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Rescued in 1945 from Dachau—where François Mitterand, his onetime comrade in the resistance, recognized him among the thousands of quarantined prisoners—Robert Antelme set out to do what seemed "unimaginable," to describe not only his experience but the humanity of his captors. The result, The Human Race, was called by George Perec "the finest example in contemporary French writing of what literature can be."
In this volume, the extraordinary nature and extent of Robert Antelme's accomplishment, and of the reverberations he set in motion in French life and literature, finds eloquent expression. The pieces Antelme wrote for journals—including essays on "principles put to the test," man as the "basis of right," and the question of revenge—appear here alongside appreciations of The Human Race by authors from Perec to Maurice Blanchot to Sarah Kofman. Also included are Antelme's personal recollections and interviews with, among others, Dionys Mascolo (who brought Antelme back from Dachau), Marguerite Duras (Antelme's wife, who tells of his return from Germany), and Mitterand.
Also available: Antelme's The Human Race
Like other Gothic cathedrals, Rheims cathedral is a city in itself: sublimated rigor, disorder, and Romanesque passion. Of the city it possesses the city's completion, the vibrancy of human faces, those faces' strength and tolerance, the shining gaze Malraux noted in their eyes, the rhythm. Disorder is integrated there: the Gothic statues possess the idea's suppleness; they are acquainted with one another; not one figure is closed up inside its own solitary passion. This is an edifice begot of lyricism, and also of a society that holds and maintains itself in it: a sublime edifice of power that soars and spreads as though it existed alone.
Off by itself is this angel who is smiling, its head tilted to one side. It does not belong to the world it adjoins, this world of statues that are caryatids-serene, certainly, since the truth they express is so well affirmed, less heavy to support, familiar, but still caryatids of this ensemble, of this body that together, unchanging, they comprise. This statue supports nothing. Of all the angels in Christendom, this is doubtless the only one that does not belong to this story. Women's tears do not surprise it, neither does it participate in common joys or shared glories, nor does it join in the crowd of charming music makers, nor does it triumph over any evil: in no way does it share in Power. It does not reign.
The smile of Rheims causes us to grasp just how much the smile of the Buddha, of the Far East, is the smile of authority. Everything is referred back to a weighty equality; essentially everything exists within the vanity of everything else, and without doubt this movement of referral could only find embodiment in a smile, and without doubt too this smile could only be the smile of authority.
If the smile of Rheims is not that of authority, it is because the angel is inside the city-the only one you see, yet seemingly lost. It is not the stone with which the other stones bear up that entire close-knit family, a huge, diverse, righteous family where everyone preserves a name and that has crowned so much of posterity with those names. What it is ... is crushed. But not crushed by this building, or by that event, or by some power. It has always been crushed, crushed forever.
Its essence is to be powerless. Its smile cannot be a smile of dominion. To always have been, but above all to have forever to be. And this smile cannot be the smile of irony.
The slight inclination of the head, bespeaking knowledge, obedience, and custom. The commandment that he obeys is the regard; no matter which regard, upon no matter what. From plant to man, from man to man, from man to what is absent, what is there is his face. Radiant or hidden, inevitably it is there. Word, image, music: everything expresses it, and nothing. It lies at the heart of that realm where all relations are born. Forever starting anew. Possessing nothing, capable of nothing, it must be there, forever. And should it be said, "The only transcendence is the relation between beings." It is he whom we see, in joy or in sadness. Permanent hostage of this prodigious fortress, neither master nor brother, he is in whatever happens, whatever we cannot fail to acknowledge.
There is no problem here: the prisoner is a sacred being because he is a defenseless being and because his luck has come to an end. If this man has been personally responsible for criminal deeds, he should be judged. And should he be condemned to death, he has the prescribed rights of those condemned to death. Execution being properly a clean-cut, out-right act, the direct consequence of the judgment, nothing can be added to it, and the condemned should not be made to suffer anything over and above what they have been sentenced to. Barbarity is what anyone whomsoever makes him endure additionally.
