no time did he discover the slightest reason to believe, even when he was waiting all the time to be executed. He didn't believe in the God of Israel.
As for the skeptical and humanist intellectuals, they were the object of scorn both from the Christians and the Marxists, with leniency by the first, with resentment and frustration by the latter.
What he became and what he expects
Jean Améry had no illusions. At Auschwitz, the victims did very understandably in no way become more human, more altruistic or morally more mature. One doesn't contemplate a spectacle of sadistic criminal human beasts without losing one's respect for all concepts of man's innate dignity.
What he expects is an act of salvation: Germany should really and openly reject everything it perpetrated in these days of deep self-degradation during the twelve years of the Third Reich. But, here too he has no illusion: Hitler's Reich will be seen as a historical accident.
These extremely painful texts illustrate the collapse of the concept of human dignity, of man's spiritual strength and positive rationality and, ultimately, of man's civilization.
Essential reading for all those interested in human nature.
I think of this work as a distinct and great existential accomplishment. It provokes the reader to empathize while simultaneously making him question or even feel guilty for such empathy. How can an intellect, in the modern west at least, empathize with one who has experienced dehumanization to such an unimaginable degree? The short answer is that to try to do so is impossible and even probably detestable, morally speaking.
But isn't the motivation of Amery's expression the prevention of such dehumanization in future? And isn't such prevention dependent on empathetic attempts at least (among other things)?
These are unanswerable contradictions for the reader. But the introspective applications make this a necessary book to read over and over again.
Jean Amery's At the Mind's Limit: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities must join the works of Wiesel and Levi as indispensable reading for anyone seeking to grasp the deepest range of emotions and implications the name Auschwitz should evoke. In this book Amery stresses the negative and shows on virtually every page how futile it would be to scrutinize the experience of a Holocaust survivor for anything even remotely redemptive. Auschwitz was destruction without deliverance, a place of inexplicable and implacable hostility against the very definition of humanity. As a consequence, a mind that searches Auschwitz, or any of the other camps, for reasonable and rational explanations will only be confronted with its own impotence. As Amery puts it, "In the camp the intellect in its totality declared itself to be incompetent...Beauty: that was an illusion. Knowledge: that turned out to be a game with ideas." The intellect, Amery tells us, was robbed of its transcendence, rendering the intellectual the most vulnerable of victims.
The five autobiographical essays that make up this remarkable book are models of intellectual sobriety, lucidity and moral earnestness. Amery's experiences at Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and other camps, detailed in the first essay, brought him to the realization that all of his previously-held aesthetic concepts and analytic capabilities were rendered useless. "The aesthetic view of death had revealed itself to the intellectual as part of an aesthetic mode of life; where the latter had been all but forgotten, the former was nothing but an elegant trifle. In the camp no Tristan music accompanied death, only the roaring of the SS and the Kapos." Spiritually disarmed and intellectually disoriented, "the intellectual faced death defenselessly."
The book's second essay, which is unusually vivid, concerns the genesis and nature of sadistic physical torture. Torture was an essential component of Nazism and not a peripheral aspect. It was the determinant that defined and coalesced the basically depraved and destructive character of Nazism, an ideology "that expressly established...the role of the antiman...as a principle." Nihilistic principles have always existed, but German National Socialism distilled and purified them. They tortured, not to gain advantages, but because they were torturers.
The remaining three essays deal with a variety of topics, all related to and all centering on the ordeals Amery endured during the Holocaust as well as its aftermath. The book's concluding essay, "On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew," is a culminating statement that defines in wretchedly painful terms a dilemma that is far more than Amery's alone.
As Amery both felt and lived with the Holocaust, his awareness demanded that he contend with all manifestations of postwar anti-Semitism, something he did with increasing frequency during the final years of his life. Although his own Judaism was, to him, highly problematic, he was uncompromising in his opposition to those who attacked the ideological concept of the State of Israel. "The impossibility of being a Jew," he said, "becomes the necessity to be one, and that means: a vehemently protesting Jew."
Amery, however, worried that in any newfound prosperity the events of the Third Reich would be forgotten or simply submerged in accounts of the general historical epoch. And, indeed, even the young survivors of the camps have now reached their seventh decade of life. What will preserve the memory of the camps once the last survivor is gone? For, "Remembering," said Amery. "That is the cue."
The entire world was, and is, affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust. It therefore becomes incumbent upon every human being alive, and not just every Jew, as well as those human beings yet to be born, to bear the imprint of the Holocaust upon his heart. In this way, mankind will never cease to do what is so very essential. Remember.