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"These are pages that one reads with almost physical pain...all the way to its stoic conclusion." —Primo Levi
"The testimony of a profoundly serious man.... In its every turn and crease, it bears the marks of the true." —Irving Howe, New Republic
"This remarkable memoir...is the autobiography of an extraordinarily acute conscience. With the ear of a poet and the eye of a novelist, Amery vividly communicates the wonder of a philosopher—a wonder here aroused by the ‘dark riddle’ of the Nazi regime and its systematic sadism." —Jim Miller, Newsweek
"Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That one’s fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules. One who was martyred is a defenseless prisoner of fear. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him." —Jean Amery
At the Mind’s Limits is the story of one man’s incredible struggle to understand the reality of horror. In five autobiographical essays, Amery describes his survival—mental, moral, and physical—through the enormity of the Holocaust. Above all, this masterful record of introspection tells of a young Viennese intellectual’s fervent vision of human nature and the betrayal of that vision.
Indiana University Press
At the Mind's Limits
Take care, a well-meaning friend advised me when he heard of my plan to speak on the intellectual in Auschwitz. He emphatically recommended that I deal as little as possible with Auschwitz and as much as possible with the intellectual problems. He said further that I should be discreet and, if at all feasible, avoid including Auschwitz in the title. The public, he felt, was allergic to this geographical, historical, and political term. There were, after all, enough books and documents of every kind on Auschwitz already, and to report on the horrors would not be to relate anything new. I am not certain that my friend is right and for that reason I will hardly be able to follow his advice. I don't have the feeling that as much has been written about Auschwitz as, let's say, about electronic music or the Chamber of Deputies in Bonn. Also, I still wonder whether it perhaps would not be a good idea to introduce certain Auschwitz books into the upper classes of secondary schools as compulsory reading, and in general whether quite a few niceties must not be disregarded if one wants to pursue the history of political ideas. It is true that here I do not want to talk purely about Auschwitz, to give a documentary report, but rather I have determined to talk about the confrontation of Auschwitz and intellect. In the process, however, I cannot bypass what one calls the horrors, those occurrences before which, as Brecht once put it, hearts are strong but the nerves are weak. My subject is: At the Mind's Limits. That these limits happen to run alongside the so unpopular horrors is not my fault.
If I want to talk about the intellectual or, as one would have said earlier, about the cultivated man, in Auschwitz, I will first have to define my subject, that same intellectual. Who is, in the sense of the word that I have adopted, an intellectual or a cultivated man? Certainly not every practitioner of a so-called higher profession; advanced formal training is perhaps a necessary condition, but it certainly is not enough in itself. All of us know lawyers, engineers, doctors, probably even scholars who may be intelligent and perhaps even outstanding in their fields, but whom nonetheless one can hardly designate as intellectuals. An intellectual, as I wish to define him here, is a person who lives within what is a spiritual frame of reference in the widest sense. His realm of thought is an essentially humanistic one, that of the liberal arts. He has a well-developed esthetic consciousness. By inclination and ability he tends toward abstract trains of thought. Sequences of ideas from the area of intellectual history occur to him at every occasion. If one asks him, for example, what famous name begins with the syllables "Lilien," he does not think of the glider constructor Otto von Lilienthal but of the poet Detlev von Liliencron. When presented with the cue word "society," he does not take it in its mundane sense, but rather sociologically. The physical process that produces a short circuit does not interest him, but he is well informed about Neidhart von Reuenthal, the courtly poet of village lyrics.
We will take such an intellectual then, a man who can recite great poetry by the stanza, who knows the famous paintings of the Renaissance as well as those of Surrealism, who is familiar with the history of philosophy and of music, and place him in a borderline situation, where he has to confirm the reality and effectiveness of his intellect, or to declare its impotence: in Auschwitz.
Therewith, naturally, I present myself. In a double capacity, as a Jew and as a member of the Belgian resistance movement, besides in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and still other concentration camps, I also spent a year in Auschwitz, more exactly in the auxiliary camp Auschwitz-Monowitz. For that reason the little word "I" will have to appear here more often than I like, namely wherever I cannot take for granted that others have shared my personal experience.
In the context of our discussion we must first consider the external situation of the intellectual, one that moreover was common to everyone else, including the nonintellectuals in the so-called higher professions. It was not a good situation, and it evidenced itself most dramatically in the question of the work assignment, which decided over life and death. The craftsmen in Auschwitz-Monowitz were mostly assigned according to their trades, as long as—for whatever reasons that will not be discussed here—they were not gassed on the spot. A machinist, for example, was a privileged man, since he could be used in the planned IG-Farben factory and had the chance to work in a covered shop that was not exposed to the elements. The same holds true for the electrician, the plumber, the cabinetmaker, or carpenter. A tailor or a shoemaker perhaps had the good luck to land in a room where work was done for the SS. For the bricklayer, the cook, the radio technician, the auto mechanic, there was the slight chance of a bearable work spot and thus of survival.