The great majority of German prisoners of war are not criminals; not liable to any special judgment, theirs is simply the legal status of prisoners that is recognized by all nations, and for this very reason they risk being subjected to additional abuse. This has happened in France, and that we absolutely condemn it must not be doubted for one second.
The full meaning of this condemnation is not simple, and we would like to provide an explanation of its complexity.
We do not wish to write a single line that would not be understood by all our deportee comrades; we wish to take the most widely dispersed instincts into account-indeed all the difficulties that arise naturally for these comrades. In short, we hope that our position might seem just as valid to those who would instinctively reject it as it does to those to whom it appears obvious.
If we do not succeed, if our attitude must remain militant, if, in good faith, divisions on a subject so grave have become established, then not only has the war and captivity been good for nothing, but it is also possible that neither one nor the other was lived fully.
On the contrary, a true awareness of the conditions of captivity has to carry with it a complete refusal to admit these charges.
More generally, that same indignation, hidden or expressed, that animated the French against Nazi barbarism must be expressed now, just as covertly or just as openly, against the attitude taken by some of the French. We speak of it, not simply to declare that it is ignoble to have allowed certain groups of German prisoners to starve, or to have shot some of them quietly, under cover of night in the corner of some camp; we speak of it above all to affirm that far from avenging us anyone who strikes or shoots a German prisoner insults us by associating us with his consciousness-should, indeed, any clarity of revenge reign here, not simply that thickheadedness of hidden motives that finds satisfaction in a shot in the back. We strongly doubt that there are any deportees among those who have mistreated these Germans-although, if there were any, this would be a more serious case still, for it might appear to be less exceptional. This appearance is what we have to obliterate.
Though there is no way to speak of the crimes of Nazism, they do belong to a type that is humanly possible. We have experienced what was possible, and the Lilliputian caricature of this great "example" fills us with contempt and disgust. Only the world in its life from day to day can avenge those who died, for these were not ordinary deaths; only the victory of the ideals and behavior for which they died can possess some sense of revenge. A death such as this cannot be weighed against some new death; only the coming and the development of a new society, and of a certain inner world, can answer for it. These dead are not present at all in the manifestations that could disfigure those who think themselves just, but they are present in those moments when, "thinking" about them no longer, society tries to integrate the meaning of their sacrifice.
Anything more is a blemish. Just writing this, we remember those German women who laughed at the herd of us during our evacuation, and the women who laughed in the factory, the day the Meister (foreman) kicked and punched a poor Italian who hadn't the strength anymore to lift a heavy part. We see again that German civilian, so like so many other Germans in his speech, his back, his neck, who couldn't resist raining blows down on our heads as he passed by us in the factory. We think of our hatred, which extended to almost everyone, since almost everyone kept on wanting us dead, or at least accepted our obvious misfortune. To be sure, some of them didn't approve, even felt sorry for us; but they lived in fear of the Lager. Our hatred extended to everything: to houses, to the way somebody walked. So we couldn't easily feel the charm of the little blond child we saw on Sundays, standing in front of the farm next to the Kommando. We didn't have the impression that a punishment was being imposed on us for which only those who inspired and executed it could be held responsible; we felt, rather, that we were experiencing a condition beyond all laws, where our fears could find no object, where no respite existed, where anything was always possible at any moment; we felt, in sum, that such a life could not be contained within boundaries fixed by ideas of crime or punishment, but rather that it proceeded from an absolute absence of ideas about relationships between human beings. This taste for disrupting life, this surrender to a logic that led to the gas chambers was naturally so profound that we could not avoid the temptation to see it in other Germans. We sensed a widespread responsibility, because we felt that, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, "the leaders are taken in by their own myths and the troops are half accomplices, that no one is absolutely in command and no one absolutely obeys."
