Jean Améry


Back in January, in Paris, I was reading Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, about the Allied bombing of German cities at the end of World War II. Sebald is interested in how this devastation (600,000 German civilians killed, seven and a half million left homeless, x cubic meters of rubble per citizen in Cologne and Dresden...) "seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness...has been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected, and...never played any appreciable part in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country." 


The third essay, "Against the Irreversible," is about Jean Améry (born "Hanns Chaim Mayer") and it led me to Améry's book: At the Mind's Limits, which I began to read last weekend. Améry thinks about what happens to the mind of an intellectual in Auschwitz; in the course of his musings, he has this to say about literature:

         "The first result was always the total collapse of the esthetic view of death. [...] the intellectual, and especially the intellectual of German education and culture, bears this esthetic view of death within him. It was his legacy from the distant past, at the very latest from the time of German romanticism. It can be more or less characterized by the names Novalis, Schopenhaer, Wagner, and Thomas Mann. For death in its literary, philosophic, or musical form there was no place in Auschwitz. No bridge led from death in Auschwitz to Death in Venice. Every poetic evocation of death became intolerable... . In the camp no Tristan music accompanied death [...] For the one expecting it, its esthetic embellishment in a way became a brazen demand and, in regard to his comrades, an indecent one."

There is much more. I am writing this down here, so I remember it, because it will stick better if my fingers are involved, along with my head.