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Getting Améry Wrong (along with Everything Else)

I’ve been reluctant to comment on Anna Breslaw’s outrageous essay at Tablet last Friday, which declared that the European Jews who survived Hitler’s war against them were really “villains masquerading as victims.” John Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY (whom I am proud to call my friend), has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, single-handedly exposing Breslaw’s rant for what it is and demolishing Tablet’s non-apologetic apology for the article.

Anyone who has read her essay knows that Breslaw does not merely insult Holocaust survivors but cancer patients too. As someone who voluntarily decided to adopt what Breslaw derides as the “extreme will to live,” I suppose I should be angered by her ignorant and dismissive comments about cancer patients:

If you have ever had cancer, or been kitty corner to cancer, you know there is a lot of waiting and pleasantries and HMO negotiation and the same bad jokes (and some good ones; my aunt who had a double mastectomy recently offered me the use of her $2,000 silicon falsies for a date). When you tell someone a relative has cancer, their immediate response is never shock but often, “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer” as if this knowledge is a comfort of some kind.

I’ll just say that I do not recognize my experience in this passage. And the comment “Oh, my [insert X loved one here] had cancer,” which was never spoken to me or my wife (and would seem to be a clumsy attempt to suggest the patient is not alone), is hardly the worst breach of cancer etiquette.

No, what pisses me off is what has been little remarked so far. Namely: Breslaw’s misappropriation of the great Holocaust writer Jean Améry as a source and ally in her attack on Holocaust survivors:

Evil, as Jean Améry says, overlays and exceeds banality. There is no “banality” of evil. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry — a Holocaust survivor — discusses “concentration camp syndrome”: “The character traits that make out our personality are distorted. Nervous restlessness, hostile withdrawal into one’s own self. . . . It is said that we are ‘warped.’ ” He goes on to describe how the option of forgiveness is obsolete for him, and yet the acknowledgement that it would be moral and fair to forgive (a step that he felt unable to take because of this very emotional “sickness,” thrust on him by the very people he should forgive) created an impossible duality, one that doubtless led to his 1978 suicide.

Every word of this which is not an outright error is a shallow distortion. Améry would have spit upon Breslaw’s suggestion that some Jews were able to survive the death camps only because their “extreme will to live” led them to do something “villainous,” something they were unwilling to discuss afterwards. The reality of the camp, Améry wrote, was total. It obliterated human dignity, the self, the mind, everything Améry summed up as “the word.” The Jew in the death camp was not even a victim in the usual sense of the word. “The soldier died the hero’s or the victim’s death,” he said, “the prisoner that of an animal intended for slaughter.”

This is the sense in which Améry wrote that “evil overlays and exceeds banality.” Banality is an experience within the normal range of the human; the subjection to evil, which Améry identified with the experience of torture, “is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.” It exceeds the mind’s limits. At the first blow, the prisoner realizes he is helpless. And this changes everything. “The expectation of help, the certainty of help, is indeed one of the fundamental experiences of human beings,” Améry wrote. It is, indeed, one of the defining experiences of the human. To find himself beyond help is to find himself beyond the human experience. He is beyond villainy and victimhood, face-to-face with a reality that has obliterated his will to either. To speak of such a man as a “villain masquerading as a victim” is to display a depthless failure of understanding.

(And by the way, Améry’s suicide, as he himself explained in his 1976 philosophical essay On Suicide, was an act of freedom, an assertion of extreme will, a refusal to fall victim to “the very people he should forgive,” the insistence that he, not they, would decide when he should die.)

Breslaw may have quoted the great Jean Améry, then, but she did not understand the first word of him. And she herself acknowledges as much, although she does not even know her own mind sufficiently to see that she has done so. In her opening paragraph, she attributes her bad opinion of survivors to “gut instinct.” Then, seven paragraphs later, immediately after quoting him, she praises “Améry’s impulse to question his gut instincts” — an impulse that, by all appearances, Anna Breslaw entirely lacks.



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