This German attitude appeared crushing to us. And we do not want to discover its shadow in France now, in a situation infinitely more mitigated, one that is by its nature essentially different. No, I do not dismiss the sort of horror and terror I felt, returning from Dachau, at the sight of a young man who looked German, in a café in a village in Alsace; nor the instant revulsion I felt recently at the movies during the showing of an old German film hearing sounds that brought back the Kapo talking. Nor so many other hallucinations; for we returned hallucinated, and even now we still have those necks and those backs before our eyes, and when we see German prisoners we rediscover the same necks and backs. It would be false to assert that we're indifferent to that; but it would be stupid to think that we have the slightest temptation to take revenge on them, above all idiotic to believe that we might have that temptation more than others. We maintain a kind of stupor that can't be translated into any deed; we are just as alien and uncomprehending faced with any deed directed against German prisoners as we were faced with the laughter of those German women. To think that a deportee could delight in the fact that some German prisoners in France were themselves about to become "deportees" too, that he could even tolerate such a thing, is to think that because we were thoroughly beaten up in Germany we're delighted now that those we're holding are getting it back. To think that we might be a part of all that, to do such things while claiming to think of us, is to think that "morals" from our time over there have taken hold of us, that by some sort of infernal mimicry we've even acquired a taste for them: this is to comprehend nothing of what we experienced there. Above all, it is to fail to understand that by taking it out on German prisoners we perpetuate the hell.
Hundreds of thousands of comrades died in German camps for the victory of simple ideas of justice, liberty, and respect for human beings. Can we hope that it is not already too late to believe in that victory? By mistreating prisoners of war, by letting them die quietly of starvation, we betray those very ideas that are the most valuable content of victory. We hold both our dead and ourselves up to ridicule. How can we accept that? Why, once back in France, should we have changed our views? In things like this, there is not one morality for going over there and another for coming back.
We have seen those things that men ought not to have seen, things that could not be put into words, things not addressed either by hatred or by forgiveness. Once out of there, whatever our situation, we wanted to believe in our freedom, we were giddy about it. While we were still skeletons, this belief would have provoked us to violence against any arbitrary personal humiliation and we cannot allow it to weaken or abate now that we have some flesh on our bones.
I remember Good Friday in 1945. We were still prisoners, and we joined with several comrades in a completely nonsectarian spirit. Christ's passion, I must say, suggested no more to us than simply what we were living through; he assumed his responsibility, and we certainly never ceased to claim ours, too. Faced with these mistreated German prisoners, we feel the need to defend the same endangered values, even though we're placed on the opposite side now.
Of course, the truth over there was simple; next to it, all other hostile images seemed a tangled maze. That is what makes it so difficult to return to a life in which truth never appears alone, but is always diluted in the midst of all life's adventures.
But it isn't within our control to feel free of involvement when respect for human beings is at issue. Our experience made us physically sensitive to the man deprived of freedom. Henceforth, an imprisoned man is a man we think about; we are inside his innermost being. We draw no childish conclusions from that, but we affirm that in his situation, given what he can be subjected to, the prisoner is always right.
Being deprived of freedom is already punishment, quite apart from death. Anything else is the stuff of the barbarians.
Nothing I say would be worth a thing if I thought I had unconsciously distanced myself from what I believe to be our comrades' profound consciousness. But should the mother whom I know of a woman friend who died at Ravensbruck happen to see this, she would, I think, be appalled, she would even want to insult me. In it she would find blasphemy, even treason. Yet I know that it is to our friend that I am being faithful.
Also there are those, individuals and families, who, given the impossibility of compensating by any act for the burden of their sorrow, simply remain silent. But to withdraw like this is a certain way to remain in hell, and one has to get out of there.
We don't want to "toy" with people anymore. Anything that even distantly resembles what we saw over there literally tears us apart.
In all likelihood, part of popular opinion considers it perfectly natural for us to sustain our hatred and even tries to keep us in it by reminding us of what we experienced, and would even reproach us for trying to go beyond it.
