Améry's literary and philosophical universe is much, much bleaker. Central to grasping why it is, is the place both in his own relationship to the world and in his understanding of Nazism of the atrocious reality of torture.
Améry was tortured by the Gestapo at Breendonk in Belgium, an experience he graphically describes. That he never recovered psychologically is not surprising; it became the basis of a kind of phenomenology of the social world of the once tortured. As he put it succinctly in At the Mind's Limits: 'Whoever was tortured, stays tortured.' He continues: 'Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected.' Torture, Améry also says, is 'the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself'. It is never over.
One of the effects it has (and here the contrast with hope is manifest and, as we will soon see, also explicit) is to destroy a person's trust in the world. This is a point he made repeatedly. The expectation of help for those in pain or distress, he writes, is fundamental to human experience; but from the first blow the tortured know themselves to be utterly helpless, in the power of the torturing antagonist, with no defence nor any prospect of aid: 'a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived'. Trust in the world - which is based on, among other things, the assumption that one's physical and metaphysical being will be respected - breaks down. The same loss marked Améry's sense of what it meant for him, after the Holocaust, to be a Jew. He wrote in this connection, 'Every day anew I lose my trust in the world'; and, again, '[w]ithout trust in the world I face my surroundings as a Jew who is alien and alone...' The experience of having been tortured 'blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules'.
If that is his personal situation on account of the experience of torture, Améry also treats the latter as defining the character of National Socialism. Torture, he argued, was 'the essence of National Socialism'. This was a political system based on hatred of the word 'humanity'. The Nazis 'not only placed torture in their service... even more fervently they were its servants', torturing 'with the good conscience of depravity'.
It seems questionable to me that the nature of Nazism is best captured by taking torture as the key category in its analysis; but what Améry says contains a truth, all the same, and one to which the would-be rationalist mind is not always receptive: there is such a thing in human affairs as purely gratuitous cruelty, cruelty without reason and for its own sake. It was much on display in Nazi anti-Jewish policy, and not only there. Notwithstanding the broader contrast I am outlining here, Primo Levi ventured a similar idea in his chapter in The Drowned and the Saved on 'useless violence' - violence, as he put it, 'with the sole purpose of creating pain'.
Another way of bringing out the contrast between Levi and Améry is by focusing on Améry's reflections on the powerlessness of the intellect when faced with a power bent on gratuitous cruelty and the destruction of human beings. Where Levi cites his effort to recall the lines from Dante's Canto of Ulysses as perhaps having helped to save him by reinforcing his identity, Améry tells of an occasion in the camp when he repeated to himself a stanza from Hölderlin but without emotional effect: 'The poem no longer transcended reality.' Another time, he tried to engage a philosopher from Paris in intellectual conversation, but to no avail. The man 'no longer believed in the reality of the world of the mind.' These are both understandable emotional responses in the circumstances; and they signal a deeper feature of Améry's outlook. If, as he wrote, at Auschwitz 'the intellectual was alone with his intellect', this was because 'there was no social reality that could support and confirm it'.
One might call the death camp universe a domain of unreason, one from which all reason had been evacuated, along - for him - with hope. Here, those who were not intellectuals often found it easier than people like himself to come to terms with the horrors before them. They were less subject, according to Améry, to the temptation to think that 'What surely may not be, cannot be'. They adjusted more quickly to what simply was. Once again, you can find echoes of the same notion in Levi. But, as we have seen, for him they do not block out hope in the way that for Améry the powerlessness of the intellect against the cruelty of unchecked sadistic power does.
In Améry's case, it is not hope, it is resentment, that is to the fore as an emotional reaction both to his own victimhood and to the historical experience of Nazism overall. Perfectly well aware that resentment will be seen by psychologists and moralists as unhealthy, he sets out to justify it nonetheless. In the face of what happened, resentment, he argues, is 'a form of the human condition that morally as well as historically is of a higher order than that of healthy straightness.' How so? Because, holding on to their resentments, the tortured - more generally, by implication, the survivors of the Nazi genocide - remain captives of the 'moral truth' of what was done to them. In other words, even if to be resentfully aggrieved might not be psychologically beneficial to those who are, it expresses, in this case, a determination not to let go of the evil done, as if it were nothing or could be lightly accommodated. On the contrary, the evil, like the torture, is ineradicable.
In Améry own words: '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.' Real as the atrocity may have been, it was and remains intolerable.
[The next post in the series is here.]