The situation was different for the inmate who had a higher profession. There awaited him the fate of the businessman, who likewise belonged to the Lumpenproletariat of the camp, that is, he was assigned to a labor detail, where one dug dirt, laid cables, and transported sacks of cement or iron crossbeams. In the camp he became an unskilled laborer, who had to do his job in the open—which meant in most cases that the sentence was already passed on him. Certainly, there were also differences. In the camp chosen here as an example, chemists, for instance, were employed in their profession, as was my barracks mate Primo Levi from Turin, who wrote the Auschwitz book If That Be a Man. For physicians there was the possibility to find refuge in the so-called sick huts, even if it certainly did not exist for all. The Viennese physician Dr. Viktor Frankl, for example, who today is a world-renowned psychologist, was for years a ditchdigger in Auschwitz-Monowitz. In general, one can say that at the work site the representatives of the higher professions were badly off. That is why many sought to conceal their profession. Whoever possessed even a bit of manual skill and perhaps was able to work with simple tools boldly declared himself a craftsman. To be sure, that meant he was possibly risking his life, namely if it emerged that he had lied. The majority, in any event, tried their luck at playing themselves down. The gymnasium or university professor, when asked about his vocation, timidly said "teacher," in order not to provoke the violent rage of the SS man or the Kapo. The lawyer transformed himself into the plainer bookkeeper, the journalist perhaps passed himself off as a typesetter, in which case there was little danger that he would have to provide proof of his ability at this trade. And so the university professors, lawyers, librarians, economists, and mathematicians dragged rails, pipes, and construction beams. For these tasks they brought with them mostly little skill and but slight bodily strength, and only in rare instances did it take long before they were eliminated from the labor process and ended up in the main camp, where the gas chambers and crematories stood.
If their situation at the work site was difficult, it was no better inside the camp. Camp life demanded above all bodily agility and physical courage that necessarily bordered on brutality. The intelligentsia were only seldom blessed with both, and the moral courage that they often tried to employ in place of the physical was not worth a trifle. Assume for a moment that we had to prevent a professional pickpocket from Warsaw from stealing our shoelaces. Circumstances permitting, an uppercut certainly helped, but by no means that intellectual courage through which perhaps a political journalist endangers his career by printing a displeasing article. Superfluous to say that only very rarely did the lawyer or gymnasium teacher know how to execute an uppercut properly; rather, he was far more often the receiver, and in taking it hardly more able than in giving it. In matters of camp discipline things were also bad. Those who on the outside had practiced a higher profession generally possessed little talent for bedmaking. I recall educated and cultivated comrades who, dripping with sweat, battled every morning with their straw mattress and blankets and still achieved no proper results, so that later, at the work site, they were plagued by the fear—which grew into an obsession—that on their return they would be punished with a beating or the withdrawal of food. They were up to neither bedmaking nor a brisk response to the command "Caps off!" and when the occasion arose, they were totally unable to find that mode of speech vis-à-vis the senior block inmate or the SS man that was both submissive and yet self-assured, and with which threatening danger could possibly be averted. In the camp, therefore, they were as little respected even by higher-ranked prisoners and comrades as they were at the work site by civilian laborers and Kapos.
Still worse: they didn't even find friends. For in most cases, it was physically impossible for them spontaneously to use the camp slang, which was the only accepted form of mutual communication. Modern intellectuals quarrel a great deal about their communication difficulties and in the process talk a lot of pure nonsense, which would better remain unsaid. Well, in the camp there truly was a problem of communication between the intellectual and the majority of his comrades. It presented itself hourly in a real and painful way. For the prisoner who was accustomed to a somewhat refined manner of expression, it was possible only with much effort to overcome his distaste for saying "Beat it!" or to address a fellow prisoner exclusively with "Hey, you." Only too well do I recall the physical disgust that regularly seized me when an otherwise quite proper and sociable comrade inevitably found no other form of address for me than "my dear fellow." The intellectual suffered from such expressions as "grub sarge" or "to organize" (which designated the illegal appropriation of some object); yes, even such set phrases as "to go on transport" he uttered only with difficulty and hesitatingly.
But now I have arrived at the basic psychological and existential problems of camp life and at the situation of the intellectual in the narrower sense outlined at the start. Reduced to its most concise form the question that arises is: did intellectual background and an intellectual basic disposition help a camp prisoner in the decisive moments? Did they make survival easier for him? When I put this question to myself I thought first off not of my own day-to-day existence in Auschwitz but of the lovely book of a Dutch friend and comrade in fate, the writer Nico Rost. The book is called Goethe in Dachau. I picked it up again after many years and read sentences in it that seemed quite dreamlike to me. For example: "This morning I wanted to go through my notes on Hyperion." Or: "Again read about Maimonides, of his influence on Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus." Or: "Today during the air raid warning I tried to think about Herder...." And then, totally surprising for me: "Read still more, study still more, and more intensively. In every free moment! Classical literature as a substitute for Red Cross packages." When I contemplated these sentences and confronted them with my own camp memories, I was deeply ashamed, because I have nothing to compare with Nico Rost's admirable, radically intellectual bearing. No, I definitely would have read nothing about Maimonides, even if—but this was hardly imaginable in Auschwitz—I had come across a book on him. During an air raid warning I certainly would have made no attempt to ponder on Herder. And more despairingly than scornfully I would have rejected the unreasonable demand that I accept classical literature as a substitute for a food package. As I said, I was much ashamed when I read the book of my comrade from Dachau, until I finally succeeded in exculpating myself somewhat. In doing so, perhaps I did not consider as much that Nico Rost worked in a relatively privileged position as an orderly in a sick barracks (whereas I myself belonged to the anonymous mass of the prisoners) as I did the decisive fact that the Dutchman had been in Dachau, not in Auschwitz. Indeed, it is not simple to find a common denominator for these two camps.