But we are free not to let ourselves remain locked in a prison which is-alas!-so easy to enter, free not to remain indifferent when some Frenchmen, without gas chambers or crematoria, make pathetic attempts to play the barbarian.
There are some fatalities that we refuse to accept, because they would lead us back to war, to Buchenwald, to Dachau.
So to the follies of revenge we say no. No to the secret avoidance of involvement. No to the cowardice of the unscathed.
"Blessed are the poor ..." Was it inevitable that, by pointing this way to those whom he preferred, by investing all goodness in them-by, in short, consecrating this condition by implying the "evil" of riches through this consecration, implying that evil arose within a certain type of relationship between men, creating rich and poor thereby (for he was talking about rich and poor)-was it inevitable that Christ would see his message slowly turned upside down? That the idea of the greatness of poverty would gradually become preferred to that of the "evil" of riches, oft-cited though it was? Was it inevitable that, faced with this consecrated victim fixed like some eternal value, the position of the rich would in practice find itself recognized in the name of Christ? That over time its position would be tolerated, would even benefit, as the counterweight to the eternal nature of poverty's greatness? And that henceforth these two opposites, one sacred, the other damned, would progressively find themselves acknowledged as natural and complementary truths? Above all, was it inevitable that the rich man, the oppressor, who, in the cult of the poor, enjoyed the sacred value of the victim, would be allowed to find the path of salvation? That he would become so convinced that this path is the most unquestionable of paths that he would need absolutely to be surrounded by the poor? That life's necessity for the rich man would be that both rich and poor coexist, but that the antidote to this necessity-charity-would also exist, in the cult of the poor man, with its own condemnation of the rich man?
Excerpted from On Robert Antelme's The Human Race
Copyright © 1996 by Éditions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Part I: Mankind Never Abandoned; Writings of Robert Antelme
1. The Smiling Angel
3. Poor Man - Proletarian - Deportee
4. Principles Put to the Test
5. Man as the Basis of Right
6. Testimony of the Camps and Poetry
7. Two Poems by Maurice Honel
9. Somebody Stole my Bread
10. On The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot
Part II: The Presence of The Human Race
1. In the Night that is Watched Over, Maurice Blanchot
2. The Human Race, Maurice Blanchot
3. Hollows in the Face, Jean-Pierre Faye
4. Man's Property/Propriety, Fethi Benslama
5. Thinking Death, Leslie Kaplan
6. Dead-End, Michel Surya
7. Rising up Against What is There, Claude Rabaut
8. Robert Antelme's Two Sentences, Jean-Luc Nancy
9. Man Naked, Myriam Revault d'Allonnes
10. The Intereuption - The Interminable, Roger Laporte
11. Antelme's Hands, Sarah Kofman
12. Poems, Martine Broda
13. Moscow, December 1, Philippe Lacour-Labarthe
14. In a Petrified World, Gerard Rabinovitch
15. Robert Antlme and the Truth of Literature, Georges Perec
16. Truth as it is, Francis Marmande
17. Fitness, Claude Miniere
18. We Are Free, Francois Dominique
19. The Human Race, Jean Roudaut
20. The Ultimate Common Thing we Possess, Olivier Kaeppelin
21. The Body's Luck, Daniel Dobbels
22. A Letter from Andre du Bouchet
Part III: Discussion, Interviews, Testimonials
1. Epigraph, Maurice Blanchot
2. In the Company of Robert Antelme: Interviews with Georges Beauchamps, Marguerite Duras, Dionys Mascolo, Francois Metterrand, Edgar Morin, Maurice Nadeau, Claude Roy
3. Postscript, Claude Roy
4. Testimonials by Louis-René des Forêts, Jean-Louis Schefer, Robert Gallimard, Jacques Pimpaneau, Dow Dowling, and Thomas Regnier.
Robert Antelme, Biographical Information partial Bibliography