Memory Displaced: Re-reading Jean Améry’s “Torture”

Diner_468wDan Diner in Eurozine:

Back in the 1960s, Jean Améry's “Torture” (1965) was required reading. The line “Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world” had an exceptional persuasive intensity. In his iconic text, composed twenty-two years after being subjected to the torment of torture, Améry reflects on the pain inflicted on his body and soul. He develops a sort of anthropology of agony, scrutinizing the modes and manners of a deliberate and maliciously executed violence, one that rips through the layers of the flesh, wilfully rends the body's limbs, engendering abysmal suffering. The procedure starts with a first and definitive blow, shattering the human being's elementary trust in the world. Reflecting on its foundationally destructive impact in devastating man's personality, Améry writes: “The first blow brings home to the prisoner that he is helpless, and thus it already contains in the bud everything that is to come.”

Améry's essay presents a philosophy of pain remembered, of pain brutally inflicted on his body. In July 1943, after being arrested as an anti-Nazi resister, he was removed to Fort Breendonck, located between Antwerp and Brussels. There he was subjected to torture – a site of memory emblemized by W.G. Sebald in his novella Austerlitz, in allusion to Améry's existential experience there.

“There I experienced it: torture,” writes Améry. Yet the pain was not inflicted upon him randomly. The purpose of the torment directed at his body was to break his will as a political opponent to the regime, to compel him to betray his associates, his comrades. The torture carried out on the prisoner Améry was inflicted on a person who had chosen to resist – something that happens all the time and everywhere. Améry writes: “Somewhere, someone is crying out under torture. Perhaps in this hour, this second.” For him, the pain was exemplary, but by far not exceptional. All the more resolute and ultimate, therefore, was his judgment: “Torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself”.