Dachau was one of the first National-Socialist concentration camps and thus had, if you will, a tradition; Auschwitz had been created only in 1940 and to the end was subject to improvisations from day to day. In Dachau the political element predominated among the inmates; in Auschwitz, however, by far the great majority of prisoners consisted of totally unpolitical Jews and politically very inconstant Poles. The internal administration of Dachau lay for the most part in the hands of political prisoners; in Auschwitz German professional criminals set the tone. In Dachau there was a camp library; for the ordinary inmate of Auschwitz a book was something hardly still imaginable. In Dachau—as well as in Buchenwald—the prisoners had in principle the possibility to oppose the SS state, the SS structure, with an intellectual structure. That gave the intellect there a social function, even if this manifested itself essentially in political, religious, or ideological ways and only in rare cases, as that of Nico Rost, at the same time philosophically and esthetically. In Auschwitz, however, the intellectual person was isolated, thrown back entirely upon himself. Thus the problem of the confrontation of intellect and horror appeared in a more radical form and, if the expression is permitted here, in a purer form. In Auschwitz the intellect was nothing more than itself and there was no chance to apply it to a social structure, no matter how insufficient, no matter how concealed it may have been. Thus the intellectual was alone with his intellect, which was nothing other than pure content of consciousness, and there was no social reality that could support and confirm it. The examples that come to mind in this context are in part trivial; in part, however, they must be taken from realms of existence that can scarcely be portrayed.
In the beginning, at least, the intellectual still constantly searched for the possibility to give social expression to his thought. In a conversation with a bunkmate, for instance, who talked at length about his wife's daily menu, he was anxious to slip in the observation that at home he himself had done lots of reading. But when for the thirtieth time he received the answer: "Shit, man!"—he left off. So it was that in Auschwitz everything intellectual gradually took on a doubly new form: on the one hand, psychologically, it became something completely unreal, and on the other hand, to the extent that one defines it in social terms, a kind of forbidden luxury. Sometimes one experienced these new facts at deeper levels than those one can reach during a bunk-bed conversation; then the intellect very abruptly lost its basic quality: its transcendence.
I recall a winter evening when after work we were dragging ourselves, out of step, from the IG-Farben site back into the camp to the accompaniment of the Kapo's unnerving "left, two, three, four," when—for God-knows-what reason—a flag waving in front of a half-finished building caught my eye. "The walls stand speechless and cold, the flags clank in the wind," I muttered to myself in mechanical association. Then I repeated the stanza somewhat louder, listened to the words sound, tried to track the rhythm, and expected that the emotional and mental response that for years this Hölderlin poem had awakened in me would emerge. But nothing happened. The poem no longer transcended reality. There it was and all that remained was objective statement: such and such, and the Kapo roars "left," and the soup was watery, and the flags are clanking in the wind. Perhaps the Hölderlin feeling, encased in psychic humus, would have surfaced if a comrade had been present whose mood would have been somewhat similar and to whom I could have recited the stanza. The worst was that one did not have this comrade; he was not in the work ranks, and where was he in the entire camp? If one ever did succeed in turning him up, then he was so alienated by his own isolation from all things intellectual that he no longer reacted. In this regard I recall my meeting with a well-known philosopher from Paris, who was in the camp. I had learned of his presence and had searched him out in his block, not without effort and risk. We trudged through the camp streets with our tin ration can under our arm, and, to no avail, I attempted to get an intellectual conversation under way. The philosopher from the Sorbonne gave monosyllabic, mechanical answers and finally grew silent entirely. Is the explanation that his senses had become blunted? Definitely not. The man had not become insensitive, no more than I had. He simply no longer believed in the reality of the world of the mind, and he rejected an intellectual word game that here no longer had any social relevance.
Excerpted from At the Mind's Limits by Jean Améry, Sidney Rosenfeld, Stella P. Rosenfeld. Copyright © 2013 Jean Améry. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Preface to the Reissue, 1977
Preface to the First Edition, 1966
At the Mind’s Limits
How Much Home Does a Person Need?
On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew
Afterword by Sidney Rosenfeld
Indiana University Press
Posted October 17, 2008
No text was provided for this review.